31 October 2011

Illegally Blond

A bad hair day along the Straits can easily extend into a bad hair week. The humidity and rain turn hair into a frizzy mess or a weighty mass. Add a hair color treatment to the mix and the bad hair day can turn into a bad hair month. Stylists try their best to match roots dyed in salons on western shores, but it never looks quite right. It leaves many expats going months without a cut and color – growing it until a visit to the home country. The woman who attended to my hair at my latest salon appointment explained why. Only in Singapore can a hair color be illegal.

Most stylists around the world will agree that Asian hair is different from Caucasian hair. Asian follicles are rounder and thicker. Cut the same hair style on each head and it will lie differently. I used to think the same was true for color. The same dye applied to different follicles produces different results. When I was living in Tokyo and had my hair colored I could actually see a horizontal line around my head where the old hue met the new. For the past two years I waited for trips back to the US for cuts and colors. By my third year it was time to ask: will I continue to make do or dye?

Armed with the hair color formula from my trusted stylist back home, Todd, I was determined to find a trusted colorist here. I emailed Schwarzkopf, the professional hair-care products manufacturer, for a list of salons carrying their products. They promptly replied…in German. My friend translated it as saying, in essence, “Thanks for the inquiry. Do not respond to this automated message.” My friend also got a big laugh – here I was looking for blonde dyes from a company whose name means “dark hair.”

After that dead end, I decided to canvas the island nation. I kept a copy of my hair dye numbers in my wallet at all times. Whenever I walked past a hair salon, I’d pop inside and ask about their hair dye products. After about a month I spotted a Chinese salon with the Schwarzkopf logo in the window. The receptionist didn’t speak a word of English, so she flashed me the universal hand signal to “please wait” – the extended index finger. A colorist with her sample books approached the desk. I handed her my formula and she flipped through her books. In broken English, she told me that my dye number is too high for Singaporean salons. The color volume in most salons goes up to 10, but my color goes to 11. She explained that it is illegal to import and use hues that go higher than 10. Because the dye manufacturer was the same, she was confident she could match the color. I booked an appointment. Who wouldn’t trust a Chinese colorist with pink hair?

From start to finish, the salon visit was incredible. When I returned the next day for my appointment, I was greeted by the same receptionist. Silently, she led me to an empty chair. Then she handed me a narrow mug with a lid on it. Hot tea to sip with a cover to keep hair clippings from falling in. Another young lady draped me in a black plastic cover, then pinned a towel around my neck and shoulders and handed me a stack of Hello and OK! gossip magazines. The colorist and an assistant wheeled over a cart of dyes and foils and got to work. The two of them worked silently as they painted my hair and folded it in foil. Sitting there with people attending to my comfort while two stylists efficiently processed my hair made me feel like one of the famous women from the glossy pages getting ready for a red carpet event.

The star treatment continued. I sat under a humming rotating dryer. The colorists returned from time to time to check under the foils. When it was done to her liking the young woman who draped me returned and removed the foils. She then took a plastic bottle from her apron. The opaque bottle was the same one used to hold ketchup and mustard at stadiums and BBQ joints in America. Sitting in my chair, she squeezed a dollop of liquid on the top of my head. She began to massage my head. It felt good. Then she took another bottle and squeezed water directly on my head. The massage continued, working my head into lather. She was washing my hair as I sat in my chair sipping my hot green tea and reading magazines! When she was finished she motioned for me to stand. I followed her to the backroom where a row of sinks stood. Rather than the usual big chairs attached to the sinks, this salon had full-length reclining chairs. They even had a blanket to cover me. She massaged while rinsing. At that point I didn’t care if my hair turned purple. I was the reclining Buddha who had reached Nirvana.

My hair looked good! I never did independently confirm if certain hair colors were against the law. After such a lovely experience, I wasn’t dying to get to the root of the issue.

30 September 2011

"O' Zapft Is!"

Wearing the traditional Lederhosen and Dirndl, we tapped into the Swiss Embassy's Oktoberfest celebration. Bierleichen!

30 August 2011

Personal Fowl

At the end of summer but before the new school year, waves of expatriates leave Singapore. They’re either heading back home or off to another hardship posting. With the wave comes a flood of going-away parties. When I ask the great departing, “What will you miss most about Singapore?” the usual response is, “Well I’ll tell you what I won’t miss” and then they rattle off a long list. When my time comes, I’ll miss one aspect: the birds.

I’ve already been here longer than Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Father of Singapore. I can only imagine the variety of birds he discovered and heard when he landed in 1818. When I first landed, the only exotic birds I saw were the garish women adorned by ostentatious gems and gargantuan handbags! I didn’t exactly expect to see an Asian Crested Ibis in the urban jungle, but I did expect to find a few fine feathered friends.

Singapore has several species of everyday birds I’ve never seen nor heard of before moving here. It also has a few with which I am familiar: dove, crow, pigeon and sparrow. Common birds have unusual-sounding names, but are no more special than those found in America. For example, the Olive-backed Sunbird flits around adding a dash of color to the cityscape, just as the Cardinal does in North America. Another ordinary bird, the Javan Myna, has the thieving eyes and characteristics of the Blue Jay. After months of seeing only the regulars I began to think all rare birds had been spirited away to Jurong Bird Park like all the residents being relocated to government issued high-rise HDB flats. After watching a visit from the Pestman I was convinced.

Olive-backed Sunbird

Javan Myan

Pink-Necked Green Pigeon

Once a week our apartment complex is fogged for mosquitoes and pests. The Pestman, as he’s called, walks around in a hazardous waste jumpsuit and heavy-duty gas mask while a white cloud emanates from the jetpack strapped to his back. The residents are advised to stay inside when he is outside. When I was little, my brothers and sisters and I used to gather outside when it was time to fumigate the neighborhood. We would ride our bicycles behind the pesticide truck, Torco. How exciting it was to peddle down the street unable to see beyond our handlebars through the chemical fog. Although we survived the toxins, insects don’t stand a chance against the Pestman. The birds depending on small bugs as their food supply don’t stand a chance either.

One day, I was sitting in my apartment and I heard the staccato tenor of a bird. His tune stood out from the ordinary songs of the day. I sat silently and waited for it to sing again. Bap-bap-bap-bap. With that, I headed outdoors. The crooning ceased, but I stood in place. It sang again as its shadow flew over head it rattled my memory – I’d heard it before since moving to South East Asia, but where?

I set out walking my daily running route. With my head tilted back looking up like a New York City tourist, I walked twisting and turning under every tree on Ardmore. Past three noisy construction sights (the Malaysian and Tamil construction workers never catcall, by the way) I was beginning to lose hope. Crossing Orange Grove I heard bap-bap-bap-bap. Making as little movement as possible, I studied the branches of a tree on the grounds of the Shangri-La Hotel. There it stood high on a limb. A Hornbill! I was stunned by the unexpected sight. Smack dab in the middle of the city perched a jungle bird.

James and I first saw the Hornbill in Malaysia. It was a Giant Hornbill. The Giant Hornbills were so large we could hear the whoosh of their wings as they flew over us; their shadow nearly blocking out the sun. Transfixed by their size and their colorful bills, we watched the birds fly and land and call and eat from trees for hours. At half the size, “my” little bird was just as mesmerizing as the great one.

My neck grew sore and the Hornbill grew silent. It never sang again and finally flew away. Not only did I see the bird again, but I’ve spied with my little eye all sorts of other birds, such as a woodpecker, a Stork-billed Kingfisher, and even a rooster announcing the day from a fence on Nassim Road. Every day, I look up at the trees. Even if I do not spot the Hornbill, I’m always sure to hear his song. When I do I say, “Good morning, Mr. Hornbill.” Not because I think it a bad omen like spotting a single magpie in England, but because I want to show my respect and welcome him to the neighborhood.

Stork-billed Kingfisher pictured above

31 July 2011

Dis Cord

My summer leave from Singapore coincided with my sister, Valerie, an adjunct professor, assigning her class to spend a day unplugged and write about the experience. For 24 hours her students were to go without pods, pads or phones. No movies, mobiles, or magazines. Texting, tweeting, and television were off limits. X-box was axed and electronic readers expelled. I accepted her challenge to turn off, tune out, power down.

Over the winter, our country house in New York was gutted. Walls were torn down, new electric and plumbing installed, and hard oak floors lain. While the contractor was able to make it livable for our summer vacation with a shower stall, kitchen sink and refrigerator, he didn’t connect television cable or a landline. There were no signals for Wi-Fi or mobile phones. We didn’t even have a transistor radio! With no electronic enticements, Valerie’s assignment would be a walk in the park.

My day unplugged was 9 July. James and I drove from Ohio to New York the day before. Family back home was waiting for a call letting them know we made it and family and friends in New York were waiting for word we’d arrived. I couldn’t make contact to confirm visits with friends made in advance. I brushed it off knowing that everyone would forgive me once they understood my predicament and my “assignment”. Without a care, James and I stood in the early morning sun looking across the meadow to the pond. He kissed me on his way to play golf and I set out to weed the garden.

Immediately I felt the effect of no media. When in Garrison, I wake listening to Morning Edition on WNYC. Then I tune into The Brian Lerher Show. My mind was free from the urgent chatter. For the first time weeding didn’t feel like a chore. It was as if I were weeding in rhythm with birds, cicadas, and the playful wrestling of the squirrels. I was thinking about the thanks I’d give Valerie for doing me the favor of weeding in peace. Then my stomach began to rumble.

My body talked and it asked for lunch. While eating my sandwich and chips on the patio table I found myself hungry for media. I liked the company of voices and/or reading the opinions of the day in the New York Times when eating alone. Left with my own thoughts, I began to question why I was on this media fast. Why did I decide to go without uncensored entertainment and free press - the things I craved most while living Singapore? Before I got too flustered I decided to grab an apple and return to the garden’s delight.

This time, however, instead of weeding being wonderful it was war. My thoughts quickly turned from bluebells and cockle shells to radio shows. Usually when I weed I have a battery-operated transistor radio by my side; never worked in the yard without it. I grew irritated by the sounds I thought tranquil in the morning. My garden tools became weapons. Stab, yank, throw. I do without my favorite programs while on the island-nation, why would I deny myself the pleasures while being home? Stab, yank, throw. I was missing This American Life and A Prairie Home Companion. Stab, yank, throw. But if I chose a weekday I’d miss The Leonard Lopate Show as well as Rachel Maddow and Jon Stewart. Stab, yank, throw. How dumb could I get? I was going to miss my ultimate joy, listening to John Sterling and Susan Wolman announce the Yankees’ game! Stab, yank, throw. Yeah, thanks, Val, for the favor! Stab, yank, throw.

I pulled weeds with the force and energy necessary to shovel a snow-covered icy driveway. Exhausted and drenched in sweat, I lay back on the stone wall. I stared at the carnage. The remains of enemy plants laid wilting and browning in the hot sun. I was breathing heavily, straining to hear if my body was asking for a Corona. Was it time to shuck corn? Fire up the grill? Should I expect James at any minute? I was feeling out of touch with the day.

After I caught my breath and surveyed the killing field, I decided to get a beer. It didn’t matter what time it was. I was on a vacation not a dis-mediation! My fury subsided with the suds and I gained control of the situation. I began to grasp the reality of my situation. I wasn’t missing communication, I was missing information. Surprisingly, I realized that my days were segmented by media’s schedules and not by visits to my inbox or wall. I listened to x program in the morning and read y periodical in the afternoon and laughed with z at night. With new insight the day grew delightfully long.

After weeding, I clipped flowers for a vase and unpacked the boxed household items. I found my transistor, but respected the radio silence. After sweeping the driveway, I took a long walk and thought how I appreciate that media and communication are 24/7. When I was growing up, TV stations would sign-off between midnight and 2:00a.m. MTV’s first year on air did not run videos 'round the clock. Today I can switch on anytime I want and satisfy any need I have. However, the news cycle is slow, postings are ordinary, and entertainment is predictable. What earth-shattering program or event could possibly happen one day that would not be rerun, recapped, rewritten or recycled the next?

James and I finished the night eating and drinking under the patio lights and night stars. He came home victorious from his day on the links. Because I felt victorious too, he agreed to finish the night unplugged. We had that what-could-be-better-than-this attitude. We laughed and talked about nothing in particular, often stopping to comment on the frogs croaking by the pond, the bats darting around and how everything tasted better than it ever had.

I learned two things after living 24 hours unplugged. First, the day is enjoyably long when radio shows, inboxes, message machines, and nighttime jokes don’t shape my waking hours. Second, the replay isn’t always as good as the real thing. I missed Derek Jeter’s home run 3,000th major league hit.

31 May 2011

Special Ks

Imagine it’s a Sunday afternoon in Singapore and you are with friends in a crowded dim sum restaurant. Servers in uniform walk about with steaming carts of food, round trays stacked with plates, and pitchers full of hot tea. It is a bright and busy place full of tempting smells, clanking dishes, and chatty diners.

Across the room you spy a cart girl exit the kitchen. Immediately, a table of 8 has her open the cart. Steam billows out as she places plates of succulent ear-shaped dumplings onto the table. Eyes are wide and smiles are broad at the 8-top. It’s as if the entire dining room has made note, because as she makes her way to you she stops at every table dolling out the plates. The cart of dumplings is sure to be empty by the time she arrives at your table, so one of your dining companions walks over to the cart girl and requests the dumplings before she has a chance to get to the table that is next up for service. Words of mild outrage are exchanged with the people at the table, but your friend doesn’t care. He walks back with a triumphant smile. He just took the last 3 plates from the cart.

Now, your table is piled high with empty plates, bowls, saucers and tea cups. You all are on the verge of a tryptophan coma when the head waiter presents the bill to your friend. He begins to tally the colored plates (each color represents a dollar amount), the glasses of tea and the specialty items made to order with the amount on the tab. He tries to remember who ate what and how many. It’s an unwritten rule to split the bill by the number of guests, but he doesn’t want to pay for food he didn’t consume. Before he can finish the calculations, another diner at the table takes the check from him and announces an even portion for all to pay.

Outside the restaurant, you say your goodbyes. Kissing friends’ cheeks and wishing them well, you wave them on their way. You are standing in the middle of the block and the parking lot is directly across the street. The road is empty and you cross. Not your friend; he only crosses at crosswalks. You watch as he strolls along the sidewalk until he reaches the zebra stripes. The little lighted man on the sign is red so he stands there. He looks both ways and sees that the road is empty, yet he remains standing on the corner. The signal turns from red to green. He crosses the street and walks to his car.

Is your friend being obstinate or ordinary? In the city-state it is a common social behavior and it has three names: kiasu, kiamsap and kiasi. The words are from an ancient Chinese dialect, Hokkien. Collectively, they can be loosely compared to the Western idiom, “Keeping up with the Joneses.” Rather than staying in step with the neighbors, though, the 3Ks up the ante to “Getting your share of the Joneses.”

Kiasu, kiamsap, and kiasi are a state of mind. I learned about the 3Ks from a taxi driver. He told me that together they mean: a fear of death and losing out; the one with the most survives; impoverish others to prosper oneself. The Sunday dim sum with friends illustrates the definition of each K word. When your friend took the last plates of dumplings by nudging out the other table, that’s kiasu (afraid to lose out; overly competitive). By trying to tally the tab according to who ate what, your friend was exercising kiamsap (stingy; spend reluctantly). After you said your goodbyes and your friend crossed at the crosswalk rather than directly cross the street showed he was kiasi (afraid of dying; overly careful).

For the record, I do not believe that all the island-nation citizens live by the 3Ks. Far from it. However, I do have a better understanding when I see examples of it everyday. I no longer get angry when an old Singaporean elbows her way to the front of the queue only to discover that once I’m at the head, the ATM is suddenly out of order.

Ancient Chinese Secret!

30 April 2011

Rent In Peace

“No real estate is permanently valuable but the grave.” Mark Twain might have thought twice about writing that had he lived in Singapore in 2011. I like learning about the ways of life in my adopted country and never thought much about death rituals here. However, when J came home from work exclaiming, “I heard cemeteries here rent burial plots!” I knew I had to dig deeper.

To begin my search, I let my fingers do the walking. I looked for funeral directors in the Yellow Pages (yes, the city-state has the same exact Yellow Pages and logo as in America). As I suspected, there were mostly Chinese establishments, but three names caught my eye: Casket Fairprice, The Resting Place, and Singapore Funeral Services (SFS). From the casket to the grave, these full-service companies have it all. SFS even has a Facebook page and a YouTube video.

One look at the three funeral directors’ websites showed me just how religiously diverse the local population is. Funeral services are available for Hindu, Muslim, Taoist, Buddhist, and Christian. If I searched longer I probably would have found a funeral package for Jainism. Cremation and columbarium are options as well as burials at sea (ashes only). Descriptions and prices were listed but no mention of burial plot rental fees.

With thoughts of a lease on the afterlife, J & I visited an abandoned Chinese cemetery. It wasn’t as if we expected to find For Rent or To Let signs dotted about the place. We heard Bukit Brown was more of a nature preserve than a cemetery. A personal deed to the land has kept it from joining the fate of 21 other cemeteries on the island. Land, being at a premium, and cemeteries considered a waste of space; hundreds of thousands of graves have been cleared to make way for public housing. Alas, “permanence” has an asterisk in Singapore.
Our driver dropped us off at the base of Bukit Brown. Many locals are intensely spiritual about cemeteries and only visit their dead relatives during the Ching Ming Festival or Hungry Ghosts Festival. The cabbie made no bones about it; he wouldn’t drop us off at the entrance. Thinking about the moved graves, we were feeling spiritual, too. We instantly quoted the scene in Poltergeist when Craig T. Nelson says, “You moved the cemetery, but you left the bodies!” Since Bukit Brown is still a graveyard, we laid our worries to rest.

It was an enchanting place to have a stroll. The creeping jungle covered the old monuments and statues. A variety of birds flew and sang as expats exercised along the winding paths. Each grave site was formed by a low lying wall in the shape of a horseshoe. A headstone stood in the open end with a little stand for burning incense. The plots were scattered about the acreage in no special order that we could divine. The sprawling cemeteries and the need for land led the government to create the official New Burial System (NBS).

I unearthed the information about the NBS on the National Environmental Agency (NEA) website. Much like its US environmental counterpart, the NEA is responsible for everything green while maintaining the country’s development and quality of life. This government agency also licenses the funeral directors, crematoriums and columbaria. The NBS instructs the burial procedure while the NEA manages the process.

The grave conditions are clear. Out of the three remaining sites, Choa Chu Kang Government Cemetery is “the only cemetery in Singapore still open for business.” The plot itself isn’t dirt, rather it is a concrete crypt designed to “save space and make the cemetery more accessible.” On the day of a burial, next-of-kin pays a burial fee of $940 to the NEA. This secures a 15-year lease. When the lease is up, the remains are exhumed. If religion forbids cremation, then another site and lease will be made available. If not, the exhumed body is cremated. The ashes are delivered to the family or placed in a columbarium niche or prepared for a burial at sea. Together, the NBS and the NEA guarantees the cemetery land to last until 2130.

Death in Singapore is quite an undertaking!

01 March 2011

Diplomatic Community

I recently returned to Columbus for a winter break from my current residence in Singapore. In a country where every day promises to be over 80-degrees with a chance of rain, I tend to miss the energetic feeling from breathing in cold air that isn’t manufactured. Shoveling the snow and breaking the ice was a little more than I expected, but it gave me time to think about the international acronym, “SUFO”.

I learned SUFO when I moved to Tokyo from New York City. At a bar full of after-work expatriates, an Englishman walked up to me and asked where I was from. I replied, “Columbus, Ohio.” He flopped both hands as if he were a soccer coach disgusted with a referee’s call and said, “You’re just a SUFO.” Before he could turn his back, I asked what it meant. A State You Fly Over.

Now I live in Singapore and find myself with another group of international expatriates. I learned from my Tokyo days to respond to the where-are-you-from question by saying, “I moved here from New York, but I’m originally from Ohio.” I am full of state pride and can no more forget my hometown than I can forget that Ohio is the mother of the most U.S. Presidents. Seven were born in the 17th state including a man who wasn’t but played one on TV, Martin Sheen (Dayton, 1940).

The Internationalists aren’t the only ones who’ve snubbed me. After I graduated from The Ohio State University, I moved to Washington, D.C. to work for an Ohio Congressman. Then I moved to New York City to work for an Ohio company. In both major cities I was often dismissed for being a state school graduate from the Midwest. My all-time favorite indifferent comment/question: “Ohio? Is that like Iowa?” I kept a diplomatic head because I was a face from the place. At OSU I was from Bexley. In D.C. and NYC I was a representation of an Ohioan. As in Tokyo, here on the island nation I am a mini ambassador of America. It is my self-appointed duty to represent my country and home state while promoting its benefits. Internationalists will soon learn new meaning to SUFO: A State You Frequent Often.

I understand the position of an Internationalist visiting America. It is so vast I cannot blame them for viewing the bulk of the nation from 35,000 feet in the air. Yet at that height it is easy to see why many Americans do not own passports. Everything a citizen desires in a vacation is within our borders: beaches, mountains, deserts, historical sites and shopping outlets. Sporting events give every state an arena for the home team and illustrates our sporting life. What I’ve learned from being a broad abroad is that team sports matter.

The unofficial world sport is football. Football, too, is America’s major sport. However, their football is our soccer and our football is uniquely American. We have several professional soccer clubs with international football players, including the Columbus Crew (founded 1994). As Frank Sinatra’s character Bennett Marco says in the 1962 The Manchurian Candidate, “Columbus is a terrific football town.” He may have been thinking about the Buckeyes, but look how terrific our football is now in 2011. Our national soccer league and our football may not play on the international field, but a Hollywood pitch does.

Hooray for Hollywood. Entertainment just might be the most important export and positive feature I have as a self-appointed U.S. diplomat. Internationalists love the cinema and its stars. Talking pictures makes good conversation and thanks to the father of the blockbuster, Steven Spielberg (Cincinnati, 1946), Ohio plays a starring role.

Hollywood’s heartland. We have bragging rights for the stars born in Ohio, including Clark Gable (Cadiz, 1901), Paul Newman (Cleveland Heights, 1925) and Sarah Jessica-Parker (Nelsonville, 1965). An honorary mark of distinction goes to Keanu Reeves for playing an Ohioan in Point Break and The Replacements. It’s one big walk of fame. Legends Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall picked Malabar Farms as the site of their wedding (Lucas, 1945). Ohio, Home of the Original Destination Wedding!

That’s entertainment. I can promote Ohio as the Location Vacation. Picture it: a road trip mapped by the backdrop the state has played in many well-loved movies. Rain Man (Cincinnati, 1988); Shawshank Redemption (Marysville and Lucas, 1994); and A Christmas Story (Cleveland, 1983). Days can be spent tracking the locations of The Deer Hunter (Cleveland, Youngstown, Struthers, Steubenville and Mingo Junction, 1978). George Clooney recently wrapped Ides of March (Cincinnati and Miami University). Ohio, Scout it Out!

Stand by. Hollywood is only the beginning to setting the stage that will elevate Ohio from a SUFO to a state people find outstanding. I can spotlight the Seven Wonders of the World in Ohio. Until then it remains the heart of it all for me, Madeline Acton Rae (Columbus, 1966). Ohio, Wonders are in View!