Thursday, July 29, 2010

Thai Dragons

When you are walking amidst a ‘crop’ of dragon fruit-producing cacti in Thailand and the little Thai woman who mothers the plants walks out of her home, plucks one of the pink pearls from the tree, peels back the skin, and offers you a taste of the delicate, creamy, pink pulp fresh from the vine, your life feels a bit surreal already. But when the same, weathered, non-English speaking Thai woman proceeds to grab hold of your hand and continues to maintain the grasp with a vice-like grip that could only belong to a person who has spent much of her life working with her hands, your life feels downright dreamlike. Yet, it wasn’t a dream.

Tim and I had been in Krabi, Thailand for less than six hours when our guide made a pit stop at a beautiful, colonial-style home complete with an iron gate, wooden porch swing, ivy archway, and dragon fruit orchard. We were coming from a morning spent exploring the sea caves of Krabi via kayak, after which we had enjoyed a local food feast in a floating restaurant near our dock. Turns out, a casual mention to your Thai guide about your love for local fruits can bring you to a pit stop at a dragon fruit farm in someone’s back yard. Who knew?



I was delighted by the strange way the dragon fruits appear, almost like a tumorous growth, at the tip of the cactus’ arms. I couldn’t help but smile and laugh with the chubby Thai boys playing some strange only-little-boys-know-what-the-object-of-this-is game with sticks and a cactus at the back of the rows of plants. I found pure bliss in sampling one of the sweet-sour pink pitaya. And I was utterly contented to have Tim so close to me sharing such a serendipitous travel-in-Southeast-Asia moment. All of these factors added to a feeling of true blue gut-happiness. But, it was one of the simplest of all human gestures that forced this happiness up to touch my heart as well.

The Thai woman’s desire to hold my hand related a common human desire to feel connected with others. Without the ability to interact through language, her vice-like grip felt like desperation to communicate an appreciation for visitors. And her initial unwillingness to let go, felt like the most genuine offer of thanks I have ever received.

Tim and I went on to have one of those once-in-a-lifetime kind of memorable days, swinging from ropes into a freshwater pond dotted with lilies, watching the sun set over a nearly deserted shell-sand beach, and savoring a slow, mouth-watering Thai curry dinner while watching the World Cup. Yet, it is our quiet moment with the little Thai woman at the dragon fruit farm which seems seared most clearly in my memory.



In China the dragon is a symbol of strength, power, and, in contrast to the European dragon, benevolence. So, how nice to find these commendable qualities in a two-minute, language-free connection with a dragon-fruit farming Thai woman.

Six down…two to go.

xoxo,

Rachel

Why we dance

All throughout my university career one question seemed to follow me, plaguing me a bit like a chronic disease: sometimes constantly nagging, while others gently irritating the strings of my consciousness. The question was not typical of a college undergraduate student. It was not some deep philosophical issue about the secrets of the universe nor was it a more practical query concerning my future plans and goals. Instead, the question was first posed while I lay stretching a sore hamstring in a leotard and pointe shoes on the smooth marley floor of a dance studio. “Why do you dance?”

Initially, in my eager freshman excitement, I was quick to offer a response: “because I love it.” But after exploring this epiphany in further detail, I realized that the explanation came from no real, probing thought but rather the naivety of a 19-year-old with a fervent desire to answer all life’s questions in five words or less.

Throughout my years at university I teased out a variety of answers to this plaguing question, everything from the realistic, “because it is healthy and makes me feel good spiritually, mentally, and physically” to the more philosophical, “because it is part of what makes me who I am. It helps to define my ‘self’.” Yet, I was never completely satisfied with my answer.

Upon leaving college behind more than a year ago, I took with me many of the ‘answers,’ but the one question remained unsolved. Luckily, however, while my sub-consciousness does still find a sneaky way to occasionally force me to ponder the unanswered, I have escaped the icy stares of the people asking the question. That is, until recently.

Just over three weeks ago, I auditioned for and was asked to perform in a lyrical jazz dance with 12 other teachers from schools all over Singapore in the opening ceremony of the National Teachers’ Conference in September. When I was completing the ‘individual particulars’ form for the program just last week, I came upon the dreaded question again, appearing suddenly in my life like a ghost from the past. “Why do you dance?”

Maybe it is wisdom that comes with age (I am a whole year older after all), knowledge that comes with travel, or insight that comes from interacting with and in a variety of cultures and with many varied individuals, but after much contemplation, I have finally come up with a far more satisfying answer. (Too bad I do not have a college dance professor to enlighten any longer.) This is what I wrote:

Every human society that has ever existed on Earth has danced. There is something so primal, raw, and purely human about dancing that seems to break down all cultural, ethnic, religious, economic and political barriers. It is dancing that allows us to communicate with people who are very different from ourselves, and it is dancing that has the ability to reveal the commonalities between all people. Dancing opens a window to the soul, and it is for this reason that I feel most alive, most connected, and most fulfilled as a person when I am watching dance or dancing myself. Dancing has become like breathing to me, and without it, I do not think I would feel fully alive.

So, with my new found answer I have reflected more clearly on the dancing my mom, Elizabeth, and I were able to witness when we were in Cambodia. We watched groups of orphans singing and dancing among the ancient temples of Angkor Wat, gazed upon the grand ballet stage on which the king gives his private performances, and saw traditional Khmer dance over a Khmer dinner feast.




video


And while these dances are worlds away from my day-to-day knowledge, I cannot help but realize how much I was able to relate and connect to them. After all, what is more raw and purely human than poverty-stricken orphans, singing and moving with a joy so innocent and pure that it can only be found as glints in the eyes of children all over the world? Who cannot relate to the heavy weight of grander which presses on one’s chest at the sight of a great and beautiful performance hall or theatre? And what cultural, ethnic, religious, political, or economic barrier stands in the way of the themes of young love, daily chores, and prayer/spirituality which weaved themselves into the traditional Khmer dances?


video


With dancing’s power of communication and ability to create a very real, very powerful human connection between very different people, it is no wonder that I find myself drawn to watching dance and to dancing myself no matter where I am in this small world. Excuse me while I continue to dance my way through Southeast Asia.

Five down…three to go.

xoxo,

Rachel

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Riding in buses in third world countries

Riding in buses in third world countries is not exactly like riding in buses in the developed world.

While buses in the first world generally stay on the right side of the road, those in the developing world tend to assume that since they are the biggest vehicle/animal on the road everything else should be required to move out of their way.

Buses in the West honk for one of two reasons: (a) another vehicle is approaching it head-on or (b) the car in front of it is being driven by a ninety-five year old man who is partially blind in his left eye. Buses in Cambodia, on the other hand, honk not once but at least five times at every moped, ox cart, bicyclist, cow, or mosquito that may get in its way.

A Greyhound in the Western world may avoid near fatal accidents by screeching to a halt in front of a semi-truck that has just pulled out in front of it on the highway. Those in third world nations avoid the same fatal tragedies by barely missing stray cows.

While buses in America breeze through one-way construction zones safely escorted by pilot trucks with flashing yellow lights, those in Cambodia spend 20 minutes in a power struggle stare-down with another car coming from the opposite direction until one vehicle (usually the smaller of the two) finally gives in and moves out of the way.

Most bus pit stops in the West provide, at the very least, a flushing toilet and running water in the sink. Those in the developing world provide, at the very most, a hole in the ground behind a creaky wooden door that won’t quite latch. And, at rest stops in America it is quite common to find a bottle of water to quench your thirst, but those in Cambodia provide large cement cisterns for weary travelers to wash their faces and refill their water bottles with the same stale rainwater.

Buses in developed nations may require a pre-paid ticket and a specific meeting time, but those in the third world require only a wave from the roadside and a small bribe for the driver and luggage boy.

And this five-hour, non-shock absorbing, honking, swerving, cow-breaking bus was exactly the way in which my mom and sister were officially initiated into traveling in Southeast Asia.

The three of us spent one very varied and memorable day in Phnom Penh viewing the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng Genocide museum, bargaining for purses, dresses, and shoes at the Russian Market, visiting the King’s palace, and enjoying a quiet dinner and shopping at Friends, a restaurant and store whose employees are former street children who have been imbued with a skill in a school with the same name.
Then, with a hearty breakfast under our belts the following morning, we boarded the infamous bus for the soon-to-be long journey to Siem Reap, a city near where the famous temples of Angkor lie.
After our arrival, we were quite ready for a lovely dinner at the Red Piano restaurant on Pub Street and a massage at our hotel, thanks to the lack of shocks in the aforementioned bus. Welcome to Cambodia Mom and Sis.
Four down…four to go.

xoxo,

Rachel

Monday, July 26, 2010

Going green

When it comes to green foods, with the rare exception of some fruits and vegetables, I find the best advice is to avoid them. Green meat, for example, is probably best left alone. Green eggs and ham are more suited for Dr. Seuss. And I would suggest straying from any bread or cheese with a little green on top. Yet, despite my wariness toward green fare, green cuisine has been popping up in my life in unexpected ways as of late.

Singapore’s infamous ice-cream ‘sandwiches,’ in which an actual slice of bread is folded around a chunk of ice cream, come in a green pastry shell. My mom and, in particular, my sister were fond of the green grub when they were here on their visit. The ‘sandwiches’ include every flavor from ordinary raspberry ripple, mango, chocolate, and mocha to extraordinary corn, red bean, and yam. But what makes the sandwiches really unique is not the ice-cream flavor, but rather the green bread in which the dairy sweet is snugly tucked.
The ‘sandwiches’ are made with pandan bread. Pandan is a tropical green plant that looks a bit like a cross between a fern and an aloe vera shrub. The leaves are common in Southeast Asian cooking, used to wrap chicken or fish before frying, woven into a basket in which to cook rice, or mixed in to give a nutty, botanical fragrance to breads and cakes.
While pandan can be mixed in to give bread a distinctive green shade, Kaya, spread on top, can achieve the same coloring and flavoring affect. Kaya is something like thick, green, coconut-flavored jam and, when spread on toast, is a popular breakfast food and snack in Singapore and Malaysia. Kaya is made using eggs, sugar, coconut milk, and, of course, pandan. When I first moved to Singapore, I was initially a bit skeptical of the eggy jam, and my hostility toward green foods did not help the matter. However, because it is a year of risk-taking, I eventually found myself quite fond of the green spread and have happily spread the love by sharing the green toast-topper with my loved ones on their visits.

The biggest green surprise of all, though, was a little green package that made it all the way from 213 W Capitol in Pierre, SD to my doorstep at the Singapore Polytechnic Staff Apartments. After hearing my numerous complaints about the $13 pints of Ben and Jerry’s (really how is a girl on a teacher’s salary suppose to get her ice cream fix!?) and all about my yearning to satisfy an intense Zesto craving, Tim brought me a quart of lime sherbet all the way from half-way around the world.

The last of the strange green substances in my life the last couple weeks, though not a food, was substantial non-the-less. At Red Dot Brewery, Tim and I tasted the Monster Green Lager. Not to be mistaken for a typical St. Patrick’s Day beer, the Monster Green is made incorporating spirulina.
After hearing all about the positive health affects of beer on a Tiger Brewery tour with my dad and grandma, I was curious to try this ‘healthy’ green tonic. If regular beer can, according to our expert Tiger tour guide, raise the levels of good cholesterol thus keeping the arteries free of dangerous build-up, give one a boost of vitamins B1, B2, B3, and B6, help to calm and relax the nerves before bed, and improve performance, concentration, and reaction time in athletes, then a beer chock-full of vegetable protein, beta-carotene, essential fatty acids, and Vitamin B12 must be nothing short of bottled health. (Dad, you can thank me later for relaying this information to Mom.)
So, Tim and I gave the green, liquid, vitamin concoction a try. Spirulina is produced from blue-green algae and is particularly touted for its 60 percent vegetable protein content. In beer it is used to create a light, refreshing taste without the heavy flavor of hops, and, according to Chinese mixologists, to add the above mentioned healthy components.
The color green may get a bad rap; it is the color of jealousy, mold, and roller-coaster-induced nausea after all. However, I have found a strange sort-of joy in all things green this month. Here’s to going green.

Three down…five to go.

xoxo,

Rachel

Pretty Women; alternative title: Being White in Asia

First a link to some photos:
Tim's Visit: http://picasaweb.google.com/rachelknutson.knutson8/TimSVisit#
Family Vacation: http://picasaweb.google.com/rachelknutson.knutson8/FamilyVacation#
Cambodia 2.0: http://picasaweb.google.com/rachelknutson.knutson8/Cambodia20#

When something is novel it is quite easy to find the beauty in it. When one first arrives in Asia, every ornate Chinese temple, every strange tropical flower, every white sand beach at sunset, is easy to marvel at. It is easy to let the new and exotic capture your senses and take your breath away. It is easy to feel lost in awe, and it is easy to live in each moment, present entirely.

What is not as easy, however, is to let oneself marvel at the 57th ornate Chinese carving, to fully appreciate the scent of magnolias riding on the wind morning after morning, and to stand in complete awed silence as yet another sunset casts a golden sheen over the same white sand beach. But, while the initial sense of overwhelming wonder may fade, it is important, though not necessarily easy, to find an appreciation for the novel that has become the norm. Because who would want to live a life in which the fantastic has become mundane?

It has therefore become my goal, in these last few months in Asia, to find a full and complete appreciation for the 58th and 59th Chinese temples, to let myself feel, taste, and smell each morning, and to be lulled into an absolute peace as the sun bids each day farewell over those Paradise-esque beaches. Luckily, I was blessed to have two sets of visitors for the last six weeks who were, as newcomers, able to marvel and wonder at the beauty of the novel and who were able to re-instill in me the same sense of awe.

To Asians living in Asia the novel and by default the beautiful are not, obviously, the myriad of temples, strange tropical plants, or palm-tree laden beaches. In Asia (more so in countries other than Singapore but in Singapore also) the exotic and beautiful are Caucasian people and by default my family, boyfriend, and I.

At Princeton in Asia orientation over a year ago the directors mentioned, almost as an aside, that we would never in our lives feel or be as beautiful as we would be in Asia. Because Caucasians are a novelty in many places in Southeast Asia we are, according to the rule of novel things, beautiful. If the rule of novelty is not enough to make you believe in this strange phenomenon, perhaps a few examples (and pictures to prove it) will.

Almost every time I go to Sentosa, a major hub of tourist activity with a casino, several beaches, a giant Merlion, and the recently-opened Universal Studios, people ask to have their picture taken with me. More often than not, the people are tourists from remote places in India, Indonesia, or Malaysia who have rarely, if ever, seen a white person. To be completely clear, I am not by any means bragging, because who in their right mind wants their sunbathing constantly interrupted by groups of Indian men desperate for a picture with a white girl in a bikini? In a way, though, they can’t really be blamed for their forwardness, as the only places they have probably every seen white women are porn movies. (The porn industry in rural India is booming, and the majority of porn movies come from the West.) But it is not only large groups of Indian men seeking a photo shoot on Sentosa. I have also been asked by parents to hold small children for a snapshot or to pose with an elderly Muslim woman and her friends.

In Beijing, I sat on a bench near Tiananmen Square for nearly 30 minutes as people lined up to capture a moment on film with me, and several not-so-covert Japanese photographers took my photo on both my trips to Angkor Wat in Cambodia. (As a side note, I’d be interested to hear what they tell their family and friends when they are going through their vacation photos. “Oh, this is the random white girl I took my photo with.” I wonder if I’ll make it to someone’s mantelpiece or blog someday?)
So, of course, my sister, mother, and grandmother were no exception to the novelty rule throughout their visit in Asia. They were good sports when the large group of Indian men requested a photo shoot at Sentosa and graciously accepted every compliment they received about their beauty from everyone from my Vice Principal to the street children and masseuses in Cambodia.
Tim was not spared the ego-stroking power of the rule of novelty either. After he paid an afternoon visit to my school, the rumor running ramped among not only the students but also my colleagues was that Ms. Rachel is dating a David Beckham or Justin Timberlake look-a-like. In addition, the lady at my regular nail salon gave me a thumbs-up sign and mouthed the words “very handsome” behind Tim’s back as he was waiting for his massage. I am oh so glad the lady at the nail salon approves of my taste in men. Thanks.

And, as if to drive my point home, this afternoon, while riding home on the bus with one of my students, I noticed a group of elderly Chinese women making not-so-stealthy glances my way and muttering in Mandarin under their breath. Feeling, understandably, uncomfortable I asked my student what they were saying. “Oh, they think you are beautiful, Ms. Rachel,” she said, and then smiled and offered the women the thanks I asked her to on my behalf.

So, for the next few months in Asia, I am happy to submit myself to the rule of novelty.

I have made myself a promise: I will see what I look at. I will recognize the fantastic in even that which has become the norm in my life. I not allow myself to feel that the awe-inspiring is mundane. I will try to find an appreciation for all that is or was once novel to me, because in less than five months, that Chinese Temple on the corner will be worlds away, the morning scent of magnolias will become the evening scent of ever-greens, and the white sand beach will be a vacation destination instead of a home.

In addition, I will gladly take the compliments and ego-stroking without a twinge of guilt…after all, I will probably never be this good looking again in my life.

Two down…six to go.

xoxo,

Rachel

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The number eight

Traditional Chinese culture is teeming with customs and beliefs which are well, for a lack of a better word, “foreign” to me. Yet, this year I have been fortunate enough to learn about many of the beliefs and even participate in some of the ceremonies to gain a greater understanding of these ancient and deeply sacred values (see tossing Yu Sheng salad, Ten Treasures soup, feng shui, and attending a mother/child one-month coming out party to name a few).

One cultural belief, which I find particularly appealing, is the Chinese affinity for luck. Whether it be tossing luck with chopsticks and cabbage, measuring a year in luck based on your particular Chinese Zodiac, or finding luck in the numbers, good and bad fortune are as much a part of the daily life of many Chinese people as eating, drinking, and breathing.

Despite my usual animosity toward numbers (words are, after all, my preferred medium of choice), I am actually quite intrigued by the idea of lucky numbers. In traditional Chinese culture, certain numbers are believed to be auspicious or inauspicious. Often the luck, or lack-there-of, of a number is determined by the Chinese word that the number name sounds similar to. The Chinese word for “eight” sounds similar to another Chinese word meaning “prosper”, “wealth”, or “fortune” thus “eight” is a lucky number.

Eight petals can be found on the Buddhist lotus flower. The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia have 88 floors. The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympics in Beijing began on 8/8/08 at 8 seconds and 8 minutes past 8 p.m. local time. Even the Singapore Flyer boasts 28 capsules each with a maximum capacity of 28 persons. The figure “28” means “double prosperity” or “easy to prosper” and the Singapore Flyer’s website calls it the “largest Wheel of Fortune in its own rights.”
So being that the Flyer is said to encompass so much luck, not to mention it is one of the “Top 10 in Singapore”, I naturally visited the Flyer with both my family and Tim when they were here on their respective vacations.
In addition, being that the number eight is on my mind, not to mention I have not put up a blog entry in almost two months and a lot has happened between then and now, I have set a personal goal for myself. For the next EIGHT days I will write one blog entry a day, totaling, of course, EIGHT. Each of the EIGHT entries will include highlights and anecdotes about my family’s visit to Singapore and our trip to Cambodia or Tim’s trip which included vacations to both Thailand and Malaysia.

Also, being that I still have a job, a social life, and dance rehearsals, not to mention no one reading this probably has time to re-live the last seven weeks of my life with me play by play, I will keep these entries short, sweet, and, one can hope, entertaining.

So there you have it, eight days, eight entries, and we’ll be all caught up.

One down…seven to go.

xoxo,

Rachel