Monday, June 28, 2004

Sometimes You Just Need to be a Tourist

Mer-Lion: fish or feline, good luck or acid reflux?

After a long week of meeting with business partners as well as preparing for an arduous internal account strategy presentation with Asia Pacific management that took place on Friday, I was ready for the weekend. I sat in an outdoor restaurant alone on Friday evening after work and people-watched and contemplated what I might do over the weekend. I felt like being a tourist. I mean I’ve now lived here for three weeks and I still haven’t seen all the must-see places. But seeing is only half of the equation. Being Singapore, where finding and eating good food is a national pastime, I needed to also experience some must-taste endeavors as well.

Singapore prides itself on being a true garden city. City planners aspired to build what they called “a city amongst a garden” and from the plentiful shade trees along city streets or flowering tropical plants with vivid colors that line highway dividers and overpasses, I’d have to say that they have accomplished their goal. So with Singapore’s green thumb firmly intact, it makes perfect sense that high on any tourist’s list of things to see is the city’s amazing Botanical Garden.

This sprawling expanse of heavenly beauty is one of the few places within the city where one cannot see high-rise office towers. Rather than steel and concrete rising from the earth it has been replaced here by large tropical foliage, dense grasses, and vibrant blooms of all sizes and colors. There was also auditory beauty that was paired that day with the visual variety as the garden was hosting a free jazz concert. What a venue!

What was most amazing was the garden’s prized orchid collection. An entire section of the garden’s estate has been dedicated to the display and study of these flora fascinations. Every color and variation was represented and many new varieties have been created right there on the premises. Walking amongst the trees, lakes, and blooms helped bring some sanity back into my week. I could have easily stayed there all day.

Later in the evening, I decided to try a Singaporean specialty: Black Pepper Crab. I had asked a cab driver of a good place to have such a meal during a ride home. He pointed me in the direction of a spot that only the locals go for such a dish. He told me that there would be no foreigners there, which was a fact I appreciated. Before he dropped me off, he jotted down the name and address on a piece of paper. What Singapore cab drivers lack in using turn signals, giving right-of-way, or generally staying in their own lane, they more than make up for in friendliness I have found.

I arrived at the local place which turned out to be an open-air food court known in Singapore as Hawker Centers. They are very prevalent and possess some of the tastiest local food around. Hawker Centers evolved from the early street vendors that sold their culinary delights from small curb side carts in the old days. In attempts to clean up the city’s visual appeal (remember this is Singapore so anything that has to do with clean is immediately implemented) the street vendors and their carts were ushered into large bustling food courts set back from the road. Each Hawker Center vendor has his/her own small space with kitchen and refrigeration equipment for which they pay rent. Clientele goes from vendor to vendor and orders a mix of food to compile a customized course of food. Fresh lime or sugar cane juice from one vendor satisfies the drink order, bar-b-qued lamb satay with peanut sauce captures the appetizer requirement, and choosing your own crab to represent your main course can round out the process. You just have to tell each vendor where you are sitting and they will come and deliver you the food at your table, where you then settle up the tab with each vendor individually. Each table is numbered so that the vendors can find you. Because I was the only foreigner that evening, I really didn’t have to tell them what my number was. I think they could find me just fine.

My Black Pepper Crab was delicious. It was steamed with a coating of black pepper sauce that made it spicy. The lady who brought me my crab included a nut cracker to make my un-harnessing of the crab meat from the shell a little more efficient. She also brought a bowl of water with a fresh lime inside to dip my fingers into on occasion, because eating is done with the hands when fresh crab is involved and it tends to get pretty messy.

Sunday I decided to head down to Boat Quay (pronounced Key) and take in the sites. The Singapore River runs along the Quay, which was one of the most important waterways in the whole Orient at the turn of the 20th century. Small water-going vessels called Bumboats can still be found going up and down the river, but the only commodity they transport today are tourists.

The Singapore River empties out into the harbor which is protected by the symbol of Singapore, the Mer-Lion. Half fish and half lion this bi-polar creature is said to bring good luck to passing ships. The imagery of the lion is everywhere in Singapore. It was supposedly here at the mouth of the Singapore River in the 11th century that the regional ruling king stepped onto land here and gazed upon what he believed to be a lion. He gave this place the name Singapura, which means Lion City. Today’s Lion City is a regional hub of business and the enormous skyscrapers that extend above the old waterway is a testament to the transition from old to new world trade.

Now history and folklore lesson aside, I found the Mer-Lion kind of amusing. It reminded me of the scene from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life with its continuous flow of “good luck” jettisoning from its mouth. I guess I was just in a disgusting state of mind, but it made me smile nonetheless.

So the sun set on another weekend. New places visited, new tastes discovered, all without having to leave the comfort of this little island. It is a small world and Singapore is even smaller yet, but what it lacks in landmass it is making up for on tropical beauty and diverse flavors.

Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Weekend with Friends in Bangkok

Minnie & Gene - my former classmates & forever friends

I know I haven't been in Singapore that long, but I was still craving a get-away weekend. The weeks leading up to the move had been exhausting and I had no time to de-compress after arriving and starting head-long into my new role. What I needed was a fun weekend where I could envelop myself with good friends. Luckily for me, I had good friends just a short 2-hour plane flight away in Bangkok, Thailand.

Minnie and Gene were my classmates in grad school. Both were single at the time, yet Gene was the only one of us guys who had the courage to ask out one of the prettiest and smartest girls in our class. We guys were all amazed when Gene's gutsy move was met with a yes from Minnie. That first date eventually lead Gene and Minnie down the aisle of marriage almost five years later on January of this year. They are a fantastic couple and have a relationship to be admired. Both have sacrificed for the other and now both are finding joy in a new life forged together.

Gene was a successful strategy consultant for PriceWaterhouseCoopers (PWC) and Minnie a sharp product manager within the mobile software industry. When Minnie's father back in Thailand called his only daughter, who had a successful career established in the States, and asked for her to come home to Thailand and help run the family business, there was only one response Minnie could utter. Yes, she would return to Thailand to help run the family's established nation-wide network of automobile dealerships, but what would this mean for the relationship she was building with Gene?

Gene, in his selfless love for Minnie, decided to quit his successful job with PWC and move to Thailand to help support her decision. It was not long before the two of them were in-country in Thailand: Minnie making her own mark on the family business, and Gene trying to seek out a new position with a Multi-national organization in Bangkok. It didn't take too long before Gene found a role with Nestle corporation driving marketing programs for their S.E. Asian ice cream segment.

Both Minnie and Gene are a constant success story in the making. Minnie is modernizing her family's business and has been recognized in her region as an enterprising female business leader in subsequent Thai publications. Gene was just recently promoted to Vice President of Sales & Marketing for Nestle's chilled food and beverage segment for all of Thailand. I am so proud of both of them and know that great things will continue to come their way.

Even though I have not seen Minnie or Gene in over three years, we have kept in contact via email. Both were excited to learn of my new job in Singapore and they encouraged me to come to Bangkok for a visit once I had arrived in the region. I couldn't wait to reconnect with my old friends, so last weekend I boarded a Singapore Airlines flight to Bangkok.

Gene had given me the address to their home on the outskirts of Bangkok so that I could give it to the taxi driver at the airport. The driver knew exactly where this area was, so my mind was instantly put at ease. Another thing that put me at ease was the fact that my new found taxi driving friend was a big fan of American Westerns (movies).

Even though his English vocabulary was small, the driver was able to confirm that I was American and then immediately started spitting out names like Billy the Kid, Doc Holiday, Jesse James, John Wayne, Kirk Douglass, Clint Eastwood. The list was a virtual who's who of the American West and the movie stars that personified this period in American folklore. This driver had probably never picked up an American history book, yet he kept saying, "1776...George Washington...fight British....Civil War...Many people die....Alamo...fight Mexico". It is a true testament to how American media and culture has permeated many seemingly isolated pockets around the globe.

Minnie and Gene's home is a beautiful place. Sitting nicely at the end of a street and protected by four nice dogs and one mean one, is their home. It is airy and spacious and is decorated with Minnie's local flair. Thai antiques and wall hangings adore the interior, while Minnie and Gene's latest passion remains out of doors.

The two of them have spent considerable time landscaping their spacious back yard into a tropical oasis. They've adorned their garden with a miniature Thai hut and fountain, and have incorporated local flowers and trees into the mix. It looks amazing, but has been plenty of hard work of which they are rightfully proud.

You can't go to Thailand without indulging on Thai food, and since Thai is my favorite cuisine I was in heaven. Spicy noodle soup dishes, pork, fish, crab, beef, and chicken dishes all prepared differently ranging from black pepper to garlic to lemon grass made each dish unique and tasty.

The fact that I have traveled to Thailand before allowed the three of us to skip the typical tourist routine and simply catch up as friends. Besides walking through an amazing Buddhist Temple, our time was spent observing three years melt away before our eyes as we all fell right back in-step with one another's lives.

I got to see their amazing wedding photos and high quality DVD of that special day in their lives. Their wedding symbolized their special union in this life. It was so uplifting to see not only two families but also two cultures come together to celebrate the future of these two very special people.

Saturday, June 12, 2004

From the Home Office in Singapore Comes Tonight’s Top 10 List

Top 10 Things that Have Happened to David on his First Week in Singapore

Number 10: David finally discovers where his mail box is located
Yes, it’s true ladies & gentlemen; I went an entire week of searching for this elusive mail box. I searched all over the apartment grounds and facilities. I even asked the security guards, who told me it was located in my building’s lobby. I turned the lobby upside down and could not find it. Then today my co-worker came over and when I told him of my dilemma as we were getting on the elevator to go up to my apartment he said, “I see here on the elevator that you have a basement. Have you tried there?” He hit the “B” button. In a quick second the doors of the elevator parted like when the Dynamic Duo slipped out of the Bat Cave and there stood the Holy Grail of my search: The Mail Box. Its official…I’m an idiot!

Number 9: Received personal attention at the ATM
The banks in Singapore are highly streamlined and efficient. You can do an array of things at the ATM or online. You almost never need to talk to a teller, unless you are a stupid Expat like me who couldn’t figure out how to execute a money transfer into another account. Using an ATM to transfer money from your bank to another person’s account, even if they have their account established at another bank, is quite common. I walked into the bank and asked a friendly counterperson how I could go about making the transfer. She told me that it was easy (this is when I should have worried) and that I could use the ATM. She told me step-by-step how to do it. Well, I messed it up and mis-read one of the prompts and it didn’t work for me. To my amazement, the lady came outside of the bank and personally walked through with me the process at the ATM. She was friendly and nice about it and I left having transferred my money, but not having transferred my dignity.

Number 8: Was offered and then refused a ride home from the office
This was not as bad as it sounds. My co-worker Steve just moved from his home country of Korea to Singapore about two months ago. We are on the same team over here and had dinner together after work this week. He is a great guy and has helped me a lot at the office. During dinner we realized that we both live in the same relative area of Singapore (East Coast). I told him what street I lived on and a puzzled look came over his face. As we were leaving the restaurant, Steve, being the consummate friendly guy that he is, asked if he could give me a lift back to my apartment. Then, almost as soon as those words had left his lips, he told me that actually he only knew how to drive from the office directly back to his own apartment. It was kind of funny. The poor guy had only had his car for about a week and the only roads he knew were the ones that got him to and from his apartment to work, and then back. It was no problem at all. I just took a cab, but I told Steve that he better open up the next folded page in his map so he can expand his boundaries, at least past where I live.

Number 7: Finally rented my house back in Oregon
Part of the stress of this move to Singapore was the 7 weeks of hard work that was put into fixing up my house back in Oregon in preparation for renting it out (new paint in all three bedrooms, pressure washing the house, exterior paint, cleaning the gutters, new carpet in the master bedroom, new curtains, new window glass, furnace cleaning and maintenance, trimming the overgrown hedge and trees, weeding the entire property, and not to mention packing up all my stuff for Singapore and storing the rest that would not be making the trip). The fact was that after putting in a full day at work, the only time I had to dedicate to the house was in the evenings and weekends. This constituted in me working 7 days a week for 7 straight weeks. You can all see why I am a little tired and punchy, and how a few days vacation would have been very much appreciated before launching into my first day in Singapore, but I digress. I will soon have new renters, who are a nice couple from Southern California who needed a rental home in the Portland area for just over a year while the construction of their new home on the Oregon Coast is completed. They saw my ad on the Internet and responded right away. He works for IBM, so my quest to find a professional couple to rent the house has hopefully ended with a success.

Number 6: Didn’t have to fly to China
Yes, I know going to China is a great opportunity, and especially since I have never been there. The fact of the matter is that certain people in my organization wanted me to go after only being on the ground in Singapore for three days. I didn’t even shake the cobwebs of jet lag out of my head in the first three days. What made matters worse is that not one person on the team (US-based) that wanted me to go to China so bad had any idea of where it was that I was supposed to go! It is actually quite typical. When the States hear that there is a new resource going to Asia, then you suddenly become their best friend to carry out “value-added” relationship engagements. This was a customer event in which my company was participating. Unfortunately, the program manager back in the States overlooked jotting down the actual name of the city in China where the event was being held. After several emails to numerous parties regarding the simple logistics, someone finally responded and told me the name. I can’t even begin to pronounce it, and because I needed a visa to get into China it was already too late to book travel. I knew this town was in the boonies when even the Chinese guys in the office didn’t know where it was. Maybe it was better that I didn’t go after all. There will be plenty of other opportunities to visit China.

Number 5: Turned a condiment into the main course
Choosey Moms (and pathetic Expats) Choose JIF. Yes, after an extremely long day, an upper-body workout at the gym, and an even longer cab ride to get back home, I reached my apartment totally beat and exhausted. Unfortunately, I also arrived with hunger pangs, but it was late, dark, and I didn’t know the phone number for anyone that delivered. The only edible item that was in my shipment of goods was a jar of peanut butter. Desperate times call for desperate measures, so I took out a knife and ate about 5 helpings of the stuff. I figured it was high in protein (I ignored that it is also high in fat) and that it would help to sustain me. I am still alive writing this post, so it did its job. Don’t worry folks...I went to the store today and actually bought groceries.

Number 4: Properly obeyed all ridiculous street signs
Singapore is very neat, clean, and orderly. They also have signs for everything to help remind people the right way to act/or not act (be courteous, don’t litter), drive (slow down, don’t pass) and fly a kite. Yes, you read that right. I actually saw a sign today that instructed people how, in this case, not to fly a kite. I laughed out loud when I saw it. I wondered how many lashes you get with a cane for this offense.

Number 3: Receiving email from friends and getting feedback on the Blog
Many friends are reading the Blog and are sending me emails to catch up, or are telling me that they like the new look of the site. It is great to have email from friends, especially being so far away. You can email me by clicking on the “Email Your Comments” section located under the Links header on the top right hand side of this page, or you can click on my profile and find my email contact info that way. I also want to encourage people to use the “comments” area that is located at the bottom of each post. If you like a certain post, have feedback, or just want to put some words down, go ahead and click on the comments link. A few of you have done this already and I think it makes it a little more interactive than just reading my own conjugations of nouns and verbs all the time.

Number 2: Received my first caning in Singapore
On Saturday, my company had a quarterly family event at Sentosa Island. It was held right on a beach lagoon, with white sand beaches, and shading palm trees. There were activities for the kids like face painting, bungee swings, and even a dunk tank. There were things for the big kids too like Survivor type challenge games, and my favorite, the massage chair. Yes there were three people there that would sit you down in a specially designed chair where you place your head down on a specific rest and then they would proceed by giving you a 5-minute shoulder and back massage. It was all free too! Towards the end of my massage session, I was feeling the stress melt away. Then suddenly I felt a slight smacking of a stick around my hip area. The stick was a collection of reeds, but I was pretty sure it was a cane, being in Singapore and all. Apparently they use this stick to stimulate the blood flow at the end of the massage session. When it was over, I got up out of the chair and thanked the lady for giving me my first ever caning. I think I had it a lot easier that Michael Fey.

And…The Number One thing that happened to David on his first week in Singapore…
I officially became a Wireless Squatter
When I fired up my laptop my first night at my apartment, I noticed that my radio was picking up a wireless signal. In the States this happens frequently, but usually these networks are protected by personal firewalls. Just for fun I tried to connect to the Internet by using this network my laptop had discovered and to my chagrin I was online cruising at broadband speeds totally undeterred. Apparently one of my neighbors has a wireless network established and the signals are going right through the walls and into my unit delivering with them sweet broadband access, and all for FREE. I must say that I was totally geeking out over this discovery. Free broadband access is pure gold. I don’t even feel guilty. I promise that I will only use the wireless signals that come into my apartment. I figure possession (of the signals) is nine-tenths ownership!

Wednesday, June 09, 2004

Shipping Snafu

I’m currently in the midst of my second full night in my apartment. I am surrounded by items shipped from home, yet none of it has been properly put away or stored. Little piles of personal belongings have been stacked into different locations around my unit by the shipping delivery men. My new home is less of a home at this point and more of a holding pen of crud.

Now only I am allowed to refer to my personal belongings as crud. I expect others, namely those employed in the shipping business, to have a higher degree of respect for my things. Well after experiencing this move, I now know that my movers thought crud was on a higher plane of priority because my items were treated like crap.

“Sir, I’ve called to inform you that there has been some damage to some of the items in your shipment.”

That is probably not the best opening salutation that a newly transplanted Expat wants to hear upon arrival, yet that was exactly what happened to me. My mind raced through the virtual inventory list I had stored deep in my cortex of the 101 things I had packed to join me in Singapore. I was positive that my glass table top had bit the dust, as it was the most vulnerable. My assumption proved to be false as the voice at the other end of the phone began to list the items.

My wood-framed futon had one complete leg that was broken off and was damaged beyond repair. In addition, the steel metal frame that supports my bed was bent in half and was rendered useless. Good Lord! Was my cargo shipment in the same container as the Tasmanian Devil?
How in the world do things made from steel get bent in half? Were their rabid termites on board this container that sawed through a 4-inch thick piece of solid wood which brought a fatal end to my futon? These are the mysteries of the shipping world that I doubt even investigative reporter John Stossel from ABC’s 20/20 could get to the bottom of.

I’ve been instructed to buy a new futon here in Singapore and submit the receipt for insurance reimbursement. Apparently the shipping company will be purchasing a replacement bed frame in the States and shipping it over to me. I hope they know of a good shipping company who can ensure that their items don’t get damaged in transit…Oh wait, they ARE the shipping company. Silly Me!

Sunday, June 06, 2004

Passing of an American Icon

A Great Man has passed today. The world is a much better place for having been touched by his eternal optimism and his unwavering belief in freedom.

As we commemorate the 60th anniversary of the D-Day Invasion, let's be reminded of the true calling these brave men were answering that day in a speech given 20 years ago by President Reagan. His words rang true that day and they surely take on additional significance today.

The men of Normandy had faith that what they were doing was right, faith that they fought for all humanity, faith that a just God would grant them mercy on this beachhead or on the next. It was the deep knowledge--and pray God we have not lost it--that there is a profound, moral difference between the use of force for liberation and the use of force for conquest. You were here to liberate, not to conquer, and so you and those others did not doubt your cause. And you were right not to doubt.

You all knew that some things are worth dying for. One's country is worth dying for, and democracy is worth dying for, because it's the most deeply honorable form of government ever devised by man. All of you loved liberty. All of you were willing to fight tyranny, and you knew the people of your countries were behind you.

Saturday, June 05, 2004

The "Lion City" of Singapore at Night Along Boat Quay

Thursday, June 03, 2004

My New Asian Home

7 weeks of preparation: fixing up my home (5MB-2 minute download with broadband connection) back in the States to rent, packing, stressing, saying my farewells, and all together worrying has lead me now to my early morning arrival to Singapore. This city-nation will be my new home for the next 2 years as I embark on what surely will be new opportunities and the chance to develop new skills by living and working in Asia.

I met my best friend Jared at LAX after arriving from the short 2 hour hop from Portland. Yes, 2 hours has now become a short hop after experiencing trans-pacific travel. My direct flight from LAX to Singapore only ended up taking 16 hours and 30 minutes to complete. Jared and I met at the City Grill at the International Terminal. He was waiting for me at the bar already deep into his first bottle of beer. We had met like this the last time I rolled through L.A., so it seemed fitting that my best friend would send me off in style in a similar fashion.

Jared's references of time were definitely impacted by his environment as well. He greeted me when I approached the bar and told me that he had arrived earlier than expected because the 405 freeway was flowing nicely that day. It only took him 50 minutes to get there! Man, there was definitely a good reason I left L.A. after grad school and I still can't believe Jared is there living the L.A. lifestyle and thriving in it. Working his sales job by day and jamming with local musicians as a drummer-for-hire by night, he amazes me with his ability to balance his passions.

Jared and I talked about baseball, jobs, girls, and opportunities for the future. It was good to see him take such a powerful stance on all of the above. He is planning on coming out to visit me in Singapore, just as he did when I was based in Munich last year. True I won't have the B-mer anymore and we won't be driving on the autobahn with our hair on fire, but I am sure the Singaporean cuisine and local attractions, not to mention the climate, will suffice to provide enough heat for everyone.

The flight to Singapore went incredibly well. Singapore Airlines has "endurance flying" down to an art form. Economy class that can rival any other airline's business class, fantastic service, and in-seat entertainment that makes you wonder why on earth you packed 3 books, because I was so entertained, I never even cracked a page. By the end of the flight, I had watched 3 on-demand movies, ate prawns and salmon, slept a countless number of hours, and had been sufficiently hosed down with enough glasses of orange juice to keep me hydrated.

Singapore Airlines is so efficient, we actually arrived into Singapore about 45 minutes early. I was so early into the Hilton Hotel (5:45) that they didn't even have a room for me. I did manage to find the Wi-Fi in the lobby so I could synch my email, and of course write my inaugural Singaporean blog entry.

So here I am folks. Half a world away from home, with nothing in front of me but new challenges, opportunities, and faces. I hope to keep all of you updated on my travels and experiences here in Asia over the next few years. Stop by again and see what's cooking!