Sunday, March 20, 2005

Bohemian Rhapsody in Singapore

Singapore Sunday: Eat, Joke, Laugh, Repeat

Not a bad weekend, if I had to assess the last few days. After a tough and frustrating week, I needed a good weekend to reinvigorate myself. The one small highlight of my mid-week was that on Wednesday I had my first Salsa dance class. I recently enrolled in a 8-week series of salsa dance lessons with two of my co-workers. We figured it would be fun, different, and a great way to meet new people.

The class was a blast and the hour flew by. We learned the fundamental steps of Salsa which began by the instructor playing some Salsa music and having us count out loud to the rhythm of the music. There are eight counts in Salsa and we all clapped and counted along to the music. Once we all learned the pattern of the Salsa rhythm, it was then time to engage our bodies and feet. Knowing how to count to the music was important because in Salsa you only move your feet on counts 1, 2, 3, and 5, 6, 7. On counts 4 and 8 your feet do not move.

We all were asked to find a spot where we could see ourselves along the room's large mirror and the music was then queued up for us to start moving our feet to the beat. Later we were asked to go find a partner, so it presented the first opportunity to meet some of our classmates. In this class there are 12 girls and 9 guys, so being a guy puts you in high demand. As we introduced ourselves we were instructed to break into the basic step pattern. It was hilarious as you could almost see people counting out the steps in their head and moving like robots. Our instructor stopped all of us and told us that Salsa is a partner dance, look into the eyes of your partner, not at your shoe laces! Everyone laughed a knowing chuckle and the mood lightened. Next week, we learn how to twill the girls, so it should be fun.

Friday night, I joined my friend Vanessa and two of her friends who were visiting from Taiwan. We met up for a seafood dinner and dined on Chillie Crab, which is a Singaporean hallmark. The restaurant was in the Geylang district of Singapore. Besides having some of the best tasting food on the island, Geylang is also known for being Singapore's red light district. I had forgotten this last piece of information until I arrived at the restaurant and was propositioned twice on the walk from the taxi to the entrance of the restaurant.

After filling our bellies on chillie crab, we headed down to Clark Quay for a drink at one of the newest and popular watering holes known as The Forbidden City. This fantastic looking bar is stylized with Chinese motifs but with a hip urban twist. A big fat cocktail menu is available and it makes a wonderful place to hang out and just soak up the atmosphere as you lounge with your friends on one of the traditional Chinese beds feeling quite like royalty.

On Saturday, I met up with my now former co-worker, Brenda, who is from Hong Kong. She was in Singapore for a group meeting with her new company. It is such a small world sometimes, because my friend Vanessa, mentioned above, also works for this company, yet the two of them had not met each other. Brenda has been such a great help to me since I have arrived in Asia. Beyond being a valued teammate when we were in the same group, she also was nice enough to show me around her hometown of Hong Kong when I was there several months ago on business. Now that she was in Singapore, it was my turn to play host.

We met up at Lau Pa Sat Hawker Center. Built in 1894, it is the largest Victorian cast iron structure left in South East Asia. Once a wet market, it is now a food center offering a wide variety of food such as chicken rice, kebabs, roast pork noodles, local desserts and an array of other delectables. Most of the stalls are open 24 hours a day and at night time, the street that runs along its perimeter is closed off to traffic providing a street fair environment where you can enjoy wonderful bar-b-q satays of chicken, beef, or lamb.

Later that evening, I joined my co-worker Josie for an evening of culture and art appreciation. We started off the night dining on some of the best tasting Italian food I had experienced in Singapore. Located in the Holland Village area of town is Michelangelo's which is known for its casual atmosphere and exhaustive wine list. Since Josie hails originally from Australia, I let her pick out a local Aussie sheraz that went quite nicely with our pasta dishes. From there, it was a short walk over to a brand new art gallery that opened up that is helping solidify Holland Village as the Bohemian cog of Singapore's art scene. The funny thing is however, that as with many things in Singapore, the government ordained Holland Village to take on this role. The minister of culture within the government mandated that a Bohemian center in Singapore would lend towards cultural expression and would help Singapore develop its own uniqueness. Outsiders often are amused that the government must mandate a formalized place to become a center for artistic expression, because usually these places will emerge on their own, but in fast-paced Singapore there is no time to wait. We need Singaporean Bohemia and we need it now!

The gallery was filled with paintings and sculpture and even some live performance art that was more amusing yet somehow frightening, then it was artistic. I guess I'm not sure if it is art when a bald man wearing a loin cloth paints himself gold, scrawls on a chalkboard "Art is Work, Work is Service, Service is Just", then balances the chalkboard on his chin while the sounds of Led Zeppelin's The Immigrant Song is blaring in the background. Then again, maybe I am just a closed minded, out-of-touch, anti-bohemian. Yeah, maybe not.

What was most impressive at the gallery opening was a live Flamenco dance performance from a Spanish master of the art. This guy was very intense about his dance as well as very short. He was about 5'4" and that was even while wearing his giant-heeled Flamenco boots, yet his diminutive stature did not take away from his passion. His rhythmic stomping and grace took the gathered crowd by storm. Even though his movements and facial expressions made me think that he was going to snap at any second and punch the living daylights out of me or another onlooker, he was good at what he did and it was interesting to observe. I spent most of my time however studying the Spanish Flamenco guitar player. He too was from Spain and was obviously classically trained. As a guitar player myself, I found his picking technique amazing and fluid and I was immediately in awe.

Today, I joined Vanessa, Brenda, and Kevin for a late lunch of chicken rice, which is the signature dish of Singapore. Lunch provided an opportunity for Brenda and Vanessa to finally meet each other since they now work for the same company. It was almost symbolic as Kevin and I passed the torch (represented by Brenda) to Vanessa. But the symbolism does not hold true because we will definitely be seeing Brenda again and will surely remain great friends, even if we no longer have the pleasure of working with her. We will leave that part up to Vanessa.

Food is a common denominator in Asia. It brings people together and is a strong part of the culture. In the States, eating is a simple act of satisfying hunger, but in Asia it is much more. Good food is a necessity and goes far beyond mere nourishment. Picking a great place to eat says a lot about you as a person, so it actually transcends the taste buds and moves into a character attribute. I feel no greater pressure here in Asia than when I am asked where should we eat. I'm not sure what a Coney Dog and cheese fries says about me other than hardened arteries, but you know... that is just the way I like it.

Sunday, March 13, 2005

Re-United and It Feels So Good

Getting the Band Back Together in Los Angeles, California

Last month, I had the opportunity to return back to the States to take part in my company’s annual sales and marketing conference, which was being held in Los Angeles. Although I had just returned back to Singapore from a healthy Christmas holiday vacation back in my home country, the thought of jumping back on a plane for 14 ½ hours didn’t seem so bad. The reason being because I knew that at the conference I would be reunited with many friends and co-workers from both the States and Europe who I had not seen in quite some time.

My Singaporean co-worker and friend, Kevin, and I departed for Los Angeles from Singapore a few days before the conference was to convene. Kevin had never done much sightseeing around L.A. and since I had lived there for two years while I was attending graduate school, I made the perfect tour guide. Kevin had two requests: 1) indulge in American cuisine and 2) take part in things we wouldn’t normally do if we were in Singapore.

My best friend, Jared, who has lived in L.A. now for close to six years picked us both up at the airport. It was so great to see Jared, even though we had just seen each other a few weeks prior when we were both back home in Oregon visiting our families. Jared and I have been best friends since we were three years old, so we have the unique ability to pick right back up where we were as friends even after long periods of time between visits.

Driving down the congested 405 freeway in L.A. took on a reminiscent feel as Jared pumped up the volume of some classic blues music that we both enjoyed. Later on in the drive we switched the dial over to talk radio, where we listened to a political talk show. Finally I could discuss politics after being somewhat muted in Singapore where discussions rarely turned towards the subject. Jared and I ranted back and forth and probably scared poor Kevin to death, who was sitting in the back seat.

Jared had picked us up in his brand new Ford Crown Victoria. For those of you unfamiliar with the size and girth of this American piece of hardware, it is a throw-back to the “bigger is better” mantra that echoed through Detroit during the 1970s. The car was enormous and could sit six people comfortably… and that was just in the back seat! Its suspension was cushy and the car seemed to float down the road effortlessly at 85 miles per hour (145 KPH). Jared drove the vehicle hard and fast as he hammered the accelerator with his heavy foot.

We made it to our first stop of the evening which was Claim Jumper, an American institution for culinary gluttony on steroids. I prepared Kevin on the long flight over from Singapore regarding the monstrous portions that were famous at this establishment. We agreed to skip the final meal that was served on Singapore Airlines before we landed in L.A. just so we would be good and hungry and well-equipped to tackle a Claim Jumper-sized meal. When the food came to our table, each person’s plate was the size of a typical platter. Kevin couldn’t believe his eyes as the feasting began. Most patrons of Claim Jumper don’t walk out of the restaurant after a meal, but more or less waddle out the door as their legs try and keep up with the forward momentum of their enlarged and overly stuffed tummies. Kevin had ordered, at the prodding of Jared and me, a piece of dessert to take home with us to eat later in the evening after our dinner had settled. It was a piece of 6-layer chocolate cake called appropriately enough, “The Mother Load”. Later that night, it took 4 people: Jared, his roommate Rusty, Kevin, and me to polish off the last of the cake. I truly forgot how to eat like this and prayed that my stomach would forgive me in the morning.

The next day, we joined Jared on his lunch break and dined at another American institution: Fat Burger. The name says it all. Many folks that I have encountered overseas often believe that Americans love McDonalds. I usually try and explain that back in the States, if an American wants a good tasting hamburger, they rarely go to the famous Golden Arches. McDonalds serves more of a convenience niche than that of true flavor and enjoyment. For real burgers, Americans head to “mom & pop” locations or to regional establishments like Fat Burger. Kevin thoroughly enjoyed the fresh ingredients, and claimed that it gave the burger the best taste he had ever experienced. What soon became addictive however was the hand-scooped hard ice cream that went into Fat Burger’s milkshakes. I knew Kevin had caught the bug when he asked me two subsequent times during our stay in L.A. to head to the closest Fat Burger. Another satisfied customer!

That evening Jared had a special surprise in store for Kevin and me. He took us to an indoor shooting range to fire handguns. This entertainment option was right up Kevin’s alley, as he had served in the Singaporean Army and is still to this day an active army reservist. Kevin was a marksman when it came to fire arms during his military service, yet he never gets to practice his skills outside of field training in the reserves, since guns are illegal to possess and use in Singapore.

Jared let us use his own collection of handguns, which consisted of a couple of .45 caliber semi-automatic pistols. Even though I had fired rifles and shotguns throughout my life, it was the first time I had ever fired a handgun. At the firing range you shoot at paper targets with live ammunition, yet safety is always practiced with mandatory ear protection and eye glasses required. It was a unique experience and one that Kevin and I would never get to experience in Singapore or many other countries for that matter.

From the firing range we then headed for another taste of Americana: Bar-B-Q. Ribs USA was the location and Bar-B-Q heaven was our destination. It was a flavor I had personally been craving for a very long time and one that I have been unable to adequately find or replicate in Asia. The beef brisket was amazing and the sauce was tangy with just the right amount of spicy kick. Kevin and Jared enjoyed pork ribs which came with all the traditional side dishes of cornbread, coleslaw, macaroni and cheese, and bar-b-qued baked beans.

The next morning, to complete our American “triple-threat” attack of the taste buds, we headed to Bobby’s Café for a traditional American Breakfast. Kevin couldn’t wait to dig into his hotcakes, hash browns, bacon, omelet, and toast. Jared joined into the act and I jumped in as well to add to the feeding frenzy.

That afternoon, Jared gave me the keys to his Crown Vic and Kevin and I headed out towards our conference, but first we made a pit stop in Santa Monica to soak up some Southern California atmosphere. We looked at some of the nearby shops and just hung around, and then headed out to Santa Monica Pier where we watched the waves roll onto the sandy beach while eating some freshly popped kettle corn. We were even lucky to catch a fantastic sunset. Our two days before the conference had come to an end, but we had a great time indulging in classic American dishes and even taking part in a few surprise activities. My biggest sense of pride was that my two friends, who each come from different continents and backgrounds, were able to gel so well and find common interests.

The conference has three main goals each year: 1) Rally the troops and get them excited, 2) discuss new strategy and directions for the upcoming year, and 3) provide a forum for employees to network (code word for party!) The remainder of this entry will focus exclusively on item #3.

Each evening of the conference, after having attended training classes all day along with executive keynote speeches, a different group within the company would host a party. Often times these get-togethers would take place in a hotel suite, but on some occasions all the stops were pulled out. The best party by far was held at the ESPNZone. This multi-functional establishment was rented out for the entire evening by the company and provided an array of activities throughout the evening. There was a full-service restaurant and bar on the main level, while upstairs was a massive arcade that contained video games, a bowling alley, air hockey tables, basketball shooting games, and live-motion baseball simulations. Later in the evening a live band played and many of us joined in to dance the night away.

The venue was great, but it was getting acquainted with old yet familiar friends and co-workers that made it even more special. Keith, who many of you read about during my time in Munich, attended the conference from Europe and the two of us had a blast catching up on lost time. I trust Keith’s advice and seek his opinion on many aspects on life and career. He and I are a lot alike, so I value his judgment immensely. Kristin (left) is my friend and counterpart in Europe. We are both on the same team and while I packed up and moved to Asia, she did the same; however she headed to Munich, Germany. Sharing time with Kristin and bouncing ideas off of each other was one of the most well-spent endeavors at the conference. Kevin and Jared hammed it up for the camera when I told them that they looked like a couple of gangsters. Black isn’t just for the fellas as Debbie proves when she joined the ranks of the Mafiosos. I even got to cross paths with the Big Boss while at the conference, as I joined the CEO for this photo op.

Meeting up with old friends was a common occurrence, yet all week I had struggled to find my Russian friend and former teammate while I was in Europe, Alexei. With thousands of people in attendance it is not too surprising when you don’t always see everyone that you plan. Fortunately, on the last day of the conference before everyone headed home, Alexei and I were able to join up and have lunch. Alexei is a noble confidant who showed me the real meaning of selflessness while we were in Europe. In a world full of ego maniacs, Alexei never positioned himself ahead of the team. Our personalities meshed perfectly and our joint results spoke for themselves. I miss his insight in Asia and hope that somehow some way we are able to join up again sometime.

Catching up with friends was not isolated to work colleagues. I was fortunate to have been able to briefly leave the conference for a few hours to have a nice steak dinner with my graduate school running mate, Matt. Matt deserves a great deal of thanks from all of us who read this blog. It was his idea almost two years ago for me to keep a running account of my travels and experiences before I headed off to Europe. Matt set me up with space on his server and acted as tech support for me in the early days until I got the hang of blogging using the software that he had discovered. Matt continues to be a great friend even though we don’t get to see each other that frequently. We are still able to jab at each other while playing fantasy basketball online with some other clowns that shall remain nameless, and he has personally and virtually met many of my friends over the years. Matt and I shared common interests and passions while in graduate school and together our ideas brought positive change to our program that still live on to this day. I am proud of the fact that Matt continues to help with the direction of our school, serving on its alumni board.

The conference eventually came to an end and for many a blood-shot eye the timing was perfect. A lot of positive direction and enthusiasm, very little sleep, and meeting friends and co-workers from around the world make this event special each year. As often is the case in my blog postings, it’s the people that make the experience. I was flying around on cloud nine for over two weeks after returning to Singapore. The halo effect of meeting my friends from around the world gave me new energy and momentum as I shoved off into a new year. For a moment, that week in Los Angeles brought together all the good people who have helped to shape my life over the last several years if not even longer. If you are actually a reflection of your friends, than I truly am blessed.