Tears and Turbulance
As per tradition, entering a new country meant trying to smuggle my over-sized zhongruan aboard an airline. I wish they had a the-costumer-is-always-right attitude towards these types of things as opposed to the if-you-disagree-you-will-be-cavity-searched attitude which I more frequently encounter. This time I ran into my favorite (read: most frustrating) response to my protests of, “But I read online that my zhongruan is within the specified parameters; that’s why I bought a ticket from your airline!” The reaction was, “That’s simply not true.”
But this time, I was ready. I then Erin Brockoviched (why is spell check questioning my use of this verb?) the incriminating regulations onto the counter which I had printed out from their website. After a quick study and questioning of the authenticity of my documents, they responded with “Well, of course that’s usually true, but the flight is at capacity so we can’t be expected to deal with these extreme cases.” Oh. My. God. I paid my money, read the specifications, but failed to track the flight capacity. So I pulled out the tears. I’m getting really good at this, btw, which I’m sure is what the Watson people had in mind for my development as a global citizen, crying in airports to get my way. Philanthropy!
After the tears, I was sort of late so I ran to my gate and asked the lady behind the counter (in Chinese) if we were boarding yet. Then this really Dwight Schrute type character manifested in front of me replying in English, “I am the person who speaks English!” Ok, way to be racist. If I didn’t have to show him my passport then I totally would have pretended to be a non-English speaker again. He told me I would have to buy another ticket for my zhongruan. I wished I’d hydrated better because my tear ducts were kind of dry but before I had time for my own ocular maneuver, I noticed the eye roll from the lady whom Mr. Schrute had interrupted. I asked Pam Beasley-Halpert in Chinese, “Is this really too big? It will fit. This is a 737, isn’t it?” Her expression told me I’d read the situation correctly. She told me to wait while she got the manager who I hoped was as flippant towards rules and regulations as Michael Scott. The manager looked at me, then the instrument, then scolded Dwight and told him to let the xiao pengyou (elementary school-aged sympathetic friend) take his instrument aboard. I was the first one on the plane. Even before the first class and flight attendants and pilots. No one greeted me. It was weird. I thought I was late but now I realized how damn caustic and privileged I must have appeared, as I demanded to take on my over-sized instrument and board before everyone else. Whoops. But I was aboard with my instrument so I took my victory.
So I landed in Changi Airport and took the MRT to Chinatown or as it is mysteriously called in Chinese 牛车水， which literally translates to Cow Car Water. Why? I noticed that other stops were translated by meaning like Little India, which is called 小印度. And sometimes the stops are translated to sound like the English name, like LaoMingDa（劳明达）for Lavender. But NiuCheShui (Cow Car Water) doesn’t sound like Chinatown. Any readers have an answer for this?
I froze in the strong air conditioning provided by the MRT as the history of the small nation revealed itself at stops like Buangkok, Serangoon, Woodleigh, Potong Pasir, Ferrer Park, Little India, Dhoby Ghaut, Clarke Quay, and finally my new home Bovine Buggy Hydration, as Google translated for me when I tried to see if the character combination was some compound word I just hadn’t come across before.
I wandered lost for a bit around my new home. After leaving the subterranean 60 degrees of the mall/MRT stop expanse, the 90 degree weather melted me. While lost though, I found the Singapore Chinese Orchestra headquarters. Awesome! Serendipity!
I made my way past a food court of tongue-numbingly spicy curries and sizzling Indonesian satays and found my hostel. It only had a 9 person room and one of the beds was permanently occupied by Auntie who runs the place. She accosted me for arriving late and for not being the older man that she had envisioned. She had spent a very long time waiting for a man not this boy before her! I apologized for both my tardiness and my baby face though I only felt sorry for the latter.
The hostel was amazing. I enjoyed pb and j toast and coffee on a balcony overlooking Chinatown while I had fantastic conversations with the stream of internationals that checked in. One German woman was a former journalist who was now just traveling throughout southeast Asia for fun. Well I suggested fun, but she corrected me with her deep, drawling, transatlantic Kim Catrall voice that she was seeking, Pleasure. Other countless characters were from Holland, Scotland, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, and India. Americans seem not to travel to Singapore or southeast Asia in general. Such a stark contrast from Taiwan where white = American. I took the picture above near Chinatown but interpreted the meaning of the sign in the pic incorrectly.
Gaga for New Year's
The day after I arrived the Singapore Chinese Orchestra was giving a concert to celebrate the Chinese New Year early. Their concert hall was only 10 minutes walk from my hostel. I always get so lucky with that type of thing. The conductor had actually conducted one of the concerts I saw in Taiwan. He is really a character. Sometimes if he wants applause for a soloist and he doesn’t get it then he will turn to the audience over his still conducting arms and make a face at us that reads, “Come on! This is fantastic! Are you guys even listening? Clap!”
The concert opened with traditional pieces, but the second number was interrupted as the radio DJs who were the MCs (masters of ceremonies, not menstrual cycle as the initials have come to mean in Taiwan) of the evening. They had a gimmick where one of them was late for the concert and it was corny but everyone laughed. It was a family audience, heavy on grandparents and grandchildren.
The soloist of the evening was a suona player from the Mainland. Usually the trumpet/oboe hybrid is not an instrument I enjoy hearing but his performance was incredible. And, without any prompting from the conductor, we begged for an encore.
Right before intermission, there was a special guest chef who chopped vegetables rhythmically to a piece that the orchestra played. Umm. . . I really didn’t understand that. During intermission many concerned concert goers approached me and asked if I could understand the concert which was in Chinese. “I understood all the words, but why did that guy chop up those vegetables? Is there a cultural context I'm missing?” Everyone agreed that that was weird and thought he was just there to promote his new cooking show.
The second half featured some really emotional new compositions. The orchestra played together soooo well. Their intonation, expression, and blend completely eclipsed the Taiwanese orchestras I had seen (one of which was under the same conductor). Their versatility is also impressive. Their last number suddenly switched to Bad Romance and a Lady Gaga impersonator emerged from backstage and sang until the piece morphed into the New Year traditional Gongxi Gongxi. I couldn’t believe how well this one concert exemplified the fusion of East and West that I’d heard about and hoped to find. Unfortunately the only picture I managed to take in the concert hall did not feature the Lady Gaga impersonator or any musicians for that matter.
Carls Unite: Three Midwesterners in Southeast Asia
To the right you can see our group photo of us pretending to be various zoo animals. In our minds this was quite clear. In the photo we just look certifiably insane.
In my second week in Singapore, Blythe and Liv, my classmates from Carleton, passed through town and I got to be their tour guide. I showed them through Chinatown and pointed out my favorite stall that sells ObaMao paraphernalia. Basically they take the patriotic Mao poses from the Mainland and put Obama’s face over Mao’s. What the exact political implications are vary on whom you ask. I enjoy it abstractly as a pun. I then introduced them to the wonder that is the Singaporean food court. It’s cheap, reasonably clean, and delicious! Over black carrot and oyster omelets, green and red curries, pineapple fried rice, and sugar cane juices we caught up on what we’d been doing since graduation.
Liv is teaching English in China and Blythe is working as a 'paid volunteer' (you can ask her about that oxymoron because I never figured it out) on a farm in Australia, so they decided to meet in the middle in Singapore before heading out to explore Malaysia. I introduced them to what I had learned about Singapore in the week I had already been there:
- Chewing gum is illegal.
- Durians are the national fruit but verboten on the MRT.
- Cigarettes have disturbing pictures of rotting gums, tar-ridden lungs, and crumbling feet
- It rains every day at 2:30 for 30 minutes.
- Punishments for possessing drugs range from canings to death by hanging.
- The media are controlled by the government and advertisements run on the MRT warning you to beware of terrorists with bombs. Adverts also run warning that if your children are unattended even for a moment they will fall down escalators. There are even ads which warn that Singapore isn’t as crime free as you might think while simultaneously outlining the futility of a life of crime in Singapore.
- Everything is controlled by the government, but no one cares because it is for the best.
- If China used its powers for good instead of evil, it would be like the 'Pore.
After pausing for the daily mid-afternoon cloudburst, we headed to the Singapore equivalent of the London Eye, realized it was crazy expensive, took a picture and spent our money on chili crab, a local delicacy, instead.
Night Safari and Other Slithery Surprises
We watched the sun set over the skyscrapers, and then headed to the Night Zoo. There was a mildly impressive show where different animals were paraded out to perform tricks, but the most memorable/nightmare-inducing event began when the staff pretended to have lost Jerry. Where’s Jerry they all wondered. Then they made a group of the audience get up, including me. They opened a locker underneath our wooden seats and pulled out a seven-foot boa constrictor. Fun. I left the show, but not before releasing a thirty-second scream at a pitch previously reached only by dolphins and Mariah Carey. I couldn’t handle that the snake was under me without knowing it.
After I wussed out, I was forced into this photo. The reverse side of the board has the same image so I had to press up against the image of a snake. This caused me some psychological discomfort. Thus the raw emotion on my face.
The best part of the zoo is the Safari where you hitch a ride on a Commvee and then can get out and walk up to elephants and various deer-like animals. There’s also a really cool bat cage that you can enter. The bats are the size of raccoons and swoop down at you and make women scream, “It’s in my hair!” in various languages.
After perusing the zoo’s denizens, Blythe and I split a Singapore Sling. We split it because it was ridiculously expensive due to the sin tax (not syntax as I was disappointed to find out after first hearing of it (how can grammar affect the economy?!)) imposed on things like alcohol and cigarettes. Because of its high price we also felt that a cheesy photo was necessary to commemorate the spending of so much money.
I bid farewell to my fellow Carls who were heading out to Kuala Lumpur the next day as I began a search for a hostel where I could spend more than 10 days.