Sunday, September 19, 2004

Branching Out

The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Work is what I do, it is not who I am. A simple truth that helps me keep my focus here in Asia. Work can become all-absorbing, especially when one’s social life presents little alternative. I’ve made a concerted effort since settling in Singapore to try and develop outlets, activities, skills, and friends here locally to help ensure the work/life equation stays properly balanced. To be honest, up until recently I have failed miserably at this concept. Recently however things have changed.

My thirst for outdoor activities and making friends outside the office got a big boost the last several weeks when I joined a Softball Team. I was put in touch with an American guy here locally who was on a softball team and needed players to fill some roster spots for some departed Expats who had been transferred elsewhere. I told the guy that I had actually brought my bat, batting glove, and mitt from the States in hopes of an opportunity like this. He told me to show up on Sunday at 3PM for practice.

I was catching a lot of wary looks on the subway that first day on my way to practice from fellow passengers. Might have had something to do with the heavy blunt wooden implement I was carrying, which probably looked more like a menacing weapon than a tool for executing line drives. It takes me about 1.5 hours to reach the field from my apartment, but I don’t mind. The field is located within the campus of the American School at the far north end of the island of Singapore. After I arrive at the nearest subway station, I then have to take a taxi in order to complete my journey.

My team is made up of almost all American Expats. The guys were friendly and welcomed me aboard their squad immediately. This is still practice, as the regular season does not begin until October. We share our two-hour practice time with another team made up of Americans and we take turns batting and fielding and even work in a few scrimmage innings at the end. My hitting stroke needs some fine tuning and repetition, but I discovered I could still “send it” from the outfield as I was able to gun down a couple of base runners advancing to 3rd and home on two occasions from my position in center field.

Even though I have made a conscious effort not to get too comfortable and hang out with Americans all the time, I found it rejuvenating to have one afternoon a week where everyone speaks a common language: softball. That language includes the rules of the game, the banter, the slang, the jokes, where the ball should go in each situation. This is all done with a collection of guys who have no difficulty understanding one another. Yes, its male bonding at its finest, but it is also national and cultural reaffirmation as well. I now look forward to each Sunday and I can’t tell you how important that is for me.

Athletic endeavors represent some of my interests that I hope to explore here in Asia, but I have others as well. I knew one of the top things that I wanted to do in Singapore was to begin taking Mandarin Chinese language lessons. Even though Singapore’s primary language is English, 73% of the population is ethnic Chinese and virtually all can speak Mandarin. It provides the perfect risk-free environment to learn because if you get stuck while trying to speak Mandarin, you can just smile, give a knowing laugh, and switch back into English and no one will miss a beat. With China coming online as an economic engine, having the ability to speak a local language is an opportunity I could not pass up.

Two weeks ago I enrolled with five other of my co-workers into a beginning conversational Mandarin class. It works out great because 1) my company pays for the language training, 2) my co-workers are just as clueless as I am, and 3) the instructor comes to our office to give the two hour lesson each Monday afternoon. Our teacher works for the Berlitz Language School and is a native-born Chinese speaker who has lived in Singapore the last six years. I am still amazed that she doesn’t bust out laughing every time she hears us attempt to speak, but I’m sure by now she has probably heard it all.

I am happy to say that now after two lessons if someone in Beijing asks me “What color is the chair”, by-gosh I’ll be able to answer. The hard part in taking language lessons is that you want to be able to speak immediately, but you have to be patient and learn the basics first. I try and listen to my audio CDs that we get to keep to work on my pronunciation outside of class. My local Singaporean friends are quite amused by our guttural utterings that we insist is Mandarin. What I am learning (painfully) is that to say the word is only half the battle, you also must get the tonal accent correct as well. Words may have a sharp accent, a drawn out tone, a rising tone, or a falling tone. If any of these tones is not used properly when pronouncing the word then you may not be understood, or more likely crack up the person to whom you are talking. Between the CDs and asking locals to help pronounce the words and phrases, I am starting to learn. (Xie, xie)

Branching out physically and culturally is always a must, yet work continues to provide opportunities to see new places as well. I visited Kuala Lumpur (known simply as KL regionally), Malaysia this past week for a customer solution forum. I admittedly did not see much in KL as I was constantly in meetings. What I could pick up was that Malaysia is a much more ethnically diverse country than Singapore or any other part of Asia for that matter. National pride and identity seems very high as flags are displayed everywhere and are incorporated into many of the logos of local businesses. KL is pretty clean as far as Asian cities go, although you are truly spoiled coming from Singapore. KL seems to exude a quicker business pace than Singapore and the two are natural rivals at trying to figure out how to stay relevant in the region now that China is coming up to speed and fast.

The famous Petronas Towers, once the tallest building in the world until just a year ago, are a shimmering testament to KL’s economic achievements as well as its future. The structure is 1,483 feet high, contains 88 stories, and took six years and $1.6 Billion to construct. Beyond tall buildings, Malays are most proud of their cuisine. Our local Malaysian business associate took us to a local seafood restaurant on the outskirts of town. Fresh crab, steamed flounder, and chili clams were brought to our table steaming hot. The flavors where rich and the spices were just right, so that you could actually taste the food, as opposed to the hell-fire that can be conjured by other dishes. The nightlife in KL is supposed to be much better than Singapore as well. We went to a few bars and a disco in the late evening on Wednesday and each place was packed. Many Singaporeans love to head up to KL as it is only a 3 or 3.5 hour drive across the bridge into Malaysia and then up to KL. If you are flying, it only takes about 40 minutes, or just enough time for the flight crew to toss you a cup of coffee and then strap in for final approach. KL will need another visit for me to learn more, but its close proximity to Singapore should easily allow me to do so.

As I write this blog entry I notice that I have about five more hours before my flight leaves for Mumbai, India tonight. I will be there for three days this week and hope to glean a few things that I can share with you when I return. Until then, don’t let work allow itself to restrain your ability to live and experience life. Truly a lesson I look forward to practicing.