Sunday, October 24, 2004

The Magic of Soup

When you are feeling sick, helpless, and miserable you are likely to recall your own mother’s wise words of advice for times such as these.

“Get your rest, drink plenty of fluids, and try to eat some hot soup.”

Yes, that universal panacea, soup has some amazing powers all right. This past week when I was battling my own bug, I included soup into my arsenal to combat my own uncomfortable and aggravating symptoms. I had no idea however, how a simple bowl of soup could help cross the chasm of communication.

Feeling horrible yet already committed to an office-opening party by one of our partners on Friday night, I could feel it getting stronger. In between the meaningless chit-chat forced upon me by this work-like setting, I could feel the congestion starting to build in my nose. All through dinner, while listening to some British blow-hard compare his Palm Pilot feature-by-feature with the Pocket PC of his colleague, I came to accept what was soon becoming my reality: I was coming down with something. Feeling a little punchy because of the early onset of my symptoms, and also because I had truly reached my breaking point with Inspector Gadget sitting next to me, I barely thought twice when the fine English gent asked me what kind of gizmo I had. Reflexively I said to the group of people gathered at our table, “Holy Cow, are you still talking about your Palm Pilot? I thought that was the dinner topic from two courses ago.”

The local Singaporeans at my table erupted in laughter and the Englishman was left fumbling with his stylus. I excused myself from the fascinating conversation, said my thank you to the hosts, and went downstairs to hail a cab and head home to bed. That night’s sleep would be the last real uninterrupted sleep I would get for the next three days.

I awoke the next morning with a horrible sore throat which was caused from my nasal congestion forcing me to sleep with my mouth open. Because of the climate in Singapore, I have never been able to sleep a whole night without air conditioning, but AC is no friend of a sore throat. I spent the entire weekend in my apartment battling my bug with the age old triple-threat combination of rest, lots of fluids, and eating hot soup.

I got kind of tired eating the same soup I had in my kitchen all weekend, so I decided to head down to the local Hawker Center which is located within East Coast Park right across the street from my apartment. I decided to bring my Mandarin Chinese language book with me to help pass the time after eating and to study for my lesson which was due the following day at class.

Some of the local food vendors are beginning to know me now. I pay them patronage quite regularly and some are getting to know my order before I even open my mouth. There are the friendly brothers who own the drink stand who serve me up my Lemon Juice with a smile. There is the Curry Puff man who sells me one of his hand-rolled pastries filled with curry and potatoes which he makes from scratch throughout the day. There is the hard working Malay father and son team manning their bar-b-que, which serves up the best lamb satay you’ve ever tasted along with peanut sauce for dipping. That day, I was looking to add a new item to my culinary line up: soup.

I approached a new vendor who I had never visited previously which specialized in soup. He and his wife prepared all kinds of noodle soup with vegetables and pork. His menu had a photo of dumpling soup, which sounded especially good to me in my sickly condition. When it came time for me to place my order I stepped forward, pointed at the photo, and asked for a bowl of the dumpling soup.

The man jumped into action and swirled around his multiple containers of steamy broth kept piping hot via a gas burner. His ladle was like a magician’s wand as it effortlessly gathered spices and ingredients from other containers and added them to the steaming compartment. He then grabbed five hand-folded pork dumplings and plunged them into the hot water for steaming. His magic ladle never motionless, brought the soup’s contents together as one as he quickly served up my bowl of dumpling soup.

As I was digging in my pocket to pay the man, his eyes glanced down at my Mandarin book. As he took my money he questioned me in Chinese. I panicked briefly, as this was the first real-life question in Mandarin I had ever received outside the classroom. I slowly deciphered the words in his sentence and realized he was asking me, “Are you studying Chinese?”

Although I knew what he was asking, I could not think fast enough to answer him back appropriately. Not wanting the moment to drag on and for him to think that I was clueless to what he had just said, I answered back in English, “Yes, I am studying Chinese.”

“You need to speak more Chinese. It is good”

The man said in a thick Chinese accent. I pondered his comment and without much thought said smiling,

“OK, the next time I come to your stall I will place my order in Chinese.”

The man took on a broad smile and thanked me, in Mandarin no less (Xie xie), for my order and I left to enjoy his soup and battle the demons that sickened me.

I went into the office that Monday late in the day, after feeling sick and working from home in the morning. Truth be told, I only went in that day so I could take my Mandarin lesson.

I told my teacher about the experience I had the day before and that even though I could not answer right away, I was able to figure out what was being asked of me. My teacher was pleased that we were starting to develop enough of a functioning vocabulary to be dangerous.

I then told the teacher of my commitment to the Soup Man. I asked if she would please tell me how to place my order in Mandarin. She went to the board and wrote out the phrase and then we worked on pronunciation. I jotted the phrase down feverishly in my notebook for future reference and practice.

On Tuesday I broke down and went to the doctor. Things had not progressed, even with the soup, and I needed relief. I hadn’t had a solid night’s sleep in three days and I was a hollow representation of my normally healthy self. I walked into the clinic, which was on the main floor of our office tower. I approached the receptionist and asked for an appointment to see a doctor, fully expecting her to tell me that the doctor was booked up, but that she might be able to squeeze me in around 4:00. To my utter amazement, the receptionist told me to take a seat and the doctor would be with me soon. I had just gone in there to make an appointment and I had no idea I could actually see the doctor on-the-spot. I explained to the receptionist that I only had about 20 minutes before I had to get back to a meeting. She told me that was enough time and that I shouldn’t worry about being late for my meeting.

The doctor personally came out to the waiting area and greeted me, and invited me back into her large office, where I sat in a chair near her desk. She asked about my symptoms, listened to my chest, pressed her fingers firmly around my cheek bones and nose and asked if it was sore. It was. She diagnosed me as having a sinus infection and wrote out prescriptions for a battery of drugs that included an anti-biotic, antihistamine to dry out my watery eyes and runny nose, and an anti-inflammatory to reduce the swelling in my congested sinuses. It was over in a heartbeat. I then walked back outside to the waiting room, where one of the assistants filled the doctor’s prescription for me from the office’s own medicine stock, and then walked me through the procedures and frequencies for each medication. I was done from start to finish in 15 minutes and made it back just in time for my meeting.

I worked from home, as recommended by the doctor, for the rest of the week. Feeling hungry and wanting a change in scenery I decided to head to the Hawker Center. Before I left the apartment I grabbed my notebook from class.

As I walked through East Coast Park on my way to the Hawker Center I practiced the phrase in Mandarin again and again. I mumbled the words over and over to myself as I strided through the park. I was a little nervous because I didn’t want to mess up the phrase in front of the Soup Man. I wanted it to be perfect so that he could understand me.

I finally arrived at his stall and got in line. I practiced the phrase a few more times before it was my turn and then shut my book. The Soup Man’s wife had come out to take the customers’ orders and she smiled when she got to me remembering me from before. She asked me in English what I would like. I looked around and felt the eyes of two local Singaporeans staring at me probably because they wished that I would hurry up so that they could order. I waited another second until the Soup Man himself was now looking at me, and with that I opened my mouth and uttered,

“Wo yao yi wan shui jeao tang”

The Soup Man’s wife looked at me with endearment and turned to her husband as if to say, “Did you hear that?” The locals in line behind me smiled acknowledging that a foreigner was actually attempting to speak Mandarin. The Soup Man himself stared at me with his ever-swirling ladle,

“Louder! You must speak Louder!”

He said in English. I approached his gas cooker and repeated my phrase in a more confident tone: Wo yao yi wan shui jeao tang

The Soup Man smiled and then threw me a curve ball. He asked in Mandarin whether I wanted my dumpling soup with or without noodles. After a split second I responded,

“Bu yao mein.”

This meant without noodles. The Soup Man’s ladle stopped stirring for the first time that I had ever seen and with this pause a large smile came over his face. I had passed the test. He leaned in closer and pointed to my waiting bowl of dumpling soup. He had placed an extra dumpling inside the bowl than what would have normally been served.

My soup tasted better than ever that day. I was feeling better. Some may argue that it might have been the medications that were now bolstering my resistance to the bug, but I like to think it had a little something to do with the magical power of a very special bowl of soup, which was served up with a hint of friendship, a dash of cultural appreciation, and of course one extra dumpling!

Monday, October 04, 2004

India: Unsettling yet Captivating

I never thought I would go to India, nor did I have any desire to visit. However when opportunities present themselves, I am of the belief that you should act on them and see what happens. What happened for me was that I saw a small glimpse of India and now I want to go back and see more.

Now just leaving Singapore enroot to India was my first obstacle. My in-house travel office had made all the arrangements and I was booked on the 8:20PM Sunday flight from Singapore to Mumbai. However when I got to the Singapore Airport, my plans were painfully put on hold. After I gave the Singapore Airlines agent my ticket and passport I saw here race back and forth across the pages of my passport. She asked where my visa for India was. Oh, I don’t need a visa I said confidently, as my travel office always alerts me for when I need a visa to a specific country. After checking with a supervisor the agent pointed out that everyone traveling to India needs a visa!!!

So after “unloading” on the travel office’s 24 hour emergency support person my mind was spinning. Why so furious? Well, I had spent a month and half assembling these meetings in Mumbai and coordinating with participants. Now it dreadfully appeared that I wouldn’t even be showing up for my own meeting. The always chipper emergency support person suggested that since I couldn’t get a visa in time that I should just re-schedule my meeting!!! Can you see my blood boiling after hearing that valuable suggestion?

The next morning I was sitting in the travel offices even before they opened. The support desk must have called my travel agent, because when she turned the corner into her cube and saw me sitting there, she immediately started apologizing all over herself. She muttered something about I think I sent you an email, which I put down immediately and said, no you did not, so what are we going to do to resolve this. She picked up the phone and called her visa service. They stated that the fastest the local Indian Embassy in Singapore could turn around a visa application was three days. Not good enough. They then suggested that I should personally go down to the Indian Embassy to plead my case in person in hopes of a one-time exception in getting my visa processed within the day.

The only problem was that I didn’t have an in-country invite letter that is required for visa applications. I sprinted to our Director’s admin support person and asked if she could create one for me. She just happened to have an old invite letter that was used by her boss. She quickly replaced his name with mine, changed the dates, and swapped in my passport number. Presto, I now had an invite letter. I grabbed it and sprinted for the first taxi I could find. Luckily I had some left over passport photos that I utilized for my visa application package, and I had already hurriedly filled out a visa application form with my travel agent. I sprinted into the embassy only to be confronted with the “please take a number” machine.

I was finally called to the front counter where I explained my case. The lady wanted to help but I could see she didn’t have the power to assist. She told me she would ask the head of embassy immigration, as it would be his ultimate decision. Fifteen minutes later I was invited back to see this person who held my fate in his hands. He was a confident and calm man in his early 50s. He asked me to have a seat and then slowly shuffled through my paperwork.

“Sir, you paperwork does not make any sense. I want you to read this invite letter and tell me if it makes sense to you.”

I panicked as he slid the letter across his wooden desk towards me but tried to pretend like nothing was wrong as I began to read the letter. The man did not wait for my analysis, but instead volunteered his own.

“The letter states that you will be coming to India on a monthly basis to inspect operational facilities, yet your visa application only requests a one-time entry. Does that make any sense to you?”

Damn he had me. In the rush to put together the invite letter, we had not double-checked the wording. It still referenced the nature of the Director’s business in India, not mine.

The man made me sweat a few moments and then said that he understood that some of his own countrymen are not that strong with English and that the hurried nature of my business had probably resulted in this mistake. Man, I wish I could have come up with such a great answer!

After lecturing me for fifteen minutes that this kind of thing should never happen again and that the next time I apply for a visa to India that I better do so well in advance, he agreed to grant this one time exception. He placed his personal signature on my paperwork and levied an enormous fee that would have to be paid ($220 Singapore Dollars) for express processing. I thanked him immensely for his help and approval and pledged that it would never happen again. I paid my fee and was on the phone to the notorious travel office having them re-book my flight for Mumbai for that evening.

So I worked the whole day on Monday in Singapore, picked up my passport and fresh visa that afternoon at 6:00PM, took a cab to my apartment to pick up my suitcase, and then off to the airport to leave on my flight at 8:00PM. 4 ½ hours later, I arrived in Mumbai at 11:30PM, grabbed the waiting car to the hotel, checked in and grabbed about five hours of sleep before my first meeting. I was one day late, but I had finally made it, and I had not missed the all important meetings which I had worked so hard to set up. PHEW!!!

Now I don’t have any amazing photos of the Taj Mahal or any other famous place within India to share. Fact was, I didn’t even take one photo. I saw some truly terrible and disturbing things while in Mumbai, formerly known as Bombay. Conversely, I also met some amazingly spirited and proud people, and sampled some of the most flavorful food on the planet. India, as I discovered, is a place of contradictions.

India enjoys enormous growth within its extremely educated and upwardly mobile middle class. Yet it is also the same country that possesses a painfully prevalent number of excruciatingly poor people. In Mumbai, at least from my observations, there is no such thing as going from the good side of town to the bad side. Zoning and planning do not exist. You can emerge from your four-star hotel and step outside the property and be surrounded by grown men defecating in the street or young children running through the neighborhood with not a stitch of clothing, because their parents are too poor to clothe them. A three-story modern shopping complex, complete with a bowling alley that attracts middle-class teenagers, is right across the same street from people living in shanties assembled with scraps of wood or corrugated aluminum siding. Lack of basic infrastructure in most areas, like running water, sewers, and roads without chuckholes, are contrasted by brand new freeways and overpasses that lead to new centers of commerce.

I had a group of young girls about age 8, one of which was holding a baby, come up to my taxi at an intersection. These poor girls were wearing nothing more than rags and were filthy. They begged for money and spoke in clear English with a charming smile despite their situation. As the taxi left behind the intersection and the small girls, the driver said that unfortunately there is an entire sub-economy of begging in India. Begging Mafiosos will give these little girls a small pittance of food, but the little girls must go out on the streets and beg and then bring these scum bags back all the money which they make on the day.

India is a country of a billion people, just second to China in population and their cities are massively congested. Mumbai is estimated to be the most densely populated city in the world by 2020 with over 28 million inhabitants. I’ve now seen Mumbai and I have no idea where they are going to put all these people. The traffic alone was mind boggling. I saw numerous cows walking right down the middle of crowded street as cars and pedestrians made way for this sacred animal, while in our homes we might make room for them on our dinner plate.

What impressed me about India were the people. Living in a place where they see both opportunity and shameless representations of social failure all in the same day, these people had an unshakeable pride in their nation. I benefited from the hospitable nature of Indians and was invited to join them for a couple of dinners during my time in Mumbai. Over dinner, as traditional Indian musicians played songs and strummed the sitar, I was told by my hosts of the amazing history of India, the unique cultural and ethnic groups that make up the numerous regions across their land, and the promise and rise to prevalence of their economy. Politics was another topic that was on the tip of every Indian’s tongue. There political focus however was on domestic issues. I was told that the controlling and incumbent party of the Indian parliament was recently voted out because of an unbalanced view of how to grow India economically while trying to resolve the situation for the rural poor. A majority of Indian voters were upset of the courtship that was done with foreign companies, especially those focused on software and technology. Tax breaks and investments were given to construct offices that today house thousands of India’s most valued national assets: Software Programmers & Call Center Operators. Indians voted out their internal conflict at the polls. They saw a rising level of education, of status and purchasing power, but they also saw a government who could not execute infrastructure programs or find workable solutions for the afflicted poor.

I would never give up my Indian passport one man said to me. I am so proud of the journey my country has taken and I am even more encouraged by where it is going next. This was a sentiment that was expressed numerous times. We are slowly changing the way Indians are viewed around the world another man said to me. And it is true. India has the highest number of PhDs of any country and explosive middle class that outpaces that of China and Russia. And today it seems that Indians now want to tackle what has been a blemish on their reputation for centuries within their caste-based social structure: extreme poverty. More and more Indians are speaking with their vote that India cannot leave certain groups behind in the race for prosperity. Not everyone can be rich, but some of the basics should be provided. Clothing, sanitation, housing are all in dire need across most of India.

India appears to be evolving socially in attempts to close the gaps with other countries. One gap that other countries need to close with Indians is getting to know their cuisine. So much flavor and diversity is abound. Spicy curries, meats, and vegetables for sure, but it is the multitude of ways that they can be prepared. I love meat, but I was joking with another western guy in attendance one night, that we could easily be vegetarians in India, because vegetables there actually taste good. Many of the men bragged about their wives’ cooking and by the signs of some of the waistbands in the group, I don’t think many of them had missed any meals.

I didn’t get to see any tourist attractions on my first visit to India. My time was stuck in meetings for the most part. But I did get to see some truly horrible things contrasted almost immediately with some exciting and encouraging things. India is the poorest place I have ever witnessed. It blew my concept of “developing country” right out the window. Yet I also met some of the most hospitable, friendly, intelligent, and prideful people I have ever encountered. It was these people and the glimmer of promise that has convinced me to return. Next time I will budget some free time to go see the sights, but for now I was glad to have seen what I did. Disturbing yes, but enthralling and captivating for sure.