Singing About Diversity in Singapore

This past weekend, we had the opportunity to visit Evan, Vicky and their soon-to-be 1-year old daughter in Singapore.

One of the things that I’m most impressed with about Singapore is how diverse it is — besides cities like Los Angeles, New York and London, I think it’s one of the world’s most diverse places when it comes to different people groups.

A lot of people who are not familiar with Singapore may not realize that Singapore doesn’t really have it’s own culture or ethnicity.  While there are people who call themselves “Singaporean”, this is much more of a label of national identity, and not one of cultural identity.

So basically, similar to the US, Singapore is a country of immigrants.  While a majority of Singaporeans typically come from China, India and Malaysia, there is also a very active (and growing) minority of White Europeans and even Americans living there as well.

A walk along Singapore’s famous Orchard Road (their equivalent to Fifth Avenue or Michigan Ave) looks very much like a walk down the road of any of US’s major, diverse cities like LA and New York (well, except for the über cheesy Christmas decorations :) …)

But in my opinion, one key difference between the US and Singapore is how supportive Singapore is with their diversity.  In the US, almost a half-century after the Civil Rights Movement, we are still struggling with how to understand and appreciate the unique asset that we have in the diversity of our people.

I had one enlightening conversation with Evan about immigration into Singapore, especially the immigration of skilled workers and how Singaporean laws go out of its way to encourage it.  While in the US, companies typically have to pay $15k – $20k to get a potential skilled worker/candidate all of the necessary paperwork to process an H1-B visa, in Singapore, it’s typically about $200.  Total.

And as a much more tangible example of how Singapore is with their diversity, just look at the signage everywhere.  Everything from instructions to street signs are constantly showing multiple languages.  I conclude with some food for thought — how many ways can a country say “Drinking Fountain”?

Exercising in Kaohsiung

Since I’ve been in Taiwan I’ve only been jogging twice.  Kaohsiung is the second largest city in Taiwan so while there are nice jogging paths, large roads and lots of cars and scooters are also right next to you.  Both times I returned feeling slightly dizzy and like my lungs were full of exhaust.  Ugh.  Not to mention that it’s much harder to jog when I do it so infrequently.  Each run felt like I was running for the first time!

I normally never make good use of a gym membership, but now seemed to be the best time to get one (for the sake of my lungs).  And there is a really nice one conveniently located right across the street from our apartment so we signed up last week. :) While Mike likes to use the gym for the free weights, I like going for the exercise classes.  The problem is my inability to understand most of what is said to me in Mandarin.

My first class was a yoga class. I walked in and surveyed the room – lots of mats were already on the floor and some were clearly claimed w/ towels laying on them or people standing near them.  I saw a few “free” mats so I picked one in the back of the classroom.  I noticed people getting spray bottles and small towels from the side of the class and using those to wipe down their mats.  I copied them.  I was feeling proud of myself for picking up on the ways of the class when a lady tapped me on the shoulder, frowned, and said in Mandarin that I had her mat.  Oops.  Flustered I said “thank you” instead of “sorry” in Mandarin and quickly grabbed a new mat and started the procedure again.

When I first started yoga, it was already difficult for me to follow even in English because of all the different names for poses that I was unfamiliar with.  So having a yoga class led in Mandarin actually wasn’t too different.  I was constantly looking around at others to see what was going on, which is really hard to do in any of the downward poses!  Mike said he stopped by to watch me through the window of the class for a few minutes and said that I was always behind or doing the wrong move at the wrong time.  I said that’s pretty much what I look like in an English-speaking class as well!

Today I tried a step aerobics class.  For this one, I think knowing the language could have made a difference.  Once I would understand a move, the instructor would say something else and everyone would switch to something different.  Again, I was always behind and this time most often on the wrong foot as well.  I felt better when I noticed a few others also on the wrong foot, until I realized that they were behind me and perhaps trying to follow me.  Sorry!  Many times I would have to just stop and watch for a while before I understood the footwork at all – then the instructor would move on by the time I got it.  Hmmm…actually, it would probably be the same if it were in English.  :)

I’m excited about the classes though.  I hope they will help get me in shape!  At one point in the step aerobics class everyone grabbed a weight off the wall.  I watched what most of the other women were taking and took a similar-sized weight with both hands – it seemed reasonable.  It turned out that most of the time we used the weight with just one hand though, and all the women were actually much stronger than me.  Ouch.

In yoga and step-aerobics at least my mistakes are limited to my own mat or step.  I think it will be a while before I venture out to a Zumba class, where I could cause some real damage to others!



Learning About Taiwan: Basketball

I had the opportunity to play some hoops yesterday morning with Lani’s cousin Tong Fu.

Over the past decade or so, basketball has quickly become one of the favorite sports of the younger Taiwanese pop-culture generation.  Anytime you go near a gym or a sports apparel shop, you can see life-sized posters and advertisements featuring Kobe Bryant, Lebron James, or (and this was a bit more surprising) Derrick Rose.

You can see NBA games live every Sunday morning on channel 75 out here (which ends up being the Saturday afternoon NBA lineup in the states)… and they even replay them on Sunday night / prime time.

But add on top of that the recent fanfare surrounding American-born Taiwanese Jeremy Lin, any time you walk by a park or a school with basketball courts you’ll see scores of kids playing ball, wondering if they could be the next Taiwanese NBA star.

And speaking of Lin, he’s gotten to be quite a household name around here.  Lani was a wee-bit too excited to see him featured in a television commercial for Volvo out here… speaking in Mandarin and everything.

But I digress…

Anyway, I learned that there are quite a few differences between the way we play in the US vs. the way they play out here.

First of all… they don’t typically run 5-on-5 full court.  The preferred game is 3-on-3 half court.  Walking by the courts near our place, I regularly see groups of 10 or so guys… but because of their preference to play 3-on-3, they’ll only have  6 playing, with 4 guys waiting… even though the other half of the court is free and can be used for a full court game.

I asked Tong Fu why, and he basically said “eh, too much running.”

Second of all (and I guess partly due to the fact that they typically only run 3-on-3), “pick up” basketball is pretty rare.  Usually, when guys come together to play ball, they’re only playing with friends or guys that they already know.  And I guess it’s a lot easier to regularly get a group of 6 friends together than it is to get 10, which is why there is not as much culture or history for “pick up” ball here.

Anyway, since it was just Tong Fu and I, we did end up getting picked up — well actually, Tong Fu just went up and asked a group of 6 whether or not we can join.  Fortunately for us, the spirit of hospitality that is engrained in Taiwanese culture did extend onto the basketball court.  So while the group of guys did look a bit surprised to be asked, they were nice and let us in anyway — so we ended up running 4-on-4 (but still half court).

It was a ton of fun (I hadn’t actually played since moving away from the Bay Area back in March)… but a few other quirks that I noticed:

  • Even though it’s half-court, they play “losers ball” and not “make it, take it”
  • They always count by 2′s and run with 2′s and 3′s
  • When the ball goes out of bounds, they inbound from where it went out of bounds (similar to organized play)
  • Whenever there is a foul, they inbound from underneath the basket along the base line (also similar to organized play)

I wasn’t entirely sure if this was just the style that this particular group of guys played with or if it was more the cultural norm… but looking around at the other games going on on the schoolyard we were playing at, it did seem pretty consistent across the board.

Anyway — it was a lot of fun, and it looks like Tong Fu and I are going to try and make this a regular weekend thing.  Woot!

It’s Cold… in Kaohsiung

Similar to how when we had left San Diego, it has gotten cold in Kaohsiung.

Like, unseasonably cold.

For those that know me know that I rarely wear a jacket, let alone pants.  Well, this past week I had to wear both.

And for Jennica, well we had to bundle her up as if we were in Tahoe:

Anyway, after I received the following email from my mother, I finally realized why.

Hell has frozen over… again.

LOL.  Again.

Shou Shan Zoo

Mike and I had mentioned to our relatives that we wanted to visit the nearby mountain/nature reserve which is supposed to have great hiking trails and lots of monkeys – also nicknamed by tourists as “Monkey Mountain”.  Yesterday they took us to the Shou Shan Zoo located within the reserve.  My mom mentioned to our relatives, “No, they wanted to hike and see the wild monkeys” and my relatives said, “Why? They’re mean!”.

So a little something was lost in that communication – but it was probably for the best since I think the hiking trails are probably too much for Jennica.

At the entrance of the Shou Shan Zoo

Overall the zoo was nicer than I expected considering some of the zoos I’ve seen in Asian countries, except for the poor alligator exhibit which looked like an old shallow swimming pool.  Oh, and the lonely single African elephant.  It also had a water play area but I was unprepared for that so no water for Jennica.  She did enjoy the coin carousel though.

Riding the black and white zebra

Seeing the black and white tigers

Then to my delight – wild monkeys!  While I was in the bathroom with Jennica, a large male was watching my family from a tree branch above them.  Mike spotted him and warned the others away just before he dropped to the ground and then scampered off.  I was sad I missed it but soon after two more monkeys appeared looking for handouts from the zoo visitors.  There are also signs all over the place warning you to not have food in your hands because they will grab it directly from you.

Looking for handouts in the zoo…

Macaque surveying the area for free food

I believe these are Formosan macaques.  Apparently they cause quite a ruckus at the nearby Sun Yat-Sen University as well – raiding student dorms if a door or window has been left open.  Can you imagine having wild monkeys on campus instead of squirrels?!  I’m really looking forward to our future mountain hike now….  :)



Learning About Taiwan: AD, BC, Minguo, and Y1C

So I signed my first-ever legal contract outside of the US… a short-term lease for an office that I am now working in during the regular work-week (more on this on an upcoming post…)

But there was something really interesting about the contract I signed, and I thought that it would make a nice start to a series of posts that I’ll be putting up throughout the coming months, called “Learning About Taiwan”… a look at some of the logistical quirks and differences between Taiwan and the US.

Specifically in this case, the contract was dated 101-11-19.  Okay, so the 11-19 makes sense… November 19 (which is when I signed the lease).  But the 101?!

Well, it turns out that Taiwan (for most official documents, including business contracts) uses what is known as the Minguo Calendar, which sets the year “1″ to 1912, which is the year of the founding of the Republic of China (e.g. Taiwan).  So instead of AD (anno domini, or in the year of our Lord) and BC (before Christ)… they basically say “in the year of our Republic”.

Makes you wonder… what do they say about years prior to 1912?  Could they still use “BC”… as in… Before China?  Hardy har har…

Anyway, if you’re wondering about this whole business of 2012 vs. 101, 2013 vs. 102, etc. and think that it might be a bit confusing, well… it is.  What makes things worse is that while official business, contracts, etc. as well as many signs will use the Minguo Calendar, pop culture, media, etc. will use the regular (e.g. Gregorian) calendar that pretty much the rest of the world is accustomed to.  So people will use “2012″ and “101″ interchangeably.

But wait!  It get’s even more confusing!  Because sometimes, they shorthand the writing of dates to just the last 2 digits of the year (similar how we say ’12 instead of 2012).  So instead of the year 101, sometimes they’d just write ’01.  Which begs the question… if you see the year “01″, are they talking about the year 2012?  Or are they talking about the year 2001?

All this brings me to my favorite sentence in the wikipedia link I included above:

“The use of the ROC era system extends beyond official documents. When used to mark expiration dates on products for export, they can be misunderstood as having an expiration date 11 years earlier than intended.”

LOL… I should take and post a picture of me drinking a carton of milk with an expiration date of December 8 ’01…

Little Panda in Kaohsiung

In the Bay Area I used to take Jennica to a Mandarin music class called Little Panda.  She loved it and has learned to sing quite a few Chinese children songs because of it.  I was hoping to find something similar to take Jennica to over here in Kaohsiung.

Well, Shu-Fern told me about a class that’s walking distance to our apartment so Jennica went for the first time yesterday (Mei-Yu Kids Music and Dancing).  The price for the class is quite comparable to US prices for something similar – in fact it’s more expensive than the Little Panda class Jennica was taking – so my mom mentioned that really only the very wealthy in Taiwan could afford such a luxury for their kids.  My mom managed to get a discounted price by paying for classes for Ashley as well so that she can attend with Jennica.

I was always very impressed with Jennica’s Little Panda teacher and pleased with the class, but I was quite blown away by yesterday’s class.  The class is organized around a series of books, which come w/ a music CD, and the theme of the class follows the books.  Yesterday’s book was about Santa Claus searching for his missing bell – and the song was Jingle Bells.  The teacher then proceeded to go through a series of activities all related to the book.  She played a little ditty on the piano of short notes and taught the word for “catch” and had the kids pretend to catch snowflakes.  Then played a series of running notes that sounded like the wind.  She taught the word for “long” and “short” corresponding with the music and had the kids run around and stop and get twirled by the parents with it as well.  A few of the other activities included having the parents pull the kids around on an extra-large shirt that served as a sleigh (and taught the word for “sleigh”), and hiding hand-bells under pom-poms around the room so kids could find the bells and shout “I found it!”.  Kids were also encouraged to find pictures in the book where Santa’s clothes were “red”, “white”, etc. and had the chance to play three different musical instruments to go along with Jingle Bells – sounding like the feet of reindeer or the bells.

Receiving stamps at the end of music class

It was very repetitive and focused on vocabulary-building at the same time.  I don’t know about Jennica, but I learned a lot of words that day!  So excited to find this so close to where we live!  :)

Night Market Madness

Last night we attempted the popular and touristy Liuhe Night Market. On a Saturday night.  Really not a good idea.

I generally love night markets because it is really just a street or area with one food stall after another.  So dinner ends up being an eating progressive.  An order of this or that from each food stall that catches your eye as you make your way down the street.  And Liuhe has EVERYTHING.  It has many foods that I won’t eat – like stinky tofu or BBQ’d animal organs, but it also has lots that I love to eat!  Deep-fried oyster mushrooms, zhongzi (sticky rice), dumplings, green onion pancakes, noodles, papaya milk (Mike’s favorite), etc.  You have to remember to pace yourself though because it’s a long street and there’s always something else you’d like to try just a few stalls down.

Jennica drinking sugar cane juice and eating roasted corn on the cob at the night market

Susan ordering deep-fried squid on a stick

It began okay because we arrived a little early (around 6pm), but after our first stop at a shao long bao (dumplings) stall, the street became increasingly crowded.  On top of that, throw in a section of the street that allows mopeds to drive through and it’s complete chaos.

Moped pushing through the crowds at Liuhe

Still, we made it about halfway down the night market before the crowd of people just became too much for Jennica…and Mike.

The crowd

Afterward the husbands (my cousin, Mike, and Greg) took the kids back to our apartment while the wives went out for night shopping, more eating, and foot massages.  Thanks guys!

Final food stop for dessert – sweet tofu soup w/ peanuts!

Taiwan Thanksgiving

This is my first Thanksgiving in a foreign country since I was eight.  And while it can still feel like Christmas in Taiwan (decorations are abundant and there are even carolers!), Thanksgiving is just another Thursday here.  So we went in search for any traces of what might feel like “traditional” Thanksgiving – that means turkey, friends, and family.  :)

First, we were very lucky to have our friends Susan, Greg, and their 2-year old Gabe come in to visit with us starting on Thanksgiving.  Then we did a search for any restaurant that might be serving turkey that day.  We actually found a few!  We decided on the Ambassador Hotel dinner buffet.  Next we invited our extended family.  Presto!  Thanksgiving!

Thanksgiving Dinner at the Ambassador Hotel

There were probably only 10 other people total eating in the restaurant there that night (and all were most likely hotel guests), so it was great – no lines!  The best part though was probably the iced coffee and all-you-can-eat Haagen Dazs ice cream (in my opinion).  Or maybe it’s that none of us had to work to prepare anything for it and the hotel was in charge of clean-up!

Greg’s beautifully plated dinner

Family and friends at the Ambassador buffet

Ashley, Mike, Jennica, Gabe, and Susan

We hope that everyone had a wonderful Thanksgiving and would like you to know that we are so thankful for each one of you!!

Indoor Playspace Disaster

November 19

One of the reasons why I’m eager to have Jennica spend an extended amount of time in Taiwan is so that she really gets a chance to know and interact with her “cousin” (my cousin’s daughter), Ashley.  I was so happy to see Jennica and Ashley take to each other right away.  Without speaking a word to one another they began to play shortly after they met by simply mimicking each others actions.  That game alone brought squeals of laughter – endless fun.  (Really, I don’t think the game has an actual end.)

Boarding the Dream Mall Shuttle Bus

Today was Ashley’s third birthday.  To celebrate, her mom (Shu-Fern) and I took Ashley and Jennica to a place called Dream Mall where there is an indoor play area for kids.  I have really only been introduced to indoor play areas since moving to San Diego, but in Taiwan it was quite a different experience!  In the states, upon entering the play area I would fill out a waiver stating the birthdate of my child, sign my name, and check the box that waives them of all blame for anything that might happen.  Then take off Jennica’s shoes and make sure she’s wearing socks.  Here Shu-Fern took care of all the paperwork so I have no idea what I signed.  We also had to show proof of the child’s age – I happened to have a copy of Jennica’s birth certificate in my purse (as evidence for flying Southwest when she used to be free).  Then they sent us straight to the bathroom to make sure both girls have empty bladders.  Then they took the temperature of both the girls and moms with a forehead scanner.  Once they verified we were well, they let us in to remove shoes and put on socks.  Jennica tried to make a run for the play structures right after but an attendant stopped her immediately and directed her to the hand sanitizer. NOW she can play.  In the states, there is usually just one employee keeping a lazy eye out for what might be happening in the room, and fights for toys or overly aggressive children are unnoticed.  Here there were employees standing around all over the place and while there were only four kids there, they were on top of every move each kid made – no going up the slides, no throwing the balls in the air, watch out for the little girl, no aiming the air gun at other kids, etc.

Jennica and Ashley playing in the ball pit at the end of the slides

Jennica and Ashley had a great time until Jennica froze mid-play in the middle of a ball pit.  “I’m going pee-pee!!” she announced.  I rushed to Jennica asking her to please, please stop and wait but she had already released it all.  I thought to myself, this can’t be good.  The attendant in that section immediately left the room and two seconds later I heard an announcement come over the loud speaker.  Even though I didn’t understand a word that was spoken over the loud speaker I knew exactly what was said.  Seconds later attendants wearing face masks and gloves equipped with plastic bags and cleaning supplies swarmed the area.  I sheepishly picked Jennica up and said sorry in Mandarin several times as I waded out of the ball pit.  That clearly marked the end of our time there!