Sunday, September 30, 2007

Fruit of the Month Club VII

This month’s fruit is the hami melon, pronounced hahm-ee, not hammy (we think, because apparently the Chinese term is ha mi gua).

Joey held up one of these elongated-canteloupe-looking fruits at the market a few days ago: “Do you know what this is?” I had no idea, and he couldn’t remember trying one, so we took it home to experiment.

We prepared to carve it open, ready for our next exotic fruit experience, but...

“Drat,” I said. “It is just a canteloupe.”

Fortunately it didn’t taste like a canteloupe, though, unless you’ve managed to snag a rock-hard canteloupe that turns out to be delectably sweet inside. This was actually crunchy but must have been ripe, given its intense though slightly astringent sweetness, a bit like sugar cane.

Lantern Festival

The Mid-Autumn Festival isn’t just about mooncakes of dubious flavors. There are glowing lanterns galore. We were fortunate enough to see the festive lantern displays in two major world cities this year.

In Beijing, we wandered through Ditan Park, which had large lanterns representing Olympic cities, obviously in preparation for the 2008 games. From Moscow to Paris, Athens to Sydney, and of course Beijing, the lanterns were quite a sight. And in the cooler, crisper air of Beijing, it finally felt like “Mid-Autumn.”

Singapore hosted its own lantern extravaganza. With sticky humidity and temperatures in the 80s, the weather wasn’t exactly Fall-like, but the thousands of lanterns made up for it. The theme was all things water related (apparently this year’s national theme).

There were some surprising twists, though: the lanterns depicted everything from Chinese myths to penguins, pelicans, and even the Loch Ness monster.

But our favorites, in both Beijing and Singapore, were the simpler, more traditional lanterns hung in the trees. Perhaps it's more because of what we’re longing for around this time of year. Red spheres or red and gold pagodas glowing in the night, they perfectly echo the deep reds and golds of the changing leaves we didn’t get to see during this Mid-Autumn season.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


If you’ve traveled to any Chinatown around the time of the Mid-Autumn Festival, you’ve probably tried a mooncake - a roundish, golden brown pastry filled with red-bean or lotus paste, plus occasionally a single or double egg yolk. In the US, we ate them every fall, learning each other’s preferences: I tend to avoid the salty egg yolks, and Jenn can’t quite talk herself into enjoying red-bean paste (though we both like the lotus). We knew exactly which kinds of mooncakes we liked...or so we thought.

But in Singapore, mooncakes have been liberated, and there are countless variations to choose from. In addition to red bean and lotus, flavors now include green tea (horrible), peanut (not bad), and durian (surprisingly good). Mooncakes have even broken through the typical barrier between traditional Asian dessert flavors and Western tastes. In what appears to be a mooncake arms race among the high-end hotels, some have abandoned beans and durian to embrace chamapagne truffle fillings, custards with “chocolate pearls,” and blueberry cream cheese.

Even the outside varies. The Shanghai style has a crumbly crust more like a biscuit, often with nuts embedded. And we’ve seen many mooncakes made with “snowskin” pastry, pure white and softer than the standard crust. Perhaps it’s meant to appeal to the masses of Singaporeans forever striving to whiten their skin. In my humble culinary opinion, it takes like a slightly soggy, half-baked traditional mooncake crust. Jenn, on the other hand, thinks it’s perfect for the sweeter fillings.

With so much variety, there’s no accounting for taste!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Culture Shock: Beijing

Beijing seemed so huge to us, after Singapore: the buildings are just as tall, but with a larger footprint; a vast mountain range lurks on the horizon; the massive construction projects (most for the Olympics) add their copious dust to the ever-present city smog. But Beijing is a fascinating city for those patient enough to seek out the hidden treasures: the mazes of alleyways in the local hutongs, the tiny streets lined with calligraphers’ shops, the hole-in-the-wall restaurants with perfect home-cooked noodles.

How people with no knowledge of Chinese manage to navigate this labyrinth, I’ll never know. (On second thought, I probably saw most of them at the more touristy sites, being herded around in giant packs by fast-talking guides with megaphones.)

But, despite my worries beforehand, now I can proudly say that I managed to get around by myself, and mostly in Mandarin: I conversed with the taxi drivers and didn’t get cheated, bantered with the hawkers and avoided buying a hideous Mao wristwatch or taking a rickshaw ride, haggled from 10 times the price a Beijinger would pay down to only 5 times the price. Exhausting, but worth it.

I covered the major historical sites - Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City, and the Summer Palace - alongside crowds of tourists. But, as usual, my favorites were the quieter, less-traveled places: Ditan Park, where we saw the Mid-Autumn lanterns with a cross-section of locals. A tiny restaurant where friends took us to eat the fabulous Central Asian food (lamb kebabs, rice pilaf, yogurt) of the Uighyr people who live in the deserts of western China. And Mutianyu, where we had the awe-inspiring Great Stairs Wall of China almost to ourselves as it snaked through the mountains beneath a swirling mist.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Moment of Weakness

These days, I should be organizing and packing for our trip to Beijing. There are gorgeous travel books to pore over, Mandarin phrases to practice, cool-weather clothes to wash and pack. Instead, I am procrastinating, because thinking about being on my own in China’s capital city fills me with the kind of dull dread I used to get before exams in college courses I hadn’t entirely wrapped my brain around.

It’s not that I don’t want to go; traveling in this part of the world was a major reason I signed on for expat life. It’s just that Beijing is the most “different,” and least English-using, city we’ve traveled to so far, and it’s a daunting place to tour alone.

At first I figured I’d have no problem, with Joey - and his fluent Mandarin - at my side. But then I added up the hours he’d be in conference meetings and found that except for one day, I’d be on my own. So I thought perhaps our American friends in Beijing could accompany me to some of the tourist sites. But their family of four is down with the flu. (“Can I bring you any Western stuff?” I asked today. “Children’s fever reducer,” they croaked.)

So for the first few days, at least, I’ll be navigating Beijing by myself. Joey and our Beijing friends think (perhaps wishfully) that this should be no problem for me, as I’ve had some exposure to Mandarin. But I think my experience has been at the shaky level of the most basic beginner, and my tiny vocabulary just doesn’t seem enough for conversing or haggling or avoiding getting misled or cheated.

And while I wouldn’t have thought the latter would be too much of a problem, many reliable sources - from Frommer’s guides to Joey’s mother - have helpfully pointed out the myriad ways everyone in China will be out to fleece me, the foreigner. There are long lists of advice: Don’t take a taxi from your hotel; they’re there to pick up hapless laowai who don’t know the right way or the right price. Sit in the front, have a map, and act like you know where you’re going, even if you don’t. Assume starting prices of goods will be inflated 10 to 15 times for Caucasian faces. Don’t trust advice from the bellhop or museum staff; they get kickbacks for sending you to places where people will charge you exorbitant prices. Be cautious about breathing the pollution, eating the street food, and drinking bottled water sold on the Great Wall (it could be tap water poured into a bottle reclaimed from the trash, the rumors say).

Sure, I could (and probably should) treat all this as some combination of common sense and urban legend. But it’s a lot easier to maintain perspective when I truly know the language or, better still, when I have a fellow traveler or two by my side. I suppose going it alone is “confidence building” and therefore “character building.” But sometimes, after purposely stretching myself for the past seven months, I wonder: could anything just be “comfortable”?

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Sumatra Earthquake II

This is not my idea of a fun series, but...

Last night, for the second time since our arrival in Singapore seven months ago, an earthquake (magnitude 8.4) shook the Indonesian island of Sumatra next door to us. Then, barely giving the aftershocks time to die down, another quake (7.8) struck this morning in the same region and was followed a few hours later with yet another (7.4). Thursday evening, a fourth earthquake (6.2) struck, this time farther east, near Sulawesi. Edit: Friday saw still more quakes (ranging from 5.0 to 6.4), again off the coast of Sumatra.

The first and strongest was the one most felt in Singapore. Downtown, tall buildings swayed, as they are designed to do to withstand the shockwaves. A few were evacuated. In others, people living on higher floors crowded into the lifts voluntarily after their chandeliers swung back and forth, nearly bumping the ceiling, or they realized their sudden “dizziness” was caused by the real, though very slight, movement of the room.

As for us, we were home at the time, unaware of events until we read about them. While the tall buildings do have a certain glamour and prestige, this was one time we felt fortunate to live in a short one.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

What She Wears

Today in the US, it’s the sixth anniversary of my generation’s Pearl Harbor. Every year, we revisit how it happened, conspiracies abound, and politicians and voters contemplate the significance of the event and the reaction to it. And many of us, myself included, remember our personal experience of that day - each of us with our own story of where we were then and how we sought our nearest and dearest.

This year, though, I’m also thinking about this recent article about a Muslim woman in New Jersey and the unwelcome reception she faced while wearing a hijab there. It’s true that the head covering is not commonly seen in New Jersey, and I am honest enough to admit I would probably notice a group of women wearing hijabs there.

But I’ve also learned that all things are relative. In Singapore, I’ve been granted a chance to attach nothing of “notice” to a hijab. Why? Because it is so common in my everyday life here, where a much higher percentage of the population is Muslim. The friendly cashier at the grocery store wears a hijab. So do the sweet librarians at our local branch. So do the women who make the wonderful nasi lemak at Changi Village and the family that runs my favorite lunchtime stall. So do many of the clerks at Ikea, their hijabs displaying the store’s iconic yellow and blue.

And of course so do scores of other women as they simply go about their daily life, running businesses and tending to their children, the same as other Singaporeans - and other Americans - are doing every day.