Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Changing Perspective

It’s a good thing there is a staff-only gym in the room next door. This whole sitting by the pantry thing is starting to get out of control. It is 10 a.m. and so far I’ve been offered, and of course accepted, a melt-in-your-mouth Ferrero Rocher chocolate and a giant sweet piece of cranberry-nut bread, and I’m just swallowing the last bite of vadia, a savory lentil cake traditional of Indian Muslim cuisine. All this after a banana smothered in peanut butter for breakfast. At this rate, I won’t even need to think about the healthy sack lunch I dutifully packed this morning and brought to school today…I mean I have peanut butter, chocolate, bread and cake instead.

In addition to all the great food, school itself has been great this week. Monday’s observations went smoothly. Tuesday I observed a lesson on narrative writing and was pleasantly surprised by the kids’ creativity. I also taught another summary lesson to 1/3 and was pleased that their understanding of summary seems to have improved from last week. On Tuesday afternoon, I was able to attend a tea with my principal at the Ministry of Education as well. It was a nice opportunity to network and get to know my principal a little better. Right now, I’m preparing to give class 1/4 the assignment of writing an ending to a fictional story published in 1902 called “The Monkey’s Paw” (yes, they read a story published in 1902 about a monkey’s paw; quite intriguing actually). Their teacher is gone for the day...wish me luck.

Luck…wasn’t exactly what I needed to control these kids. Maybe I should have asked you to wish me courage, bravery and a sword/shield set as I entered this war-zone of a classroom. If you’ve ever tried to get a group of 13 and 14 year old kids to work quietly writing the ending of a story for 55 minutes straight, you know what I mean. If you haven’t…don’t. I started out by simply telling them to work quietly writing the ending of a story for 55 minutes straight. In about 27 seconds, I realized this plan was failing miserably. Alright, plan number two: “Step 1: Ask the students to share components of good narratives (i.e. descriptive words, similes, metaphors, character feelings, quotations and conversations etc etc) and provide examples from your own writing or reading experiences. Step 2: Tell the students that if they give you 10 minutes of quite, individual work time, you will let them move into groups and share their ideas with one another. Step 3: When the students show no signs of actually giving you 10 minutes of quiet, individual work time, extend the quiet working minutes to 11, 12, 13, 13 and a half, 14 ect until they decide you aren’t joking about the quite work time. Step 4: Allow the students to work together and share ideas as they finish their stories. Step 5 (which should actually be the last step, but may need to be followed by the dreaded Step 6): Ask for five more minutes of quite time so they can put the finishing touches on their stories at the end of class. This time they will know you aren’t joking. Step 6: If some of them still think you’re joking, let them sit at their desks after the bell rings and sweat it out until you feel they’ve been quite for a full five minutes. If you want to make them really nervous, tell them this is your last class for the day, so you literally have the rest of the day to spare. You really wouldn’t mind hanging out with them all afternoon, they seem pretty cool. I doubt they will reciprocate the feeling.”

In all seriousness, though, the students in 1/4 actually did work on their “The Monkey’s Paw” story endings, all of them turned in at least something at the end of class, and many of them came up with some really creative and intelligent ideas.

So, so far, so good as the saying goes. Maybe, I’m still channeling all this positive energy from the yoga class and smoothie dinner Stephanie and I had last night. Yoga and smoothies tend to have that effect on me.

I do have one worry about teaching that has been consistently in the back of my mind, though. How do I get these students to turn in their homework? See here’s the problem: In Singapore, the homework doesn’t count toward their grades like it does in the U.S., and the students have seemed to have figured out this little fact. Only the mid-semester and final exams and maybe a few smaller exams here and there really affect them at all. The teachers have taken to sending students who haven’t done their homework out into the hall or keeping them after school. These techniques don’t seem to solve the problem. Yesterday, literally half the 2/1 class was sitting in the hall doing the assigned reading while only half the class actually discussed the assignment and did the activity with the teacher. And, if I would have sent the students who initially weren’t writing the ending to “The Monkey’s Paw” into the hallway…well, I think I would have had five students in the classroom.

I guess I’m just going to have to figure out how to make the homework meaningful for the kids and set some serious ground rules about my expectations early on. Also, I can understand why some of these kids just don’t do their homework. I mean, many of them have to leave home at 6 a.m. or before to commute to school (we don’t have districting in Singapore), after class they have extra curricular activities and most of them don’t leave school until 6 p.m. By the time they get home, eat, and spend a little time with their families, they need to go to bed or risk getting 5 hours or less of sleep. Many of them seem exhausted. I’m going to have to give them homework sometimes, and I expect them to do that work, but also, I don’t want to overwhelm them. It’s a catch-22. (Insert advice here).

And speaking of advice…Albert Einstein once said, “When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about.” This is the thought hovering, floating, drifting in my mind this Thursday morning. Actually, did I say floating? is more like sitting on the inside of my eyelids staring at me every time I blink. It is almost jolting, startling, how much a different perspective, even if you are forced into that different perspective, can change the way in which you look at the world.

Yesterday, a 7.6 magnitude earthquake struck the Sumatra, Indonesia city of Padang. According to the Straits Times (a Singaporean newspaper;, the death toll is hovering between 100 and 200, but thousands more remain buried in the rubble. Communications and power have been cut off, and fires are raging while rescue teams and doctors are still trying to reach the city. The force of the quake was actually felt in some areas of Singapore and Malaysia. This after Typhoon Ketsana caused flooding that killed over 200 people in the Philippines earlier in the week and has since moved on to kill dozens more in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. I hope you will all keep the people affected by these disasters in your thoughts or prayers.

My students, yes those same students that only yesterday I was complaining would not turn in their homework, have created a donation fund for the victims of the flooding in the Philippines. I was nearly moved to tears as I watched them pull the spare change from their pockets, many of them giving up their last $2 for lunch money, placing it in the neat manila envelopes as they were passed from hand to hand. And there was that Einstein quote again whispered in my ear by, perhaps, the ghost of Einstein himself, “When you look at yourself from a universal standpoint, something inside always reminds or informs you that there are bigger and better things to worry about.”

It seems to be the theme this week. A change of perspective is all it takes to see the world a little differently. What seem like horrible personal disasters, become petty worries. What seem like naughty teenagers, become ambassadors of world relief. And what seem like huge cities, become toy models, easily navigated.

At least Singapore seems much less intimidating when viewed from 71 stories above the hustle and bustle of the street below. On Wednesday evening Liz, Lisa, Stephanie and I joined some of the new PiA arrivals, Steve, Trevor, Amy, Ana and Dan, at the top of the Swiss Hotel. The New Asia bar provides a swanky New Yorkesque atmosphere, an impressive list of cocktails, including the Nutty Professor Martini and the Tokyo Garden Mixer, and an even more impressive view. As the tallest building in Singapore, it offers patrons a 360 degree view of the city and a very impressive sunset. What a lovely evening, which was only made better by its conclusion with thosa and roti prata at a Clementi Hawker Center.

After two additional lesson observations this afternoon, I’ll head to the staff gym and maybe take a jog around the reservoir near the school. The evening should bring time to relax, cook dinner, clean a bit, and write some thank-you cards to the teachers who have been so supportive and helpful as I continue to become acquainted with the school.

Tomorrow?…possibly another perspective change. I’ll be joining a teacher’s field trip to Pulau Semakau, Singapore’s “dump island”, to learn about waste management and the environment in Singapore. Semakau is Singapore’s only landfill and has been in operation since 1999. The offshore landfill is estimated to last until 2045, but various initiatives are in place to extend its life. Currently, all of Singapore’s waste is incinerated before it is shipped in covered barges to Semakau. Because of several design and operations initiatives, the landfill is clean, smell-free and scenic. After my guided tour, expect to hear of the rare plant and bird species the island is able to support because of Singapore’s unique and “green” waste disposal system.

For now, TIA, Cheers, and very Happy 21st Birthday wishes to my dear friend Bette!

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Euphoria is a synonym of chocolate

The birds outside my window are hosting the Singapore National Bird Squawking Contest. It is the semi-finals, and no one is giving up easily. It is also 7:30 a.m. on a Saturday morning. I had planned to sleep-in until 8:30. By the way, when 8:30 became sleeping in, I’m not sure. But these birds, they had different plans when they chose the location of their special little contest. I think about thirty have entered. Each with his or her own unique squawking sounds, high and low pitched, slow and fast tempos, some a little off key but all trying their hardest to out do one another in the volume category. It’s like an orchestra out there. An orchestra of fifth and sixth grade students who are all learning to play their trombones, trumpets, bassoons, flutes, clarinets, tubas, French horns, and, who could forget, didgeridoos for the first time, but an orchestra none-the-less.

And it is exactly because of this little performance that I’ve got some time to kill before my jazz class this morning. So, I’ll sit here, sipping my cup of tea and watch the sun slowly crawl across the dewy morning lawn, caressing each blade of grass individually before it moves on to the next. Despite my initial annoyance, I do have my personal orchestra to thank for the wake-up call that lead me to observe this moment of peaceful, though not exactly silent, morning awakening. In the very rare and brief silences, while the colorful, busy little birds take a simultaneous breath before they belt out their next note, there exists a sort of constant buzzing undertone of the plants, insects, and other creatures stretching before they begin their daily chores. The smell of tropical flowers is floating past my nose on the warm breeze, and the sun is painting the sky a sort of pink, yellow color, alerting God’s creatures of morning’s arrival. My skin is moist to the touch as if the sun is plucking the dew drops off the grass and laying them gently upon my shoulders. And the air is hanging thick and smooth like honey so when I open my mouth I can almost bite into it. Slowly the birds flutter off the trees, cutting through the honey air with the quick little flappity flap of their wings and leaving the branches from which they had alighted swaying momentarily before they come to rest once again in their rightful stillness.

Suddenly, as quickly as it had begun, I think the contest is over. One egg-yolk yellow bird with a black chest that he is proudly projecting to the world as he sings his triumphant song remains. He is the winner. The others have gone home to practice. I suppose it is now time for me to go too. Before I turn to walk inside though, I take one last glance at the proud golden fellow; he looks at me briefly, silently. apologetically, and I smile, hopefully portraying that I really didn’t mind this time, but if he and his friends do it again next Saturday, I may throw something very hard and large at them. Then he smirks and goes right on singing.

I suppose I didn’t mind the little birds’ songs so much. Friday had been a relaxing evening anyways, sitting in the back garden of a quaint Turkish restaurant on Arab street, sipping Turkish coffee (literally sipping, you have to, it is so strong), and simply enjoying the company of friends. It is interesting and sad in a way how much more you appreciate the simple everyday happenings of your life, your family and friends, your experiences, and the exact moment in which you’re living when something bad happens. My friend Will’s college roommate passed away this week in a tragic accident while climbing in the Tetons of Wyoming. When someone so young and close to you or someone you know passes away, your own mortality becomes even more tangible. I think we could all feel this mortality sort-of floating in the air like those clouds of rain that follow cartoon characters around on Saturday mornings as we sat sharing our own stories of tragedy, ecstasy and everything in between that composes our individual lives. And while we all have had very different experiences, we also felt very connected, tied together by the common thread of sadness and loss. Will commented at one point in the evening, “This is what Eliot did…he brought people together.” (The link for the article about Eliot Kalmbach is

After my own reflections, and simple, yet complex enjoyment of the Saturday morning, I attended a two and a half hour long jazz class. It was definitely a love-hate relationship experience with my body and mind. It felt so good to be dancing, escaping, moving, pushing my body, and feeling the shear exhilaration and joy that comes with accomplishing a particularly challenging pirouette combination or jump sequence, but my mind, the nosy, annoying being that it is, couldn’t help but remind me how sore I was going to be after having had such a long spell without a jazz class. And, of course, my mind was right, as I was struggling to even walk down the four flights of stairs when I left the studio. But no amount of soreness will ever deter me from allowing my body the pure pleasure of dancing, escaping the harsh realities of the world for a few hours to a place of happiness, joy, and movement.

Saturday afternoon, I tried to beat the potential soreness that Sunday morning would surely bring with a $25 massage in Chinatown. However, this plan backfired as the masseuse informed me that my body contained several knots she would have to rub out. I’m sorry did I say rub them out? I meant she said, in not so many words, she would have to dig the knots out with her knuckles and force them to unwind. I’ve never really understood the phrase “hurt so good” until now. I’m not going to claim that Sunday morning wasn’t painful, but now that it is Monday morning, I’m singing my masseuse’s praises.

Saturday evening, Stephanie and I went to Little India for an Indian feast comprised of, among the lot, curries, thosa, chutneys, dal, cucumbers and yogurt. I’m pretty sure we ate a meal for four between the two of us. But, undeterred by our bulging stomachs and after-Thanksgiving-meal-like lethargy, we proceeded to walk just over a mile to an Irish Pub to meet Merriam, Lauren, Katie and Nick for a cider beer. India and Ireland in one evening…welcome to Singapore.

Weekends always pass by too quickly. But this weekend it may have been because I spent most of Sunday afternoon napping by our neighborhood public pool. Yep, that kind of public pool...screaming kids, men in Speedos trying to pick up chicks, diving boards, swimming lessons, a $1 entry fee, and vending machines. And, yes, I did say napping. And except for the fact that I feel asleep on my back, allowing for a rather uneven tan between the front and back of my body, it was a lovely, undisturbed afternoon spent basking in the sun near several strategically placed palm trees at a pool only minutes from my apartment. Such is the life I live.

So today I’m back in school, and without the least bit of Monday blues. I’m thrilled to be here, and looking forward to my two observations and one more meeting this afternoon. (My lack of Monday blues is probably, in part, because I really do love my school and also, in part, because of the large piece of homemade chocolate pie that was just given to me by one of the more motherly teachers. Is euphoria a synonym of chocolate? I may consult a thesaurus this afternoon.)

We had a departmental meeting this morning and discussed ways to encourage the students to read outside the classroom and a new addition to the English curriculum…public speaking. Reading for fun and chatting away to groups of people…now that I can do…bring it on.

Cheers, TIA and Happy Monday,

Thursday, September 24, 2009

In life there are never enough small t-shirts and turkey sandwiches

I don’t know if I will ever be good at this, I mean I would even be satisfied with “ok” (which, if you know me well, is a-typical)…”ok” might even be stretching it a bit; maybe I’ll just shoot for “not too horrible.”

It, as you probably know, is teaching. I might be over-exaggerating a bit, but after both of my whole two lessons this week I’ve either felt like I bored the children to death or didn’t get through to them at all, maybe a combination of both. Even more encouraging, one of the more experienced teachers offered these words of wisdom after I confided in her about my frustrations: “Oh, it isn’t uncommon to feel like that at all, I still do quite often lah.”

What!? And you haven’t given up yet!? Are you insane!? She must have noticed my expression, a sort of combination of horror, worry, and exasperation that I was obviously unsuccessful in masking despite a “valiant” effort to look totally calm, because she followed up with, “But then there are these really great moments when your students just ‘get it’, you see a light bulb go on and their eyes clear lah. You are no longer boring or confusing, but you’re teaching them something. These moments make teaching all worth it lah.”

You know the song in the Disney movie “Finding Nemo?” It goes something like “just keep swimming, swimming, swimming…” It has been stuck in my head all week, although my version is more like “just don’t drown, drown, drown.” I think it is my subconscious self’s way of offering encouragement. Personally, I think my subconscious self could have found a less annoying/less repetitive way of encouraging me, but, alas, at least it’s something. And so, even though I have bored 1.3 to death with my summarizing lesson and thoroughly confused 2.1 with my news article writing lesson, I will keep trying my hardest in hopes of even glimpsing one of those “ah-ha” moments in my students’ eyes.

On a more encouraging note as far as teaching goes, I have had some success teaching the teachers. Friday is the graduation day ceremony for the secondary four and five students (at my school they have graduation ceremonies and parties before the end-of-the-year tests so students can concentrate on studying). The teachers are preparing a song and dance performance, and I’ve been helping with choreography and teaching the dance. Maybe it is because I have a lot of experience teaching dance or maybe it is because I’m teaching teachers or maybe just maybe I am good at this, but I’m so proud of my “students.” They’ve all caught onto the movements quite well, and I have no doubt they are ready for their big debut on Friday. However, despite my confidence in them, they’ve requested that Stephanie, a co-worker/choreographer, and I perform with them and stand at the front so they can follow at the actual graduation ceremony. What an interesting way for me to be introduced to the student body and many of their parents: dancing like a fool in the front row at a graduation day ceremony! Such is life.

Speaking of life; When Lisa, Liz, Jenny (all PiA teachers in Singapore), Eliza (a PiA teacher visiting from Vietnam) and I met for wine, cheese, grapes, bruschetta, an escape from the boys, and girl talk at Leslie’s temporary apartment Tuesday evening, life was the conversation topic of choice. We talked about difficult past experiences, current world crisis, recent lessons learned in Asia, future goals and of course, after a couple glasses of wine, we discussed more the serious topics of boys, food, travel plans and shopping. My favorite life philosophy of the evening, though, was shared by Lisa.

“In life there are never enough small t-shirts and turkey sandwiches.” Really, how profound and true if you think about it. I mean how many times have you wanted a small t-shirt at a concert, gathering, leadership training etc. and all they have left are larges and XLs? And aren’t the turkey sandwiches always the first to go at catered lunches? But you learn to make do with what you have. What would you sleep in if not for all those XL t-shirts? And aren’t veggie and ham sandwiches just as good as turkey if you give them a chance? In life, maybe there isn’t always enough of what you want, but if you make do with what you have then, in fact, what you have may be better than what you wanted in the first place anyways. Yes, in life there are never enough small t-shirts and turkey sandwiches, but can’t our lives be even better because of it?

On Wednesday evening I slowed down a bit, because Tuesday was so busy with school, the gym, errands, and girls night. I spent Wednesday evening cooking dinner, doing laundry, reading, and smothering my face with a “red wine” face mask. The highlight of Thursday’s day at school, was invigilating oral exams for secondary one students. For three and a half hours, I listened to students one-by-one read a passage and discuss a picture. Then I prompted them with conversation questions, and gave them a grade. This is the method for checking students for oral skills in Singapore. In lue of public speaking class, the students have an oral exams throughout the term (like I said, exam oriented society). It seems to be quite effective though, and is an incentive for the students to practice their English outside of the classroom as many of them live in non-English speaking homes. I think I was just as nervous as the students, although they did seem pretty scared. Imagine being 13 years old and speaking your second language to a teacher you barely know for 10 whole minutes. I mean, I used to get nervous speaking for three minutes with my college French professor at 20 years old.

A long day at school, though, was followed by a very nice evening out. Steph and I met Jacob, Hannah, and their friend (and mine now too) Dr. Dan at a place called Chijmes in downtown Singapore. (It was Dr. Dan’s birthday. Dr. Dan is called Dr. Dan because he just recently got his PhD in some obscure, ridiculously amazing sciencey thing. We find this nickname incredibly amusing but he doesn’t always agree.) Chijmes is an area near the business district composed primarily of swanky bars and restaurants all offering Mediterranean style décor and outdoor seating. Enjoying a cool, fruity glass of white wine was a perfect contrast to the warm caressing breeze swirling around the patio of the tapas bar at which we chose our mosaiced table. Salsa music played quietly in the background. But, the softness of the music didn’t dissuade Jacob from convincing me to try “just one dance.” My three whole salsa lessons were no match for Jacob’s Costa Rican talents, but I did manage to keep up…barely and thanks to his leading. Maybe we’ll try again sometime soon at Bellini Grand, a club at Clark Quay. Their dance genre?...I think swing.

But no need to get too excited about possible weekend festivities yet. It is Friday at noon right now, and I’m blogging at my desk at school and snaking on some random fruit. I finished my summary lesson with 1.3 this morning and observed a comprehension lesson with 1.4. I’ve officially stuffed myself full of homemade Thai food that the P.E. department brought to the teacher’s room today, and while the gym is calling, my bed might be more persuasive in whispering about a nap. Wish me luck with the graduation day song and dance…t-minus 2 hours 15 minutes.

TIA, Cheers, and don’t worry if they’re out of small t-shirts or turkey sandwiches this weekend, it’s probably for the best,

Monday, September 21, 2009

Small personal triumphs

The seconds ticked by like minutes. Everyone in the sleek black Volvo was silently breathing, suspense hanging in the air like smoke in a crowded bar. The light turned green, the car roared to life, the suspense-smoke was ripped away like someone pulled the curtain on opening night, and the Volvo sped down the busy street and screeched around the corner.

An escape scene from a James Bond film? Or maybe the chase in a Jason Born-esc action movie?

No, actually it is a scene from my real life. I was seated in the back seat of the speeding car with two fellow teachers, Stephanie and Jeremy, as our mentor Mrs. Tan, a retired primary school principal, gave us a little preview of Formula 1. Formula 1, which is next weekend, is Singapore’s second annual street race, and is one of the only of its kind in the world. It is really popular, we’re talking tickets to see this thing sell for no less than one hundred dollars and…even more exciting in my friend Jacob’s eyes…Beyonce, the Black Eyed Peas, and other popular artists are coming to be a part of the festivities. But, this story isn’t about the official Formula 1 race.

…back to the moment in the Volvo…Mrs. Tan wasn’t exactly “racing” because she came up with the brilliant idea herself. In fact, I think it may have had a little something to do with the encouragement coming from the back seat. But none-the-less, as Mrs. Tan drove us home from a lovely meal on Sunday evening, she succumbed the every so slight pressure to give us a little taste of what a Formula 1 driver feels like in downtown Singapore.

…flashback to three hours earlier…Jeremy, Stephanie and I met Mrs. Tan and her friend Ivy, a primary school VP, for a seafood dinner on the East coast of the island. (Side note: We must have looked like a strange group: a cute, blonde Californian, a retired Asian primary school principal, a short, feisty Parisian boy, a brunette mid-Westerner, and a young, Asian primary school VP). We ate at a restaurant where dinner is served family style and ordering is done in a strange combination of Mandarin and English (thank goodness for Mrs. Tan and Ivy). The five of us shared a Thanksgiving-sized feast consisting of tofu salad, noodle soup, fried squid, drunken prawns (yes, I said drunken prawns), green vegetables, and chili crab (one of Singapore’s signature dishes). Most foods in the list require no explanation at all, but a few clarifications follow. Chili crab is fresh, like just walked out of the ocean and onto our table fresh, crab that is cooked and served in a spicy/sweet/salty red gravy and comes with sweet buns for dipping in the sauce. Probably not the healthiest option on the menu, but something that tastes this good, has to be bad.

Drunken prawns, though, are the real “fun”. Basically, the waitress brings live prawns to your table, pours red wine on them and you watch them get “drunk”, jumping around and acting all crazy in this clear, covered bowl thing. Then they take these drunken creatures and put them in a pot with butter and cook them and bring the not-so-drunk anymore seafood back to your table with their little beady eyes all staring at you. AND you’re supposed to simply cut the heads off and eat them…simply. I know what you’re thinking…ARE YOU KIDDING ME!?...or at least that’s what I was thinking and I nearly shouted at the waitress when she set them down in front of me all smiling and nodding like I should be the first to help myself. Yeah, no problem lady, I mean I’m used to seeing my food alive and drunk before I dig in and cut its head off. No problem. But, when in Asia…

So I went for it. And actually, when the head was gone (and hidden under a noodle so it could no longer stare at me), it tasted really quite good. Just normal shrimp with a hint of red wine…

Now that the highlights of the weekend, drunken prawns and all, are out of the way, here is the rest: Friday was a pretty typical day at school. Mostly observing and trying to make myself look busy and not too confused at my desk. I also had the privilege of accompanying the New Media Club to a screening of the American documentary “Flow: For the Love of Water,” and I would highly recommend it for a Friday night movie.

Stephanie, Will and I had dinner at Lau Pa Sat, an older Hawker Center near the city center, and then went to Hannah and Jacob’s for a house-warming party. We enjoyed some delicious mojitos, polenta and tapenade and homemade hummus…nothing like homemade goodies when you’re away from home. The three of us then met another group for drinks and dancing at St. James Power Station…yes, it is as intense as it sounds.

Saturday was a day for cleaning, errands, the gym and a haircut (which amazingly included a 20 minute head massage, but that’s another story entirely).

The other International Teaching Associates and I had the privilege of having dinner at Lucy Toh’s house in the evening. Lucy is one of the women who created the program for international teachers with MOE. We have a lot to be grateful to her for, including a delicious salad and spaghetti dinner on Saturday. After dinner we shared great and not-so-great first week stories, and the former teachers offered words of advice. The best part though…dessert of course! Saturday was the first day of the Chinese mid-autumn festival, and part of the festival is the tradition of eating moon cakes. Moon cakes are incredibly rich little desserts with beautiful designs on the top, and they come in flavors ranging from durian to dragon fruit to green tea. They are similar to a pastry but have a think, sweet center and a gummy sort of texture. I think they are just something you have to experience rather than describe.

Dinner was followed by a movie night at one of the apartments. I don’t remember the exact title of the movie at the moment, but it was an Indian movie in Tamil with English subtitles. Translations included: “I’m going to box your ears” and “We should drink vodka and dance by singing.” Oscar worthy believe me.

Sunday was basically another morning of errands and chores. Stephanie and I ate lunch at Maxwell Food Center in Chinatown. The best part of which was…I bet you can guess…dessert. This time though, not moon cakes, but banana fritters. After lunch, I visited a couple dance studios. I decided to take a ballet warm-up followed by a jazz center class for two hours every Saturday morning at a studio called ACTFA. I’m very excited to have the opportunity to pursue my passion for dance in Singapore as well. And, while I hope to learn some ethnic dances at my school, it is nice to have the familiarity of ballet and jazz in my life.

Speaking of ethnic dance forms; I was also able to take another dance class at the Esplanade after finding ACTFA and before our dinner with Mrs. Tan. This time…belly dancing. I liked this class even better than meringue, and I can see/feel why belly dancers have such great abs!

Monday was a school holiday for us, because Sunday was Hari Raya, or the end of fasting/Ramadan for the Muslim community. Will, Liz (another PiAer who has just recently arrived and is teaching at the polytechnic), Stephanie and I took the day off as an opportunity to explore Pulau Ubin (pulau literally means island). Ubin is a beautiful little island about 10 minutes off the northeast coast of Singapore. Stepping onto the island, you are transported back 50 years to a time when people lived a simpler life, using the land as their primary resource. The mangroves are still in tact, the people live in small shanty huts using wells for water and noisy diesel generators for electricity, and while there is a growing tourist industry, locals still own the small restaurants and bike rental shops along the main route of the town and rely on fishing for their subsistence.

When we arrived we had refreshments at one of the local outdoor cafés, Stephanie and I enjoying carrot juice, Liz an onion omelet and lemon tea, and Will some seafood noodles and “the original joy juice” – basically Asian Mountain Dew. Next…drum roll please…we rented bicycles to ride around the island for the rest of the afternoon. For those readers who know me well, you don’t need any explanation about why the drum roll was needed, but for those who don’t, clarification follows:

Basically, the last time I rode, let alone even thought about riding a bicycle, I was 12 years old. No, I didn’t have some sort of horrible bike accident that prevented me from ever wanting to ride again. I just didn’t like it. I didn’t like the sort-of “out of control” feeling I got when I rode the narrow, two-wheeled contraption. So, my stubborn 12-year-old self decided I would just keep my two feet on the ground to get around forever, thank you very much.

And, that same stubborn 12-year-old self was very present today, as I successfully refused encouragement to “just try to get on one, you never forget how to ride a bike” from Will, Liz and Stephanie for approximately 8 minutes and 37 seconds. Then, for some strange reason, the 12-year-old self retreated, and a more mature, but possibly stupider, 23-year-old self said, “Why not try it? I mean you left the U.S. to come to Singapore to live and work and to explore Asia for 16 months, but you’re letting a little thing with two wheels and metal bars scare you. Seriously, grow up.” So, before I knew it, the more mature, but possibly stupider, 23-year-old me was on a bike and cautiously, carefully “riding” down a paved jungle path, a solid distance behind everyone else but trying my hardest.

And, so I’ve accomplished one of those small personal triumphs that they so often referred to at PiA orientation. It seems petty, but I was practically swelling with pride all day ridding my crappy little $5, rented, green bike with a black basket and squeaky breaks all around Ubin as if it was a brand new red Ferrari that I was driving down Hollywood Boulevard in L.A. Only social etiquette and the fear of being called a weirdo prevented me from yelling to everyone we passed on some of the bumpier, more challenging dirt paths, “Look at me, look at me, I’m riding a bike! Can you believe it! I’m not even falling down or swerving too much. Do you want to take my picture? Isn’t this cool!”

I am definitely not a pro BMX rider or anything (although today my pride was telling me differently), but I am thrilled that I was able to ride a bike on paved and not-so-paved paths, up and down hills for nearly four hours. I am so grateful for the patience and help Will, Liz and Stephanie gave me today. I don’t think they know how much it meant to me that they were there encouraging and helping me to conquer this fear. It takes really great friends to wait for you at the top of a rocky, wet, gravel hill as you walk your bike up the second half because you just couldn’t make it the whole way. These are the friends I have here already though…waiting at the top of the real and metaphoric hills, helping and encouraging one another in both joys and struggles in Singapore.

While I would like to describe in more detail the beautiful island of Ubin, I have to admit most of the time I was concentrating so hard on simply balancing on the bike and avoiding swerving off the path that I didn’t focus all too much on my surroundings. These are the facts though: paths cut like arteries through the lush jungle vegetation of the island. The trees and plants are thick, range from lime to forest green in color and from coconut to rubber in type, and provide an ideal habitat for birds like the Oriental Pied Hornbill and the flying Red Junglefowl. The mangroves, which are one of the most diverse and sensitive habitats in the world, are still in tact along the coasts and boasts animals like mini crabs with giant pinchers, weird half-lizard/half-fish things, and huge round fruit-like red balls that resemble Christmas tree ornaments (these are the scientific names of course).

It was a truly enjoyable day and provided a much needed escape from the hustle and bustle of city life in Singapore. After a day biking around the island and walking along the mangroves, we treated ourselves to Hawker Center fare and ice-cream for dessert. Now, I’m exhausted…(although only my wrists are sore, probably from the death grip I was inflicting on my poor bicycle’s handlebars). Time for bed, 5:50 a.m. is calling.

Cheers and TIA,

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

And so life as a teacher goes in Asia...

They told me this could happen. It is Tuesday morning. It is 7 a.m. on Tuesday morning, and I am sitting at my desk at Commonwealth Secondary school. I have officially been in the classroom for one day. I just found out I will be teaching one of my own classes starting next week. I will officially observe eight more lessons until I am actually required to teach these students myself. I have no syllabus. I am supposed to be reviewing. Reviewing what? I don’t know. I suppose it has something to do with the novel “Holes.” I read the novel “Holes” yesterday. All 236 pages of it. Do I seem calm? I’m not. I think I’m still in shock.

It is 9 hours later. My initial shock has passed, and, while I did go into panic mode for about 2 hours and 13 minutes after the shock wore off, I am legitimately calm now. Today, I was given a learning scheme for my Sec 1 and 2 students, several suggested lessons, and some great advice from the other teachers about my lessons next week. I also observed a few more classes. In addition, I am not required to teach all the lessons as I was initially told, just a few per week. And I will have another teacher observing my lessons most days. It is going to be fine. In fact, I might just get the hang of this. No need to panic. No, no need to panic at all, but I am still a bit nervous.

The thing I’ve noticed about the Singaporean education system is that it is quite exam driven. Not that you have to be some kind of genius to notice this little fact. They tell you it straight out. But it is interesting that it is so blatantly obvious. Teachers mention the exams at least once a lesson, and often ask students to generate questions they think may show up on the exams. Examples revolve around what may or may not be on the exams, and students ask questions like “How does this relate to the exams?” They say that is one reason why foreign teachers are here. The teachers here have to be exam driven. The education system necessitates that. But they also want to be more creative (and less obviously exam driven on the surface) in their lessons. I think I can handle this. Creativity is not something I tend to lack. However, I hope I can also adequately prepare the students for their all important exams while also being creative. I think this is what I’m most nervous about…my students failing. I mean their future really does depend on their exams. I can definitely empathize with the teachers for teaching to the exams.

Don’t get me wrong though. It isn’t like I just sit around at school watching lessons that teach to the exams and staring at my computer screen trying to come up with lessons that don’t and being all nervous in between. I am truly enjoying my experience at Commonwealth so far. My colleagues are all really nice and helpful. They often stop by on their way to the pantry (I’m a newbie so my desk is actually directly next to the food pantry/kitchen/break room) and introduce themselves, offer me some kind words of advice, or, more often than not, offer me one of their biscuits, cookies, chocolates etc. At least, I won’t ever go hungry.

In addition to having really great colleagues, I also love the students. The ones who know my name, which isn’t many considering I’ve only met about 120 out of over one thousand kids, will nod as they pass me in the hallway always saying “Good morning or good afternoon Ms. Rachel.” It is so sweet. It is like my babes’ class at Forney Cronin Studio, and their “Thank you Mrs. Cronin, thank you Ms. Rachel” ritual after every class. The students who don’t know me will bow as they pass anyway, often offering only a slight smile and a shy sideways glace. I have been really impressed with the students so far, they really are lovely young people. I mean, try asking a group of 13-14-year -old American students to stand at the beginning and end of each class to greet and thank you respectively. Let alone, even look at you in the hall.

Also, because my workload is fairly light right now, I’ve been able to leave the school between 2 and 3 p.m. and still have time to run a few errands and prepare a lovely, slow home-cooked meal before I sit down to read, research lesson planning, and blog like I did this evening. And now, I must be a grown-up and get ready for bed because it is getting close to 10:30 p.m. Just hearing myself say this paragraph in my head, makes me think I sound lame. I actually just thought, “Wow you are a lame adult.” But 5:50 a.m. is calling…

…and in the form of a noisy alarm clock it called right on time. I learned a few more interesting facts about my school today. I joined three contract teachers on their tour this morning. Contract teachers are teachers from other professions and specializations who come into the schools to observe and teach a bit before going on to obtain their one year teaching degree and practice. We were given a tour of the school together and were able to ask open questions about the school’s policies etc.

At Commonwealth, in each grade or section there are five express classes, two normal academic classes, and one normal technical (express, normal academic, and normal technical are tracks into which students are placed after their primary school exam). However, it is not typical to have so many more express classes than normal classes. Actually, Commonwealth is an autonomous school, which is one step below the top schools and a step above the neighborhood schools. Out of the 150 secondary schools in Singapore, 22 are autonomous schools. Light bulb, no wonder my students seem so intelligent…they are in one of the better schools in Singapore and are in the express level at this school.

I was able to observe another English lesson, Sec. 1.3, after the tour and before teaching the dance. No, this is not a typo. I helped teach a dance today…here’s the kicker…with about 2 hours notice. The teachers are performing a song and dance number for the graduating students next Friday, and this morning I was asked to help demonstrate the dance to the teachers! Everyday something new. One of the other teachers, Stephanie, had already choreographed the dance, and I was just there to help demonstrate. It was definitely an experience as the teachers seemed rather reluctant to learn the dance, let alone be there.

At “Beauty and the Beast”, I would have just yelled at them (in the nicest possible way of course), whether they were younger or older than me, to form lines and follow along. But, here I feel like I need to be very careful with authority, because I am pretty much the lowest on the totem pole you can be. In addition, Asian cultures tend to place a lot more emphasis on following the chain of command and respecting one’s elders and authority figures. So, while they all stood around and chatted and stared at us blankly, we tried to demonstrate step touches and grapevines to a pretty apathetic response. The teachers did decide they would like to learn the steps from a you-tube video though, so Stephanie is going to put it online for them to learn before Friday of next week. I think it has something to do with saving face in front of their peers in combination with the technology driven society in which I am living. It was definitely a cultural learning experience though, and I know a little more about how to approach my future dance teaching experiences. Also, I think 13-year-olds may be a little more receptive than teachers…just a hunch. And so life as a teacher goes in Asia…

A long day was rewarded with a really enjoyable evening. It was Jacob’s birthday today, so a group of about 12 of us including Leslie, the PiA assistant director who is establishing the office in Singapore, got together at a restaurant on Arab Street to celebrate. We sat in a hazy, dim-lit room on colorful little pillows around low tables and tried to explain to the Arabic-speaking waiters that we wanted to order, among other things, hibiscus flower juice. For hours, in the quiet, beautiful little room of the restaurant overlooking Arab Street we shared hummus, pitas, hookah, and first-week stories. I have to say that while I have had some interesting experiences at school, I certainly don’t have the best horror story. We’re talking things like teaching three classes on the first day with little to no warning, kids asking questions so inappropriate I don’t even want to write them here, and fellow teachers getting a little too personal. And so, we concluded, life as a teacher goes in Asia…

…and goes and goes. The teacher was sick from my first observation lesson today (Thursday) so…I bet you can guess who taught it. I don’t know if “taught” is exactly the right word though. Basically I played two icebreaker games with the students. These activities tend to be useful for me as I get to learn some of the students names and also learn a few facts about them that help me identify them as individuals (although the uniforms make even this simple task difficult). As an added bonus, I get to spot the students with behavioral problems. Icebreaker activities also help the students to learn a bit more about me, and become more comfortable with this strange looking/strange talking person’s presence. The rest of the day continued with three more actual English lesson observations broken up only by a coffee break at the canteen with Mrs. Liow, one of the wonderful teachers I am observing. It concluded with an observation of the journalism class that is composing the school magazine or newsletter. This class is taught by David, who is British. I learned one new and very interesting thing in the journalism meeting from David from Britain. I need to start using the British English spelling of words. In case you aren’t my mother and you aren’t aware of this fact, here it is: While I am a writer, I am actually secretly a terrible speller. And now I have to re-learn the spellings of colour, neighbour, harbour and the like. Should be interesting.

Off to the gym and then crashing early I’m sure. Tomorrow?...TGIF.

TIA for now and Cheers of course,

Monday, September 14, 2009

Dancing your life away is always a good idea

One could dance her life away in Singapore if she wasn’t careful (not that I mind or anything!). Saturday is a perfect example. After a morning spent cleaning house, I decided to reward myself with a merengue class at the Esplanade Theatres on the Bay. The Esplanade is Singapore’s major performing arts venue and sits near city hall overlooking the harbour. The dance studio is on the top level and consists of three walls of long mirrors and barres and one entire wall of floor-to-ceiling windows with a magnificently breathtaking view of the river. It took all my powers of restraint to keep myself from literally leaping, pirouetting, and chasseing across the smooth, polished wood floors in some sort of crazed ballerina fit of extreme happiness. All the self-control I could muster, still didn’t keep me from doing a few plies, tendus, and grand battements while waiting for the class to start. And quite an interesting class it was.

The students ranged from experienced merengue dancers, to those with other dance experience but never merengue (like myself), to those with absolutely no rhythm and two left feet. In addition, the vast majority of the students were Indian Singaporean couples… and, because merengue is a social dance, we switched partners about every five steps. While the combination of all these factors could have made the experience incredibly awkward, I found myself really enjoying the fun, flirtatiousness and sensual flow of the Latin American dance… (and at times trying not to laugh too obviously, I mean here I am in Singapore doing a Latin American dance in a ballet studio with married Indian men!). Alas, what a cosmopolitan experience.

After class, I met Lisa, Stephanie, Jacob and Jacob’s Singaporean friend from his study abroad experience for Thosa and Roti Prata at a Hawker Center...just what the doctor ordered after a 90 minute merengue class. Stephanie, Lisa and I then decided to join two other PiAers, James and John who have been here for a year already, for a night out at Zouk. And here’s where I get to the dancing my life away part. Zouk, little did I know when I was talked into going around 11 p.m., is basically southeast Asia’s premier dance club, consisting of a hip-hop club, a laid-back indie feeling club, and a house/techno club all in one. Let’s just say we finished dancing six hours later! Like I said: dancing your life away is a true possibility in Singapore.

On Sunday Steph and I met Jacob and Hannah in the afternoon to go swimming at Jacob’s Ph.D. supervisor’s pool (college professors make just a bit more than I do as a foreign secondary school teacher). His supervisor’s name is Ted and his wife’s name is Rachel! Rachel had us up for mint tea and some really great chocolates after swimming. I guess I’m a bit spoiled sometimes. I mean a pool and chocolates all in one afternoon, what more could you ask for!

Jacob, Hannah, Steph and I went to Arab street for dinner. Because it is Ramadan right now, the Arab street area is bustling with life and activity in the evenings when break fast occurs. We enjoyed some really great pita, hummus, baba ganoush and an array of other tapas-like dishes on a restaurant’s rooftop while listening to the noise and merriment of the people in the streets below.

And now the real fun begins, as I started school today! My mentor from the school, Yui Yun, picked me up at the bus stop at 6:45, yes a.m. This means I woke up at 5:50, yes a.m. Talk about a “you’re not in college anymore here” experience…a literally “awakening” experience. I attended my first staff meeting and basically just nodded and smiled and tried not to look too confused as the principal addressed test-administering procedures and the upcoming graduation day ceremony. My false, “I’m not confused at all and I totally know what I’m doing here” facade didn’t work too well though, as Yui Yun asked me immediately after the meeting if I was “really confused or just a little?” I spent the morning filling out millions of forms, for things like my laptop check-out and school contact information.

In the late morning I attended class, where I observed a lesson about finding the meaning of words from context (would have been useful for the GRE actually). Then I was asked to spend the remaining 25 minutes of the lesson, introducing myself. Obviously, I was not overly prepared for that curveball, but, thanks to years of playing ice-breakers in the sorority and at leadership camps, I was able to come up with something quickly. Basically I wrote KKG, KDLT, 17, 16 and SD on the board and told the students each had something to do with me. They then tried to guess what the clues meant. (Kappa Kappa Gamma, the news station I worked at, years I’ve been dancing, years-old my only sister is, and South Dakota, if you didn’t guess).

After lunch, which basically consisted of shortbread (someone had randomly been to Scotland lately) and coffee from the teacher’s room, I read the entire novel “Holes” at my desk, as I really didn’t have much else to do and one of my classes is studying this book right now. I then went to the gym, and here I am telling you about my day.

So just a few more details (many more to come) about school before I venture off for a coffee and reflection on the day with Steph: I will basically be shadowing and helping to “mark” (correct) papers until after the holiday break. When I come back in January, I will have my own English/Language Arts classes! This term I am shadowing one section of Sec. 2 students (14-years-old) and two sections of Sec. 1 students (13-years and basically right out of primary school). There are four or five sections, because there are four or five years of secondary school. So, I have the youngest of the bunch, which is exactly where I wanted to be!

After primary school, these students took what is called the PSLE and were placed in a “track”. They can be put into “express,” “normal academic,” or “normal technical” tracks. As a general rule, express students will go to junior college after secondary school, normal academic to polytechnic, and normal technical to a tech. school or into the working world. Although these tracks are not set in stone and students do sometimes go from normal academic to junior college etc., it is the general rule. All my classes this semester are express classes. I will be shadowing at least two classes a day, and in the remaining time, I will be helping to mark, creating a school dance, and planning my lessons for next semester. I will start my CCA (extra curricular activity or co-curricular activity in Singapore), which is New Media Club, in January as well. I may attend a few New Media Club meetings this term, though, to orientate myself with the group and equipment (I am expected to create a newsletter and a weekly broadcast after all!)

So far, I am really excited about my school and am really looking forward to the teaching opportunity! The staff is incredibly friendly (I think I was given at least ten chocolates plus cookies today), and the students are sweet and enthusiastic from what I can tell. It will be really interesting getting used to a new education system. Before I know it, I may be more familiar with this system than with the one in the U.S. (This prospect is not looking overly promising now though, as there are so many acronyms I will never be able to keep everything straight. It is kind of the running joke in Singapore that they will create an acronym for everything, and may spend as much time trying to think of an acronym as actually creating the program or position or whatever is acronymed!) More fun and awkward school experiences to come I’m sure! For now though…coffee!

Cheers and TIA,

Friday, September 11, 2009

There is not a chair, window, table, or hook in this apartment without wet laundry hangin on it...seriously

More photos at :

There are geckos in our house. I saw one when I was making tea this morning. They are kind of cute. They are cute in the way geckos are cute as they run across your kitchen counter in their sticky sort of way without much warning and then literally flop onto the floor like a blob of goo only to start running again to find refuge under the stove…yeah cute in that way. They are mostly cute in a “at least they aren’t bugs running across my counter and flopping on my floor” kind of way. Yeah, cute in that way.

After tea and breakfast, we had a Discovery Tour, which the Ministry of Education organized for us. We started our tour at Horticulture Park (HortPark for short and a nick-name I was having trouble understanding when my colleagues were trying to explain this park to me. I mean seriously, would you understand if someone with a very think Singaporean accent was trying to tell you to go to a place called HortPark near your house. But I get it now.).

HortPark is another beautiful oasis tucked away in this concrete jungle. Highlights include a butterfly garden, a lifestyle section (including examples of ways in which to incorporate plants as decorations in your home), and a fruit and vegetable garden complete with star fruit, pomegranate, and bread and cheese fruit (don’t ask, I don’t know). Our next stop on the tour was Tiong Bahru, one of the neighborhood areas in Singapore and the site of some of the first HDBs (short for Housing and Development Board). The Housing and Development Board is generally credited with clearing up the squatters and slums of the 1960s and resettling residents into low-cost government-built housing. Today, about 90 percent of Singapore’s population lives in them. Tiong Bahru also boasts some beautiful art deco buildings, and a delicious Hawker Center.

The afternoon started with a quick tour of Chinatown. Here, you can physically see Singapore’s modernity and tradition contrast…a contrast illustrated by old Chinese shop-houses set in a background of concrete skyscrapers. It is a perfect example of Singapore’s rapid growth and change and the ability to preserve tradition among this growth and modernity. During our tour, we were able to visit the Sri Mariamman Temple (Singapore’s oldest Hindu place of worship) and the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple (which obviously houses what is believed to be a sacred tooth relic of the Buddha) as well as a Muslim Mosque and a Methodist Church all on one street! Again, what a great visual of Singaporean society, it is such an adaptable and cosmopolitan city with a multicultural spirit that stands at its heart. I hope to return to Chinatown soon to explore and learn more about the worship sites, and also do to some shopping in the beautiful open-air markets.

The tour then led us to Raffles Place where we would find ourselves in the heart of Singapore’s financial district. We also saw another of Singapore’s Merlions (a widely recognized symbol of the island nation), Boat Quay, Parliament House, The Supreme Court, City Hall, and Raffles Landing Site. Sir Stamford Raffles arrived in Singapore in 1819 while on a mission to find the East India Company new trading sites. He persuaded leaders to sign a treaty giving exclusive rights to Britain (hence the many many similarities I discover everyday between London and Singapore…could this be why I love this city?!). It wasn’t until 1959 that Singapore would become independent of Britain and united with Malaysia. Lee Kuan Yew acted as first prime minister. Finally in 1965, Singapore gained full independence as the Republic of Singapore when Lee announced a separation from Malaysia due to political and racial tensions.

After this very informative leg of the tour, we concluded our day at Cineleisure on Orchard Road. This complex is a very popular hang out for the kids we will be teaching in just one short week, and I can see why. Included in the nine story building, are fast food restaurants, ice cream, pool tables, 12 movie theatre screens, shops catering to the teen crowd, and an entire floor dedicated to internet gaming and television! Talk about a teen’s paradise. I think I might be the “cool” teacher now that I can discuss this popular hang-out spot with my kids…or maybe I’ll be the lame teacher who is trying way too hard to be cool…isn’t that what you think when you’re 13? Today, at Cineleisure, Stephanie and I actually said, “that kid is sitting way too close to the T.V.!”

After our tour, we wound down with happy hour drinks at Wala-Wala in Holland Village, and then we joined Lisa for dinner near her apartments. Now: bills to pay…wow I feel like a grown-up today, the “thinking about kids sitting too close to the T.V. and paying bills and all” version of me is I guess.

Before I left for Singapore, I was trying to explain what a nice place Singapore would be to a particularly worried older friend who also has the older stereotypes and concerns about the older Asia ingrained in his mind. To calm his concerns, I described it in this overly simplified way: “It will be like Honolulu, but there will be monkeys instead of squirrels.” While the city can be quite a lot like Honolulu sometimes, my fantasy of monkeys running around the streets like squirrels hasn’t exactly been accurate. However, this afternoon my dreams did sort of come true.

Stephanie and I visited Bukit Timah nature reserve this afternoon. Bukit Timah is one of the last remnants of Singapore’s primary rainforests. It also boasts the highest point in Singapore, more plant species than all of North America, and monkeys who actually do run around like squirrels. After making it to the top of the initial incredibly steep hill (we’re talking “maybe I should have brought my rock climbing gear” kind of slope on this hill), Stephanie and I enjoyed a leisurely two-hour hike on packed dirt trails that wind snake-like through the tropical jungle. There were wild mushrooms in colors like sun-rise orange, highlighter yellow, and even the “blackest black” color of my mascara. Birds in neon colors and others with white Mohawks fluttered in the flora, and ants as large as beetles marched like little Boy Scout troops along the trail. The air hung think and mist-like, as if the trees were pressing it softly in on all sides. We spent hours wadding through the heavy air, enjoying the busy, loud silence of the rainforest. (Among Bukit Timah’s rules like “Do not litter” and “Do not feed the monkeys” is a rule which I find particularly appealing in the rainforest paradise “Please hike quietly to preserve and appreciate the natural sounds.”)

Stephanie and I climbed along the Jungle Falls trail until we reached the summit. Finally, on our journey down the mountain, we spotted the greatly anticipated family of monkeys. We watched as mothers hoisted their little babies tightly up into their arms, and the little ones grabbed onto the mothers bellies fiercely and nervously when the mothers began to swing through the trees. Younger monkeys played rambunctiously, often hitting or biting one another, only to quickly run away like toddlers on the playground. And the father?...he sat patiently watching all the fuss and occasionally glaring at us with a “this is my family and you better not mess with them, because I’m not scared of you” look on his face reminiscent of the way human fathers look when they are trying to protect their own families. He even glared at and scolded the adolescent monkeys who were getting too wild. (I think Elizabeth may be familiar with a similar “look” from my own dad.) The father monkey’s glare actually made us retreat occasionally, worried we were getting to close. We were fascinated by the little every day goings on of this family, and we watched in awe for several minutes until the father gave the “let’s move on signal,” and they crept passed us in a nervous and suspicious sort of way, running only when they were safely on the other side. It was such a unique and interesting interaction with a different species; one like I’ve never experience before.

Wednesday was another day of Ministry of Education training. The topic this morning: The Singapore Education System. I will save this explanation for a different day. A day when, after being exposed to it myself, I will hopefully be able to explain it a little better.

I spent the afternoon alone, wandering lazily through the Chinese and Japanese Gardens…places of such peace and serenity, it would be impossible not to feel an almost other-worldly calm while wandering along the spiral pathways, adjoining islands, incredible architecture, and bonsai trees.

Wednesday concluded with an incredibly enjoyable evening as Stephanie and I joined Lauren, Lauren, Merriam, Nick, and Katie for a pizza making party at Lauren’s condo. We met at a grocery store, collected ingredients for our individual pizzas, and proceeded to Lauren’s to make our mini, individual, edible works of art. We even had chocolate hazelnut ice cream for dessert. What an enjoyable evening spent in the company of new friends, sharing life stories, future ambitions, and good food, and, did I mention, eating chocolate hazelnut ice cream!

On Thursday (after having “a bit of a lie in” as my English friends would say), I played tour guide for myself with my “Top Ten in Singapore” book. I started my tour in Little India where I walked along Serangoon Road. It is the heart of Little India, and is yet another place where tradition survives among rapid growth and change. Families still own little shop houses where they sit, fanning themselves with these gorgeous fans, and encourage (rather forcefully) passing tourists to buy their homemade goods, home-cooked food, and beautiful imported Indian fabrics and knick-knacks.

I visited, among others, the beautiful Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple and the small but very impressive Sakya Muni Buddha Gaya Temple. My favorite of the lot, however, was Sri Veeramakaliamman Temple. This temple was constructed for the worship of Kali, a divine mother figure who provides comfort to worshippers far from home. How fitting!

Inside Sri Srinivasa Perumal Temple, I stood barefoot in the center of an open-air worship hall with the colorful hand-crafted figures of Hindu gods kindly (and some not so kindly) looking down on me, and offered a silent prayer to my God for giving me the opportunities I have had in my life, for all my new friends, and for the support of my family and friends at home. In such a beautifully ornate and calmingly spiritual place as a Hindu Temple, it would be hard not to feel connected your God (Hindu or not) or the Universe in some way.

The last stop I made in Little India was at the Mustafa Centre. This enormous shopping center had literally anything and everything you could possible want (and many things you would never want), but if you were looking for something specific, I doubt you’d ever find it! I really think this place is one of those things you’d have to see to believe.

I continued my tour at Kampong Glam, which is home to many Muslim Singaporean residents including Malays, Bugis and Arabs. The most recognized mosque in Singapore, the Sultan Mosque, is one of many highlights in Kampong Glam. The Ramadan festival is happening right now, so the area around the mosque was particularly interesting, because there were hundreds of vendor creating various, delicious foods and snacks in preparation for the daily breaking of fast after nightfall. (I plan to attend the “break fast” before the end of Ramadan on September 18…look forward to an amazing story I’m sure). After walking along Arab Street, admiring the various silks and carpets, I enjoyed a hot tea at a sidewalk café and watched the passer-bys, occasionally guessing about their lives (this seems to be becoming one of my favorite pastimes in Singapore!).

I then met Stephanie, Hannah, and Jacob in Chinatown where we would spend over an hour walking through the Chinatown Heritage Center. The museum is located in three restored tailor shops, and displays illustrate the difficult lives of the Chinese immigrants in Singapore’s early days. I was interested to discover how similar the hopes of these Chinese settlers were to the hopes of the first settlers in the Americas. Singapore was the land of opportunity, and many left their family, friends and countries to seek prosperity in the new land. However, what many of those early immigrants found was a very difficult life, and they had to work harder than I can ever imagine to create even a minimal life. The museum was a true learning experience, and I hope to soon learn as much about the histories of the other ethnic groups in Singapore.

After the museum, the four of us joined Jacob’s friend Jen at an Indian cultural center (in Chinatown ironically). We enjoyed a lovely buffet of curries, chutneys, sauces, rice and breads. The culture center has a “pay what you want” policy as its main purpose is to encourage others to become more aware of Indian culture, a large aspect of which is food! Stephanie and I then joined Jacob and Hannah for a drink at their studio apartment (which is adorable by the way) in Chinatown.

Friday morning began with another Ministry of Education training session concerning our specific course curriculums (although, I still don’t feel prepared at all for Monday). Hannah, Stephanie and I then met Shannon and Grace (If you don’t remember, Grace is Shannon’s daughter and they were random strangers who invited me over for lunch the first week I was here and are now wonderful friends) for a lovely lunch at a quiet little Italian restaurant. We enjoyed three courses: salad, pasta, and homemade sorbet with coffee! My Friday evening was spent at the gym (working off those three courses), doing laundry (this is a completely different story, but let’s just say for now that there are wet clothes hanging on every chair, window, table and hook in the apartment), and blogging of course (enjoy!).


Tuesday, September 8, 2009


It takes awhile to load pictures directly onto blogger so I have included a slideshow of some of my recent pictures from Google Picasa Web Albums on the right, and if you want to see them even better, copy and paste the link below:

Once you are at the link for this album, click on Slideshow on the top left of the screen and my pictures should run in a slideshow with captions. If you want the slideshow to go more slowly so you can read the captions, run your mouse over the bottom of the picture and increase the seconds for each picture by hitting the plus sign. I will be using this method for my pictures from now on so you should try to figure it out Mom. LOVE YOU!

More posts to come soon.
Cheers and TIA,

Sunday, September 6, 2009


Thai food, traditional Thai dance, Thai goods, and some Chinese lion dancing composed Stephanie’s and my night on Thursday. And we didn’t even have to make the trip north.

The Thai embassy is hosting a festival this week including vendors selling homemade goods. Among the array: face whitening all natural face masks, anchovy chips, Thai massage, brown rice for weight loss, and fried chicken. No, I didn’t buy a whitening face mask or a massage, nor did I fall for the brown rice for weight loss gimmick, I wasn’t even tempted by the fried chicken. Unfortunately, though, I did accidentally sample the anchovy chips…and unfortunately it took about five samples of dried mango, guava and strawberries to get rid of the taste.

There were, however, some really great items for sale including handmade jewelry, silk scarves, and organic fruit. Stephanie and I also enjoyed the papaya salad (which is not at all sweet like you’d expect, but rather incredibly spicy…like “Uncle Ed might have trouble with this” spicy…but delicious in a “my mouth is on fire but I can’t stop eating this” kind of way). We also shared some sweet rice and yam that is cooked in banana leaves for dessert.

And, as if the Thai festival wasn’t enough culture for one night, Stephanie and I then headed down the street to watch the Chinese lion dance semi-finals. Talk about incredible athleticism. Two guys wearing heavy, intricate lion costumes jump around, lifting one another, twisting, turning, flipping all on top of these stilt-like structures that sit 3-5 meters off the ground, and they stay in time with the live musicians! It was powerful yet beautifully graceful all at the same time. I’ve seen lion dancing in the streets of London on Chinese New Year before, but that was entertainment, nothing like the incredibly artistry of these dancers. I was absolutely holding my breath.

While I have been greatly enjoying my adventures in and exploration of the city so far, I am truly looking forward to starting my teaching job as well. On Friday morning, I was able to visit my school, Commonwealth Secondary. It is in a neighborhood fairly near to mine, just two MRT stops west and a short bus ride up the road. In this beautiful, blindingly white building overlooking a reservoir of the Singapore River, the students’ colorful art work hangs on every wall and students, in pressed light blue uniforms, chat noisily in the canteen, in open air classrooms, and near the outdoor pond and seating areas not at all oblivious to the new stranger in their midst. I have to say, I don’t remember ever being so blatantly and curiously stared at and whispered about than I was that day. But, I was not at all uncomfortable. These were stares of innocent curiosity and whispers of genuine interest.

I am really thrilled to have the opportunity to interact and exchange knowledge with these students. I feel the words “interact” and “exchange knowledge” are better terms than “teach” for my upcoming 16-month experience, as I honestly believe my 13 and 14-year-old students will teach me just as much, if not more, than I will them.

I will be working in open air classrooms but have an air-conditioned staff room (as in Asia the teachers, not the students, change classrooms). I can also use the staff gym, which overlooks the reservoir and includes, among the typical equipment, a Wi Fit.

For the first semester I will be co-teaching and observing three Language Arts classes (basically a combination of grammar and literature), and participating in one dance class (sort of a stew-like combo of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian dance forms). I will start teaching my own classes in January when the new term begins. My students will be fresh out of primary school, awkward, and scared to death of secondary school, changing physically and emotionally, and fitting-in and everything else 13-year-olds worry about…should be an adventure! I also have several projects to complete within the next year. Before the end of this term, I am going to choreograph a dance with the three student dance leaders (a specialist in each Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian dance) that we will then teach to the entire student body (one thousand 13 to 17-year-olds!) beginning in January. The project will culminate with a performance that the students will put on in a neighborhood park in March.

My other projects include helping my mentor, Yui Yun, to plan the Language Arts recruitment project for next year and planning and organizing a trip abroad for the New Media Club. I will be assisting the New Media Club in publishing a monthly newspaper and in creating a monthly broadcast. We will also travel to China, Korea, Vietnam, or Cambodia or somewhere else nearby in June for a service learning project and will create a media presentation about our trip and experiences! I am really excited to have such great learning opportunities ahead of me.

After I visited my school on Friday, I decided to make a trip to the “Wal-Mart” of Asia, as my future co-workers at school in a teasing-sort-of-way referred to it. Apparently it is huge and hard to miss. Also, apparently, I missed it. But, as with my past experiences, sometimes you find the best things when you are lost. I was lost in an outdoor market complete with fresh fruit stalls, discount clothing, and sweet, little, ancient, Asian women trying to barter the shampoo down from $3 to $2.75. I eventually did also find IMM (the Wal-Mart of Asia) which IS rather huge and hard to miss, but is also on the other side of the street from the direction I walked. I enjoyed a dragon fruit juice, while browsing the aisles of stores in IMM for necessities like brooms, mops, paper towels, can openers, glass cleaner, and cheese. Yes cheese…it is hard to find here in Asian markets, but much easier to spot in Western-like stores.

Stephanie and I met for dinner in a Hawker center near our place where she enjoyed the chicken rice and I had some Thai tofu…I really am developing a taste for Thai spice. We then went to the staff apartments where some of the other teachers live for a “house-warming” party…we’ll use any excuse to get together I suppose.

Saturday arrived as a beautiful and sunny day, so we decided to spend the afternoon at Sentosa, an island just off the coast of Singapore. Stephanie and I grabbed some sushi before meeting Jacob at the monorail. Lisa, Neil, Will, Jeremy and Dylan would meet us later.

Sentosa is a very interesting island. It is man-made, and maybe it was because I knew this fact, but it seemed almost eerily perfect and strategic. There was a palm tree right where there should have been a palm tree, the beach sloped at just the right angle to the water, and statues appeared in the jungle just were the ancient inhabitants of the isle would have put them, had there been ancient inhabitants of the island. Don’t get me wrong, we are seriously lucky to have such a tropical paradise so near and to be able to go to the beach for $3 and in 15 minutes whenever we want. But, it did seem kind of odd to look in direction and see a tropical jungle (complete with real monkeys!) and then the other and see the ships of the Singapore Harbour.

The islands attractions include, among other touristy draws, a sky tower, a luge, a zip line and a club boasting Saturday night foam parties, and coming soon…Universal Studios and a Vegas-style casino! It will definitely be a good escape from the city, but it is also, I believe, a classic example of Singaporean society. In her book and true life story “Eat, Pray, Love” (which I am reading right now for the second time because it is a great travel and beach read) Elizabeth Gilbert is speaking with a friend about the fact that every city has a word. Gilbert’s friend explains “…every city has a single word that defines it, that identifies most people who live there. If you could read people’s thoughts as they were passing you on the streets of any given place, you would discover that most of them are thinking the same thought. Whatever that majority thought might be—that is the word of the city.” Gilbert is living in Rome at the time this conversation occurs and she goes on to ask her friend what the word of Rome is…it is SEX they decide. They then also decide that, among others, the word of New York is ACHIEVE, the word of Los Angeles is SUCCEED, and the word of Naples is FIGHT. I think the word of Singapore would be STRATIGIC, or possibly PLAN, or maybe ORDER. It is like everything is so planned and strategic and orderly here, it is almost inefficient (i.e. I got my plane ticket seven hours before I left for Singapore because of the bureaucratic levels through which my paper had to pass), but definitely strategic. My friend Neil describes Singaporean society this way: “It is like someone who had never been to America just thought about what Americans would want their malls, beaches, restaurants etc. to look like, and then they designed Singapore from his plans.” Another similar phenomenon is the way in which Singaporeans are so ordered that they actually police themselves…police are almost not needed in this place! Yes, the words of Singapore are STRATEGIC, PLAN and ORDER.

I don’t mean to be critical of Singapore, however, because, as I’ve said before, I do love this city. Despite (or maybe because of) the strategy, plan, and order, Singapore is very cosmopolitan, and it is easy to make your own word fit into the city’s word. I think this year my words are LEARN, EXPLORE and TRAVEL. They are good words to have in Singapore.

And so with this thought fresh in my mind, on Sunday I spent the afternoon wandering through various neighborhoods (usually lost as is typical now for me), stopping occasionally for a coffee or an ice cream sundae on a sidewalk patio, and people watching or writing post cards to family and friends at home.

Tomorrow the Ministry of Education has PLANNED a day to tour the city...more LEARNING, EXPLORING, and TRAVELING to come.

Goodnight, Cheers, and TIA,

P.S.- Just because it didn’t fit in the logical order of things above, I saved this story for the P.S.-section: On Sunday morning Stephanie and I both awoke around 6 a.m. to the sounds of crashing thunder accompanied by flashes of blindingly bright lightening…it was a thunder storm in the beautiful, horrifying way that only the tropics can host a thunder storm. We watched from our balcony in breathless silence as the sun turned the sky soft pink and then blood orange, and as the rain came down in sheets the thunder continued to come in ear splitting rolls and the lightening in flashes close and hot white. It was such a perfect and awing storm…the power of nature in its purest form…terrifying and lovely.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

A Very Happy Birthday to Me!

As it turns out, we actually did go to the Indonesia beaches this weekend. We just thought, “Let’s go lie on a white sand beach under the palm trees in Bintan tomorrow.” While just a few weeks ago this thought would have been happening only in my wildest dreams, this is my reality now! So, we got up at 6 a.m., took a cab to the ferry, and less than eight hours after we had actually decided to go, eight friends were on a boat to Indonesia.

…but even the best of plans…Less than an hour after we arrived in sunny Bintan…the skies fell and it began to poor…hahahaha…now that’s Alanis-Morissette-style ironic! We’ve seen very little rain the whole time we’ve been in South East Asia, and the one day we go to the beach, it storms. Oh well, the temperature was still very warm so we spent most of our day swimming in the rain in both the ocean and the resort’s infinity pool. We played a couple games of BS and BSed a little ourselves.

The friends I traveled with were Jayme, Neil, Lisa, Joe, and Jacob (all PiAers), Donny (a friend of Joe’s just traveling through, and Glen (a PiAer on his way to a post in Thailand). I feel so blessed to be here having this experience with these people. I know I will be able to learn something from every single one of them. They each have their own special bit of knowledge to offer, and each seems to be in my life for a very distinguished and very special reason. I cannot say enough about the amazing people with whom I am sharing my journey. I know these will be the people with whom I cry about frustrations, with whom I share horror stories about my first week of school (maybe every week for that matter), and with whom I laugh until it hurts. We’ll share our time, our talents, our memories, our experiences, our emotions, ourselves, and a very important part of our lives.

Indonesia was just one of those experiences, and we shared all of those things. We even shared a little food (I ordered Indian vegetable curry for lunch, and I can always count on Neil, an ex football player who didn’t want to spend too much money so he stole rolls from the buffet in the morning for lunch, to finish my meal) and a little drink (and by “little” I mean Jayme and I shared a giant drink that came in a watermelon of all things!).

The Indonesian trip was a great experience, and I feel even closer to the other fellows. I will certainly return to Bintan when life in Singapore gets a bit hectic. However, I hope to travel to different places in Indonesia that will give me a real cultural experience. Bintan is a resort town, and while I enjoyed it immensely, I’m looking forward to spending some time in “real” Indonesia. (As a random side note about Bintan so you understand what I’m saying: The area has barbed wire fences separating it from the rest of the island to keep Indonesians out of Bintan, Indonesia. As a person who has a passion for people and the opportunities they should be allowed as fellow human beings, I found this fact made my heart hurt.)

I was exhausted after my day trip to the beach. The “sun” really will wear you out, you know. So, I spent Monday morning lounging around and reading a book for several hours. I can’t remember the last time I allowed myself that kind of pleasure. This city seems to do that to me though. I seem to feel all emotions more intensely than before. Pleasure, for example, is doughey and malleable, almost like I can touch it and mold it like a skilled baker kneading bread. It is as if I am more alive than before. And that is exactly the thought that drove me out to experience the sensory pleasures of the Botanic Gardens on Monday afternoon.

Jenny, a fellow PiAer, and I spent the afternoon roaming through the Botanic Gardens and National Orchid Garden. We waited out a storm under a small eve, enjoying pasta as we watched the rain fall gentlyish onto the patio. Talk about awakening your senses…taste, touch, smell, sight, sound…all fully receiving and processing and grasping and feeling pleasure until the cycle begins again. It was a lovely afternoon.

Tuesday morning began with a trip to the gym with my “recently arrived in Singapore and still slightly jet lagged roommate, who wakes up at 5:30 because of the jet lag roommate” Stephanie. We had spent the previous evening sharing stories, beliefs, ideas, and, after a glass of red wine, a few embarrassing stories…and hours later it was like we were dear old friends…I guess a glass (or two) of red wine will do that.

My mentor, Mrs. Tan, took Stephanie and I and some of her other mentorees to lunch at a nearby Hawker Center. Mrs. Tan introduced us to some new foods, my favorite of which was this rice paper-like dough ball stuffed with lotus flower jelly…oh the things they come up with here…like someone thought one day “maybe I’ll make rice dough and shoved some smashed up flowers into it and sell it as dessert.” But however absurd…it was DELICIOUS!

We had a seminar on the Singapore insurance system this afternoon. Then Stephanie and I roamed along Orchard Road, stopping occasionally to ogle at something or other in the windows of Prada or Carter. I bought some fresh baked bread in a bakery that smelled in the best possible way like my Grandma Arlie’s kitchen used to when she baked apple pies. Stephanie and I were even feeling extra adventurous and…… (an extra long pause is needed for dramatic effect) shared an ice cream sandwich. Yes, those ice cream sandwiches. The kind with red bean, roasted corn, or yam flavored ice cream smashed between a hunk of pink and green bread. Our flavor, however, was mango, and the bread tasted strangely like Angle Food cake…ok not so bad and one thing to check off the “must do in Singapore” list. But don’t worry, if you come to visit I promise I will take you to get some.

Stephanie and I then made yet another trip to Ikea to buy kitchen supplies and a few other necessities (like a house plant…haha). After the incredibly exhausting three hour Ikea trip, we spent the evening reading, lounging, snacking, and sharing yet more life stories. At this rate, we are bound to know every little detail about one another before this is over!

Also that night, we ate whatever we happened to have in the apartment for dinner. Among the array were baby carrots, plain yogurt, peanut butter on crackers, and sliced cheese and apples. We also had a piece of an Indonesian dessert that Mrs. Tan had given us. It looks like a big piece of cake, but you have to slice it very thin because it is very sweet. I’m glad Mrs. Tan told us that first or I would have just taken a big bite. It tastes a lot like very thin coffee cake with a hint of pumpkin pie…yum.

…and it just keeps getting better. Yesterday was my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a more pleasant day. I know pleasant sounds kind of plain, but that is exactly how I would describe my day…it was pleasant in the least plain way pleasant can be. I woke up early on Wednesday and went to the Ministry of Manpower (MOM for short…yes that is what they actually call it) to get my work pass photo ID. The acronym makes sense though, because they really take care of you and all the little things just like moms do.

I spent the rest of the day at VIVOcity, a shopping mall. I’m living in the city of food and shopping after all. VIVOcity isn’t exactly the kind of average shopping mall you find in major U.S. cities, however. It is just one of many MEGA malls in Singapore. I spent at least two hours just trying to find my way around the place and to see what stores the mall had to offer. I bought a few new dresses for school as birthday presents to myself.

I also had the most enjoyable lunch on a patio overlooking the Singapore harbour (not a spelling mistake as Singapore was once a Brittish colony and this is how they spell "harbour"...I wonder if they spell color, "colour"?). I ate sushi and drank a glass of white wine…see…pleasant.

When I arrived home I found I had received a beautiful bouquet of orchids from Tim. Whether I’m in Wyoming or Singapore, no matter where I am in the world in fact, he manages to send me flowers on my birthday. How sweet! They are so beautiful and are currently adding a nice splash of color to our otherwise incredibly WHITE dinning room.

I also received a gift from Stephanie. She told me she wanted me to have at least one thing to unwrap on my birthday (isn’t she amazing…I get so lucky when I travel with the roommates with whom I live!). The present was a box of crazy spoons that hilariously roughly say “Make your life fruity” when translated…hehe. We laughed about them for awhile.

Stephanie also brought home something else…durian. If you don’t know, you may not want to. Durian is a “fruit” and it smells like………. (long pause for dramatic effect)……gasoline! I know, you thought I was going to say something sweet and delicious, but no, this stuff actually smells like gasoline and people eat it and ENJOY it. To give you an even better idea about how horribly it smells: There are basically two signs about things you absolutely cannot bring on the MRT or train. One is weapons, the other is durian. There is actually a picture of the stuff with a giant X through it in all the stations. But, Stephanie thought it would be a very Singaporean thing to do to try some. Little did she know that leaving it in our fridge while we went out for the evening would smell up the whole house, and when we got home we would have to open all the windows and put the durian on the balcony! I think Stephanie tried some this morning. I’m still working up the courage. The idea of smell-taste kind of freaks me out a bit. Things usually taste like they smell. Well, apparently that isn’t the case with durian. But, I’m still skeptical. Maybe this will be a story for a different day.

The evening festivities kicked off with a pre-bar drink at our apartment. We then met others for dinner at a Thai restaurant in Holland Village. Holland Village, as my English friend Hannah would say, is a very “posh” area of town. It is an up-and-coming bohemian area where the young artsy crowd lives and hangs out. Dinner was really good, and I even got a present from the restaurant. Not exactly a free dessert like in America, but cool all the same. They gave me a giant coffee cup (like I could use this thing as a mixing bowl) with the name of the restaurant on it!

After dinner, we went to dbl O, a night club near the Singapore River. It was Ladies Night so that meant free entry and drinks for me and all my girlfriends! We had a great time dancing, meeting new people, dancing, getting to know one another, dancing, listening to a cover band, and, did I mention…dancing. A very successful birthday indeed!

Upcoming events: a dance and Thai festival, a visit to my school for the first time and a day trip to Singapore’s Sentosa Island!

Cheers and TIA,