Sunday, May 31, 2009

The Long Goodbye

Every time I go somewhere these days in Singapore I think, "This is probably the last time I'll come here." Except when I go to Mustafa, because I know that I'll always find one more reason to go there (Mustafa, why can't I quit you?). It's causing me to be in perpetual state of mild sadness whenever I go out, a sense of wanting to capture the feeling of each place I leave.

I know a lot of people in this kind of situation just ignore how they feel, because that constant emotional awareness can be overwhelming and draining. I have seen women go through the leaving process here who essentially shut down their hearts. The pain of these goodbyes is just too much, maybe they've done it too many times, so they choose to protect their hearts rather than engage.

The problem with that strategy is that the extent to which you shut yourself off to pain is the same extent to which you limit your ability to experience joy and life. In the movie Shadowlands, C.S. Lewis, as he contemplates the real prospect of losing his wife Joy to cancer, says, "Why do we love when it causes so much pain?" and Joy responds, "Because the pain then is part of the joy now."

In a way Singapore has been one long goodbye. We have seen so many people enter our lives and leave, and had so many amazing experiences in this country and others nearby that we will not have again after leaving. The potential for heartbreak is great, but avoiding the heartbreak would diminish the capacity for joy, and I can happily say that we've truly enjoyed our time here. I'm glad that it's hard to leave people and places here, because we've loved them and they've been a blessing for us. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

What would you do for 50 cents?

These are tough economic times. Everyone's trying to save a dollar. Or in the case of some Singaporeans, 50 cents (US 30 cents actually). When you drive north on the CTE at night in Singapore, you pass through an ERP gantry. Said in plain English, when you take the highway you go under the equivalent of a toll booth that automatically sucks money off a cash card on your dashboard.

Last night when some friends were driving us home from Bible study, we noticed a number of cars pulling off on the left shoulder. What's the problem? Accident? The only time I see this happen is when motorcyclists seek the refuge of an overhanging bridge during rainstorms.

Then we realized what it was. They were approaching the ERP, which was set to turn off at 10:30. It was 10:28. So these people were pulling off to wait the remaining two minutes so they could save 50 cents. Really? With the price of gas in Singapore, aren't you using about that much just idling there for however long you've been there? I suppose when you have to do it consistently, it becomes about the principle of it - you get tired of Big Brother electronically zapping your pocketbook on a regular basis. We in the car debated how much money it would take for us to pull over for 2 minutes. We decided $2. I think there's a time/money ratio here that a geekier version of me would attempt to discern.

Fiona, Wei Han, thanks for taking the 50 cent hit for us.

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Prepare your heart

My husband is world renown (and I mean that) for the way he can deliver even the harshest news on a platter of gentleness. He's learned that when he shares bad news with me, this is especially important. So he has adopted the phrase, "prepare your heart." I've come to expect and dread those words in the last few weeks. I've heard them so many times in relation to our visa process. I won't go into detail about all the up's and down's (unfortunately mostly down's until recently, as it looked like our stay in Singapore was extending a little bit each day). I'll just tell you the outcome:

We leave Singapore next Sunday, May 31st. It was supposed to be tomorrow, but when all is said and done, having an extra week will be good. Erik just got back from a trip to Bangkok last Monday and it would have been craziness for him to leave tomorrow, even for someone who handles craziness like it's a walk in the park, as Erik does. Me, I don't do crazy very well. I'm trying.

So this week we are trying to wrap up all the details of our five years of island living. The movers come on Friday (and no, we are not packing ourselves. Full service packers are the way to go!). When we found out we were possibly not leaving until the 6th of June, I tried to change the moving date until the 5th. The latest I could get was the 29th. Now I'm so thankful that's all I could do!

Once we land in China, we will have a week there to enjoy our good friends, the Higgins, before they take a short furlough for the summer. Then (and here's the bonus part) we have to go to Hong Kong to finish the visa process, but we get to go to Disney World while we're there! I love my life. Yes, even though I have to go through the "prepare your heart" times.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Land of Negotiation

When it comes to markets in Asia, negotiation skills are key. I could regale you with stories (if you know me personally, I probably have) about bargaining vendors down to 10% of the original price.

For some reason, I don't mind doing this when I'm on the buying end, but I really hate it when I'm the seller. We're in the process of selling some of our things right now, and I have been hoping that I wouldn't have people try to bargain with me.

So far so good. The only strange experience was a couple who came to look at some of our furniture and started asking about things we weren't selling, "What about those lamps? Are those for sale? What about this carpet? Are you taking this? How about your kids? How much for your kids?" (Ok, I'm kidding about that, but it was heading that direction). They also tried to buy something I'd already sold by offering me $10 over the sale price. I was unmoved. If he'd offered me $50 more . . .

But today I had an older couple come pick something up for their daughter. You can count on the older Chinese Singaporeans to push their luck. When I mentioned that the IKEA shelf with plastic drawers I was selling them had a bit of wear, the woman said, "Oh, well, then could you take some off the price?" Mind you, I was asking $10. When I reminded her of that, she seemed surprised but accepting.

Turns out she was surprised because I sold her the wrong thing! Her daughter called later and arranged to have her parents come back while I was gone in the afternoon. The item she really wanted I had asked $40 for. It was originally $100, and though I only paid $40 in the As Is room at IKEA, I was including all the plastic boxes in it. But sure enough, I had to navigate some text message bargaining. After confirming the price, I sent a message to my maid encouraging her not to let the older woman try to negotiate for it.

And sure enough, Lisa told me later that the woman tried at first to only give her $10 in addition to the $10 she'd already given. Lisa was firm and said that I had asked $40. After a little more "discussion" she was able to wrangle the rest of the money out of her. I'd like to embellish the story and say that Lisa blocked her way and wrestled her to the floor, fending off the woman's husband with a spare hand, until she managed to pry the $30 out of the woman's fist. But that would be a lie. Still, thank God I have a maid who can stand up for herself. And me. Maybe I should have her handle the rest of the negotiations.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Cancelled due to sneezing

Let me just clarify first of all that I do not have swine flu. I do however, have a bit of a cold. It's hard to say how much because I had a bad allergy day yesterday, so I'm not sure if the congested face is from that or the cold. But I do know that I have a sore throat and mild cough, so there's something lurking under there.

I mentioned this to my kids yesterday morning, and they immediately said, "Then why are we doing homeschool? Shouldn't we cancel because you're sick?" Sharp little buggers aren't they? Yep, that's why we homeschool. I really wasn't feeling that bad so we did slog through a few subjects (we've dwindled down to Bible, history, spelling, handwriting, reading, and math).

Thankfully, our neighbor kids were off yesterday due to Vesak Day (Happy birthday Buddha!) so they spent the afternoon here while I alternated between laying in bed, sneezing, sorting through parts of our house in preparation for moving, sneezing, making brownies, and sneezing.

This is our last week of homeschool, and my motivation to finish well is down to almost nothing, but I did want to have a final day, and not just do the equivalent of tripping and falling down somewhere near the finish line. However, today looks like it will be another bad allergy day so I'm questioning the wisdom of trying to do anything at all. Thank God the neighbor kids are off again!

Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Extra precautions

I walked into the wrong side of the library tonight. I've never done that before, because there's never been a wrong side before. I was ushered back around to the entrance, where I was met by a man wielding - was that a thermometer? Was I going to have my temperature taken? Has swine flu overtaken Singapore with my knowledge?

Oh, no, that's just the wand they use to scan books. He requested to see my IC (identification card) and he scanned that instead. Next to me was a sign informing me that this was a precautionary measure to be able to track contact should the need arise.

So I'm trying to think this through: presuming I were to contact swine flu, and they determined that I had been at the library when I was sick. Does that mean they would contact every single person who had been at the library when I was there? (answer: yes, of course) What about all the people who touched books within 24 hours of me touching them but who weren't there during that time? I take a lot of books off the shelf, glance them over, and then put them back. Today I read the first chapter of a Sedaris book which was about him getting a job as an elf at Christmas. I had a good chuckle and then put it back. I could have put swine flu germs all over that puppy. Maybe they would make me recall all the books I took off the shelf. But what about all the books those books touched?

Furthermore, you might be able to contact every person in the library, but what if I then took my germ infested hands over to the Bishan mall which is right next door, and I touched a bunch of stuff in Cold Storage, and touched my way through the stacks in Popular, and then got on the MRT and grabbed that pole . . .

I applaud their effort. You can't blame Singapore for being a bit paranoid - after all, they were one of the hot spots of SARS. I just have to question the efficacy of this method.

On a similar note, I received an email today informing me that our office fun day venue has been changed because the place where we're going to have it (2 weeks from now) has been sanctioned as an official quarantine spot.

No one can say Singapore won't be prepared for . . . whatever ends up happening.

Where are you from?

Back in the China days, taxi drivers often tried to engage me in conversations. Inevitably they would ask, "Where are you from?" Rather than out right answer their question, I would always shoot back a "Ni cai cai" (you guess). Because nothing ups the fun meter like a guessing game with a Chinese taxi driver.

Without fail, they would say, "Fa guo ren" with confidence. French. I am not French. I don't know why they would guess French. I'm voting for "Gina's wildly spectacular fashion sense." No? You disagree?

Well, now that we're back to taxi-ing here in Singapore, I find myself answering the question again. The second day we were back in taxis, I was asked it, so I decided to play the game Singaporean style (which just means asking it in English. Not nearly as much fun).

Turns, out, even in Singapore, I am French.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

Scary Pancakes

Our family is in love with a pancake recipe my friend Jen gave me. It's chock full of goodness like oatmeal, ground flax seeds, wheat germ, and whole wheat flour. I showed Lisa the super maid how to make it, then confidently put it on the menu for the following week. After all, this woman has magic hands when it comes to cooking.

And yet, when she put them on the table the next week, they were like rubber. I told her maybe she had stirred it too much so she said she would stir less. But it happened again. And again.

The next time I made them myself, and let her watch again. I mixed all the dry ingredients together, then the liquids, slowly poured them in, and barely mixed them together. Aha! Lisa was just dumping everything in together and mixing it to the consistency of lotion. Problem solved!

But no. Every time since then that I have put pancakes on the menu, she has come and said, "Mum Gina, pancakes?" so I go and mix them for her. The other day she sent Megan as her representative. I went into the kitchen and said with a smile, "Lisa, are you afraid of my pancakes?"
"Yes! I am very afraid!" she said, even sounding somewhat afraid.

I've found her weakness.

Friday, May 01, 2009


Probably hundreds of times I have driven down Cavenaugh Road in Singapore. It's lined with condos on one side, and on the other, the double yellow zig zag lines that mean, "Cars may not stop, slow down, or even THINK about slowing down here." Not that you could do anything, because there is a big barbed wire fence hidden among that beautiful foliage that conceals "Istana."

Istana is the official residence of the president of Singapore, and it boasts incredible grounds (100 acres of prime downtown real estate!), including a nine hole golf course. It's also where he receives dignitaries. It is only open on certain public holidays and since it is Chinese Labor Day we thought, "This is our last chance to go!"

We had to stand in a long line, show ID, get our temperatures taken (no swine flu here!), and then go through the most beautiful security check I've ever seen. Inside, we walked up the hill which was mostly open ground (well, mostly the golf course) up to the house. We paid the extra $2 to go inside, but it wasn't all that exciting. Impressive, but they didn't let us see much.

On the way out, we noticed that there was a motorcade of golf carts breaking through the crowd. It didn't occur to me that it might be someone famous - after all, they were in golf carts. But as they passed by I scanned the carts and said, "Hey! That's the president!" Unfortunately Erik had the camera and didn't know it was the president. I presume that was his wife with him, and some guards or groupies or something filling the other carts. So, bonus! That made the $1 admission to the park so worth it!

Another Singapore landmark done.

Erik doesn't have swine flu. Whew!

The most beautiful security check I've ever seen.

The view from the house looking out over Singapore. And that's just from the ground floor! It pays to be president of Singapore, even if you don't really have any power.

The residence itself. If you go, don't bother going inside. Not much to see.