Singapore, Pt. IV

July 27, 2012 § 1 Comment

This post is three and a half months late, but I’m determined to crank it out, so here goes! (Click for parts I, II and III)

On my third (and final) day in Singapore, I was slated to meet up with Benny, a mutual friend of me and CK that I had also met while studying abroad in Hong Kong in 2010. I was actually a bit nervous about it because I had only met Benny briefly at a house party and hadn’t really spent time with him after that, so I hoped that the day wouldn’t bee too awkward or a waste of his Sunday. (I’m sure he felt the same way, haha).  Thankfully, we ended up getting along quite well, and I’m very thankful for his hospitality!

We planned to spend most of the day at Sentosa, an island resort on the south coast of Singapore. I got dropped off at the MRT station in the morning, where I mustered up some intrepidity and took the subway by myself to the Sentosa station to convene with Benny. For lunch, we dined at Toast Box on some traditional Singaporean grub:

Kaya toast

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Fare Thee Well

May 28, 2012 § 1 Comment

Although I still have a few more Hong Kong-related blog posts in the works (as well as the final segment of my trip to Singapore), I figure that now, as I am idling in the airport, is the best time to publish my concluding thoughts on my journey.

I really didn’t know what to expect this time around. It was a risk to even come all the way here for an internship — what if I hated it? What if they hated me? What if it was a total waste of my time? What if I died in a horrible subway accident in Hong Kong and my remains got buried and I was never found because nobody knew where I was?? (I’ve pictured that situation a number of times, and really, I could only pray for it not to come true.)

Thankfully, these worst-case scenarios remained mere figments of my overactive imagination, and while looking out at the passing scenery on the way to the airport just now, I felt incredibly rich — rich in spirit, rich in experiences. I’ve learned and undergone so much here that I might never have otherwise, and I’ve been truly blessed by all the friends I made in such a short amount of time.

One thing I’m really glad I did (and would recommend to others) was joining a church right away. This was a commitment I made in light of my experience the last time I was in Hong Kong, during which I attended church maybe five times in six months (yikes). I’ve realized since then that it’s almost impossible to truly feel like a member of the church community from only attending Sunday services. I was lucky that Michael, a friend introduced to me by Esther, invited me to Union Church, where I met his friends and immediately glommed onto a small group by attending their social event and taking a lot of photos that I posted on Facebook — one of the best ways to ingratiate yourself and make sure people friend you!

It sounds pathetic because it kind of was, but honestly, it can be remarkably difficult to find genuine community after transplanting to a different part of the world where you only know five people (who don’t know one another) in the whole city. And although I was nearly a decade younger than most of my new friends, their Christ-like generosity and openness imparted a feeling of comfort and pleasure that I won’t forget.

Of course, not every part of my experience here was so lovey-dovey, including but not limited to my never-ending fight with mold. I’ve also had more time to reflect on contemporary cultural issues, and they’re not especially pretty. For example, all of the Hong Kong locals I met told me that the city has changed — too much, in their opinions. “There are so many mainlanders here now,” they’d say, the word “mainlanders” rolling off their tongues as if it left a bad taste in their mouths, like some in America might say “negroes.”

Have I noticed any differences? Well, it’s true that every time I was in TST (an upscale-ish shopping/tourist area), I always saw tons of other Chinese people (usually couples) dragging rolling suitcases around with them even though it’s nowhere near the airport. I never bothered listening to their conversations to discern where they were from, but it’s safe to say the majority of them aren’t from around here. Apparently, rich mainland tourists arrive in Hong Kong with suitcases full of cash and leave with suitcases full of luxury purchases. In a somewhat related incident a few months ago, a crowd of Hong Kong locals protested outside of a Dolce & Gabbana store whose shopkeepers allegedly discriminated against local shoppers.

The furor over that was understandable: It’s insulting for residents to be barred from taking photographs while watching tourists snap pictures freely. (Also, I find it rather tacky to shop with a suitcase, but perhaps Hong Kong prices truly are that much cheaper than in mainland China. To which I would ask, why? Is it because the Chinese Yuan is strong right now??)

There are other issues as well, most noticeably the ire that Hong Kong locals feel when pregnant women from mainland China give birth in Hong Kong hospitals expressly for the purpose of making sure their child (and by extension, themselves) is guaranteed a (free?) Hong Kong education and residency and such benefits. These mainlanders are overrunning our hospitals! the locals protest. Of course, they have every right to look out for their own welfare and hospital space. But I found the situation sad rather than appalling.

In my mind, I ask, aren’t we supposed to be united as one country? I was in China during the summer of 1997, when the 99-year contract with Great Britain expired. I remember listening to cassette tapes on my Walkman of joyous Chinese tunes specifically written for that event. An air of celebration permeated the country. But Hong Kong is like the kid who got sent to some rich boarding school in the city and is now ashamed to return to his poor and unsophisticated parents in the countryside.

I understand that things in Hong Kong were generally better under British rule; the corrupt Chinese government certainly isn’t doing Hong Kong any favors. But isn’t it sad that soon-to-be-mothers are so desperate to give their impending children a better future that they will literally cross the border while in labor so that the authorities can’t keep them from giving birth on Hong Kong soil? On one hand, you can see them as leeches and freeloaders. On the other hand, they’re victims of a system of disparity. What will it take for China’s education system (or whatever is so lacking) to match that of Hong Kong’s? Aren’t Chinese authorities alarmed by these migrating trends, and what are they doing to fix things?

Anyway, being a “mainlander” myself, I can’t help but take slight offense when people say the word with disdain. Somewhere down the line, most people in Hong Kong came from mainland China anyway. To them, I say, be thankful for what you have and that you don’t have to be the one trying to latch onto a loophole in someone else’s system.

Those are basically the two main things I wanted to get off my chest. My flight takes off in an hour! Then I have a six-hour layover at Incheon Airport, which I am absolutely not looking forward to. Good-bye, Hong Kong — it’s been real. I promise to visit again before I die!

Singapore, Pt. III

May 18, 2012 § 4 Comments

On my second day in Singapore, CK took me to explore Chinatown, for lack of better things to do during the daytime. It seems weird that there is a Chinatown in a predominantly Chinese country, and I really don’t have much of an explanation for that. Our first stop was at a large Buddhist temple, where I was instructed to cover my bare shoulders and short skirt with the (admittedly nice quality) shawls that the temple offered for irreverently skanky people such as myself.

Grumpy at my modified outfit

I feel a bit guilty when I enter a Buddhist temple because I’ve pretty much forgotten everything I learned in the Buddhism course I took a few years ago, other than that the religion is both less wacky and more wacky than I originally thought it to be. I wonder what it’s like to try to live diligently by the Eightfold Path or even try to remember all the tenets of Buddhism. I’ve met very few (or perhaps none) authentic, practicing Buddhists my age, so I haven’t had much chance to discuss it, sadly.

Like any mega-church, this temple was clearly rolling in the dough. It was a five-story building with thousands of big and small Buddha statues throughout; there was a rooftop garden and even a small museum of artifacts and relics. And gold — or golden paint — was everywhere.

Big statues

Special specimens – no entry!

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Singapore, Pt. II

May 4, 2012 § 3 Comments

The morning after I landed in Singapore, I went out to have breakfast with CK, his parents and his twin brother. It was Good Friday, so the streets were super crowded with parked cars because the churches didn’t have parking lots, despite being mega-church status (apparently). The breakfast location was an open-air food court-type place, which is quite different from the usual IHOP experience but not unlike what you’d find at Chicagoland’s Diho. CK helped me order a plate of noodles, which came with fried fish and egg.

Typical breakfast in Singapore??

The whole thing was quite tasty but also very oily, which I don’t tolerate very well in the morning. It’s interesting because when I talked to CK about it later, he told me that he has a hard time eating dry food in the morning. I wondered if it’s because I come from northern China, which is known more for its bland fare (dumplings, buns, etc.). I mean, seriously, I could eat a whole loaf of bread in one sitting without any water, but I detest chow mein, deep-fried chicken and bacon.

Anyway. The good thing about the oilier Singaporean food I tried was that I could eat it without stuffing my face — I usually can’t help but gain weight while on vacation. (The constant heat and humidity helped diminish my appetite too. I love Singapore!) CK also bought me a curry puff to snack on. It was really spicy and really tasty, even four hours later.

Curry puff…come back to me!

After breakfast, CK’s brother dropped us off at the nearby MRT station, where we took the subway to Orchard Road, basically Singapore’s supreme shopping destination. It’s like Las Vegas strip if you replaced all the casinos and restaurants and brothels with malls and malls and malls. You can walk half a block out of one mall right into another one. The other amazing thing was that it seemed like half the malls were undergoing renovations or construction of some kind, meaning there will be even more stores. It was pretty overwhelming.

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Singapore, Pt. I

April 14, 2012 § 11 Comments

I took this photo before even leaving Hong Kong Airport — as I sat in the lobby waiting for the two-hour window of permitted checking in, a young couple and their photography crew of three appeared across from me for a wedding photoshoot. This sight is pretty common in HK; I see at least one a week, usually on my way home from work. I guess there aren’t that many viable locations on this island to shoot wedding photos? Maybe they met in the airport or something. Either way, it was weird but cute.

Whatever floats your boat. (Or plane.)

My flight was supposed to arrive at Singapore’s Changi Airport at 10:30PM on Thursday night. My friend CK, who was graciously hosting me, would still be working at the time, so we planned for me to take the MRT (subway) to Marina Bay Sands, where we could meet and grab a bite while enjoying the view.

As is typical with airlines (especially budget ones), my flight was delayed. We landed in Singapore at around midnight. I find it surprising that (I was told) Changi Airport is usually ranked one of the world’s best airports — whoever judged that contest obviously never visited the “budget terminal,” which basically means “cheap-ass building for our most worthless customers that is a mile away from the actual airport.” Frankly, it was comparable to the lilliputian Yiwu Airport.

Right after passing through customs, I exchanged some cash and called CK’s cell phone from a nearby pay phone. He didn’t pick up. Worried, I figured I should just try to find the MRT right away, so I exited the building and followed the signs to the free shuttle bus to Terminal 2, which is apparently where the MRT is located. It was seriously like a 10-15 minute bus ride (at night, with very little traffic!), which speaks to how far removed the janky budget terminal is (still bitter). At least I had this sign to amuse me:

I’m just not going to try to understand.

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Prepare For Takeoff

April 6, 2012 § 1 Comment

Ever since I was a young girl, I’ve always dreamed of going to Singapore. I barely knew anything about it, but after spending summers in the polluted urban jungles of China, I figured a place where cleanliness was the law was too good to be true. In fact, a few years ago when I was first considering studying abroad, Singapore was my first choice — that is, until my father deterred me by telling me that I’d be bored within a week. Still, although my romantic notions of spotless sidewalks have mostly faded as I’ve matured, my eagerness to visit remained. It was with some trepidation that I booked my flight without a travel buddy, but thankfully, my Singaporean friend CK was willing to show me around.

Interesting things abounded before I even got on my flight. When checking into Tiger Airways, which is apparently the budget airline to fly to Singapore — other ones don’t fly there, strangely — the lady at the counter asked if I would consider changing my flight to the next morning. “We would book you a hotel room for the night and compensate you with S$200 (~$159US),” she offered. Two hundred Singapore dollars, eh? I mulled it over for a moment, thinking of the things I could buy with that extra cash.

Sensing that I was weak prey, the first lady’s partner/assistant/lackey, who was standing behind her, elaborated on the deal. “There are two flights tomorrow morning, and you can use the money as credit for a future flight with Tiger Air…why don’t you take some time to think about it, maybe call your folks, and we’ll keep your boarding pass here at the counter for you,” she pressed. Ha ha, call my folks…that’s a good joke…as if I have any family to contact here in Hong Kong! And if I couldn’t use the money as cash, I didn’t want it. Besides, I didn’t want to inconvenience CK by changing plans and cut into what was already a pretty short vacation, so I declined. It was their own fault for overbooking the flight anyway — not my problem!

Air travel always offers interesting experiences before one even arrives at the destination. This time, while I waiting in line to board and while walking down the tunnel thing to the plane, I was in front of an older Asian man who was carrying some English-language newspapers. I got the feeling that he was following me a bit too closely, so I was a bit alarmed when I stopped at my row on the plane to pull my laptop out of my bag and he paused right beside me to stuff his bag into the overhead compartment, his armpit hovering just above my face.

The plane was still relatively empty at that time, and he just happened to have the seat right next to mine, effectively trapping me by the window. Perturbed, I fleetingly hoped that he wouldn’t try to molest me on the flight. (It’s an extremely silly scenario, but these are the small things that men probably never have to worry about…) The third person in our row turned out to be a woman that I had also seen before boarding; in the airport, I saw her carrying the book Why Men Marry Bitches, and in the plane, she was reading He’s Just Not That Into You. Interesting choices. But I guess she was better off than me because I had stupidly forgotten to pack any reading material, not even a magazine.

Flying during the day is a delight because the view from above the clouds is always gorgeous, but traveling at night has its advantages as well. As I gazed out the window and saw stars in the sky and clouds floating below, I imagined a flipped world, that the space below the plane was actually the sky, rife with puffs of clouds and miniscule lights from boats that could’ve passed for stars, while the view above was actually the ocean, vast and dark and dotted with reflections of the lights below. There’s nothing like stargazing to make me feel incredibly small, to remind me that I’m nothing but a speck in the universe. But sometimes I relish that humbling existential feeling and remember to enjoy what I have at this very moment.

Rub A Dub Dub

April 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

Mmmmm, I just got back from a massage + facial, and it feels like the world is a beautiful place.

This treatment was one of the first Groupons that I bought in Hong Kong, which is kind of saying a lot because so far I’ve purchased 22. It was irresistible — a treatment that normally costs $345US was on sale for $13?! I was all over that, obviously.

I was in the mood for pampering because lately, a lot of tension has been building up in my neck and shoulders, which is bound to happen when you’re typing at a desk all day. In fact, it had been so long since I bought the Groupon that I didn’t even remember that it came with a facial. My body was aching for a massage, and I had to find a professional since I don’t have B around to give me one, hehe.

One main purpose of using a Groupon is, aside from the obvious factor of saving money, is the opportunity to experience something new. The risk that I run here in Hong Kong is that I might venture into a place that caters only to locals, as in menus with only Chinese words and waitstaff that only speak Cantonese. This has already happened a few times, and in those cases I usually end up appearing deaf & dumb, but I get by. It’s odd each time because the Groupon website is in English; how do these businesses get their deals online without knowing any English??

BeauStyle, the place I went for my massage, was tucked away inside a hair salon. I think the receptionist spoke the best English — the manager didn’t speak any, and my masseuse could speak very little. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to get body work done at a place where you can barely communicate with the staff, but it was too late to back out!

I was led into a small, dimly lit room with a massage bed, and my masseuse gave me a towel/dress thing that buttoned up as a tube top. She also gave me a pair of very sheer underwear made out of fine netting, which perplexed me for a minute. Was I supposed to wear these as underwear or over my own underwear?? I didn’t want to surprise her with my naked bum if she wasn’t expecting it.

I ventured out of the room to ask, but the hallway was empty. Eventually another staff member walked by, and she answered my question by telling me that it was supposed to go on my head. LOL. Thankfully my masseuse reappeared to clarify my quandary (it was supposed to be worn alone) and hand me a hair net.

The massage came first. It’s truly a luxury to receive a massage from somebody who knows what he or she is doing, and in this case, she really put her hands to good use. I’ve previously only gotten two body massages before. One was a $10 Swedish massage in the Philippines, which was as intense and satisfying as it was cheap.

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