Have You Ever Been to my Country?

That’s a very popular question, I’ve found, among the people of Asia. It is like a badge of courage to pay a visit to many of the closely grouped countries.

There is a lot of hometown pride there, and I think I can appreciate that. (ahem, note the title of my blog fercrimenysakes)

As mentioned, my purpose for traveling to Singapore was to meet with a very large supplier who works almost like an aggregator. On this trip I was to meet individually with the representatives of fourteen different Asian countries and companies.

Without fail, after introduction, one of the first questions I was asked was “So, have you ever visited my country?”

Since this was not only my first trip to Asia, but my first international trip ever, the answer was always going to be no.

I felt that simply saying no straight out is a conversation stopper. Instead of saying no, I tried to find some way to create a common bond to keep the flow going.

So, for example, when the two ladies visiting from Malaysia asked me if I’d ever visited their country, I replied “No, but my brother lives in Kuala Lumpur.”

“Oh!” they replied, and suddenly we had some basis for common ground.

When asked by the gentlemen from Japan, I replied, “I have not, but my husband has spent some time there and found it to be just beautiful.”

“Oh? Yes!” they replied and we spoke of Tokyo and snow monkeys and moved with ease into business.

But there were two instances of this conversation that really stick with me, now some two weeks hence.

First was the conversation I had with the two gentlemen from Pakistan. We spoke, carefully at first, and later without hesitation, about the many troubles the country of Pakistan is facing and the challenges this causes us doing business together.

One of the two men had gone to university in Australia, so he’d spent time in the Western world and got the chance to step back and see his country with different eyes.

“Do you think you would ever visit my country?” he asked, then said, “It’s very beautiful.”

I smiled and said, “I would like very much to see your country.” Then I looked him square in the eye. “Let me be very candid. Do you think it would be safe for me to make a visit?”

He paused, tried to smile, but a sadness washed over his face.

“I’m sorry to say this, but right now probably isn’t a good time. It’s very difficult for Westerners and especially Americans. I have a hard enough time explaining to my children why these people who do things I don’t understand make it so that I can only go to work and then go home. We never go out because any event like sports or a concert are just too dangerous.”

We were quiet for a moment.

I felt his sadness and I cannot even begin to imagine what that must be like. I really would like to visit Pakistan, to see the beautiful country he described. I often wonder if that could ever happen in my lifetime.

It seems unlikely.

And the other…

I sat at a table with three men from South Korea. One an older man, probably in his 50’s with very limited English skills. The other two were young, probably in their mid to late 20’s with full K-pop hair and dark rimmed glasses.

They were a funny trio, much like a dad and his two kids. One young man spoke pretty good English and he became the spokesperson.

“Have you ever been to my country?” he asked.

I smiled, and stopped to think if I knew anyone among my friends or family who had visited South Korea.

Yes. There is one. My dad.

He was in the Air Force and is a veteran of the Korean War.

Well, I didn’t say that to these men as talk of war, even among allies, isn’t always the best fodder for conversation.

But this fact hit bottom in my soul. I realized…What a difference a generation makes.

It took me a moment to regain my mojo. I smiled and said “No, but my plane will stop at the Incheon Airport on the way home.”

They smiled back.

“You know, that airport isn’t actually in Incheon,” the young man said.

“Oh?” I replied. “That’s like San Francisco. The airport is actually some distance away.”

“I’d like very much to visit San Francisco” he said, and we were back on track.

But I can’t stop replaying that conversation in my memory.

It’s actually rather meaningful.

Every one of the fourteen face-to-face meetings I had was deeply powerful and incredibly worthwhile.

Each group expressed their gratitude that I had traveled such a long distance in order to meet with them.

The travel was good for my program and good for my company.

It was good for me personally, too.

Those fourteen conversations held on the 21st floor of a towering highrise on a sweltering Spring day in Singapore left a lasting impression on my soul.

I look at the world a little differently now.

All that learning to be had just on the other side of a passport stamp.
To my credit, I didn’t ask a single person “So, have you ever visited New Mexico?”

I thought about it, though.

Facing A Fear…Or, Scratch That One Off The List

Most everyone has heard tell of this fruit they have in Southeast Asia that is really stinky. Most people will give you some sort of description of what they think it smells like including rotting flesh, pee and other unpleasant adjectives.

And of course all of these people who think they know a little something, when pressed, will admit they haven’t ever actually tried the thing.

So on a sultry Tuesday night in Singapore while drinking too much in a brew pub in the Boat Quay district, I was chatting with a coworker and native Singaporean.

He was asking me what were the things I wanted to see and try while I was in town.

I ran down a short list. Then he said to me, “so…do you like fruit?”

I grinned. “Yeah…are you talking about….?”

And he nodded.

Plans were made to get this American girl a taste of the stinky one, the King of Fruits, the Durian.

Thursday was the scheduled rendezvous and a group of us loaded up and headed for the Geylang District of Singapore, also sometimes called the Red Light District.

Despite being heavy on the laws and penalties, Singapore does actually allow prostitution. It’s just one of the many dichotomies of that fabulous city that intrigue me.

But I digress.

After a real hard work week, some coworkers and The Good Man and I found ourselves wandering what I could only describe as the old town of Singapore. The ungentrified part of a very gentrified city. I said to The Good Man “I’ve been looking for the soul of Singapore and I think I just found it.”

For among the clean streets and new glass and metal high rise buildings and a western sensibility in an Asian community, the Geylang showed me something different. A little more dirty. A little more dangerous. A lot more fascinating.

Dinner was an outside affair in a honest to goodness alleyway. The waitress told the ladies to watch their purses and anticipation for the meal ran high.

In addition to Durian, my Singaporean friend wanted me to try bullfrog porridge. I said ok.

We started with some Carlsberg beer to up the courage and soon the plates began flowing out of the open air kitchen.

We started with an oyster omelette (which The Good Man pointed out was like a Hangtown Fry without the bacon) and some beautiful sliced venison cooked in soy sauce and green onions.

I had to take a photo just so I could remember

While the chopsticks got to working and we discussed just where in the densely populated Singapore would actual wild deer be found, the main event landed on our table.

In two pots, one containing rice congee and the other chopped up chunks of bullfrog. I took some of the spicy variety and dug in.

Very tasty. Tender and quite mild like a very fresh scallop. No, it didn’t taste like chicken and by the way this is not the first time I’ve eaten frog. The congee gave a nice backer to the spicy frog meat.

As we ate, even more food came out including grilled calamari, stingray (the second time I had this), prawns and a heaping plate of clams.

It was a feast and the company was great, the surroundings gritty (but good) and the weather was about as steamy as you can imagine.

In short, one of the most perfect meals ever in my little life and a memory that will linger with me for years.

After we stuffed ourselves silly then cleaned up with the aid of several tissue packs, it was time to take a walk.

Dessert lay ahead and we were ready.

Across a very busy road and in an open air stand backed only with hanging tarps, we found our destination.

The prickly Durian fruit, piled high, odor filling the air.

I don’t know what the spray painted colors mean

My Singaporean friend went over to the vendor, a guy with a short, sturdy knife in hand, and began speaking in local dialect. He told us later he assured the guy that he wouldn’t pay for the fruit if it was bad, he needed to see inside, they haggled over price, and so on.

A fruit was chosen, the guy hacked it with precision and it was presented to the rest of us who were seated at another plastic table in a Geylang alleyway.

Each of those long strips has three sections to it

First impressions: It doesn’t smell that bad. It probably helped that we were outside and I understand some varieties of Durian smell more than others.

For me, it wasn’t the smell I struggled with, it was the texture. The fruit itself is like a custard inside a thin skin. You grab a section of the fruit (it pulls apart easily as there is a large pit inside each section) and just bite in. First bite my mouth registered “this is not a fruit” because it tasted kind of, well, savory.

But as I chewed and swallowed, on the back of my tongue, I tasted sweetness. The second bite I tried tasted sweet. Not big time sweet, just a nice mellow custardy sweet.

The more I ate, the more I liked it. I found after two sections, I was done. It was strangely satisfying and quite good.

Someone at our table popped up and went over to the vendors and negotiated for a plastic bag full of another fruit, this time the Queen of Fruits, Mangosteen. Less stinky and easier to open, the fruit inside looked like garlic cloves but tasted tangy and sweet. It was an interesting counter balance to the Durian. I understand they are often served together.

After a few sections of Mangosteen and another bit of Durian I was done. Topped up. Full to the gills and supremely satisfied.

What an amazing meal. What an amazing night.

By experiencing truly local food with the guidance of a resident “fixer”, I found the soul of Singapore.

It sang to the soul of me.

We are forever friends.

All photos Copyright 2012, Karen Fayeth, and subject to the Creative Commons license in the right hand column of this page. Taken with an iPhone4s and the Camera+ app.

Don’t Forget Your Tissue Pack

According to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a towel is the most “massively useful” thing you can bring along when you are traveling.

I suppose that covers all of the galaxy except that unique corner of the universe known as Singapore.

In Singapore, the tissue pack is king.

You see, the restaurants in Singapore don’t provide napkins and the bathrooms don’t have paper towels.

So every true Singaporean keeps a small pack of tissue handy in pocket or purse because some of the best food available involves getting your hands pretty dirty.

But the humble tissue pack is more than just a clean up device. It’s a calling card, perhaps better described as a place holder.

In the many Hawker Centers in Singapore serving up fabulous street food, things can get pretty busy, especially at lunchtime. There are usually a lot of tables, but they fill up quickly.

The best way to hold an open table while you order up your food is to lay a tissue pack on the table or seat.

I’m totally serious.

There is a social contract amongst the people of Singapore that says if a table has a tissue pack laying on it, that table is reserved. And everyone honors this.

No one simply pushes the tissue pack away and sits down. The tissue pack carries clout.

I was told that the tissue pack hold can last for at least a half hour or possibly longer.

And then once you get your heaping plate of chilli crab you settle into your saved seat and dig in to crack claws and legs and extract every savory morsel. The tissues are there to help you clean up.

Tissue packs are relatively cheap if you buy them in a drug store, like five cents a pack, but so valuable that it’ll run you up to a Sing Dollar (about .80 US) if you forgot your pack and have to buy one there at the Hawker Center.

It’s best not to show up unprepared.

Oh yes, in Singapore the most massively useful thing is a good clean supply of tissue packs.

Image from the Musings on Communication blog.

I’m an alien. I’m a legal alien.

I’m a New Mexican in Singapore.

What a whirlwind visit I’ve had here in Southeast Asia.

I think I’ve lived a year in a week and on Sunday, my last day in residence, I have a lot of thoughts going through my mind.

I have had some of the best food of my life. I have sweated more than I thought my pores were capable of. I’ve felt more at home than anywhere I’ve visited. I’ve felt more alien than anywhere I’ve ever visited.

I’m not sure where to even begin speaking about it all and rest assured over the next weeks and months it will slowly come through my writing. Or, perhaps, even years. My mind and Muse need to ruminate over it all.

But let’s get down to basics.

After eight days and twelve thousand miles away from home, I need some Mexican food.

On Friday as I visited with my ex-pat friend now living in Bali, we agreed that Mexican is just one thing you don’t get here. You can find just about everything else, but Mexican is a no.

While shopping the enormous Mustafa Market in the Little India district of Singapore (it truly is a store where you can find anything), I happened to stumble across this:

While Old El Paso is my least favorite brand, it’s at least something, right? Salsa! Here! Yes!



Turn over the jar and you see this:

Made in Spain? For General Mills Switzerland?

Remember that old Pace commercial: “New York City!?! Get a rope…”

Yeah. Times a thousand.

I shan’t be sampling the Spain/Swiss salsa. I’ll simply have to enjoy another day of chili crab, delicious laksa, chicken rice and everything else wonderful here and then next week I’ll see about getting my chile meter back up to green.