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The Sri Mariamman Temple is the oldest Hindu temple in Singapore and was founded in 1827, eight years after the East India Company established a trading settlement in Singapore. Today it is a stone’s throw from Singapore’s Central Business District.

The rural South Indian mother goddess Mariamman is a protector against diseases.

Sri Mariamman Temple.jpg

Views in Singapore’s Chinatown are a mix of the old and the new.

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mandarinLearning Mandarin made its way onto my long and winding bucket list in 2012 when Husband and I relocated to Singapore. Sadly, even though it was on the list, I can’t say it was much of a priority as it was a good intention.

I watched friends try to grasp the language with mixed success as I made “yeah, I’d like to learn too” comments. I then engaged myself in other activities instead: teaching yoga, volunteering, travelling, writing, working full time and oh yeah growing a baby.

In 2014, Husband even made learning Mandarin his New Year’s Resolution, asking me if I would learn with him. I happily agreed. Then we watched 2014 come and go.

So when I got an email from Elite offering me the chance to take a 12 week Mandarin course a few months ago, it finally felt like the perfect opportunity. It’s like someone read my best intentions and found a solution to my poor follow through! I signed myself and Husband up and we began our adventure.

“Woe, you are learning Mandarin? Isn’t that really hard?” asked a few friends when we told them the news.

“Sure,” I answered. “But I’m not naïve. I don’t expect to be fluent; I just expect to be able to communicate better with the Mandarin speakers around me. For example, some of the taxi drivers, some of the older Chinese Singaporeans who may not have learned English that well, and some of the people at the Hawker Market.”

This is when I learned that Husband’s mission was entirely different. He had visions of one day being able to effectively communicate on a business level in Mandarin. I suppose this is where our differing backgrounds come into play.

Having grown up in Europe, he speaks Spanish almost fluently and French as necessary. Having grown up in the US and taken 3 years of German in high school followed by a short study abroad there, I can just about ask for the toilet and order an egg for breakfast. I once injured my arm skiing in Switzerland and failed miserably to get directions to the doctor.

Skiing in Switzerland

Skiing in Switzerland Using My Really Poor German Skills.

So who is meeting their intentions best? I would say that it’s too early to tell and will likely depend on our individual dedications to the task. A few weeks in and we are both finding it easier to understand the culture around us.

For instance, I now know why the shop clerks sound so angry to me when they sell me things- it’s all about the tonal nature of Mandarin. “Sell” in Mandarin has an abrupt tone while “buy” is the same word but sounds like a question. They continue this way of tonal communication even when they speak in English. While it can come off curt and rude to a Westerner, it’s all very normal to them and they have no idea why I am upset by the interaction. A little understanding of such things can make transactions much easier for all involved.

Another thing is a shyness in Chinese culture to give a blunt yes or no. Susie, our teacher, explained that if someone asked her on a date, she would say something along the lines of “Oh I am very busy this week,” rather than “No, I am not interested,” and the person would get the hint.

The lights finally went on in my head. THIS. THIS is why I feel I can’t get a straight answer sometimes. Knowing this can save me some serious frustration when I can’t indicate whether the answer is yes or no.

There’s also the lack of verb tense in Mandarin, which explains why we often hear funny expressions in English or native Mandarin speakers feel like us Latin based language speakers use too many words.

And then the Chinese culture of “sounds like” and word plays that just comes off as quirky. For instance, the similarity between the word for oranges and the word for gold mean you get loads and loads of Mandarins heaped on your door at Chinese New Year.

Photo Not Mine

Photo Not Mine

Acknowledging these subtleties, Husband asked me why it took us 3 years to finally take the plunge and learn Mandarin. We really could have made the cultural integration thing easier on ourselves.

“I guess the right opportunity had to pop up,” I answered. “Better late than never,” I reasoned.

“True,” he answered.

Now if I can only figure out why I have so much trouble communicating with the taxi drivers. That would make the time and energy more than well spent!

Editor’s note:

If you are interested in enrolling (and I encourage you to consider it!), Elite Linguistic Network offers corporate, private and several group classes a week in Mandarin. Group classes are held at both Bugis and Jurong East and are currently $420 for 12 sessions. They offer a steal of a trial lesson at only $3 if you would like to check out the group courses prior to enrollment. Classes are 2 hours long and average between 6 and 8 students.

Elite has graciously offered an exclusive promotion to TexasOnThames.com readers of 15% off for two person / 10% off for one personKindly quote “ELN-TEXAS” when you call in to enroll at 6565 7166. 
To learn more about Elite’s language courses, check out http://www.languageasia.com/
Laura’s tuition was provided free of charge by Elite while Husband’s tuition was paid.

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Tanjong Beach

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My first trip to China was a long weekend in Shanghai last year. At the time I was still freelancing and I accompanied Husband on a business trip. Definitely an international city, I found myself intrigued by Shanghai’s style and culture.

I started my time in Shanghai with a walk down the Bund, the colonial riverside of Old Shanghai lined by historical buildings on the west and the Huangpu and financial district on the east. In the morning, the air was clear but by 4 pm, the haze had rolled in and the buildings weren’t very visible. Luckily, I had a chance to snap these shots in the morning.

Along the Bund.

Along the Bund.

Still along the Bund.

Along the Bund.

Worker

A Chinese worker has a smoke break near the Bund.

In China, red symbolizes prosperity and joy while white symbolizes death and mourning so it’s only fitting that a Chinese bride should wear red. This bride and groom were having their wedding portraits done along the Bund.

Bride

Bride

The riverfront walkway along the Bund underwent a major reconstruction in March 2010. The benefits are clear.

The Bund

Along the Bund.

the bund

Along the Bund.

I took a similar photo of a bull at Wall Street in NYC a few years ago.

Capitalism

A Nod to Capitalism

Continuing my walk, I ran into these fun guys dishing up some street snacks.

Durian

Weird fruit

I stumbled into People’s Park and found a man practicing his Mandarin characters.

People's Park

People’s Park

It took me a while to figure out what was going on with the hordes of people below. Eventually I came to the conclusion I was at a marriage market. Every Saturday and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m parents of unmarried adults gather to try and play matchmaker. The gender gap in China has widened to make finding a suitable bride more and more difficult for Chinese men. This market has been ongoing since 2004.

Marriage Fair

Marriage Fair

All this walking was making me hungry so I made my way to Jiajiatangbao (90 Huanghe Lu) for xiaolongbao. I arrived just in time to miss the long queue and sat across from a sweet local couple who gave me tips on the art of eating the dumplings without spilling out the precious juices or burning my mouth.

Dumplings

Dumplings

There are plenty of temples in Shanghai. Later with Husband now in tow, we visited the Jing’an Temple just north of Jing’an Park.

temple

Jing’an Temple

temple

Jing’an Temple

temple

Jing’an Temple

museum

Pretty.

After the temple, we settled down into the lovely grass at Jing’an Park where we were promptly booted out by these officers. They were very strict about the “No sitting or standing on grass” policy. A shame, really. The grass was so nice and well cared for. I challenge you to resist temptation to sit on it.

Park police

The Law

We topped the evening off with cocktails and jazz, which is apparently live and well in Shanghai.

Jazz

Jazz

Until next time, Shanghai!

Editors note: Visas to China are required for many countries and can be expensive, particularly for Americans. If you plan on staying 72 hours or less, you may qualify for the 72-hour Transit Visa Exemption Program. Keep that in mind when booking tickets for a quick weekend and you could save yourself a few hundred dollars.

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Singapore is the closest I’ve ever lived to Australia. And it’s a good thing we’re here since a few good friends moved to Melbourne about 3 years ago. That and well, who doesn’t love Melbourne?

left bank

The left bank.

southgate

Blue sky day.

public transport

Public transport.

graffitti

Street art outside tapas restaurant.

Sunshine, good food, art. But let’s be honest what it was really all about. Getting these two their presents.

presents.

presents.

The simple and versatile ribbon on string wins the day.

ribbon

Ribbon on string.

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You may remember that last year I was a little clueless when it came to Chinese New Year. I ended up ringing in the year of the snake with a last minute trip to Kuala Lumpur. My friend, Giselle, was barely more than a stranger to me at the time yet invited me along with her and her husband anyway.

Doesn’t that seem the nature of life here in Singapore? You meet someone and a week later you are hauling your bag on to a bus and settling down next to them for an adventure. Sometimes you part ways at the end and keep in touch as a formality on Facebook. In other cases, as is the case of Giselle, I was happy to make a friend to keep.

Our agenda was relaxed with a few things in mind, including Thean Hou Temple in its full New Year glory.

Thean Hou Temple

Thean Hou Temple

Thean Hou Temple

Heh, this sign made me laugh. By the end of day 1 we had made a game out of trying to get a taxi that would use it’s meter. We took turns approaching taxis and the one who got a driver that would use the meter won the round. Generally one out of every 4 taxi drivers would oblige.

taxi

Giselle studied art, so a trip to the Islamic Arts Museum was in order. The architecture of the building was a highlight.

Islamic Arts Museum

Onto the charming and chaotic Batu caves!

Batu Caves

atbatucaves

inbatucaves

And of course, a trip to KL would not be complete without a view of the Petronas Towers.

petronastowers

Although there are quite a few sights to see in KL, one draw of the city is their affordable 4 and 5 star hotels. Might as well spend some time enjoying the facilities and take things slow. My travelling companions booked early and were able to get a deal at a top hotel. I, on the other hand, was last minute and had to go a bit more budget. With a pool like this, I didn’t feel a bit bad about the extra money saved.

Hotel

Impiana KLCC rooftop pool

2014 introduces the year of the horse. Once again, I found myself without plans. This time due to tentative work-related commitments. While husband and myself contemplated last minute bookings, we opted in the end for a staycation spent with new and old friends in similar situations. Sometimes its just nice to not rush around.

One thing remains the same between CNY of the snake and the horse: so.many.mandarins.

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I’m out with my friend, Afsan, and someone asks us how long we’ve been in Singapore.

“Six months,” I say.

She looks at me and says “No, honey. You’ve been here eight months. I’ve been here six months.”

Can that really be true? I start to do the math and sure enough, eight months.

I’m not the new kid on the block anymore.  I went to my first going away party a few months ago. Anywhere else in the world eight months might still be new, but in a city where people stay either two years or twelve years, I’m becoming an old timer.

Wow, this happened rather quickly.

Despite Afsan being in Singapore for six months, her husband, Max, only just arrived.  I spent a day with them and another friend, Colin, on a driving tour around town.

Colin jumps in the car and immediately hands over a copy of one of Neil Humphreys books on Singapore. I get a little too excited. “Oh my gosh I’m reading his collection! Insightful, though a bit cheesy at times.” I can’t express quick enough the pride in finding the book all on my own and the many thoughts I have about it.

It’s Max’s first time living abroad and his excitement is charming and infectious. I remember flipping through my Singapore Lonely Planet before I arrived, imagining a land of temples, tofu and adventures yet to be had.

Max has only been here two days and he has lots of questions and a little bit of jetlag. Some questions I can answer, some I leave to Colin and Afsan. I’m surprised at how much I know about this place in such a short time.

“What’s that building over there?”

“It’s an HDB. You can assume that pretty much any ugly building is an HDB,” I answer. The others look at me and I realize my bluntness is laced with cynicism – cynicism that can slay enthusiasm. Now I feel a desire to start checking myself. I want his excitement to last as long as possible.

I want the travelling new experience magic to linger. I want to see my own experience through fresh eyes, not the eyes that deal with finding work, struggling with grocery store food choices, missing my friends around the globe.

I remember what it feels like to talk to people back home about what I am up to, to see my life from their perspective. It all sounds very exotic and exciting to live all over the world. It’s one of the many things I have dreamed of.

I remember that yes, my life is exciting. I am doing the things I want to be doing. I’m living, I’m exploring, I’m learning. The daily grind is just the daily grind.

I start to recall the things about Singapore that I really appreciate. “You get to meet very interesting people,” I say to Max. And indeed, that’s the biggest most meaningful and honest complement I can give.

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