Archive for the ‘People’ Category

In chatting about Mike and my recent trip to China, a Singaporean friend (of Chinese descent) commented about his tough experiences doing business in China:  “They don’t think like us.  Maybe in another generation.”

Some of this may be language barriers – few Chinese speak English, and Mike’s business meetings in Shanghai all have interpreters.  To complicate things further, dialects of different regions are incomprehensible to other Chinese.  The only Chinese nationals we really converse with during our 12 days in Shanghai and Beijing are our two English-speaking guides.  Each has a degree in Tourism and Hospitality and 10+ years of tour-guide experience.  Both know dynasties and dates, heights of buildings and bridges, silk industry, agricultural past, industrial present  – amazing factual knowledge, but little unscripted – they have to pass government tests to keep up their licenses.

 Heidi is our Shanghai guide.  Proud to be Shanghai-born, Heidi is cute and stylish, wearing silk dresses with matching jackets and heels – aged 32 but could have passed for early twenties.

First, we definitely pick up a Shanghai-superior attitude toward Beijing in her contrast of these two metropolitan areas:

Heidi:  Shanghai is center of finance, shipping and commerce, media, technology, fashion, and largest city in China with over 23 million people.  Beijing is center for politics.  Many people say Shanghai is Asian Manhattan with so many skyscrapers.  When you go to Beijing, you will see it is low with mostly four-story buildings.  And what we eat is different.  Here in the south, we eat a rice-based diet – lighter food.  In Beijing diet is flour-based because it’s colder there.  Beijing people are taller and fatter, and men have big bellies from drinking.

The best bits are her few “off-script” comments.

Nancy:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

H:  It must have been something Mao did.

After Heidi expresses disgust with cigarette smoke in one restaurant . . .

N:  Is the government doing anything to encourage people to stop smoking for health reasons—like they do in Singapore and the US?

H:  Not really . . . government doesn’t care what we do. (Later we notice “No Smoking” signs in restaurants – largely disregarded.)

Heidi shares extensively about her latest “cute boy” problem – lamenting that Shanghai boys are only interested in drinking, gambling, making money, and having fun with girls.  She thinks they’re spoiled from the one-child law.  (Heidi herself is an only child who lives with parents, and mother does all her cooking and laundry.)

N:  My brother once dated a woman from China, and she claimed that Chinese women today don’t like Chinese men for the same reasons you mention . . . and prefer Westerners.  Is that true?

H:  No, girls in Shanghai want a Shanghai boy because we speak the same language. . . . (thinking pause)  Your brother . . . is he married yet?  (Later our Beijing guide will tell us that the Shanghai dialect is very distinctive.)

Once we leave a silk museum in the rain and duck into a taxi.  The driver and Heidi in the front seat chat away in Chinese until Heidi turns around and says . . . our driver asked if you are film stars here for Shanghai Film Festival.

N:  Do any drivers speak English?

H:  No, if they could speak English, they wouldn’t drive taxis.

Sam takes over as our Beijing guide.  Married, he moved from a rural area 11 years ago and now lives in a high-rise with wife, mother, and nine-year-old daughter.  Like most Beijingers, Sam is less stylish and savvy with electronics than Heidi . . . and with a heavier accent, but he’s more measured in his responses and shows a bit of intellectual curiosity.

N:  So what in Chinese history or culture makes it by far the most populated country in the world?

Sam:  It’s because of wars – the Anti-Japanese War [WWII], the invasion of the Eight Allied Powers [Boxer Rebellion], and other wars.  China was invaded many times over centuries. Thousands of Chinese people die in wars and also in many terrible earthquakes and floods.  And most provinces have agricultural economy until recently, and people needed children.

We ask Sam about the frightening driving we’ve seen.  Drivers regularly drive down the middle of lane markers, speed along expressway shoulders, and blare horns continually.  Stepping into pedestrian crosswalks with the “green man” is risky business  . . . cars sail through red lights, tooting and nudging pedestrians out of the way.  We explain that in both Singapore and the US, pedestrians have the right-of-way, but here cars seem to take it.

S:  No, in rules here also pedestrians have right-of-way.  But so many drivers are new here, and people with cars think they are more empowered than pedestrians.  When I move to Beijing eleven years ago, cars are rare – bicycles are everywhere.  Beijing is adjusting to so many drivers, and police start to enforce laws.

Tiananmen Square, Forbidden City, Summer Palace – all are swarming with tourists, but mostly Chinese nationals, and Mike and I do stand out (height,  coloring, clothes).   Student groups, often in uniforms, ogle us, and Sam tells us they often visit the capital city between junior and senior high.  He also says that rural citizens now can save enough money to travel to these revered sites, once hidden and now open to the public.  Older rural tourists frequently sport mismatches of patterns and prints along with colorful “group” matching hats.  Each place, Chinese tourists ask Sam to take pictures of our exoticness.

One time we watch a rare group of Caucasians emerge from a small tour bus, and I ask Sam what country he thinks they’re from – since he’s an experienced tour guide.

S:  I think from Sweden or Norway . . . because of their skin. 

N:  Really . . . you can tell from that?

S:  Oh, yes.  Weather is harsh there and show in their skin and hair.  Americans are special with good skin and hair because air and water are so good there.

N:  Since both you and your wife are English-speaking tour guides, do you speak English with your daughter at home?

S:  We mostly speak our home-town dialect – our daughter mostly understands, but can’t speak.  She speak Mandarin, and we have language tapes to teach her English.  In time Mandarin will become more common throughout China . . . television is making a difference.

N:  Have you yourself traveled much outside of China or to other parts of China?

S:  No, but I hope to go to Shanghai someday.  If I travel outside China, I want to go to Egypt to see pyramids before the writing on them disappears.

China is definitely catapulting from the nineteenth century into the twenty-first . . . we saw it everywhere.  Sam proudly stated that the standard of living is now on par with 1970s U.S. . . . a fair assessment from what we witnessed in Shanghai and Beijing.

Language barriers – swelling of cities – rapid industrialization – revolutionizing economy – national pride – no wonder they don’t think like us!  Mike and I are learning so much from Asia . . . and we’re looking back over our shoulders to the U.S. from this new perspective.


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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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A Night Out in Chinatown

Singapore has three great pleasures.

Shopping (I’ve told Nancy on several occassions that you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting at least one shopping mall.)

Eating (That same swing will net somewhere between two and five eating places. And, against all odds, they’re good.  All of them.)

Friends (Lunch isn’t lunch without company.  Calendars for lunch are booked weeks in advance.  Good friends are as important as eating and shopping.)

Tonight we combined two of the three. Before the Christmas holiday, my colleague, Bharat, (the other guy from Singapore) suggested a night out during the slow week between Christmas and New Year (that is, the Western New Year.  Here, we celebrate New Year twice, once Western style and once Chinese style). Part of the joy of going out is being able to look forward to it; we enjoyed that anticipation for over a week.

Singaporeans are justifiably proud of their city / country, and they delight in introducing their foreign friends to wonderful Singaporean food.  Tonight was an excursion into Chinatown. Chinese dinner, ordered in conversation with the waitress without benefit of a menu.  Rice, noodles, clay pot chicken, beef with bitter melon, steamed fish, prawns, Chinese spinach, sweet and sour pork.  Tiger beer and Chinese tea (black, never green tea which would be Japanese). It’s important to have many people around the table because that justifies many dishes and many tastes.  Good food, good conversation, many laughs.

Here we are after we demolished dinner:

Brian, Pat, Paul, Bharat, Nancy, and Mike behind the camera as usual.

The restaurant focused on the food, not the atmosphere.  The walls were shiny white tile.  The lights were bright.  The rest rooms were – let’s say they were traditional. Not the kind of place that gets noticed in the Fodor’s or Frommer’s.  Not the kind of place that the average Westerner would casually wander in and sit down. But the food was wonderful and the place had won awards (see the certificates on the wall above Bharat).

After dinner, we went even deeper into Chinatown to a dessert shop.  No chocolate ice cream or petit fours here.  This was more serious Singapore Chinese eating. Mei Heong Yuen Dessert Shop, to be precise.  Please order in Chinese, or just point to pictures on the menu. Walnut paste, which is warm, very slightly sweet, somewhat soupy, and vaguely walnut flavored.  Chendol – coconut milk in shaved ice, red beans, and gelatinous green noodles; almost like ice cream. Mango, pomelo, and sago – chilled mixed fruit in a syrup.  Good – maybe even very good – but not quite delicious to Western trained palates. Probably an acquired taste.  Except chendol, which has left a delightful memory on my tongue. And, interestingly, everyone around the table described it to us as “very sweet”.  Pleasantly so, but not what I would call overpowering.

A thousand thanks to Brian and Bharat for giving us this introduction.  A thousand thanks to Pat for introducing me earlier in the week to prata (originally from Southern India, and adopted as a Singapore staple – a flat, crepe-like pancake, often served with a bowl of curry and eaten for breakfast, accompanied by teh tarik, or warm, sweet, milk tea, Singapore style. Get it from the street restaurants).  Good friends sharing delightful good food.  How lucky we are to be here!

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Some American women bemoan the loss of gentlemanly manners—perhaps by the younger population or perhaps in some regions of the US.  I’m thinking of traditional courtesy like opening doors, stepping back to let a woman pass or exit an elevator first, allowing a woman to be seated first, and so forth.  Perhaps I’ve been lucky, but I generally have experienced gentlemanly behavior (especially in the business world and in both SF and Atlanta).   And I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by men who all had excellent home training in a gentleman’s manners towards women—Mike, my father, my brothers, and even my work colleagues.

Here in Singapore—and perhaps generally in Asia—I notice completely different norms.  Generally Singaporeans are soft-spoken, polite, and restrained.  Westerners, with our tendency to talk animatedly with our hands, to use loud or excited tones, and especially to point with our index finger . . . are perceived as “aggressive.”  So Mike and I are learning to rein it in—especially our habit of pointing.  Instead, we’re to gesture gently with our whole hand & arm—more like Vanna White.  And you ought to see the “non-aggressive” way you hail a cab here—arm outstretched horizontally with the hand flapping up and down  . . . you feel like a duck.

But it’s the absence of gentlemanly manners here that I notice the most.  When an elevator or subway door opens, men will rush for the door—if it’s crowded, nudging aside whoever stands ahead.  We’ve been traveling subways and buses for weeks now, and I’ve seen many an Asian man dodge into a coveted seat, even if five women are standing around it.  Likewise in restaurants, deferential manners towards women are less practiced.   No one pulls out a woman’s chair or asks “the lady” what she would like, and waiters will more than likely take the man’s order first and serve him first.

I speculate that the absence of traditional male gallantry in Asia could come from the different traditions of East and West.  Western manners probably grew from the medieval European courtly behavior of knights and ladies, where publicly, at least, women were placed on a pedestal.  In contrast, Eastern attitudes towards women grew from traditions that involved harems, concubines, and bound feet as accepted public norms.

A few days ago, I waited at a bus stop with an elderly little Chinese couple (remember, everyone here is “little” compared to us).  They sat close together on the bench, and every few minutes the man would stand up to check the number of the oncoming bus, and then sit back down close to his wife.  When our bus arrived, I followed this sweet couple up the steps as he led the way, and then  . . .  this man ducked into the only seat on the bus!  His sweet little wife just trundled on to the back of the bus to stand.  I was dumbfounded . . . and thought how lucky I was to have my Southern gentleman husband always spotting the empty seats for me!!

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Apple of My Eye Day

While Mike explored Japanese culture this week, I ventured out to my first movie date with two more trailing spouses from the AWA.  One woman, Anne, plans a movie/lunch outing monthly and then emails the “movie group” with details and a brief synopsis of the movie.

The mix of women in the AWA is more international than I first thought.  Anne was born in Taiwan (half British, half Taiwanese) but raised in Ohio.  She’s married to a Brit and has two small children born in Singapore.   When they finally leave Singapore, they plan to return to the UK.   The other woman, Claire, (half Russian, half Taiwanese)  and her husband both worked for the IMF (International Monetary Fund) in DC and came to Singapore for just a year. . . 11 years ago!  She says she fell in love with Singapore after two years, and now thinks they’ll stay here permanently.

What attracted both of these women to You are the Apple of My Eye is that it was made and set in Taiwan.  What attracted me was the chance to go to a movie and meet some more people while Mike is in Japan.  As with most things here, I had little idea what to expect.

I’ve gotten pretty good on the buses now that I’ve discovered www.gothere.sg and Google Maps on my phone to locate myself and bus stops.  I had no trouble finding the Cineleisure Orchard, a glitzy complex of small retail and eating venues, karaoke, e-gaming, and the main attraction, the “movie halls” on levels  4- 7 and 9.  I could see this being a crazy mecca for 13-20 year olds on weekends, but fortunately, it was pleasantly empty on Monday at 10:30 am.  We three met up at the box office, and the tickets were just S$7 for this a.m. showing.  You select your seats from a map, and we got great ones since there were only about 20 people in the theater.

Based on a true book, the movie was a nostalgic coming-of-age comedy about a group of friends’ maturing and first love.  It was in Mandarin, and Anne (fluent) was always laughing long before me as I was struggling to keep up with the English subtitles.  It had elements of Animal House (NOT my favorite parts!), but thankfully ended in a wistful, sophisticated, and not predictable way.  For me, the universal aspects were the best—yes it was set in modern Taiwan with a lot of incomprehensible (to me) talk, but the characters’ stories and feelings rang true for all three of us.

Afterwards, we walked next door to the Mandarin Gallery (mall attached to a hotel) for lunch at Jones the Grocer (a well-known chain here –an upscale café set inside a small gourmet food market).  I should mention that all the AWA women that I’ve met seem to live and hang out near Singapore’s famed “Orchard Road” shopping/hotel/entertainment extravaganza. 

It’s blocks worth of huge (and expensive) vertical malls, shoulder to shoulder, both sides of the street, with numerous side streets of both high- and low-rise condos.  This is where the American Club is.  This is where Mike’s “serviced apartment” was during his first weeks here.  Apparently this is where all the action is!  Where we live near Holland Village, 8-10 bus stops down the road, is more residential.

When we left the restaurant, you guessed it, another monsoon downpour.  The other ladies went off to get taxis, but I had time to explore.  I stayed under the 10-20 foot overhangs that every building seems to have, and just used my umbrella to cross streets.  After window shopping, I impressed myself by finding a new bus stop, using visual recognition to get off at the right stop, and making it home through the torrential rain.  I felt like a native.

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American Women!

My first days alone in Singapore (Mike has been working 12-hour days), I hunkered down at our new “home.”  I’ve hunkered not just in the condo, but in our complex, known as a “block” here.  Looking for  new friends, I’ve reached out both at the gym and swimming pool to other women residents at home during the day. (I’ve learned we’re “trailing spouses.”)

So far I’ve met Swedish “Lisbeth” who’s been here four years, but is now spending most of her time home in Sweden to be with four baby granddaughters. Sadly, she’s leaving for home again in two weeks. Then “Gerta,” the tall, slender German mother (she could pass as a model) is moving to a larger block next week with her growing family.  An athletic Brit and her young Asian boxing coach are deeply involved in their sport. Then this week when we had a plumbing problem at the condo, I finally met “Pauline” our Chinese/Singaporean landlady. We hit it off because she’s a semi-retired academic in a role very similar to the one I retired from last year—and she has both 1) encouraged me to teach English at her school (ah, probably not) and 2) invited me to lunch next Tuesday. The international flavor here is great, and this is a good start . . . but where are the American trailing spouses?

A fair share of expats like us live around Holland Village, and we’ve overheard many Brits and other Europeans speaking, but NO Americans so far. In attempts to find women friends, I even started conversation with a likely-sounding expat at the Holland Village shopping center; she turned out to be a Canadian who, unfortunately, lives across town. And so my quest to find a local friend network has been languishing.

Finally yesterday I explored the website of the American Women’s Association (AWA). Happily, they were having a meet-up today at the Starbucks at Orchard Parade Hotel—amid a warren of busy little streets chocked with huge vertical shopping malls—an intimidating area for me. Lacking Mike’s savvy with either street directions or public transportation, I spent the next hour researching maps and bus routes . . . and mustering courage to venture out alone by bus.

Today I did conquer that bus route . . . and I am so glad I did! At Starbucks I finally met my first Americans here:  a dozen chatty trailing spouses, all eager to help initiate a newcomer.  Afterwards, gracious but down-to-earth “Ann” escorted me several blocks to the AWA offices so I could join, and pick up their fat directory of women contacts and the sleek monthly Bamboo Telegraph with the calendar of activities. Finally, Ann treated me to lunch at the swanky American Club where her husband’s company pays the annual S$25K dues.

Before we left the club, yet another tropical deluge started, so Ann and I stepped out front to an umbrella-covered taxi stand and grabbed a cab together to head home through flooding streets. Even better than the bus.  I returned to our condo slightly soggy, but with a fist full of women’s personal cards (like business cards) and advice that I should have those made too. It’s lovely having friends!

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