Friday, October 16, 2009

Italian Train Wrecks in Singapore

Just when I start to think there is no way I could possibly feel more comfortable and at home in Singapore, someone comes by my desk with the “Girl Guide” cookie order form. “Would you like to order some Girl Guide cookies to support our troop?” I hope she wasn’t offended when I looked at her like “are you kidding me, you are asking a proud former Girl Scout of six years who also happens to have an incredible sweet tooth and a special weakness for chocolate, if I want to buy some soft, chewy cookies smothered in chocolate and filled with smooth cream…of course you idiot!” After about one-point-three seconds I had decided to order one package of each chocolate hazelnut, mint cream and chocolate cream cookies from Singapore’s version of the American Girl Scout. No wonder Singapore is rated as one of the top twenty expatriate cities in the world in which to live…they have Girl Scout cookies for gosh sakes.

My week has been a perfect example of the opportunities this city has to offer. Monday evening was spent enjoying a quiet meal of sushi and frozen yogurt with Stephanie (it was pay day after all) in Holland Village. The meal was followed by a movie with friends which they projected on their giant white wall, movie-theatre style. Tuesday evening I enjoyed my first ever hot yoga class (AMAZING!), and Wednesday evening I partook in Hatha yoga followed by a two-hour jazz dance class at my studio that is really starting to feel like MY dance studio. Yep, this is my life.

I know it sounds like I’m doing nothing but dancing, eating and yogaing my life away, but I actually do go to work as well. I invigilated several exams both Monday and Tuesday, and I evaluated oral exams on Wednesday. I’ve also marked (graded) 212 comprehension sections of the English exams for secondary two express classes this week. Yes, it is as tedious as it sounds. Thirteen questions multiplied by 212 students is…well a lot. (I’m an English teacher, not a maths teacher after all. And, no, “maths” is not a typo. Singaporeans call it maths after the British English spelling.).

Only moments ago, I entered the final student’s grade into the class template, and am now waiting to go take my English Language Department staff photograph to be included in the annual yearbook. This week I’ve really felt like a real teacher: marking, invigilating, planning for post-exam activities, and being photographed for the yearbook and all. While waiting for my close-up, I’m enjoying some warm bean curd that looks a lot like floppity, white, opaque Jell-O floating in a watery yellowish liquid. Believe it or not, I didn’t exactly choose this appetizing concoction out of my own desire to eat it. Because today is a marking day and it is Friday, or maybe just because it is a day in general, food has been provided at work. My vegetarian option includes rice, mixed vegetables, curry and, of course, the bean curd. The jiggley, half-liquid/half-solid is really quite good though, and I’m sucking it down like it is some sort of bean-flavored yogurt complete with chunks, as my “uncle” coworker tells me for the forty-first time this week I am “not a typical U.S.”

This co-worker is a rather noisy, opinionated, older gentleman from Hong Kong who likes to be called “uncle” as it is typical to call your elders this in Asia. I think he particularly likes me to call him “uncle,” because he knows I’m not totally comfortable with the term yet. This “uncle” is also an “expert” on U.S. culture as he spent a brief stint in Canada (obviously this qualifies him an expert), and he is regularly informing me of American customs of which I was not previously aware. For example, all Americans eat bacon for breakfast, love McDonalds, have a lot of money, and are afraid to try new foods, especially spicy Asian cuisine.

It is because not one of these particular qualities apply to me that he tells me on a daily basis, in his very loud, very Singaporean accent so the whole staff room can hear, “You are not a typical U.S.” Initially, I tried to convince him that his “expert” theories on American culture were not overly accurate or logical and did not necessarily apply to the population as a whole. However, that effort has failed miserably as he is so certain he is correct when it comes to evaluating the culture of the United States, and obviously I have no idea what I am talking about. So, recently, I’ve taken to nodding, smiling, and quietly agreeing that “yes, I am not a typical U.S.”

As frustrating as these encounters could be, I often find myself laughing out of pure exasperation when he walks away from my desk, all triumphant that he has won our argument; which he typically has as I tend to give up easily. He really is no different that many U.S. citizens who have so ingrained Asian stereotypes into their ways of thinking that they refuse to change their beliefs and see the culture for what it really is: a beaded necklace of food, traditions, ideas, celebrations, religions, and values designed by people who are connected to others all over the world by the common string of humanity and the ability to feel the same raw emotions of joy, passion, grief, devastation, anger and, of course, love.

And now, while it is an incredibly comfortable place to stand, I must step down off my hippie peace and love soapbox, back to earth from where I can tell my Chinese Embassy story. A story, not at all about the commonalities of all of humanity, but rather about the frustrations that inevitably occur when you are traveling and cultures clash. This is one of those experiences that you don’t really look back and laugh about later, but rather you learn a real lesson from and are just as valuable, if not more so, than those stories that do give you a good laugh.

Ironically, as I reflect on my Chinese Embassy experience that occurred last week, the first thing that comes to mind is my 2007 trip to Florence, Italy. While studying abroad in London in the spring of 2007, my roommates, Amanda, Heather, and I decided to take a weekend trip to Italy. We spent one lovely afternoon exploring the Leaning Tower of Pisa and then exploring the pizza of Pisa, before hoping a train to spend the rest of the weekend in Florence. Unfortunately, there is this little rule in Italy (that is actually a really big rule written in Italian on the back of the train tickets) that you are supposed to stamp your train ticket at the departure platform. This law is logical as it prevents people from using their tickets to make several journeys. However, if you are from America where the conductors come through the train and stamp your tickets for you, where you don’t speak Italian, and where you don’t really ride on to much public transportation to begin with because you are from South Dakota (picturing anyone in particular?), this Italian rule isn’t exactly what we would call obvious. However, the Italian police at the platform in Florence seemed to think it was, as we tried for over an hour in broken Italian on our part and broken English on theirs to explain that we didn’t know we had to stamp our tickets at the departing platform. We do not speak Italian and have never traveled by train in Italy before. And we do not want to pay the fine of one hundred euros a piece…please? Finally, after much bargaining, we managed to convince them to let us go for 20 euros a piece, which was still a big chunk for students traveling on a budget, but at least I wasn’t going to Italian jail. It was one of those experiences that you don’t really look back and laugh about, maybe give a weak smile, but you certainly learn from. All travelers are bound to have at least one, if not several, of these, as I like to call them, “Italian train ‘wreck’ experiences.” So it was only a matter of time before I had mine in Singapore.

It happened last Friday. I had an Italian train wreck in Singapore. I was granted an hour and a half work leave to go to the Chinese Embassy to obtain my tourist visa. I needed it not only for Beijing in December, but also because I planned to go to Shanghai October 16-19 to visit my friend from Wyoming, John Paul, who is working in China until the end of the month. The embassy’s passport/visa department is only open Monday to Friday 9-11 a.m. This should have been my foreshadowing of disaster. I mean seriously, who can go during these times? In addition, the embassy had been closed all week in reflection of the Chinese mid-autumn festival and Chinese National Day. So, the Chinese Embassy was open on Friday and was also opening for two hours Saturday to make up for the back log that would inevitably result due to the holiday. However, I planned to travel to Malacca, Malaysia early Saturday morning. So, my option was to get my visa Friday or Friday.

When I arrived, after taking a $20/30 minute cab ride, because it was faster than public transportation to the embassy at 9 in the morning, I was greeted by a line almost 400 meters long. And that was just to get to the door of the building. But with my visa being an urgent matter, I had no choice but to get in line. By the time I had reached the window, my hour and a half work leave time was up, and I was supposed to be back at school to invigilate an exam. Needless to say, I had to call the school and tell them I wouldn’t be able to make it back to invigilate, and I probably wouldn’t be back for at least an hour after my invigilation would have been over. To make matters worse, it isn’t exactly like I’m an experienced teacher who has put in my dues and deserves to have time off. I mean I’ve only been working here for five weeks. They seemed very understanding, but I’m not sure if they really were fine with my absence or if they were just doing that whole Asian thing I’ve heard so much about: that whole pretending not to care even though they are really angry just to save face and to prevent you from embarrassment thing.

I did eventually complete the series of steps necessary for visa application and return to my school in time to do my afternoon invigilation. As is the case when you apply for any visa, I happily left my passport at the embassy, agreeing to pick it up with my visa inside on Monday. It was only at 4:30 that afternoon that I realized I would obviously need my passport to travel to Malaysia the following morning. As I had a bus ticket for 8:30 a.m. and as the embassy didn’t open until 9 a.m., I had no choice but to rush down to the embassy and beg for someone to open the passport/visa room (which if I haven’t mentioned closes at the ridiculous hour of 11 a.m.) to get my passport for me.

This tactic did not prove to be overly successful. The guard at the door spoke absolutely no English and forwarded me via telephone to a man who did speak English but only the rude kind. He basically told me, in between my own pathetic pleas for help, that this was my own problem, there was absolutely nothing he could do to help me, he didn’t really want to be talking to me in the first place, and then I’m pretty sure he swore at me or called me some horrible name in Mandarin before hanging up the phone with a loud click. What if this was a real emergency and I had to fly out of the country that evening, because someone died? Isn’t there someone there with a key? Or someone you can call?…I mean this island is like twenty five kilometers long for gosh sakes! Then the non-English speaking guard smiled at me, as the tears started to roll down my face and gave me this shoo, go away gesture. Talk about kicking you when you’re down.

I lost it. I walked down to the bus stop, and just stood there, on one of the busiest streets in Singapore, bawling. Red face streaked with blotches of black mascara, I stood at one of the busiest bus stops in Singapore and cried and cursed the Chinese and Asia in general and cried and wished for my mom and kept right on crying not caring at all about the sideways glances I was receiving from the hundreds of passersby. Then quite suddenly, the tears stopped. I wiped my face and quite a lot of black mascara on my shirt sleeve, climbed on my bus, and said to myself, “That’s quite enough. Now that you’ve had that little episode, it is time to be logical about this. You need to sort out this Italian train wreck of a situation, and then have a stiff drink.”

And that’s exactly what I did. Liz had decided at the last minute to come to Malaysia as well, so I sold my bus ticket to her. I decided to pick up my passport with our without my visa at the embassy at 9 a.m., hop on the 10:30 a.m. bus, and meet everyone at 3 p.m. at the hostel. Then, I went to Holland Village and had a drink.

But it wasn’t over. Saturday morning brought its own set of struggles. I arrived at the embassy at exactly 8:45 a.m. and was one of the first in line to pick up my visa. After a long explanation to the “boss” I was able to obtain my passport, which actually already had my visa in it, for the additional fee of $50. A fee which I had not anticipated and had to get out of line to withdrawal from the ATM down the road and then come back to the embassy to pay. A ridiculously large fee, but a small price to pay to insure I would never have to come back to the Chinese Embassy again. (And here’s the real kicker: There was no need to rush to get my visa, because I’m not even going to Shanghai this weekend because by the time I decided to buy my plane ticket the least expensive flight was completely booked and a three day weekend wasn’t worth $500. John Paul will be back in Shanghai in February though, and my double-entry visa is good through April. We are going to try to make a trip work sometime this spring.)

Back to Saturday morning. While I was rolling around in the mess of embassy garbage, I found out my friend Steve had forgotten his passport for the 8:30 a.m. bus ride with everyone else and was going to catch the 10:30 a.m. bus with me to Malacca. This circumstance, though annoying for him, was a huge relief to me as I was going to have someone to ride with on the four-hour trip to a strange country and with whom I could figure things out when we arrived. I did manage to reach the bus on time, and just when I was starting to breathe again…more bad news. Steve hadn’t been able to find his passport and was not going to make it for the 10:30 a.m. bus. But he would be on the 11 a.m. bus, and we would meet at the station when he arrived.

And so I slept most of the way to Malacca, waking occasionally to stare in awe at the lovely tropical jungles through which we were passing and blissfully unaware of the challenges still ahead. You see, when we left Singapore, the bus stop consisted of two trailers with a few of buses parked in front of them. Kind of like a simple city bus interchange. The bus station in Malacca was more like an airport. I’m talking corridors running in all directions, what seemed like a million bus drop off points, shops, restaurants, and crowds of people. My only hope was that when Steve arrived he would think to go to the taxi stand.

So there I was, sitting at a taxi stand in Malacca, Malaysia, munching on several giant pieces of fresh mango that I bought for the equivalent of U.S. fifty cents, being unabashedly ogled by random men, praying that my friend would find me in this mess, and thinking about what an incredibly Italian train wreck experience I was having…when Steve appeared out of the crowd, sauntering in his laid back way, smiling from ear to ear, and ready to give me a much needed hug. All I can say is thank God for lucky coincidences and good friends.

From this moment onward my weekend improved a hundred fold. Steve and I took a taxi to our hostel where we met Howard, our welcoming Asian hippie host, who conveyed a message from the rest of the group about when and where to meet them and offered suggestions of things to do in the meantime. Steve and I took the opportunity to clean up, do some wandering, sample some delicious pineapple tarts on the streets of Chinatown, and reflect on how our morning experiences had made arriving in Malacca just that much better. We then met Jacob, Joe, Neil, Liz, Amy, and Lisa, all fellow PiAers, at Capital Satay for dinner.

It was definitely a hands-on dinning experience. Basically there are a bunch of different vegetables, meats, and tofu on sticks, and you pick the ones you want and dunk them in this random pot of hot brown boiling liquid for specified times depending on the type of food you choose until it is cooked. And in case you don’t think it is a great restaurant by simply tasting the food, all you have to do is look at the line of at least 60 locals waiting to eat as soon as you’re finished.

After dinner, we wandered around Chinatown, occasionally stopping to browse in one of the antique or souvenir shops lining the carnival-like Jonker Street. We also enjoyed the street karaoke, at which random people were just performing, singing or dancing, on this giant stage in the middle of all the shopping, eating, and general Saturday evening socializing. Liz, Amy, Jacob, Joe and I stopped to enjoy an hour of head, neck and shoulder massage and foot reflexology for the equivalent of about twelve U.S. dollars. Our group then met Howard, the Asian bike-riding, guitar-playing, hostel-owning hippie and others who were staying at our hostel (including a German businessman, two women backpackers who were each traveling on their own for six months, an Australian making his way around Asia before moving to the U.S. to live with his girlfriend, and a British couple on vacation) for a beer in a gay club.

There are moments in Asia, when I simply cannot believe that this is actually my life. Sitting outside a gay club in Malacca, looking at the amazing people and environment with which I was surrounded, having just had a wonderful massage, and feeling that rush of genuine happiness snaking up my spine, was definitely one of those surreal moments. Everyone had a story, or twenty, to tell and tell stories, both real and slightly exaggerated we did late into the evening.

Sunday morning was spent at the Stadthuys, the Malaccan history museum. There, we learned about the history of Malacca from its time as a small fishing village, to major porcelain trading hub, to fall to Portuguese rule, to Dutch then British colony, to Japanese occupied during WWII, and finally to independence in 1957. Malacca has an incredibly vibrant and varied history, and its peoples, traditions, architecture, religions (there are several places where you can find a mosque, a Buddhist temple and a church all on one road) and food are a result of this history.

After the museum, the others had to catch a bus, but Steve and I spent the rest of the morning wandering to Malacca’s historical sights. We saw the ruins of St. Paul’s Church, an old Dutch church turned burial grounds with a wishing well the locals believe brings good luck. Steve and I, of course, made a wish. We couldn’t afford to take our chances with any more bad luck. We also saw the entrance to Fort A Famosa. The fort was constructed by the Portuguese in 1511, and it suffered severe structural damage during the Dutch invasion. The plan by the British to destroy it was aborted as a result of the intervention of Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, in 1808. The only area left is the entry way. We also explored the beautiful red town square, where rickshaw drivers constantly bombarded Steve and I with questions like “Ride for the lovely couple.” We found this rather hilarious. And we enjoyed watching toursists pose for pictures with iguanas, snakes, parrots and the like.We also bought some street art from a local artist who was painting the scenes near the historical landmarks.

The afternoon was spent shopping for more art, souvineers, and food. In addition to two more paintings, I bought a few boxes of pineapple tarts to bring home and share with Stephanie and my mentor at school, a t-shirt designed by a Malaysian artist, and some kaya jelly, which is a Malay coconut jam. Steve and I also sampled the local cuisine. Baba-Nyonya cuisine, is a mixture of Chinese and Malay cooking with some influences from the Portuguese, Dutch, Indian and British cultures. We quickly discovered that most dishes are spicy, including the as the famous Nyonya Laksa that I had for lunch. It is a very spicy, brothy noodle soup with onions, cucumbers, and a random half-develed egg on top. We also tried the chendol, or shaved ice with brown sauce and green beans as I like to refer to it, for dessert.

Steve and I spent our final hour in Melaka, sun bathing on the roof of our hostel, snacking on pineapple tarts and sipping coffee, listening to the drums calling the people to worship, and watching the city slow down for the evening. We enjoyed a quiet, sleepy bus ride home in what looked like the luxery suite at a five star hotel, and arrived back in Singapore much more relaxed than we had left it.

And so, my week began. Now, as it is ending, I am sitting outside at a candel-lit organic vegetarian restaurant, reflecting on the past week and planning for the weekend. I’m sipping a glass of rose wine and enjoying my pesto, pine nut, asparagus, olive and brocolini pasta immensely. As I sit here alone on a Friday night and absolutely content, I realize this is one of the first meals I’ve ever eaten at a nice restaurant by myself and felt completely comfortable in my own skin. I don’t feel awkward in the least bit, nor am I wondering what the couple next to me is thinking. I am truly enjoying the company of my own thoughts. Maybe this is what it feels like to grow-up. If it is…bring it on.

Goodnight and TIA,

No comments:

Post a Comment