Monthly Archives: December 2009

Signs from Singapore: MRT Rap Video and Sign

This “rap” video (which plays in MRT stations and on some trains) and door sign speaks to life in Singapore by referencing popular entertainment and Singlish. (Not to mention the ever-present campaigns by the government to encourage kindness and cultivate ideal citizens, as discussed in this NYT article.)

The rapper is Phua Chu Kang, a character in a local TV comedy by the same name.  I have not seen the show, (clearly in the name of “cultural understanding” I will need to change this), but I have heard about it.

PCK is famous for the catchphrase, “Don’t play play,” which – as I’m sure you can gather – means to take things seriously.  The repetition of words (usually verbs) is a feature of Singlish, although I’ve most often heard this with “can can” – a frequent response when asking if something is allowed or can be done. (The opposite is “cannot.”)  The most prevalent word in Singlish, though, is “lah.”  This is inserted at the end of sentences for emphasis; it doesn’t really have a meaning by itself.  (You can catch it in the video at 0:38, although it wasn’t noted in the lyrics.)

I haven’t had a problem understanding Singlish, as it’s English-based and largely intuitive, as illustrated in the examples above. Nevertheless, there are a lot of words that come from other languages spoken in Singapore, such as Malay and Hokkien.  The words I learned immediately were: makan (Malay – to eat); shiok (from the Punjabi shauk – great; used to express satisfaction, especially after eating something delicious); and ang moh (Hokkien – “red hair”; a supposedly pejorative term for Westerners.  Since I’m literally an ang moh, I don’t find it offensive.)  For more Singlish words, check out the Singlish dictionary.

Another reason I may not be noticing as much Singlish could be due to the government’s efforts to eradicate it.  The government discourages the use of Singlish in favor of “official” English and initiated a national “Speak Good English” movement in 1999.  Of course, while some may look down upon the use of Singlish, others consider it a vital part of Singaporean identity and are working to preserve it.  In this context, it’s interesting to note the use of Singlish in the MRT sign and video, given the government’s role in creating these materials.

Want another Phua Chu Kang rap video and a lot more Singlish?  Fortunately, he did one on SARS.  It gets old after a minute or two, but has the occasional gem like, “SARS is the virus that I just want to minus.”  I’m eagerly awaiting a Swine Flu video.

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Dish of the Day: Ah Boling

What it is: Little glutinous rice balls floating in a sweet ginger, peanut, or pandan (aka screwpine leaf) soup.  They can be filled with crushed peanuts, red bean, sweet yam mash, and even durian.  It is eaten year-round, but is especially associated with the Dong Zhi (winter solstice) or Yuan Xiao (15th day of the Lunar New Year) festivals, and it symbolizes sweetness and harmony.

Where I had it: Hai Sing Ah-Balling, Chinatown Complex (Blk 335 Smith St), Stall #02-059; The stall owner has been selling the dish since he was a young boy and was christened a “hawker legend” in 2005 by the Singapore Tourism Board, the National Environmental Agency, and Makansutra(a popular guide to Singaporean street food).

What I thought: The best Asian dessert I’ve had thus far in Singapore.  There were five little rice balls in my soup (I guess I impatiently ate one before taking this picture) and they were all different flavors.  The first was peanut, the second was red bean, the third was durian, the fourth may have been the sweet yam mash, and I think the fifth was (black) sesame.  After biting into each one, I marveled at how delicious it was – until the sesame one.  Much like a box of chocolates you never know what you’re going to get, and it was unfortunate the sesame was last because it was somewhat bitter.  I tried having some of the soup to wash away the taste, but it just tasted like warm sugar water.  (It was technically a pandan-flavored soup – this stall’s only option.)  Nevertheless, I’ll eat ah boling again; I’ll just avoid the soup and attempt to avoid the sesame one.

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Signs from Singapore: Pizza Hut Christmas Ad

Because nothing says “Christmas present” like an object resembling a pizza with ham, bell pepper, and a cherry on top.  I also enjoy the fine print at the bottom – “Visual shown is for illustration purposes only.”  What other purposes would it serve?  Are they reminding me I don’t live in Willie Wonka’s Chocolate Factory and that licking the wall will only result in strange looks from other people, as opposed to a sample of the product? Or does this lovely-looking concoction not actually exist as a Pizza Hut product?

Found posted all over the Raffles Place MRT Station

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Travel Secrets – 3+ Ways to Volunteer Abroad for Free

A current meme in the travel blog world is to reveal three “travel secrets” and then tag other bloggers to do the same. The concept originated with Katie at Tripbase and I was tagged by Dan at Eight Hour Layover.  Now that I finally have internet access at home, I figured I should post mine.

After contemplating a variety of specific places to write about, I decided instead to divulge secrets about volunteering abroad – a great way to meet new people and learn more about the local culture.  (You could also work abroad, but that generally requires a longer-term commitment and probably some sort of visa or working permit.) Conveniently, voluntourism is a growing industry and there are many organizations that will help you fulfill your life-long dream of de-worming orphans in Somalia.  However, they generally all require you to lay down some cash, which can be as much as several thousand dollars for a couple weeks.  While the more legitimate organizations work to keep overhead costs low and put the majority of these fees back into the project/local community, paying to volunteer isn’t an option for the budget traveler/broke student and also seems oxymoronic.  So here are three ways to volunteer abroad for free. I have focused on programs that only require a one-two week commitment so that they can be incorporated into a more extensive travel plan.

Pueblo Ingles in Spain and Italy

I did this program in 2006 after a semester of studying in Denmark and before a summer of teaching English in Poland.  The basic premise is that Spanish companies pay to send their employees to a week of English immersion and the English immersion is provided by volunteers.  You are not “teaching” English per se, you just have to speak it.  In my experience, every one was near fluent in English.

Each morning is spent in one-on-one pairs that switch every hour. There were 36 people in my program, so you were paired with each of the Spaniards multiple times over the course of the week, but you weren’t repetitively with the same people.  It was a nice mix and it helped to get to know everyone.  You are free to discuss whatever you like – families, jobs, hobbies, etc.  After a 3-course lunch with wine and the requisite siesta, there are group activities, followed by a 3-course dinner with wine.

Paella Party

I was at Valdelavilla, which I believe is the most rural of the four Spanish locations.  We were literally in the middle of a beautiful nowhere – there was nothing except the villas where we were staying, so the focus was truly on the program and each other.  (There is also a site in Italy, but it is by invitation only to veteran volunteers.)

For my program, I was the youngest person in the group by at least a decade.  (Most participants were middle-aged; the oldest was in her eighties.)  I didn’t mind and neither did anyone else, but I note it because this wouldn’t be the most appropriate option for younger travelers who want to be surrounded by their peers.

The accommodation, food (and wine), and people were all amazing.  Pueblo Ingles also provides transportation to and from Madrid, so all you have to do is find your way to Madrid!

Monkey Sanctuary in Looe, England

I spent two weeks at the Monkey Sanctuary this past September.  The Sanctuary is on the grounds of a sprawling Victorian mansion facing the ocean in Cornwall, and is about 5 hours from London by train.  The trip from Looe to the Sanctuary is a 15-minute (£10) cab ride or an hour-long walk (uphill both ways).  Looe is an adorable (albeit small) town to explore and there are plenty of places to enjoy Cornish pasties and cream tea (tea with scones, Cornish cream, and jam).  On your days off, it’s easy to catch a train to explore another part of Cornwall.

Volunteer duties include food prep (baking a cake for the monkeys, chopping vegetables, collective leaves), working in the kids’ activity room or the café (usually comes with delicious cake), and yes, cleaning up monkey poo.  The latter really isn’t that bad, especially if you have pets and are used to cleaning up after them.  You even get to pretend you’re a hazmat officer, since you wear a jumpsuit, rubber gloves, and wellington boots while cleaning.

Volunteers aren’t actually allowed to touch the monkeys, but there are usually a few dogs around the house if you’re yearning for a furry friend.  There are plenty of human friends – there were six other volunteers at the Sanctuary when I was there, along with twenty keepers, at least half of whom also live on the premises.

The accommodation is rustic and carnivores beware – the Sanctuary maintains a vegetarian kitchen.  You are free to use whatever’s in the kitchen to make your own breakfasts and lunches.  (The pantry was well-stocked and there was always a variety of vegetables.) Dinner duty rotates among the keepers, with the volunteers responsible for making dinner one night per week.  Consequently, life at the Sanctuary is like a reality show combining elements of the Animal Planet, the Real World, and Iron Chef.

The minimum volunteer commitment is two weeks.  Looking over my information, I think they do ask for a small donation (£35 or so per week), but no one ever collected this from me.  (While I enjoyed my experience, the Sanctuary can be a little disorganized at times; another example is that despite being told I would be picked up at the train station, I had to take a taxi.)

Volunteering in South and Central America

I admittedly have never done any of the programs on this website, but I have spent time looking through it.  It lists a wide variety of free and low-cost volunteer programs spread throughout South and Central America that focus on a number of different causes, from kids to the environment.  Some have minimum commitments of only a week or two, while others require a longer stay.

If you have questions about Pueblo Ingles or the Monkey Sanctuary and my experiences, leave a comment or email me,and I’ll be happy to tell you more.

And now I tag Chris at The Daily Feta, Rachel at Serendipitous Senderos, and Lindsay at Mongol Mingle, all of whom I recently discovered via Glimpse.

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Dish of the Day: Laksa

Introducing a semi-regular feature in which I describe a Singaporean dish I’ve eaten recently.

What it is: A rice noodle dish made with a variety of spices (including chilli, galangal, garlic, and belachan – shrimp paste), shallots, dried shrimp, seafood stock and coconut milk.  Toppings may include cockles, shrimp, chicken, fishcake, and beansprouts.  (While most of the laksa I’ve seen follows this model, it is also called curry laksa, to differentiate it from asam laksa – a fish-based soup made with tamarind.)

The dish comes from Peranakan (also called Nonya/Nyonya or Straits Chinese) cuisine, which has a mixture of Chinese and Malay influences.  Centuries ago, Chinese traders arrived in Malacca and later in Penang and Singapore.  As there were no Chinese women to be found, the men married Malay women and a type of “fusion cusine” was born, back before such things were popular.  This style of cooking is also affectionately known as Nonya cooking after the term for Peranakan women; the equivalent term for men is Baba.

While the dish is widely recognized as Peranakan, no one seems to know where the term “laksa” originated.  The most popular theory seems to be that it comes from the Chinese “la sha,” meaning spicy sand, as it is made with a number of spices and the ground dried shrimp gives the soup a sandy texture.

Laksa is generally viewed by Singaporeans as one of their national dishes and is promoted as such by the Singapore Tourism Board and its annual Food Festival.  However, in September the Malaysian Minister of Tourism “claimed” laksa (along with chili crab and chicken rice – other “Singaporean” foods) as Malaysian dishes and declared she would later unveil a strategy to label them as such.  I’m looking forward to watching what happens during this food fight!

Where I had it: Roxy Laksa, Stall 48 at East Coast Lagoon Food Village (1220 East Coast Park Service Rd)

What I thought: Overall, delicious.  I can see why the Malaysians want to claim it for themselves.  The sweet richness of the coconut milk was nicely balanced by the seafood stock so that one didn’t overpower the other.  However, I ordered it with cockles since I like to try dishes the way the locals eat them.  (Ironically, I later realized that using cockles is not the “traditional” Peranakan way.)  The cockles added a little too much sea to my food.  Nevertheless, I still enjoyed it and look forward to more laksa – next time without the cockles.

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Technical Difficulties

Unfortunately, the blog is in a holding pattern at the moment.  I haven’t been able to access the internet from my new apartment  (6 days without access at home!) and am still trying to figure out how to correct the problem.  My roommates have access and my computer will pick up wi-fi elsewhere, so it’s some problem with the combination of my mac/our internet.  I’ve tried manually adding in the IP address, running network diagnostics, restarting my computer/the modem/the router – none of which have worked.  If someone more technically literate than me has any suggestions, please let me know!

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Twenty-Seven Hours Parts II and III

The second, somewhat anticlimactic installment of my journey from Miami to Singapore.  The first part can be found here.

No, I don’t have Swine Flu

A few minutes after settling into an uncomfortable seat outside my gate in San Francisco, I sneezed.  A minute later I sneezed again.  And again thirty seconds later. Soon I was firing off sneezes as fast as a machine gun fires bullets.  There had been plenty of signs around the airport about H1N1 and how you should not travel if you had any of its symptoms – one of which, according to the signs, is a runny nose.  I was quickly working my way through an entire pack of tissues.  In a rare pause between sneezing bouts, I looked around at the other passengers and could tell they wanted to brand me with a scarlet “SF.”  Or at least have someone in a back room “take my temperature” and forbid me from getting on the plane.  Was it suddenly hot in the airport or was it just me?  I decided to take a walk around the terminal before anyone started moving towards me with a pitchfork.

I’m not sure how, but I managed to stop sneezing before boarding the plane.  However, when I got to Hong Kong, I noticed they had designated temperature-checking areas.  Thankfully this turned out to be only for people who were staying in Hong Kong. (I’m sure it would have been fine – I had long since stopped sneezing and didn’t feel feverish – but the last thing I needed was a malfunctioning thermometer or a power-hungry temperature-checker placing me in quarantine.) So now I only had one more flight – and Singaporean immigration/customs – to go.

Gum-Sniffing Dogs (or sad lack thereof)

My journey through Singapore’s Changi airport was much easier than I expected.  US citizens are allowed to stay in the country for 90 days without a visa and I’m going home for Christmas before those 90 days expire.  (This fact escaped me at the Miami check-in desk and was later pointed out to me by a friend.) So, I reported that I would be in Singapore for 42 days and didn’t have any trouble with immigration.

I collected my bags quickly and looked around for customs.  I expected long lines, hand searches of every piece of luggage, and gum-sniffing dogs.  Sadly, the dogs must have been out for a walk, as all I saw was a door with “nothing to declare” written in green above it.  Surprised at the perceived ease with which I would pass through customs, I headed for the door, ready to step out into the fresh Singaporean air.  And I got pulled over.

“Do you have anything to declare?” asked the man in uniform.  “I don’t think so…” I replied, as I stared behind him at the long list of controlled and prohibited items.  As my luggage went through the X-ray machine, I hoped that no one had attempted to use me as a gum-smuggler.  And that the crevices of my bags did not contain any stowaways, an admittedly more likely scenario.  But the suspense turned out to be rather anticlimactic and I was free to go.

I had too much luggage to take the MRT (subway) – not because I’m lazy, but because large bags aren’t allowed – so I hopped in a cab and stared out the window on the way to my new, albeit temporary, home – a room in a downtown condo building.

Tomorrow I am moving to my permanent home, so shortly I will have content for a post on Singaporean housing, specifically my own experiences.  (While my current building is predominately expat-owned, my new building is HDB – public housing.)

In the meantime, my next post will be about food.  I’m already getting hungry thinking about it.

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