Friday, September 6, 2013

19 Things I Hope to Never Forget About Singapore

As we get settled in the Dairyland, and beaches and curries fade into cheese curds and cornfields, I thought I should record all the things I'll miss about the little island we called home for almost two years. And then I thought, lest I get too nostalgic, I should write down all the things I will most definitely NOT miss about Singapore, too. Some of them, strangely, belong to both categories ... as seems to often be the case with really hard yet really worthwhile experiences. So instead of a "will miss"/ "won't miss" list, I just made a list of what I hope to never forget... some for better, some for worse, and some for both. So here goes.

1. All the great expat friends we're leaving here. Singapore has this funny way of making friendships really deep really quickly. I think it's because none of us have family around here, we spend holidays together, celebrate birthdays with each other, go on trips together, share each other's heart-breaks, close-calls, and triumphs... They have really grown to be our family, and we are so sad to go a separate way. The E's, the L's, the G's, the M's, B's, H's, P's, and so many others. You know who you are.

2. The parking system. Whoever designed it is a genius. All parking garages and structures are connected to a central system. Every car is equipped with a card holder on the front window. You put cash on your card and 7-11 or the kiosks all around town, and then when you drive through the toll roads, they charge your card. When you go into the parking lot, it time-stamps your sensor and then when you leave, the parking lot charges your card. No stopping, no losing tickets, no fumbling around for exact change, no kicking yourself for not bringing enough $1 bills. It's just all on one card. (Oh, and in most parking garages, they have a motion sensor at each parking spot that turns red when it's taken, and when you first enter there's a sign telling you exactly how many spots are available on each level so you don't waste your life away looking for the closest spot.)

3. The total adoration and fandom of Jonathan. This really bugs a lot of my friends with western babies, but Fabio and I usually love it. Occasionally someone pushes too far by picking him up from behind and scaring the living daylights out of him, but usually it's just fun. We get a kick out of people "sneakily" taking pictures of him with their phones while pretending to text, and groups of grown men lining up to have their picture taken with J. I'm genuinely going to miss the random exclamations in the grocery store, "OMG!!! BLUE EYES!" followed by a small crowd and a buzz of Chinese chatter. Jonathan is pretty much used to it by now. He knows the drill: "pretend I'm shy, bury my head in Mom's shoulder, look up sweetly, cautiously smile... that way they won't ask to hold me." On a related note, I'm also going to miss everyone letting Jon get away with anything and still thinking he's cute. Tantrum in a fancy restaurant? Blocking a doorway and therefore dozens of people's exit? Mom's taking forever to decide what to buy? The baby is blonde, so that family can do ANYTHING. "Here Sir, why don't you go to the front of the line?" "Ma'am, the doctor will see you and your baby right away." "Oh, no need for a reservation. Here let us get you a baby chair." It's not fair, but it's kind of fun to be on the winning side of not fair from time to time... I'm going to miss that.

4. The travel. In the 22 months that we will have lived here, we will have traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Melbourne, Grampians, Sydney, Xi'an, Chengdu, Leshan, Shenzhen, Hong Kong, Batam, Siem Reap, Khao Lak (twice), Bangkok, the Maldives, Penang, Colombo, Welligama, Yala, Bali, Ho Chi Minh, Beijing, and Tokyo. Our passports will have been stamped by 13 countries. We are so, so, so blessed to have had such amazing places at our fingertips. We will still travel, of course, but I am really going to miss the (sometimes frenetic) pace we've been able to keep here of going somewhere new almost every month. I will miss the new people we meet, the new foods that we try, the new-to-me histories I grow to appreciate. Oh yeah, and the beaches. I will miss those, too... In fact,

5. The beach. Singapore doesn't have the best beach in Southeast Asia by any means, but it's clean, the sand is nice, and the water is warm. There are lots of activities in the shade if you need a break, and if you go in the morning (which we do) it's not crowded at all. I am really going to miss our beach days, especially with our buddies who live by there.

6. The smells. Oooh the smells! What do you get when you combine a tropical climate with a fish- and seafood-loving culture and then add on top the world's most repulsive fruit that smells like a men's locker room? That's right! Nausea! I will never forget moving here seven months pregnant with my pregnant-lady-super-smeller, during a local holiday which the traditional foods include eel and durian (the aforementioned locker-room-fruit). I walked into the grocery store, was hit by the savory combination of fish and durian, turned my head to see a tank full (and when I say full I mean full... think almost no water, just flesh) of live eels squirming over each other. My eyes filled with tears, I heaved, and left. Fabio brought the groceries out to me.

Since then I've toughened up a lot... a lot. I don't shudder at the duck bodies hanging in shop windows heads still attached. I don't pull faces when I walk past the seafood stall at the food court where they boast all sorts of "fish head" dishes, laid out for you to see so you can't resist the temptation. I've even had DURIAN ICECREAM (which, I might add, is awful... what's more awful are the ice cream parlors that serve durian icecream side-by-side with poor innocent chocolate and salted carmel who stand no chance to keep their flavor in that freezer and just absorb the body-odor awfulness and bring it right to your unsuspecting lips). I don't even grumble anymore when the wafts of someone's fish ball soup in our building make it through the air conditioner into my bedroom. But there are still some times, when I'm stuck in traffic behind an open-air truck filled (and overflowing) with Durians, or when I share a tiny elevator in Chinatown with a hawker stall owner and his bag full of fish guts from the day, that I can't stop the little dry heave so I just think happy thoughts about a place as far away as possible. A place like Wisconsin, for example.

Men's locker room fruit: also called Durian.
Seriously, it smells so bad it's not allowed on the train and bus system or even in taxis.

7. The medical care. It's efficient, affordable (by U.S. Standards), and saved my life twice. I can't say enough about the incredible doctors and nurses I've had the privilege of meeting while here in Singapore. Some of them, I now consider life-long friends. Whether it was midnight pediatric clinic visits, labor and delivery, routine immunizations, or terrifying ICU stays... they have always been professional, compassionate, skilled, thoughtful, and very patient-oriented.

Dr. T.C. Chang: officially the world's greatest OBGYN.
This was our 1 year reunion (some people call them appointments, I guess).

Dr. Felicia Tan (the surgeon who saved my life) and I at my final recovery appointment.
She is such an amazing and good person, and after seeing her twice a week for three months, we became really good friends, too.

8. People telling me what I'm doing wrong. It's always well meaning, and usually I can just roll my internal eyes and walk away. But seriously, there is no need to tell me that I should cut my kid's nails more often, or that he shouldn't suck his thumb, or that the garbage bag should be on the other door knob, or that I should have planned more time for traffic, or that I shouldn't come so early, or that I shouldn't eat so much cheese, or that I shouldn't turn on the air conditioning because it will make my kid deaf, or whatever. Chances are, I either already know what you're telling me and I'm doing my best, or I don't care what you think. In some cases, both are true. I hope I never forget the limitless outpouring of unsolicited advice.

9. The sticky, humid, oppressive heat. The kind where 90 degrees with 100% humidity feels like a glorious, beautiful, merciful break. The 40-miles-from-the-equator kind. The kind where you have no hope of looking put-together no matter what amount of time, effort, or money you sink into the attempt.

On the bright side, we went to the splash pad in February... and December, and January, and July, and... That was nice.

10. Cockroaches. Giant ones. Everywhere. On my makeup remover. In the fridge. And the low point: crawling up my arm and across my chest in the middle of night. I jumped out of bed, grabbed Jonathan and instructed Fabio (who had been up late in the other room with a paper) to not come out of the bedroom "without a body." I was serious, too. Gross, gross, gross!

11. The need for signs like these. Enough said.

12. The crowds. On Saturday night at the grocery store. In the bus or train during rush hour. On the escalator, crammed into the elevator. Suffocating, thronging, pushing. So many people on that little island!

13. Downtown. There's no question, Singapore's skyline is breathtaking. The city boasts examples almost every architecture out there--pagodas, next to skyscrapers, next to Indian temples, next to giant fountains and ferris wheels, next to sweeping parks and gardens.


14. Learning about new cultures. We loved discovering and experiencing festivals we'd never heard of, celebrating new (to us) holidays, and trying to understand the quirks several different 5,000-year-old societies. We discovered new foods we didn't know we loved (almost all of them Indian), made new friends as they came to the rescue of the completely lost-looking Western family, and grew to appreciate just how much good there is in the world. There were also times when we had to just observe because understanding was not going to happen, even after several attempts at explanation.

Tangerines are the greatest.  No explanation necessary. Or possible, apparently.
Lions are the embodiment of all that is desirable, even though they can't be found in Asia.
Feeding tangerines to stone lions: obviously good luck.

On the other hand, living in another culture can be overwhelming. It impacts every aspect of life, and so many things you just take for granted. Culture organizes the flow of the grocery store, it dictates how you drive and park, it determines what time stores open and close, when you can get a taxi, what to wear to functions, how to board the bus... it rules the ebb and flow of life. And when your ebb and flow is almost always wrong, trying to adapt can be exhausting.

I never did adapt to the grocery store lay-out, although I was delighted to find the Pepperidge Farm cookies in the Healthy Snacks Section. Finally!

15. A corollary to the last point, but I think it deserves it's own mention is the complete and utter respect for religion and culture. Singapore is a melting pot of Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, Christians, Free-Thinkers, and Taoists; Chinese, Malay, Indian, Indonesian, Phillipino, and "Westerners" comprised of Aussies, Americans, and Europeans. Somehow, they manage to co-exist in almost perfect peace. There are food courts designed to accommodate religious dietary restrictions. Prayer rooms are provided in most public places so people can worship privately. The major religious holidays of the five major religions observed in Singapore are official public holidays. I think their approach to tolerance is brilliant: to be all-inclusive rather than all-exclusive as I have often observed Western cultures trying. There is an general attitude of cultural embrace which I hope I always remember.

16. The food. This is definitely a "for better and for worse" point. I never want to forget the amazing dim sum at Din Tai Fung, the samosas on top of Mustafa Centre, the roti prata man, or the waffle lady (fresh waffles for $1 right next to our apartment building? yes!).

The McDonald's promotional meal for Chinese New Year is perhaps the most delicious thing ever:
Curly fries with chili sauce and the Prosperity Drink (OJ and Sprite).
I'll miss that this January.

On the other hand, a lot of the food in Singapore was well... not our thing. Fish Head Curries, Seaweed Pringles, Golden Prawn everything. The Kangaroo dog food was unsettling the first time, too. And then there is that whole category of foods that you stare and wonder and never know what it really is. And usually, when you show someone some package without any English writing and ask them what it is, they will tell you what it is in Chinese or Malay. I guess not a lot of people (at least in our grocery stores) know the English words for food items. So you either go without or buy blind. Both options are exciting.

At one point an old lady at the store told me the package on the right was "mayonnaise."
I'm still not sure I actually understood her, or that she was using the right word, because... Really?

17. The expense. A pint of Ben and Jerry's for $16, Cheerios for $10.50 (that's right just one small box), petrol for $2.80 a LITER (that translates to $10.60 a gallon), a standard yoga ball for $60, a half gallon of milk for $5, dinner for two and a half at Chili's for $90, $6,000 a month for a three bedroom flat in a decent location, and a 2005 Hyundai Tucson for $26,000. There's no question it cost a lot to live in Singapore. I hope I never forget the shock and thrill of my first trip to the store each time back in the States. Everything is so CHEAP here! And I hope I never forget how "rich" we really are, no matter where we live, to be able to eat Cheerios for breakfast and drive a car to a store where we can buy anything we need.

18. My kitchen. Bright blue tile floors, gray slate counter tops, birch veneer cabinets, dusty blue tile walls, and of course a salmon-pink door. What our kitchen didn't have was: hot water, an oven, a dishwasher, or a stove. I hope I never forget how I made do for two years with two hot plates and an over-sized toaster oven that burned everything. I hope I never forget that despite all that, we were so happy, we didn't hesitate to have people over for dinner, and we still ate like kings.

19. Our favorite souvenir. I know I don't really need to write this down to remember, but no Singapore memorial list would be complete without making mention of our very favorite thing there: the one, the only, Jonathan Paul.

He rocked our (already pretty rocked by moving to Asia) world in every good way. He brought such a new dimension of joy to our life together that we can't even remember what we used to do without him. His first smile, his first steps, his first laugh, his first word, the smile and look in his eyes when he woke up in the morning and we were both still in bed... more than anything, that is what I hope I never forget about our time in Singapore.

There are so many more things (Singapore friends, comment if you think of any!) that I feel like I could go on forever... but these are at least the first that come to mind. What a beautiful, hot, crazy, dynamic place that I will miss like crazy and never want to go back to at the same time. I'm so grateful for my brilliant, brave, adventuresome Fabio that convinced me to move to a country we'd never been to on a Spiritually-guided whim!