Monday, November 30, 2015

First 90 Days

I arrived in Singapore exactly three months ago. The first week we stayed at a hotel and I took the bus to visit my dog in quarantine every day. The hotel was near Orchard, the fancy retail area of Singapore, which is a weird mix of feeling as though you are on vacation every day because you are in a beautiful hotel drinking cappuccinos with breakfast while constantly being reminded that this is not a vacation, it's your new real life. But once we signed the lease, arranged for rental furniture, and moved into our apartment things became very real. This is what I learned. 

Plan breakfast. When I have moved, whether it has been down the street during a major remodel or across the globe, there are two things I make sure are in order before we eat dinner--beds and breakfast, and this goes for the dog as well as my husband and me. At some point we stop unpacking to buy coffee, cereal, fruit, and milk for breakfast. Waking up in a strange place is much less strange with the smell of coffee brewing. A weekday breakfast in the U.S. is Nature's Path cereal, but at $8.00 per box in Singapore accompanied with $6.00 almond milk we needed to make substitutions. Our Singapore regular breakfast is muesli with bananas or pears and granola, and topped with rice or oat milk. And coffee.

Start small. Week one we had to buy everything. We couldn't just drive to Target and load up the car, we had to buy the most critical things to get us through our first few days at the mom and pop store next door to our condo. Crammed into an aisle of the mom and pop store and crouching next to toiletries where the products and currency were foreign, (some of which had no English writing on them,) we debated about what could either be shower gel or shampoo, while every five seconds someone needs to walk by. (I don't know what it is about grocery shopping in Asia, but no matter where you stand within five seconds someone else always needs to be exactly where you are.) So that's what you do. You buy shower gel, a sponge, dishwashing liquid, dish towels, and trash bags and then go home, take a nap to escape the heat, and then have a glass of wine on the balcony. Because the next day will be easier and auntie and uncle will remember you.

Lists, lists, and more lists. One of the things to get used to in a new country is grocery shopping. Not only are the stores and products different but in my case I don't have a car, so everything I purchase must fit into my trolley, which means I shop more often and buy fewer things. Also there is not one giant grocery store to do all your shopping and you will likely specialize, buying different products at different stores:
  • Mustafa: Tahini, granola, Bob's Red Mill grains and flours. 
  • Phoon Huat: Anything dairy, dried fruit, nuts, flours, oils and anything related to baking. 
  • Wet markets: Produce and fish
  • Fair Price: Toiletries, paper goods, wine.
  • Aunty and Uncle: Anything and everything, especially in a pinch.
  • Expat markets: Cold Storage and various specialty butcher and bread stores sell gourmet items for unique dishes from home. 
I nearly cried during my first trip to Mustafa because the basket I was carrying was very heavy, I couldn't find anything, and the store was very crowded. Don't go on a weekend, stay hydrated, and buy only food. The house cleaning supplies you can buy anywhere.

Find your ten. 
Most families rotate through ten meals for dinner regularly. Make a list of ten meals your family eats and keep that list in a notes app on your phone. Then make another list for the ingredients in those ten meals which will become the standard grocery list from which you shop. If you can only come up with seven or five meals that's okay. One of my ten was "Thug Chili" and I crossed that off our list because the idea of eating chili on the deck when it's 31 degrees didn't work. 

Make produce your bitch. When you move to a new country all the produce you eat like blueberries and kale is either impossible to find or outrageously expensive. Take a breathe and don't let the squash or long beans intimidate you. I haven't eaten blueberries or kale since I arrived. Instead I have found pears that taste like sorbet, potatoes that cost $1.50 per bag, and squash that tastes good in anything. And heavenly mushrooms. Buy what is familiar to you at first and rotate in a couple new pieces every time you shop. This week is going to be the week of Chinese greens for me. I will let you know how that goes. 

Learn how you will live. One thing we didn't want was the crazy looking expat apartment that people have because they need everything within reach at all times. I saw kitchens with spice racks and power strips with adapters on the counters in which electric kettles, coffee makers and grinders, blenders, toasters, and juicers were plugged. We learned that a toaster doesn't fit into our new life nor does a daily green drink or grinding our own coffee. We learned a lot living with minimal rented furniture and household items for two months and we are saying what I have heard many expats say after moving to Singapore. "You just don't need all the crap you thought you did." 

Go on a space diet. Read The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up on the plane so you can worry less about storing the stuff you don't like anymore and don't need in your new life. The biggest revelation came to me when I gave away my flare jeans that made my butt look awesome because they no longer make my smaller butt look awesome. So I thanked them for their service and dropped them at H&M. The big takeaways (after purging) from her KonMari method are her method of folding clothes, the wisdom of finding a home for everything, and putting everything away right now. Which leads me to post-it life lesson #2: "F-it. Just f-ing get rid of it." Feel free to write that down on a pink post-in and Pinterest it. 

Thursday, November 19, 2015

Chinese Gardens

On Fridays I do walks around Singapore with a Meetup group. It's not only a bit of exercise but we walk slow enough so that it's very social and on top of that I get to explore places on the island that I may not normally see. This Friday we walked through the Singapore Chinese Gardens. It's monsoon season now and it rains daily, which it was doing as I rode the train to the Chinese Garden MRT, but the rain stopped ten minutes before our walk just as we were gathering at the MRT station and deciding whether or not to buy coffees and umbrellas from Cheers. 

The east entrance was specially constructed in conjunction with the Chinese Garden MRT station to ensure easy access for pedestrians visiting the gardens. If you watch reality TV, the bridge served as the finish line of the reality competition series The Amazing Race Asia 2. 

Red bridge at east entrance

Red bridges are throughout the Chinese Gardens in various shapes and sizes as red symbolizes good fortune and happiness in Chinese culture. There is also a Japanese-style garden within the Chinese Gardens.

Red bridge to Japanese Gardens

The pagoda is the same in the picture with the red bridge. Pagodas traditionally have an odd number of levels and sometime attract lightning strikes because of their height, especially if the finial at the top is made of metal. 

Views of the stairwell from the top and the bottom reminded me of a conch shell. From the top you can see four ladies waving up at me. From the top floor, though you cannot see them, there are three geckos on the ceiling. There is something about their toes that I find adorable!

Four ladies at the base of the stairwell

Pagoda ceiling
Through lattice windows at the top of the pagoda you can see nearby HBD housing. It was during the Song dynasty that sophisticated lattice work began.

Lattice Window
The ‘Bai Hong Qiao’ (the white rainbow, 13-Arch Bridge) follows the style of the 17-Arch Bridge at the Summer Palace in Peking.

Bai Hong Qiao

Though not a religious person, the closest thing to spirituality I can sense is in trees. When I see light through green leaves and hear breezes rustling through the leaves it calms me. Which is probably why I feel pure rage when I read about clear cutting and slash and burn practices. There are relatively few things humans need to survive: air, water, food, shelter. Trees provide all these things. If you doubt that trees provide water, see what happens to rainfall patterns when trees are removed from the equation. 

Light through trees just after the rain stopped
Chinese Gardens also include Scholar's Rocks, which are especially prized if they have been pitted and sculpted by erosion. I don't know what the symbol is, but I loved the contrast of the soft, natural rock against the shiny Chinese red.

Scholar's Stone

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Do These Thoughts Make me Look Fat?

How McDelivery Works in Singapore
It is a stereotype that Asians are thin and Americans are fat. Obesity is increasing in Singapore at the rate of 1% per year and after a week I realized people here are not that thin, at least not the ones under 60. Most are doughy, somewhere between Anne Hathaway when she's not training for a role and Lena Dunham in any role. I blame the snacks that are everywhere. In Singapore train stations smell like curry puffs and fresh bread. In the U.S. they smell like pee.

But still I expected people in Singapore to be thin so before moving to here I lost 5 lbs because I didn't want to be The Fat American. And then after living in Singapore for two months and walking to the Fair Price with my trolley for groceries and to the MRT I lost another 5 lbs, so suddenly I am thin. I have wanted to be not just thin, but skinny. A skinny that, when I see pictures of myself shot from any angle, no matter what I am wearing, the body part I look for first in pictures still doesn't look fat. I have wanted to be a skinny that concerns people, the kind of skinny that my husband calls "dirty skinny." 

I can savor the deep satisfaction and pleasure of my thinness here in Singapore. If I were in the U.S. I would be hearing things like "Well you don't want to get too thin" and "If you get too thin it will age you" and all the other things women say. "But perhaps we have different standards of what looks good" I think. That's what people miss when they comment about being too skinny. They assume you are dealing with a new and more vicious demon but it's entirely possible that you left an old one behind. 

I have reached a thinness rapture three times in my life; once in college, once about eight years ago, and this one. Though even at my fattest I was never technically overweight (if you believe BMI charts), thinness is privilege and ecstasy. If you've never been thin, I highly recommend it. It's freeing, like having a wallet full of gift cards you can spend everywhere if you want. Magical even. At a certain point my brain flips. I stop being hungry all the time, stop thinking about what I should and should not eat, and stop thinking about when I can eat next. And on the occasion when I do have pancakes for breakfast or my very own dessert after dinner, it's all the more exquisite because there is no guilty aftertaste.  

Everyday there is a new clothing high. In Singapore it's too hot to wear my skinny jeans so I try them on periodically, an idea I got from a UK expat who lost a couple of kilos after moving to Singapore. I turn the aircon down a couple of degrees and try on my skinniest jeans with heels, the pair my husband bought me three Christmases ago, only now they look as they are supposed to. Citizens of Humanity. In my pajamas I get glimpses of my arms and legs, shaped differently than they used to be, and I cannot believe they are mine. And I own three pairs of shorts that I wear with sandals and silk camisoles, a coup because for three decades I hated myself in shorts so much that I dreaded casual summer weekend outings--also maxi dresses and hot shoulders didn't exist in the 90s. When young girls in clothing stores tell me right away that they have small sizes I think to myself "I am wearing a size Small in a brand from Taiwan." I want to hug them when they show me a diminutive dress, even though it has one of those Peter Pan collars I hate. 

My brain tells me that the reason for the weight loss is that I am walking in the heat instead of driving in aircon, but there are parts of me afraid that the thinness will be taken away, a temporary reaction to the stress of moving to a new country or to the heat. I hear from other women that they lost hair from the move or from the humidity and heat, and their hair is only now growing back. So I worry that someone say at my next meetup will say, "Don't worry. You gain it all back. And then some." So I am cautious. I want to buy a food processor so I can make my recipes again, but then I think "What if the weight loss was not having the homemade bread, vegan chocolate chip cookies, and endurance crackers around the house?" So I haven't. And though most of my clothes are too big for me now I am procrastinating finding a tailor. At home every single piece of clothing would have been altered already, which is what I tell everyone else to do when they lose weight because it's only the feeling of wanting to loosen your clothing that keeps you from eating more, but I haven't looked for a tailor. 

If it seems like a small thing to worry about five pounds or two kilos, not worrying about it, or not addressing it, can lead to big things. Because if every U.S. adult reduced their BMI by 1 percent--the equivalent to a weight loss of roughly 2.2 lbs for an adult of average weight--this would prevent the increase in the number of cancer cases and actually result in the avoidance of about 100,000 new cases of cancer. A pretty good argument for skinny jeans.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Things that Must End ...

MRT Station Potty
Creative toilet use. Learn to use a toilet, sink, and anything else related to restroom facilities--trash cans, hand dryers, soap, and towels--and then leave. If you visit another country with higher sanitation standards (yes I said higher and not different) elevate yourself and adapt to those standards. Why do you think it's called a toilet seat? Nobody should have to wipe footprints from toilet seats. 

3 years ago posts in my Facebook feed. I barely cared when it was 3 seconds old. 3 years later it looks desperate.

Different usernames/passwords for every site and app. I can't read a recipe without creating a username and password and deciding whether or not to subscribe. You can't use the same username and password for every site, not just because it's not secure but because the rules are different, e.g., with letters, numbers, characters, for every site. I would gladly submit to sphincter scan technology if it made these passwords go away. 

Gate-ifying. Deflategate, emissiongate, emailgate. Do millennials know the origin of this scandal? There aren't even any reviews on Yelp for what looks to be a gorgeous hotel.

Clothing size inflation. The smallest size at JCrew is 000 and the largest is 20. Will negative powers be next? It's time to hit the reset button and align with the UK and Australia whose size range is 0 - 24. How can we ask for honest food labels if we can't be honest about what size clothing we wear? If you want to wear a smaller size, be smaller. Or do a photoshop equivalent on the labels sewn into your clothes and pretend.

Pretend coffee. Frappés are milkshakes and milkshakes are dessert, I don't care where you buy them. And if that doesn't make sense to you let me break it down ('cause that's what your body is trying to do). Coffee = 0 calories. Mocha Cookie Crumble Frappuccino = 590 calories.

Way too complex cash transactions. Rite Aid has a litany of steps just to buy trash bags even when paying cash. It's ridiculous. Can we just do that? No, I don't want to ... 
  • type in a phone number for the wellness program
  • provide a zip code
  • donate $1 to this month's charity
  • purchase a bag for 10 cents
  • complete customer service surveys
  • deal with your receipts that are 2' long
I am a faceless human being who gives you a ten dollar bill and gets trashbags, change, and a receipt. Now that Walgreen's is buying Rite Aid I hope this ridiculous behavior ends. 

New Boogeymen. Pretending that anything other than climate change and the food we eat is a threat to civilization. Sure, today it's automatic weapons and last month it was a terrorist group responsible for Syrian refugees. But climate change threatens the air, water, and food supply and will kill us all tomorrow. And so far ISIS has not claimed responsibility for the heart disease and strokes killing us today.

Back seams. I don't buy clothing from H&M, Zara, and the other companies that make clothing entirely out of fossil fuel because I hate back seams. Though back seams make the garment easier to construct and use less material, but they are unflattering and make dresses look cheap. I guess this is why I practically live in Lululemon. But high five to H&M for recycling clothings and allowing us to drop our old stuff in their bins. 

Yahoo! issues. I think Yahoo has gone to crap because MM fired everyone who wouldn't come into the office daily. But I am tired of the constant spinning wheel of death when I try to access Notepad or my email. It's been years. Please fix it already.