Archive for January, 2012

Chinese New Year 102

We’ve been invited to a Chinese New Year’s dinner, and Nancy’s already written that it’s obligatory to have red envelopes for all the unmarried guests (regardless of age).  That much we can figure out.  However, it gets a little complicated.  Even numbers are good luck.  Odd numbers are bad luck.  Four is bad luck.  How much do we give for a token present? Not just how much, but what bills?  Now, $8 (good number) is four (bad number) $2 (good number) bills.  Or, it could be $5 (bad number) + $2 (good number) + $1 (bad number) for a total of three (bad number) bills but $8 (good number) total.  Maybe $10 (good number) + three (bad number) $2 for a total of four bills (good number) or $16 – good number?  Or could we give $6 (good number) which is three (bad number) but affordable.  Maybe two bads cancel each other to make one good?  Or at least a nothing?  Or maybe each bad is cancelled by a good, which means that three good numbers would cancel two bad numbers with one good left over.

Oh, and if we visit at home, we’re supposed bring oranges, too.  Nicely wrapped, choice fruit, even numbers.  I brought two home to Nancy, but I had to confess that they were a present from a work colleague … who left the next day so I couldn’t return the gift as I’m supposed to. I’m trying to be culturally sensitive – even participatory, but it’s not easy.  I think I’ll be back in town before the 15 days of New Year are over, so I can still offer my two.  Unless that would be insulting because they’re supposed to be given before New Year, lest they represent left-overs.  Or something like that.

I’m trying; I really am.  But it’s complicated. Why did I ever think that New Year’s was just watch-the-fireworks-and-it’s-over-for-another-year?  It will never be the same again!


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Sunday is generally our day to restock the pantry.  We alternate between the big store called Carrefour (here called a “hypermart” because, in addition to groceries, it has all kinds of other things – clothes, electronics, small appliances, cookware, etc., etc., etc. – vaguely like a Walmart) and a smaller grocery store in a nearby mall. Today, it was our turn to visit Carrefour.

Singapore has two Carrefours.  One is in Plaza Singapura, which is a big mall.  The other is in Suntec City, a giant mall spread across four or five or six – it’s easy to lose count – giant towers.  And today, we decided to visit the Suntec Carrefour for the first time.  By the time we got there, it was way past lunch time, so finding something to eat was our first order of business.  Food in Singapore is sometimes a bit of a contradiction.  Places to eat are literally everywhere.  But it can sometimes be tricky to find one – especially a specific kind – when you want it.

Happily for us, the Suntec hawker center was the first thing we encountered.

“Is this all Asian food? Does everything have rice or noodles?” Nancy asked. We hadn’t had the best luck ordering lunch at yesterday’s restaurant.  Hong Kong style curry, with a big mound of rice.  Plain rice isn’t her favorite (“I’m avoiding useless carbs”), and the curry was spicier than normal. At the hawker center food stalls, it is all Asian, ranging from Chinese through Indian and  Vietnamese to Singaporean and on to Malaysian, Indonesian, and Phillipino.  All including rice or noodles, with just a few exceptions: kaya toast.  Prata – a Singaporean / Indian crepe, sometimes served with a bowl of curry sauce for breakfast.  Chinese steamed dumplings.

We settled on a lunch of roast duck breast with soup, long thin noodles (for long life!), and a stem of lightly cooked yu choi.  Delicious and only S$10 apiece.  We took chopsticks but no forks.  I could only see metal, western spoons to use for the soup.  While I was standing in line at the drinks stall, Mr. Duck came out with Chinese spoons and took away the western spoons we had.  He wanted us to enjoy his cooking with the proper utensils!

Fortified with lunch, we continued our quest to find the giant Carrefour.

In the last few weeks, Nancy has come to the conclusion that we need a vacuum.  Mopping the floors with a swifter – even a wet swifter – just wasn’t doing the job.  So job one at Carrefour was to find the vacuums.  They’re different from those we’re used to seeing.  No stand-up, tilt handle, Dyson power, miles and miles of cord, vacuums here.  They’re almost all tiny canisters that roll behind you on two big wheels.  They’re rated in watts: 1600, 1800, 2000, 2100.  More watts, more powerful motor, better dirt sucking.  We looked for a good half hour, then got some attention from a very helpful clerk.  She demonstrated the way these vacuums work (and she was probably thinking, what’s wrong with these foreigners?  Haven’t they ever seen a vacuum cleaner?  And why don’t they have their maid with them anyway???)

We came home with our groceries, a couple bottles of wine, and a brand new French- made vacuum (don’t get the other model; it’s made in China – yes, that’s exactly what our Chinese clerk said).  When it’s turned on, it sounds like a small jet plane winding up for takeoff. But it’s a glorious red (not disgusting purple like on the box) – a lucky color for Chinese New Year and for all the year!

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#1 – The hotel in Hong Kong was not very far from our office; it was a little further from our office to the client office. We had agreed to meet our local colleagues at the client office, and, while it was walkable, taking a taxi seemed easier and less likely that we would get lost and arrive late. The bellman hailed a taxi; the two guys from Singapore got in; we gave the taxi driver the building name and off we went.

Hong Kong is different from Singapore. The streets are as at least as crowded, but the taxis are much more aggressive. Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride came to mind. The drivers speak English – some – but maybe not as fluently or as comfortably as in Sing. A good rule is: get in, sit down, hold tight, and close your eyes. Flag down, HK$20 on the meter, and off we went. We were at the client office building within five minutes, maybe less. The driver was not particularly happy with such a short ride. The meter still read only $20 (under US$3). My colleague tried to pay, using a $100 bill. The driver was not happy. And expressed it. We found a $20 for him. Then we discovered that the sidewalk side door would not open. After a few tries, it still wouldn’t open, and the driver wanted us out of his cab. He expressed his displeasure loudly. Sitting on the street side, I opened my door a little to check for traffic. Very, very busy road. The driver expressed his unhappiness. I tried to close the door again. He expressed even louder unhappiness. It took us a while, but we finally escaped, and the driver roared off.

#2 – After lunch in the hotel complex, we had an afternoon client meeting in the same building. We took the same strategy of taxi to the meeting. Different cab, same wild ride, same short fare. My colleague (the other guy from Singapore) is a native Singaporean of Indian descent. That is to say, he’s obviously not a Westerner. This time it was my turn to pay the fare. The meter read $20, I did the quick mental calculation, hoping that I had the right conversion rate, to US$3, and gave the driver $30. Big percent tip, not so big in actual dollars. It only seemed fair for such a short trip. Handing him the money, I said “xie xie,” Mandarin for “thank you.” I wanted him to know that I knew the fare amount and did not expect any change in return. He said, “thank you” (English for “xie xie”), we got out of the cab, he drove off, and we went to our meeting. On the way upstairs, my colleage told me that I had fulfilled the standard Westerner role of spoiling the market by overtipping. Good to do what is expected of you.

#3 – When it was time to go home, we took a taxi from the hotel to Central, where we could catch the express train to the airport. The ride was a little longer than our morning rides, but the meter only got to $23. I think my colleague was still feeling the reverberation from our first ride of the day, so I had the responsibility of paying. We decided that we’d include all our pocket change as the tip, so we wouldn’t have to worry about the airport metal detectors. When we got to Central, I had a $20 bill and a handful of change amounting to about $8 or so. I gave it all to the driver who did a double take and wanted to make sure that I understood that the fare was (much) less. Knowing my role as a Westerner, I wanted to play it well. Spoil the market. With the appropriate body language – lots of smiles, head nodding, hand waving – I indicated that it was all for him and wished him “prosperous New Year” in somewhat fractured Mandarin. That broke the ice. He corrected both pronunciation and language. Cantonese is the usual Chinese in Hong Kong, so we spent a couple of minutes getting me straightened out on the Cantonese version. When I had it more or less straight – that is, pretty good for a Westerner, from his point of view – we both had a good laugh.

Gong xi fa cai to one and all!

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Chinese New Year 101

This morning I went to more cultural training—Lo Hei Traditions—in preparation for the upcoming Chinese New Year while Mike winged his way to Hong Kong.

Because eighty percent of Singapore’s population is ethnic Chinese, CNY is huge here—15 days of organized celebrations, including two public holidays.  As soon as Christmas decorations come down (Jan 2), CNY banners and lights start going up.

To prepare for the holidays, Chinese people do spring cleaning, buy special foods, and decorate with distinctive plants like tinted pussy willows, yellow chrysanthemums, and fully-fruited kumquat trees (sometimes going for S$800-1200!).  They decorate door frames with red banners and hang a pair of pineapple lanterns on either side.  Special foods include black moss seaweed, dried oysters, whole fish, abalone, and hog knuckles or trotters.  All of these items and colors—especially red and gold—hold symbolic meanings:  generally prosperity, wealth, and good luck.  Red is especially auspicious because it also keeps away demons, so we’ve seen red lanterns hanging from trees, over streets, and in malls all over the city.

Then there’s the gift giving.  If we visit Chinese friends during these holidays, we’re supposed to bring oranges for good luck (preferably easy-peel, tangerine style)—but only in even numbers (two or six, but not four, which is unlucky.)  When we leave, they will give us oranges back!  Yes, I do think that people just check their supply of gift oranges in the kitchen and just swap them around.

Another great tradition is favored by children:  Married people must give red envelopes with cash to all unmarried persons (good luck, prosperity again).  You give more to your own children plus nieces and nephews and parents, but even a few dollars to each unmarried family friend—yes, even 30 and 40 year olds—along with a gentle nudge . . . “and when will you be getting married?”  A young Christmas dinner guest had told us that she collects several hundred dollars each year.  Other Chinese parents have said the red envelopes can cost them up to to S$1000 each year!

Finally we got to the “Lo Hei Tradition” part (tossing up good fortune), and this involved eating!  On the 7th day of CNY, the family or party group jointly tosses a big salad of 10 special ingredients, each with symbolic meanings:

  1. raw fish = abundance throughout the year
  2. pomelo (like grapefruit) = good luck and smooth sailing
  3. pepper = attract wealth and treasures
  4. oil = make 10xs profit with capital
  5. carrots = good luck is approaching
  6. green radish = stay forever young
  7. white radish = reach higher level with each step
  8. peanut crumbs = household filled with gold and silver
  9. sesame seeds = prosperity for the business
  10. deep fried flour crisps (golden pillows) = floor covered with gold

It can include other spices and flavorings (cinnamon, nutmeg) and ingredients also, and was surprising delicious!  The higher you toss, the better the luck.  It makes for a very messy table, but the main meaning should leap out from the ingredients!  This “Prosperity Salad” is unique to Singapore, but has gained popularity so that the practice is spreading to Malaysia and Hong Kong.

So what year are we entering?  I’ve just started learning all these traditions, many that seem superstitious to Westerners—like the Chinese Zodiac.  By tradition, Buddha invited all the animals to visit him in the forest, but only 12 accepted—monkey, rat, tiger, ox, snake, etc.  We’re just coming off the year of the rabbit (2011), and we should all be celebrating the fact that we are entering 2012, the year of the DRAGON—the most powerful of the 12 animals.  Under that auspicious sign, this should be a good year for getting married, being born, or making major decisions and transitions—and for all lucky enough to have been born under the sign of the dragon.  If you wish to do a quick birth sign check:   http://www.chinesezodiac.com/calculator.php

Tomorrow is a “Chinatown Walking Tour” for this trailing spouse—what I think of as my continuing education here.  This tour could be my CNY 102 course!

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