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 caf├ęs, 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,

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