Sleepy in Seoul

Arrived. Checked in at my humble backpacker lodgings. Showered, etc.

Now must sleep.

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En route to Seoul

There would be a picture of my two backpacks here, taken this morning before I left for the airport to prove that I'm really travelling that light --- but the USB cable for my camera is in my check-in luggage.

I'm at Shanghai Pudong International Airport, where contrary to what the internet would tell you, there is free wi-fi. So I caught up on email, Facebook and RSS feeds instead of swotting up on hangeul. That can wait till I board the 1.5-hour flight to Seoul.

My flight from Singapore to Shanghai was packed with a couple of tour groups from China. This was the first time I've ever heard cabin crew sternly, shrilly yell, teacher-style, in Mandarin, "Please stay in your seats!" This was prompted by passengers who were unfastening their seatbelts and getting up from their seats the moment the plane lifted off from or hit the ground.

My ineptness with Mandarin is so embarrassing. I wasn't sure of the term for bottled water when the flight attendant was coming around with the beverage trolley (she simply used the generic word for "water"), and I could not, for the life of me, remember how to say "credit card" when I was ordering drinks at a cafe in the airport. I remember how to say "Korea", but I can't remember how "Seoul" is translated in Mandarin.

However, I did manage to work my way through a six-page inflight magazine story on "the spirit of art" in Melbourne. Just don't make me take a test on that.

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Gathering it all together

Looking good

The problem with gearing up to go on the road for seven weeks is that it's so all-consuming, I haven't been able to write to my satisfaction about what's going on with AWARE (if you need to catch up , the indefatigable Ovidia Yu has been providing excellent daily updates), or done anything sparkling and creative at all of late, or had enough time to store up cat-cuddles for the time I'll be away.

I have, however, managed to pack a lighter bag than I took to Vietnam last year, which is a pretty neat achievement considering that this time, I have to pack for 10-25 degree weather. Maybe I'm just getting better at squeezing the air out of Ziploc bags. Well, and travelling with a HP Mini instead of my usual Macbook helps.

If everything proceeds according to schedule, by this time tomorrow night I'll be in Seoul. You can start making your own Seoul-related puns now; I'm going to forbear for as long as I can.



Long overdue

I've been meaning to overhaul the design of my website for some time and finally --- with a lot of patience from Daniel and my brother --- I have.

It's now in sync with the design of my business cards (also by Daniel). It's also a very happy yellow.



My mind is full

In the run-up to my departure date, things are much more under control than they were the last time, but I still find myself with not enough spare braincells with which to write an energetic, witty post.

Maybe it's because a significant amount of my energies today went towards thinking about how to wrangle budget accommodation in Seoul, since I 'd procrastinated on making a reservation and my top two choices were fully booked. (Lucky for me, in this case it worked out for the better, because I've landed cheaper accommodation at a more central location.)

Maybe it's because the AWARE situation shows no signs of imploding or being amiably resolved. (More detailed thoughts to come later. I'm still working on it.)

Maybe it's because the weather it's so hot, it makes it difficult to think. On the bus back from Beach Road market today (I bought cheap army raincoats again), Ming and I were equally listless in conversation, thinking more about when we could reach the cool comfort of our respective homes. In fact, it was so hot last night that the cats came into my air-conditioned bedroom and slept on (not under) the covers.

I hope my brain gets to chillax soon.

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Things I'll miss

If I were not away from Singapore from next week till mid-June, I would be at:
Even with Facebook and blogs to keep me updated while I'm on the road, I would rather be there.

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A household in rebellion

The washing machine is fixed and running again, but one of my bedroom lamps has gone kaput.

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I wish I'd taken a video

--- but I was too busy freaking out that my washing machine was rocking its way around the kitchen like it was possessed by a poltergeist. First I tried to hold the machine still, but my feeble arms were no match for its wild motions, so I switched it off before it crashed into the sink or something.

I don't know what's wrong with the machine, but a repairman is coming tomorrow. Meanwhile, I have a heap of wet laundry and I'm nervously anticipating the repair bill. My threshold is $300 inclusive of the $62 house-call fee; if it crosses that mark, I'll probably just go buy the same Samsung washing machine my mother recently acquired, which sings a happy tune when the washing is done. (Seriously.)

I knew something would go awry before I left on my trip. Last time it was Ink's eye; this time it's appliance failure. Just one more thing I have to stick on my to-do list, which I've ordered by day so that I spread out the work and the errands and don't leave everything till the very. Last. Day.

See, I have learned from the last time.



A graveyard gander

Singapore's been having a heat wave this weekend, the kind where yesterday I took three showers and Darren text-messaged me at 11 p.m. to tell me that his car was reporting an external temperature of 33º C. (Today it reported a temperature of 34º C at 7:30 p.m.) But despite the heat and the temptation to have a Sunday morning lie-in in air-conditioned comfort, I hauled myself out into the sun, in time for the Singapore Travel Meetup Group's excursion to the Japanese Cemetery.

Japanese Cemetery

You might be able to tell from the pictures that we were there at high noon. It was hot and we were the only visitors. It's been years since I'd stepped into a cemetery in Singapore --- my own forebears having been removed some years back to very modern holdings at a columbarium --- so it was pleasant to follow the marked path and peer at the gravestones from a polite distance. Most of the markers were inscribed in Japanese, with the exception of one Western-style marble one in English (dated 1950).

The main reason I'd made myself go was because after researching and writing about the karayuki-san ("the women who went overseas", as Japanese prostitutes abroad were known in the late 19th and early 20th centuries), I wanted to see their final resting places for myself. Historian James Warren has tallied 425 karayuki-san graves at this cemetery; I didn't count them today, but it felt like they filled at least a third of the modest cemetery.

The graveyard was very green and very neat. Preetam said he missed seeing children playing in it, but a little peace and quiet is nice too.



I forgot how much I hate Windows

... till I started using a HP Mini today.

The machine itself is great. I had it in my bag for most of this afternoon and evening, and didn't feel the weight at all. It runs pretty fast, and while the keyboard takes a little getting used to, that's mostly to do with the placement of my hands with respect to the touchpad; the size itself is fine.

Now if only these machines could run OSX. I also miss Adium. Miranda looks positively like ICQ circa the late 1990s.

But all in all, I ain't complainin'. The nice folks at Edelman Singapore were nice enough to rustle me up a loan unit for the next few months, so I can bring it to Korea and not have to lug the Macbook everywhere. The latter held up very well against the rigours of on-the-road travel in Vietnam, including being bumped in a backpack against some rocks during an unexpectedly steep descent at Cuc Phuong National Park and enduring the rough vibralto of many motorbike rides throughout the entire trip. But my back and shoulders will be grateful for not having its weight bear down on them every. Single. Day. of the next trip.

So now I have one sparkling white Macbook and one snazzy black HP Mini. And a white cat and a black cat. Can we say photo op?

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Not quite the size of Maggie Q

I don't know what size Maggie Q was when she appeared in the 2005 film House of Harmony, but she was pretty darn small. Tonight I tried on the four Shanghai Tang cheongsam she wore in the film, and while the waistline was no problem, let's just say that the upper torso was, and I had to put away the dresses very regretfully indeed, for they were very pretty cheongsam.

If you think you might be a fit, pop down to Oak3 Films' garage sale tomorrow or Friday, and scoop up what you can. Besides wardobe items, they've got heaps of props and retro items (I was very tempted by an old-school Polaroid camera), plus office oddments like mini-fridges and Ikea chairs. Just remember: it's a garage sale --- don't ask if they can provide bubblewrap.


A meme-like blog post

Because I'm feeling a little under the weather and I can steal the questions from Tricia instead of having to think up entirely original material. And yes, even though I didn't bother with the "25 Random Things About Me" Facebook meme.

1. Do you like blue cheese?
I don't mind the odd daub of it.

2. Have you ever smoked?
Once. If I ever picked up the habit, my mom would kill me.

3. Do you own a gun?
No. I live in Singapore.

4. What flavor Kool-Aid was your favorite?
Clearly whoever came up with this list of questions is American. I must've tried Kool-Aid at some point during my university years, but I can't remember a single instance.

5. Do you get nervous before doctor appointments?
No. I just get impatient.

6. What do you think of hot dogs?
Yums! But only if they come with the trimmings.

7. Favourite Christmas movie?
Love Actually. I stole Packrat and Ondine's copy last Christmas and, er, haven't returned it yet.

8. What do you prefer to drink in the morning?
Black coffee.

9. Can you do push-ups?
Kind of. Been practicing somewhat during Pilates class.

10. What's your favorite piece of jewellery?
A curvy silver bracelet I bought at a jewellery stand in the basement of Norris University Center, some time in the mid-1990s.

11. Favourite hobby?
Every time I see the word "hobby", I immediately think of "stamp collecting", even though I was an indifferent collector at best. I think hobbies are so 1980s.

12. Do you have A.D.D.?
We didn't have that in my generation at school.

13. What's one trait you dislike about yourself?
I don't have a very good memory.

14. Middle names?
Not telling! Some things are best kept private (or forgotten).

15. Name 3 thoughts at this exact moment.
What am I thinking?
Damn, I type fast.
My wrist is itchy.

16. Name 3 drinks you regularly drink.
Black coffee, ice-cold water and green tea (out of a bottle or a can).

17. Current worry?
I'll never write that novel.

18. Current hate right now?
When I was a kid, my mother told me not to say that I hated anything because "hate" is a very intense word and not be bandied about lightly (I don't think she used "bandied" though). So, uh, yeah, not really hating anything specific right now.

19. Favourite place to be?
I've been thinking a lot about Hoi An today, partly because a friend there has been Facebooking about eating at Casa Verde, and I'm trying to pitch a related food article. But I think my answer from before still stands: I don't really have a favourite place, though there are many places that I've liked dearly and would be happy to revisit.

Also, my apartment's still a good place to be, though it's not the same apartment that I wrote about the last time.

20. How did you bring in the new year?
Do you mean "ring in" Anyway, it was at a friend's apartment, with the clink of champagne and the riotous chorus of local TV station MediaCorp's New Year countdown event.

21. Where would you like to go?
Paris (again)! Iceland (was just watching a Bizarre Foods episode of this)! Also (in no particular order): Melbourne, Laos, China and Taiwan.

22. Name three people who will complete this.
Um. No.

23. Do you own slippers?
I'm going to steal Tricia's response because she said it best: "This is Singapore. We were born wearing slippers."

24 What shirt are you wearing?
A grey pajama top.

25. Do you like sleeping on satin sheets?

26. Can you whistle?
Yes, passably.

27. Favourite colour?
Red and its attendant hues.

28. Would you be a pirate?
Yes, if I can look as hot as Keira Knightley and get my pirate swag from 826 Valencia.

29. What songs do you sing in the shower?
None. I'm an execrable singer.

30. Favourite girl's name?
This changes regularly, but one perennial favourite is: Min.

31. Favorite boy's name?
Can't think of one right now.

32. What's in your pocket right now?
Nothing. After all, I'm going to bed.

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Just call me an old-fashioned girl

I spent some of today working and watching Mad Men (my newest addiction), then after dinner I did something I hadn't done in a very, very long time: I curled up on the couch and read --- a book.

Sure, the TV was on for white noise, the laptop was on and my cell phone occasionally beeped with a text message that I answered. But for over three hours I sat and read that book, getting up only to refill my mug of tea (I'm trying to fight off an incipient sore throat) or go to the bathroom. I'd already read about one-third of the book and I finished the rest of it tonight.

This is not to say that I haven't been reading all year. I read online everyday, heaps and heaps of stuff. But when it comes to books, I usually read them to kill dead time while I'm on public transport, waiting for public transport, waiting in line at the post office or waiting for a friend at a cafe. In other words: as much as I love reading and books and words and ideas, I very rarely choose to read a book, when I could be doing something else.

Tonight I actually caught myself thinking something along the lines of, "Okay, so I've finished that episode of Mad Men and I don't have the next one. But I have the latest episode of Dollhouse. But after that I don't have anything else, so how will I fill up the evening ..."

And I think it was when "how will I fill up the evening" traipsed across my mind, that I knew there was something terribly, terribly amiss.

The book I finished was Jen Lin-Liu's Serve the People, which I stumbled across at the library last week while I was looking for books on Korean food. It's an account of Lin-Liu's journey to learn to cook Chinese food in China, from a cooking school for kitchen workers who need government-approved culinary qualifications to a hole-in-the-wall noodle shop to one of Shanghai's most chi-chi restaurants.

I have to admit that I picked up the book mostly because the friend who recently landed a book deal is going to write a memoir linked to Singapore food (see her spanking new blog, A Tiger in the Kitchen, which shares the title of the book), and there are other food-related ideas that are burbling at the back of my brain. At any rate, it was nice to take a walk through modern-day China through someone else's eyes, and the ease with which most of the Chinese terms and names made sense to me, made me wonder if I shouldn't indeed spend some time wandering around that vast and crazy land. If nothing else, as I told everyone when I got back from Shanghai last year, my spoken Mandarin would improve really quickly.

This book aside, everything else I've been reading has been related to the upcoming Korea trip. I'm still trying to find a good book on Korean food --- not a recipe book, not a glossary of definitions, but a proper look at the culture and the people. Recommendations welcome!

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Waiting for guests

Three friends. Two bottles of wine. Many barbecued chicken wings and sticks of satay. Heaps of sushi and spinach salad. Two cups of coffee. Five slivers of dessert from Indulgence.

Now that the friends have left, the dishes are done and I'm sitting on the couch to unwind --- Sisu has decided to go to sleep on my outstretched ankle.

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The Good Friday ritual

Gong Gong

This is what we do every Good Friday with my mother's side of the family: in the evening, we meet wherever our forebears happen to be entombed --- formerly at Bidadari Cemetery, now at All Saints Memorial Chapel Columbarium --- and we make the rounds. Since I was a child, I've remembered seeing old black and white portrait photographs of my grandfather's parents and my grandmother's mother, imprinted onto their greying marble (or marble-ish) tombstones. These were the only images I held of them; they all died before I was born.

Their markers today are smaller, made of more prosaic aluminium (or some other similar metal compound), each one fitting neatly into the perhaps 20 cm by 30 cm sconce it occupies. Instead of graves, they're in niches and we find them based on a very modern address indicating the block, floor and alcove. But the pictures are still there, albeit a little grainier than I recall.

My grandfather oversaw the relocation of his family's remains to the columbarium way back in --- actually, I don't remember when exactly that happened, just that it must have been at some point in the late 1990s because my grandmother, who passed away in 1994, has always been at the columbarium and not the cemetery, and also because my memories of tramping around the cemetery pre-date my university years abroad.

Last season's flowers

Tramping around the cemetery was, hands down, more fun than visiting the columbarium. Despite the untended graves (there was one that had collapsed inward near one of my great-grandmother's, I remember) and overgrown paths, it wasn't so much creepy as simply a bit messy. To get to the graves, we had to veer off the paved road at some point and track our way along uneven paths. No one wanted to accidentally step onto a grave --- although no one's really superstitious on that side of the family --- and no one wanted to go to dinner with dirty, muddy feet.

Then there were the snails, plump on the path, with those fragile shells that we all stepped on at some point if we didn't watch where we were putting down our feet. It got to a point where we were making jokes about it among the cousins, to see which of us happened to kill a snail that year (but we did feel very sorry the instant we heard a crunch under our feet).

For some reason, the cemetery was always fairly deserted when we made our Good Friday pilgrimage, which lent some charm to the occasion, as if it were some peculiar ritual that no one else had in their family. At All-Saints Chapel now, it's always crowded. Today we had to wait about ten minutes while a family finished praying around the niche of their deceased relative, which just happened to be in the same alcove as my family's relatives. And in every block, there were a couple of people lounging on the seats, exchanging news with their family or just waiting for the visit to be over. It's not easy to find a quiet moment, even if you wanted to.

We don't pray or bow when we stand in front of the niche of a relative. Mostly we jabber about the details on the marker, which other deceased distant relatives or friends are located nearby, and whether anyone's put new flowers (usually fake ones, fresh ones would wilt quickly in our weather and make a mess for the caretakers). Most of my maternal relatives are in the same block. Today we spent some time hunting for another cousin's grandmother's niche, but even though we'd stumbled across it in previous years, we couldn't find it today.

Niche after niche

In the process, we came across other markers that made us pause and murmur. The long row of family members who died on the same day --- a car accident, perhaps? Two infant siblings, one born within a year of the previous one's death --- must've been just tragic for their parents. Two markers with no names, just an image of the deceased man, his dates of birth and death, a Christian verse and the name of the home where he must've been living before his death.

I took pictures today because it dawned on me this morning that I don't have pictures of the old cemetery. The thing about rituals is you think they'll go on forever. But in Singapore, even cemeteries disappear (Bidadari Cemetery was acquired by the government to build a new train station and housing). Pictures are more important than ever.




Almost, anyway.

I went to Tan Tock Seng Hospital's Travellers' Health and Vaccination Clinic today because I leave for Korea in less than a month and I hadn't checked if I needed any shots. Plus the American CDC seems to recommend anti-malarial protection for some of the rural areas I might be passing through.

As it turns out, the local travellers' clinic doesn't quite snort at the idea of one needing any preventive treatment for a visit to South Korea --- okay, they almost do. I believe the hospital staff member's exact words were: "It's Korea. It's safe."

So I just got the last-of-three hepatitis shots I was overdue for, and then I waltzed out of there after less than ten minutes. This duly impressed G-man, with whom I'd parted ways at Novena Square after lunch, but who had just barely made it out of the car park before I exited the hospital.

This last hepatitis shot is supposed to make me immune to Hepatitis A, and I'll have to get a $14 blood test in two months to see if I snagged Hepatitis B immunity as well. I'm sure I'll forget by then, though.

Related post: I got my shots

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Tym says, "Treasure Your Mind!"


An old friend Facebook-mailed me to say that at work today, she'd received some mail with a letterhead logo that included the word "TYM". Needless to say, she did a double-take. But it turned out to be a Health Promotion Board initiative called, "Treasure Your Mind":
Treasure Your Mind (TYM) is a workplace mental wellbeing education programme which aims to empower employees and supervisors with the skills to achieve mental wellbeing through a 3-module programme comprising an awareness talk and a series of skills workshops.
There's also a TYM Day. It doesn't seem to involve any modules or workshops, thankfully.

It kills me to have my online moniker in proximity to so much governmentspeak, of course, but I'm a little tickled to think that some people, at work, might be saying things like, "Have you gone for your TYM workshop yet?" or "Eh, tomorrow is TYM Day leh, don't forget to say nice things to each other."

Have you had your TYM Day today?



How do I greet thee? Let me count the ways

Windmills II

Sure, there's the ordinary handshake. Then there's the hug. My family's not very touchy-feely, in fine Asian tradition, so I never really got the hang of hugging someone till I went to university in the US. It's become pretty commonplace now in Singapore to hug family and friends (or at least, friends of a certain generation), but that doesn't mean it's as straightforward as it seems.

Because there's the generic American-style hug, which can be as teddy-bearish as you like depending on how warmly you feel towards the person you're hugging.

But then there's also the French-style double air-kiss, which is the norm among some of my clients and friends from Europe or Montreal. Sometimes I forget and go in for a regular hug, then have to backtrack to this.

And then last night there was a belated-birthday kiss-on-the-cheek from a friend who usually bestows a hug. This had me confused for a split-second, wondering if I had crossed wires and misread the cue for a double air-kiss.

And then a few weeks ago, there was the unexpected buss-on-the-forehead from a friend, which was a peculiarly fatherly gesture to receive from someone who's about the same age as me.

All of which goes to show that while greetings might be predictable in most countries, when you live in a place as mixed-up as Singapore, you never know what you might get.



All the gansik that's fit to eat

More Korean food than you'd expect to see at NTUC

Yesterday I discovered that one of my nearby supermarkets as a special "Best of Korea!!!" aisle. I'm not sure why because there aren't that many Korean expats in the neighbourhood. But the first thing I thought was, "Now I know where to go to practise reading hangeul ..."

However, this morning I inadvertently wound up practising how to read Chinese characters really quickly instead. As part of a pre-trip cultural immersion of sorts, I've borrowed the Korean TV series Woman of the House on DVD, which has Korean and Chinese language tracks, and only Chinese subtitles. I'm definitely not reading the subtitles fast enough to get the full details of the story, but it's amazing how much one can pick up from situational context and body language.

I'll be visiting Chuncheon, where Winter Sonata was filmed, so that's next on my must-watch list.

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I have never been at once so happy, and so jealous. Tonight I got a Facebook-mail from an old friend, telling me she's secured a publishing deal in New York. It doesn't matter what book, it doesn't matter which publisher --- the only thing I could think of was that someone I know, someone who's had similar advantages I've had, is going to have her name on a book published and distributed by a real New York publisher.

While I ...

This news comes right after I've been wrestling with old ghosts, writing about the scholarship bond I left behind almost four years ago. It's been two, three weeks of sporadically picking at old scabs, as Pin put it, and revisiting the what-ifs. And now, this.

I'm so happy for my friend, really. She's worked hard and worked smart to get to where she is. But as I told ampulets tonight, I've always compared myself to this friend because we had similar advantages and trod a similar path up to a point. Then our paths diverged because I had a scholarship bond to come home to, and she didn't. I didn't really know what I wanted to do with my life; she not only knew what she wanted, she went right out and got it.

I'm not saying I could've done what she's done. But I have never felt the taunting of a path not taken as strongly as I do tonight.

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Kids say the darnedest things #1

The best friend has been toilet-training her son, which has been fairly smooth-sailing aside from a few hiccups and the inevitable accidents.

However, today he started saying, "I like my penis."

We are very mirthful.

(This is not an April Fools' joke.)