Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Leaving So Soon?

Shanghai Special

On my layover in Shanghai, on top of the reminder of what it feels like to be under a communist regime, i.e. censored internet, I encountered this sign which I guess makes sense in Chinese but the English reminds me of the Twilight Zone's To Serve Man episode. Run children! Run back to your parents!

Sakura House

I arrived in Japan the most prepared I'd ever been when arriving in a new country. This preparation was mainly due to fear. My Japanese is pretty terrible and I didn't trust myself to understand directions in the unlikely event that I managed to be understood when asking them. So as researched on the internets, I bought my ticket for Shinjuku Station and walked the four blocks, which I had memorized on Google Maps earlier, to Sakura House. Sakura House is a company that specializes in renting out rooms to desperate, clueless foreigners like me for one month at a time. I went in and got my keys and marveled at the staffers who not only adjusted their accents from British to English when they saw my passport, but also were speaking French, Korean, and Arabic. I picked up my new keys and headed out for a 30 minute train ride to Kunitachi. I've reenacted my train journey in the video below. Please to enjoy!

Strangers on a Train

On the train it is absolutely quiet and no one makes eye contact with anyone, not even their friends and family. I felt oddly normal despite being the only visible minority. Many people wear surgical masks. When I asked if this was for their own protection against disease and pollution or to protect others from their own sickness, my friends in Japan decided that either explanation was totally possible. I was disappointed that no one stared at me, not evenly discreetly! Books are covered with cloth so you can't tell what people are reading. Telephones are never talked on and if you want to text then you need to sit in a special area of the train. There are even women only cars for those who are afraid of being harassed.

Speaking of being assaulted on trains, if you want to see a good movie about train culture and general Japanese shyness try to find 電車男 Train Man. It's about a nerdy dude who saves an attractive woman from being harassed by a drunkard on a train. They begin dating in typical rom-com fashion. Despite it's predictability, it's really interesting. Watching it, I realized that this movie has been made countless times from a woman's perspective. The woman with major self esteem issues consults her friends about her insecurities and gets tips on how to make herself more attractive (surprisingly whether you are a man or a woman the way to become attractive is to switch to contacts, get a fashionable haircut and wear clothes that show off your smokin' hot bod that you happen to have and haven't achieved with the help of a strict diet or a personal trainer). So the twist here is that it's the man who is insecure and his friends are all in a chatroom instead of at the woman's high power job as an editor of a magazine. In the second picture he has gone through his transformation. Not pictured is his new fashion choice to not wear pants with a waist above his collar bone.

Home is Where You Hang Your Surgical Mask

I walked through the quaint suburb of Kunitachi, passing gardens with brick walls and surnames printed in Kanji and Roman letters. It was excellent practice for my Kanji reading skills, but I got some nervous smiles from my new neighbors as I paused in front of their houses slowly and quietly reciting their family names. Eventually I made it up the hill to my apartment and I fell in love with my new home. It cost the same as my Taipei apartment but also featured a kitchen, complete with pots, a wok, kettle, microwave, toaster oven, fridge, and giant, scary butcher knives. The only downside was that I felt like I was too big for the airplane sized bathroom. My legs were too long to close the door while I, umm. . . what's a classy euphemism for dropping a deuce? Also for maximum Japanese efficiency the faucet on the sink had a valve that when activated diverted the water to the shower. Interesting. Why didn't we think of that in America? Many things in Japan feel like they've been redesigned by aliens, aliens who are way smarter than us.

A Call from Cowford

On my second day in Japan, I met up with Rui who played hulusi in the Chinese ensemble at Carleton when she was an exchange student during our junior year. She's originally from Yunnan China but moved to Japan in middle school. She just graduated from Waseda University in Tokyo and was planning on working in Shanghai doing translation work in the coming months. But in the meantime we went ukulele shopping. I had to use all of my self restraint to not purchase a xaphone or a xaphoon because I swore to myself that mandocello would be my last new instrument. See the video below if you somehow don't know what a xaphoon is or if you enjoy laughing at ridiculous European men in fishing hats. Finally you should just youtube xaphoon if you want to see very unique people expressing themselves.

Later Rui and I found a cafe with a never ending (nonalcoholic) beverage bar with lots of neon green drinks. We enjoyed our beverages as we caught up on each other's lives.

Rui was showing me other highlights of Tokyo when I got an URGENT! email from Oxford. They wanted to interview me on Skype at 11PM Japanese time. So I abandoned Rui and rushed back to my apartment. I sprinted home and arrived just in time for my interview, wheezing and sweating profusely. I tried to come off charming but the open mouth gasping made me seem absurdly creepy and maladjusted. I told them some basics about me and I hope I got my name right but who can say. They asked me about what my research plans would be in the UK and I mumbled off some convoluted description of plans to study Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese musicians in London. I tried desperately not to roll my eyes at my own stupidity as I mumbled through this totally unprepared thesis plan. The only saving grace was that one of the two interviewers was from Wisconsin and knew what a cheesehead was. Thank God, someone who speaks American.

Udon, You Didn't!

I still had a week before I was to begin working with the international school in Yokohama. There I was going to volunteer with the music program which teaches Japanese music in English. My plan was to share some information on Chinese music and learn as much as possible about Japanese traditions. So I took the chance to meet Rui frequently and make plans to visit Jen, my former Japanese tutor and linguistics classmate. She was living in Kyoto working for the Japanese government because her Japanese is so awesome!

The next day Rui, who had also applied to Oxford for next year, and I commiserated over our low chances for entry over delicious hot bowls of udon noodles in tasty curry broths. We laughed at our realization that the Chinese translation of Oxford, 牛津, could just as easily be translated as Cowford. Since we were speaking spitefully of the dreaming spires this feminization of the place seemed very appropriate. Hyped up on MSG and malice we went to karaoke and practiced our singing skills. The best song Rui taught me was about a woman dutifully cleaning toilets to become like a beautiful goddess.

Rui also revealed that after only 2 days with her ukulele she could already play and sing a bunch of pieces. We agreed to meet and play the next day when I would drag my giant mandocello to a park. This never happened because. . .

Shinjuku, Rattle, and Roll

As I'm sure you read about endlessly in the news, there was a huge earthquake in Japan last month! I was in my apartment and it was absolutely terrifying. The ground shook as it normally does during the mini earthquakes that I'd felt in Taiwan, but I had never experienced the rolling feeling of going up and down hills in a roller coaster. It was obvious that this was really intense, and I wanted to head for the door but I honestly wasn't coordinated enough to stand up. The quake went on for 3 minutes which is a really really long time when you are convinced you're going to die the whole time. But after it was over and the only damage was that a mirror fell off my wall and cracked, I figured it couldn't have really been that bad. I wondered if this was sort of a weekly occurance. I couldn't go out to Shinjuku to a Chinese instrument store as I had previously planned because the trains weren't running. People were stranded all day until buses finally began shuttling everyone home. But around Kunitachi it was business as usual except for the aftershocks which occurred about every two hours.

As I meandered around the shopping district of Kunitachi Station, Rui called me and I found out about the tsunami. Right after the earthquake she and her parents had run to their emergency centers which was a large middle school gym. They tried to stay there but they were kicked out because the officials thought their house was safer. There was no danger of tsunami in Tokyo just fear that your house would collapse on you. However, Japan is probably the most prepared country in the world for natural disasters. The buildings are built to withstand earthquakes, even this the most powerful earthquake to hit Japan since we began recording earthquake strength, and the people are drilled on what to do in case of emergency starting in elementary school. Rui urged me to buy supplies for several days at 7/11 and figure out where my emergency zone was. I complied, but thought she must be overreacting. In the picture you can see honey and jelly but just empty shelves where the fresh bread would be. Milk was also sold out. What were we supposed to put on our Doraemon cereal?!

By that night, news of how devastating the tsunami had been began to spread. Men came to my apartment and deemed the building still structurally sound. But soon after, we received news that there would be scheduled blackouts since all of the nuclear reactors that supplied Tokyo with electric power were shut down. The first week these blackouts didn't come because people saved enough power to avoid them. Wow, I thought. I doubt that kind of conscientious conservation would have happened in America.

The picture here states, The batteries are sold out. Sorry for the inconvenience. The irony was not lost on me as this was a convenience store.

Then even worse news hit. There were nuclear power plants that were out of control and leaking radiation. Obviously any radiation is bad, but debates on whether people should go outside or not raged across the interwebs. 7/11s were already sold out of bread and dairy and egg products because they weren't getting daily shipments, but now anything with seaweed joined the list of bottled water, batteries and ramen as unobtainables. Why? Because seaweed contains high levels of iodine which is needed to prevent the uptake of the radioactive iodine isotopes you're possibly breathing in through your surgical mask at this very moment! I think it was reasonable to be afraid of the radiation if you were living in Tokyo, but I think it's really ridiculous that iodine tablets sold out in Chicago because people were worried about the radiation flying all around the world. Sunblock in the summer would probably be a better way to avoid radiation. But I admit I remain uneducated about radiation in general.

The picture here, according to Jen, says, Due to the earthquake, supplies of some products are low. We are responding as rapidly as possible. We apologize for the inconvenience. -Seven Eleven. Thanks for the translation Kurafuto-san!

Exodus at Narita

The situation looked bad. I spent most of my time reading the news online, looking for some clue as to whether it was safe or not to go outside. Should I not turn on the heater? Will that bring in radioactive isotopes? Should I shower after coming in from outside? I had no idea.

My parents told me to get the hell out of there. The Japanese power company was not being totally forthcoming. But I think a lot of Western media were exaggerating the dangers as they approached within 50 miles, sensed a change in the wind like Mary Poppins, and then fled to another location. Then my school contacted me and said they were tentative about me joining them now and also that many spring festivals were being canceled. Finally, the State Department put Japan on its no travel list so I joined the ranks of the Watson Fellows who fled Egypt as a refugee and bought my ticket out of Japan.

I still had things I wanted to do in Taiwan, a valid multi-entry visa, and a place to stay for free so, to the relief of my parents who didn't want me growing extra eyeballs, I booked a ticket out of Japan. I didn't get to say hello to Jen in Kyoto or goodbye to Rui, because her family suddenly returned to China to avoid growing their own mutant body parts, so I left my wonderful apartment halfway through my rented month without collecting the deposit and headed to the airport wondering whether or not my exposure to radiation had been sufficient to give me super powers.

Alas, my hopes of obtaining super powers were dashed (and not the faster than a speeding bullet kind of dashed, but the much less fun throw your dreams into a toilet kind) when I was tested at the Taipei airport for radiation and came out clean. I was happy to be back in a place I understood, both contextually and linguistically, but also disappointed. Much like the castaways from LOST I had mixed feelings about leaving the Island. I was sadistically looking forward to the confusions and embarrassments because they inevitably lead to learning something new. Also I came to the terrifying realization that my study of Japanese, the resulting lowering of my GPA and waking up 5 days a week at 7AM my whole senior year was basically all for nought. Oh well, Japan. I shall return!

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Last Days in Singapore: Weather Hot, Music Not

Creativity: A Byproduct of Boredom

With a serious lack of musical adventures to be had in Singapore, I put my efforts into practicing, which I had just as seriously been neglecting ever since leaving Taiwan the first time. I finally mastered Night of the Torch Festival and the third movement of Reminiscences of Yunnan. I also was being exposed to a lot of American pop music from sitting in the lobby of the Fernloft, my hostel. The constant bombardment of Cee Lo, Lady Gaga, Adele (ok, yeah she's British, get off my case hipster!), and Bruno Mars made me curious as to whether I could adapt the synthesized tracks into the style of bluegrass traditionals. So I increased my abilities on mandocello as I folded Telephone, Forget You, Set Fire to the Rain, and Grenade into my ever expanding repertoire.

Besides adapting tunes I also began writing songs for the first time. Miss Hannah Trees, f horn player, singer, and poet blogger, (treespoetry.wordpress.com check it out!) began sending me her poems which I promptly began writing music for. She then took my butchered version and turned it into a recording of her lovely singing voice. This led to us planning to write, record, and release a folk album if I ever return to America. I was happy to finally be writing music, which had been one of my 4 secret ambitions of the Watson. (I can’t admit the other three because they are secret.) Finally, I was spending a lot of time writing pieces on Sibelius, music composition software. The picture below shows me fallen asleep in public after composing all night in a 24 hour cafe. A local is judgmentally pointing to me. Since I couldn’t get Miss Hannah Trees’ permission to post her recording of the song we wrote because, “Oh my Gawd, Andrew. It is not ready!” I’ll just post a Sibelius rendering and the poem that acts as the lyrics.


The muted wonder in your eyes tells me
that silence is a happy way to live
when all the world, in sunlight, is set free
and all the noises charge the stage to give
the concert of their lives. The quiet smile
upon your lips tells me to listen well
because the rests are lost in sound, and while
the notes are good, the rests have things to tell.
I know that you will never stop to talk
and tell me of the silences you’ve heard
but I have watched the way you move and walk
and see that you don’t miss the spoken word.
For syllables are simply sounds, at best,
but you, in silence, shine above the rest.

You're What the French Call Incompétent!

One thing that surprised me a lot in Singapore was the incompetence of people who worked in stores in the malls and chain restaurants. In local stores further away from commercial districts I never ran into this problem. But if I were, say, at a Starbucks and I asked a barista to turn on the electrical socket that wasn't working, I would be informed that I would have to wait an hour for the manager to fix it because they had no idea how to do it. I went to a gym and caused a huge back up in the line because I wasn't handing over my membership card. I explained that this was my first time and asked how please sir could I join. The guy behind the counter begrudgingly doffed his headphones and explained that I would need to wait for the manager to arrive in 3 hours' time. So I can't just pay to enter once and try it out? I can't buy a monthly membership from you? You can't tell me ballpark how much a monthly membership would cost? The answer to all three questions was a resounding No. He could take down my phone number though. That was all he could do. And all I could do was truthfully tell him that I didn't have a phone number.

My favorite story of disservice though comes from the beach. I was quenched after radiating myself with carcinogens and tried to buy a Coke from a stand connected to a hotel nearby. Today's special was 2 Cokes for the price of 1. Great deal, but I just wanted the one Coke and didn't want to carry the second one around on the beach and back to my hostel and then drink it hot a week later. To the waiter this was unacceptable. I paid for the Coke, took one, and was followed by the waiter toting a second Coke. He shouted at me for as the crashing waves partially drown out his passionate pleas. "If you don't take it I will have no choice but to throw it away!" I looked back thinking he must have a really cool sense of humor, but he had already thrown the Coke into a nearby trashcan. For me it had been a joke, but for him it was his career.

Hooligans Behind the Desk

The staff at the Fernloft were a crack team/ridiculous assortment of characters. Unfortunately I arrived just when controversy struck. Shenna, my favorite staffer who often brought her young son and husband to work with her to watch American Idol on Singaporean TV (it airs the next day in Singapore!?), quit for ethical reasons over the way reservations were sometimes being lost. She found a better job at a café with fewer moral dilemmas and was much happier, but this process played out over a week in a series of malicious texts between the manager and Shenna that made for the manager create some really entertaining facial expressions of rage.

So for most of the time I was there, the remainder of the staff had to work longer hours than they wanted. The morning shift guy, a Filipino of a mysterious age which I shall describe as old enough that it weirded me out that he used Facebook, was named Rolito. Everyday he saw me he would ask hopefully, ‘Checking out today?’ in a voice that started high and creakily rose higher. In the afternoons Grace came in. She spoke Mandarin and would mock my bizarre accent. I always felt like I was on her bad side, but she may have just been weird. She would take 15 minute bathroom breaks at least twice an hour. The awkward thing about that was that the bathroom door was both in plain view and slightly translucent. This wasn’t a problem if you were near the toilet but she stood next to the door with her arms out like she was being crucified. Then after about 10 or 15 minutes she would let out a disturbingly loud burst of flatulence that would cut through the pop music playing on the radio. She washed her hands after this happened. I assume this was because she was aware we could hear the sink running and would know if she had washed her hands after going to the bathroom. But why then did she think we couldn’t hear her farting? In the evenings there was Jason whom I quickly learned to order laundry vouchers and Sprite from. He was too lazy to ring it up so he just gave them to me for free. He also didn't care if I took photos like this one of me pretending to electrocute myself by sticking a fork in the toaster.

With Special Guests. . . Americans

Meanwhile, at the Fernloft I was no longer a guest star but a series regular! I took my duties quite seriously. For example, when no one was at the desk and a guest came to check in I would solemnly shout at the top of my lungs for Jeff or Jason to get their asses in there. If no one came then I would just go behind the desk and check them in myself, sell the guest some beer, or extend their stay on the dry-erase board. I started giving the backpackers helpful tips about places to eat and things to see. In short(s) I felt comfortable.

The guests typically were half a big group of Indian tourists and half European couples backpacking through Asia and Australia. These people weren’t very interesting; they all sort of had the same story. The interesting people were the ones who made their way to the Fernloft but weren’t part of these groups. There was a British pub singer who was traveling to Indonesia to meet her boyfriend. She had stopped in Singapore though because of a dream she’d had where she wrote a successful pop single in Singapore. She was waiting for a few days for inspiration. She explained that in pubs she usually played with a guitar player and sang original sungs. I whipped out my mandocello and we jammed but whether or not she found her big break, I never found out because she had already left in the morning when I woke up. At the Fernloft there were lots of Hellos but rarely were there Good byes. No one got up that early unless they had to catch a plane.

I met two American college students, Bernise and Thomas who were on vacation from studying abroad in Taipei. I met them by eavesdropping on their efforts to name all of the Pixar films in chronological order. I went in for the assist. They were both ABC and tried to use Chinese as a secret language to talk about whether they should invite me to go on a book hunt. I answered in Chinese that I’d love to go hunt books and then we immediately began sharing anecdotes about living in Taipei.

Above, you can see Bernise in the daily see of breakfasting Indians. They aren’t afraid to bump up against your head when you’re sitting and trying to have a really serious conversation about the environmental implications of the cinematic masterpiece Wall-E.

To the right you can also see the picture of Bernise and the left third of Thomas' face that I took when we found the secret bookshelf advertised on bookcrossing.com. This was in a café called ToastBox and it had dozens of books that you could take as long as you promised to ‘release’ the book back into the wild when you were done reading it. I left my copy of Sophie’s World there and Bernise picked up a novel after carefully examining all of the options on the shelf.

The Dutch

There was an oddly high percentage of Dutch people passing through. I swear I met a giant proportion of their population. There are only 16 million of them (which is 16 million too many people who think Santa's helpers are 6 to 8 black men: http://tinyurl.com/5rjfmn) and it feels like I met at least half of the nation's entire population. But the reason for the rush to travel in the region is the historic link between Indonesia and the Netherlands. Even today over 2% of the population of the Netherlands is ethnically Indonesian. Below you can see pictured the three most interesting Dutch people I have met. I had an all night conversation with them and heard ridiculously fascinating tales of their lives.

On the left is Bas who was traveling by himself and was attacked in Singapore by strangers who in English accused him HANDSOME MAN!!!! He developed a facial fungus on his face from a dirty towel in Thailand and the dollop of cream on his face that covered the fungus grew steadily larger during his stay at Fernloft. Hope that cleared up! But at least it protected him from accusations of attractiveness on his right side.

The two ladies are traveling together. The girl in the middle is a current school teacher and former topless model who has appeared in FHM. She's on the computer showing us proof of her infamous in Holland, girl-next-door photo shoot. That's also why Bas looks soooo happy in this picture. The girl on the right is named Asia, which only seems fitting that she traveled to this corner of the world. Also besides her name she has a less important connection in that she is part Indonesian and exploring her roots and a proclivity towards relationships with Javanese men.

Designated Hair Holder

Typically our weekend nights would include Jeff exclaiming, "Let's drink tonight!!!" Normally this was shortly followed by Jeff falling asleep on the couch. Occasionally heavily sin-taxed vodka would be bought and heavily consumed, especially if some naive guests volunteered to play a drinking game. Usually language and cultural barriers were sufficient to make no one understand the rules, well at least in the same way, but oddly the end result always seemed to be the same: black-out drunkenness. After playing the role of naive guest once, I decided it was much more fun to watch the others imbibe.

The best part about staying sober around a much of boozers was that in a heavily repressed society like Singapore, one drop of alcohol made the secrets pour out. Once a Korean woman in her 30s sat me down and told me her life story for over 4 hours. She fervently asked me to secretly keep secret her most secretest secret: She was d*v*rc*d! It was hard on her, she said as she kissed her cross pendant, because she was such a devout Christian who was very wise about her decision making. But as one more vodka shot hit her lips shortly after the crucifix, she spewed details of sexual dissatisfaction with her ex-husband, one night stands in Australia, and an extremely convoluted story about how a Vietnamese couple tricked her into giving them her life savings at a casino.

At 3AM the Fernloft locks up for 3 hours until Rolito comes at 6AM to set up the bread and tea for breakfast. 3AM is therefore when Jeff and Jason get off work. Here we are, the regulars and the staff, at the 24 hours food court eating food so spicy that it burns when it comes out. We know this wasn't a drinking night because they were able to walk the three blocks to the food court.

The Looming Future: Singapore's Last Gleaming

One of my most stressful nights in Singapore came from trying to arrange a Skype interview. I chose 5 in the afternoon Boston time/5 AM Singtime so that it would late enough that the drunken bros would be asleep but early enough that hippie backpackers hadn't yet stirred to unfurl their yoga mats, style their dreadlocks or check off another successful day of being a fourth level vegan on their I'm Better Than You Calendar. For all my freaking out about organizing this and dressing up my upper body which would be viewable on the cam, it ended up being a really chillaxed and awesome conversation. He offered me a place after 10 minutes of talking with me and I glowed and couldn't sleep for like 2 days because I was so relieved at having somewhere to go next year.

The next day I sleepily attended Chingay (thanks to Anke for the ticket!), a Singaporean festival with ancient roots dating back nearly 100 years. Originally it was to praise some Chinese deities but that's really really not important anymore. Today it is just a really gaudy parade that you have to buy tickets for. But it does hold the distinction of being one of the few multiracial celebrations in Singapore, so I suppose it serves the purpose of bringing together Malays, Chinese, Indians, and all the other dozens of ethnicities that live in Singapore.

The floats are intense! Many of them had singers, contortionists, fire-breathers, and gymnasts. There were representatives for hula hooping clubs, Taiwanese cheerleaders, francophones, and stormtroopers. About 1 in every 100 people living in Singapore was in it. The glowing orb represents the moon. One singer sang a Chinese pop song that had I played at Middlebury about remembering old friends looking at the moon and drinking. It seemed very appropriate to my own life at the moment as I was soon leaving Singapore. All of the Chinese music at Chingay were standards from the middle of the 20th Century. There wasn't a traditional instrument in sight.

Towards the end, fireworks started, paper lanterns were released into the air and confetti was sprayed via cannons everywhere. How this didn't result in a terrifying fire is still a mystery and a disappointment to me, but we all knew it was the grand finale because so many things had been shot into the air that we were temporarily blinded. When the smoldering confetti cleared, we headed out shaking our heads. We had really experienced something. But what the hell was it?

The day finally came. I packed up all of my things into my backpack, picked up my two instruments and walked out the door at 6AM just as Rolito was prepping breakfast. Anke had already returned to her life. It felt like a VH1 behind the music special: The band was breaking up. It used to be about the music, man, what happened. Now all you care about is booze and hot pants. Well maybe not so extreme.

It was definitely time to move on from Singapore. I was looking forward to playing in ensembles again. In Japan everything looked so promising. The cherry trees were starting to bloom and the spring festivals with their ancient traditions were just around the corner. At Changi Airport I boarded my plane filled with hope and dramatic irony.

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Getting into the Sing' of Things

The Wanderer

I had overstayed my maximum allowance of seven days at my first hostel so I moved on to stay in a total of 6 other hostels before settling on one I was happy with. I couldn’t rent a place because there was always a 3 month minimum and I was only staying two months in Singapore. My standards for a hostel were not high but all of the 6 US dollars per night hostels managed to disappoint them. The first hostel had a visible amount of bed bugs crawling on it and the blanket of writhing parasites was visible across the room.

The second hostel had a nauseating b.o. type stench that was so rank it made me woozy. The staff supplied me with a lemon aerosol can which I think just got me high instead of relieving the assault on my olfactory glands. However, I did stop complaining since I passed out. I think that method of dealing with the customer is similar to nurses turning up the morphine drips whenever patients hit the call button too often.

The third place felt incredibly unsafe which is really quite a feat for nearly crime-free Singapore. I ended up taking my backpack and instruments with me whenever I left the room. The rest of the hostels have blended together in my mind but they all suffered from similar symptoms of inadequacy. One night I just took all of my stuff to McDonalds and worked out at a gym in the morning to have a shower. The staff at the gym thought it was a little odd that I arrived carrying two giant instruments and wearing my winter coat (since it wouldn't fit into my already overstuffed backpack and it was 98 degrees that day).

I was homeless as I played Russian roulette with hostelworld.com. But, after 2 weeks of searching and moving all my worldly possessions to new locations nearly every day in the equatorial heat, I finally found Fernloft: Little India. Much like Moses, I was delivered to the Promised Land after suffering and wandering in the heat. Well okay, Moses died before he made it to the land of milk and honey, but, Magellan totally gets credit for circumnavigating the globe even though he died in the Phillipines. Um. . . what was my point again? Um, yeah. So there.

Meet the Cast

I conceded to paying 10 US dollars per night and the quality that those extra $4 per night afforded was sooooo worth it. I could relax. It was clean and the atmosphere was hospitable. The best part of the Fernloft was the staff and the group of other longtime guests. Since I treat my whole life as one big project to collect interesting characters, this was ideal. And also it was just great to have people to talk to that didn't just stare at you like they wanted to wear your skin.

There was Kit, the freelance computer programmer Swede, who can work from anywhere so he does. He was in Singapore chilling and hanging out with his lawyer girlfriend. When he needed cash he could be seen programming for 48 hours on end and then crashing for 24 hours.
(He has told me that he's currently looking for more work so if you want to hire him for your tech-related needs that I don't understand at all, contact him here http://scribblepadofdoom.tumblr.com. He looks reliable, right?)

Then there was Anke, the German fangirl, who spent her days watching youtube videos of male Asian popstars and getting tattoos in Japanese and Chinese of the lyrics she found particularly moving. Her nights were spent going to the popstars' concerts. In her real life she runs a bookstore and writes vampire novels, but as anyone will tell you, Singapore is not real life.

There was also enigmatic Syarief, who was addicted to playing games on his iPhone and adhering stuffed animals to his face. His profile on Facebook revealed only pictures of food that he had taken all over the city-state. Over the course of 6 weeks I finally learned that he was from Bali and supposedly looking for a job as a chef but the only time he could be seen leaving the hostel was to go to dinner or a movie with his girlfriend. He had been at Fernloft since before Christmas. What was he really up to?

Together we decided that the four of us and the staff needed to have a show based on our lives at Fernloft like the Love Boat where fancy guest stars would come in and out while a core cast mocked the newbies behind their backs and produced musical numbers. I haven't actually seen the Love Boat because I'm under 35 but that's what I imagine our new NBC sitcom, cleverly titled Hostel, would be like. Though I guess our sitcom would need to have more of a Seinfeldian feel since we cruelly ridicule others and never learned any lessons. More on that in the next post!

Lost in Translation

Instead of figuring out Singapore for myself, I watched movies about Singapore in Singapore, completely defeating the purpose of going there. When Kit's lawyer girlfriend, exhausted from her heavy schedule of wearing fancy clothes and riding up and down skyscraper elevators (my understanding of what fancy business people do ends once they enter their fancy buildings), baled on Syarief and Kit's double date, I got to take the pre-bought ticket. The movie was 笑着回家,Going Home. It was a Love Actually style movie about the New Year in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur and introduced different aspects of Singapore quite well, especially their corny sense of humo[u]r. Another movie that melodramatically gives you a slice of life in Singapore is 小孩不笨, I Not Stupid, about the high pressure of middle school education in Singapore. Subtitles are always necessary for these movies as mastery of 2 or even 3 languages isn't sufficient to cover everything everyone says.

I actually had a big problem understanding people in Singapore. People communicate in different meshes of English, Tamil, Malay, and various Chinese dialects, generally using racial profiling to guess your language of choice. I think it wasn't until after my first month in Singapore that I could confidently go into a restaurant, even a Burger King or Starbucks and order my food. The embarrassing thing about that is that everyone was speaking to me in English. But the common questions like, "Up-size for you?" took me weeks to figure out. At McDonalds I once ordered an orange juice and got a Super-sized Big Mac meal instead. My American accent was difficult for people to deal with and people more often than not couldn't understand me unless I did an impression of Nigel Thornberry. But by the end of it, I managed to just ennunciate clearly which was much less embarrassing for everyone.

I would like to point out in my defense the bizarre implications of the English in this sign. If I'm "Today's Special" then aren't they going to eat me???

Don't Have a Cow: The Beef with Indians

At the Fernloft, it was quite common to hear statements, especially from the staff, that began, "I'm not a racist, BUT all Indians are. . ." Instead of being horrified by this I was generally just amused by the failed attempt at being politically correct. It was totally true that returning to the hostel on Sunday nights was always distinctly creepy because for reasons I didn't understand that was the night when literally 1000s of Indian men would be standing around the park between the MRT and the hostel. You would have to walk by group after group of them and the groups would without fail stop talking and stare unabashedly at passersby.

But here's where I think the real beef with Indians comes from. Because the Fernloft is located in Little India and called Little India on hostelworld, tons of people from India that travel to Singapore stay there. And because the prices are so much more expensive than they would be in India, the Indian guests expect way more bang for their rupee. They expect it to be like a hotel. But that added s added into the word means breakfast is tea and toast, not porridge and eggs, and shared bathrooms and limited security are to be expected. About half of the time, a giant group of traveling Indians would come in, all complain loudly (at a decibel level totally appropriate to their home country, but not to quiet Singapore) and totally overwhelm the staff with complaints about things that were not the staffs' fault. Much like not understanding the Sunday night park etiquette, this was simply a result of cultural differences in expectations and it caused both sides to become bitter.

One time Anke complained loudly because a group of Indian men were being really loud outside her window at 2:30AM. One of the men attempted for an hour to engage her in a conversation to mollify the situation. He realized he'd caused her to have a negative impression toward his countrymen and he made a winning speech which, as any speech would be treated at 3:30AM by an exhausted she-German, was dismissed with a rant that included words like Du arschgefickter Hurenson and Kackbratze. Nevertheless, it was endearing to see things from this man's perspective, no matter how futile his efforts may have been. I was also happy that this bad example wasn't being set by overly loud and rambunctious Americans, as it inevitably would have been if any Americans ever traveled to Singapore.

The Weather's Hot and the Music is. . . NOT!

I hung out at the Singapore Chinese Orchestra's headquarters striking up conversations with random musicians and getting as much information as I could from them. I managed to score some invitations to watch some rehearsals but I was strictly warned against recording. Lame. All efforts to ask orchestra members about their passion of music got me referenced to the official SCO mission statement or reiterations thereof.

I went to a Mandarin church service and when I was asked to explain myself, I ended up meeting a liuqin player who promptly invited me to her silk and bamboo ensemble rehearsal later that afternoon. I saw some familiar faces from the orchestra. It turns out that most of the orchestra members also keep busy with teaching lessons and playing in their own less formal/traditional groups. Inquiring about people that might play nonprofessionally sounded grim. Many schools have orchestras but interest is getting lower and many student players stop once they get to high school to focus on their intense studies. According to Huang Laoshi, serious music students tend to become professionals.

A trip to visit a Singaporean ethnomusicologist led to similarly depressing results about the local music scene. There were people who played solos and played in school orchestras, but besides that, the music scene was downright pitiful compared to Taiwan or China.

Looking at Singaporeans this doesn't come as much of a surprise. My general impression is that people are no-nonsense and goal-oriented. Most young people's parents or grandparents immigrated to Singapore to get a better life and therefore the younger generation faces much pressure to make good for their elders' sacrifices. They haven't yet reached the snowboarding generations of America. Kit and I agreed that sometimes walking around Singapore had a little bit of an Orwellian feel, and I think it's more because we are foreigners but it's sometimes hard to get to underneath average people's guard. Definitely not as immediately welcoming as Taiwan, but I think the former British colony has had more than their fair share of Ang Mao, Westerners, (literally red-haired/furred).


On the right you can see the festive beachware of the restroom sign people.

With a relatively light load of concerts and groups to see practice (and none offering me a chance to play with them) I decided to take some time to read at the beach. I'm only human after all. Of course only tourists really went to the beach, but I didn't care. Singaporeans want white skin and I realized that even the hand soap at the hostel had skin whitener in it after my hands became noticeably lighter up to my wrists. While it was a great way to track if I was really cleaning the entire surface of my hand, it looked rather Michael Jacksonish.

But being in direct sunlight came with its price since I have a ginger father (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EY39fkmqKBM). After applying only SPF 35 and being outside for 2 hours, all of my skin came off. It was an incredibly painful process that got consistently worse seven days in a row. When the skin came off it itched and it made sleeping absolutely impossible. I would beat my arms and chest with the back of my hand because the dying, drying skin was so itchy and painful. This gesture was accompanied by involuntarily release zombie-esque moans while doing this. It was, needless to say, extremely attractive. But after the initial burning and shedding of skin (so much so that you could tell where I had been sitting in the hostel) I finally mastered being in sunlight and my usual routine became getting up early to go to the beach to jog, followed by a swim in the ocean, a lie in the sun reading a book, and a delicious lunch before heading back to the hostel in time for the 2:30PM rain. This morning ritual which I kept up for about a month became the most relaxing time of my life. Nothing like doses of vitamin D and radiation to cure the winter blues.
Below you can see examples of the masterpieces you can create after taking sandcastle classes at the beach.

Life was wonderfully free until. . .

Up next, the final part of Singapore and moving on to pre-earthquake/tsunami Japan!

Singapore: Big Brother Hates Durian

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.
I enjoyed the sign in the MRT (pictured right) but wondered what the deterrent for having durians was. That empty slot is so mysterious. I think the reason they're banned is because they smell like a bucket of fish heads left in the hot, equatorial sun.

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.