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The chronicles of two Portlanders in Singapore

Imagine sitting in a plane for over 20 hours.  First class, economy, it doesn’t matter.  Your legs stiffen and cramp, your back aches because no seat was ever made for sitting for that long in comfort.  You race for connections, you drink offered sparkly or wine, the small amounts of alcohol loosening your muscles, guiding you into a shambling semblance of sleep.  You land at your destination in the unholy hours of the morning, navigate taxi queues, hurdle through a city unlike your own, where the heat and humidity are a marked contrast from the cold rain pounding your home in the winter months.

Now imagine that your guide to this place isn’t a professional relocation expert with a sardonic wit and her slightly misogynistic partner who corrects her in all things, but rather two fresh newbies to the city, expats living here for a mere nine months who have travelled far less than you and your companions.  Would you feel shorted?

I doubt it, either, but I’m feeling quite under-qualified for this position none the less.

My parents and my father-in-law are here in town, having braved the long journey over the Pacific in the lap of luxury – but not the lap of Phil Knight, that is reserved for Beverly and I – to spend a month here in Southeast Asia.  We’ll be traveling to Bali, back to Vietnam, and apparently Beverly and my father have secured, through the grace of Phil, an excursion to climb Mount Kinabalu.  We’ve been looking forward to this visit for months now, it’s been planned nearly since we arrived, and many a night has been spent over the previous nine months mentally listing places to show our family, to help them try to understand Singapore as we’ve begun to come to an understanding of the Lion City.

But, still, tour guides for three in a city like this?  If I were my parents, I might be asking for a refund.

Okay, okay, so maybe I’m underselling our abilities to learn about a place in which we live after a few months.  If anything, the family visit is something of a test, really.  A midterm exam to see just how well we’re learning our lessons as expats, as temporary Singaporeans, as strangers in the oldest land, a continent that is so dark to Americans and our history, a land shrouded only in war stories for history lessons, and misinformation and fear-mongering from our news.  This month-long exam will test many things; our ability to retain information regarding Singapore’s history, not only as “the little red dot” but also as the free port set up to counter Dutch imperial ambitions in the area, and as a minor Sultanate in the heady days of Malaysian power on the island.

We’ll be tested in our ability to move from country to country, our travel abilities to jump on a plane and go boldly into terra incognita, and act like we’ve been there before, while exploring an area of the world and cultures we’ve never seen.  This test requires quick thinking, planning an itinerary that can be flexible to the needs of five people with disparate interests and endurance.

Or, perish the thought, I’m just being over dramatic again and we’re just going to continue to explore this amazing area of the world with the people we love.

The arrival of our parents was made more stressful thanks to the miracles of modern technology.  What’sApp, the oft-used IP-based communications app, has made international texting more accessible, especially combined with the equally ubiquitous public wifi networks in airports and coffee shops.  However, when things don’t happen instantly, sometimes miscommunications can occur – for example, when I got a text at 3am from my father that they were in Hong Kong when they were due to leave that city on an 8pm flight.

That one kept me up for an hour wondering when the next available flight was – assuming they had missed their connection and had to spend the night in the airport.  Instead, my dad’s communique was simply delayed as he left the free wifi as they boarded, and the message sent when they checked into their apartment in Singapore and tested the wifi there.

So, much ado about nothing.

Early lessons on Singapore started – I brought them a packet of pocket tissues, calling it a Singapore survival packet, and we walked over to Lau Pa Sat, the large hawker center in downtown.  There they were as overwhelmed as I was when I first walked to Maxwell Food Center, but had at least someone to guide them through their gastronomic inclinations towards a good brunch.  Because I am new at this position, I opted for shock and awe, and we walked over to Raffles Place MRT and I showed them how to use the trains, and promptly took them to Orchard Road, because sensory overload really isn’t a thing, is it?

We came up to Holland Village, had lunch at our local hawker center, and I think I might have burned my mother out on hawker food in four hours.  For dinner, we went to Bar Bar Black Sheep, one of our favorite watering holes and got my father-in-law to eat chicken biryani, while introducing our various parental figures to the wonder that is the Singapore alcohol tax, paying way too much for a tower o’ Tiger1okay, it was Asahi, but ‘Tower o’ Tiger’ sounds so much better than ‘A Fuck Load of Asahi’, doesn’t it?.

And that was day one.

So far, I think “the parents” have adapted well.  I think that my assumptions were largely on target – my father fell in love with the wet markets, as would anyone with an adventurous palate and an inclination towards cooking.  My mother loved the insane offering of top-shelf brands within the malls of Orchard and Marina Bay Sands, but was truly shocked by the prices2as would any American – stuff is cheap in our country, yo..  Everyone loves the ultra clean and efficient train system.  Local coffee’s strong black flavors were also a big hit, and Bev’s early Chinese lessons in ordering “kopi ‘o’ kosong” have been dutifully transferred.

We get high marks in food, to nobody’s shock.

Some assumptions, though, as assumptions often do, were off the mark.  In a trip to Little India’s massive wet market, my dad got my father-in-law to try durian – something I would have never guessed would happen.  His reaction to it was surprisingly moderate too.  Durian’s always been a “love it or hate it” thing for me, but what did I just say about assumptions?

We gave out homework of our own, a true test to those that teach, quickly making Saturday night plans for Clarke Quay, though we five were already drained from a day of walking around Gardens by the Bay.  With nothing more than a name and a meeting place sketched out in quick bursts of What’sApp texts, we set our parents on a quest to master the MRT.  They succeeded with flying colors, literally, using the color-coded system to navigate from one line to the next.  Singapore’s MRT system, it must be said, is a wonder.

Dinner at Clarke Quay showed with no questions the moderate cost of restaurant food and most importantly, the high cost of restaurant drink.  We were smart enough to take full advantage of happy hour promotions to get a quick couple of jugs of Tiger on the table3this time, it was Tiger and I also love the phrase ‘Tiger on the table’ before getting our food orders in.  Short ribs – both braised and deep fried – Sichuan style fried chicken, calamari and dumplings, solid offerings all expertly cooked.  We finished the night at Highlander, our go-to place for ear busting live music and amazing drunk people watching.  The booze of course required some hasty phone calls to the bank to clear the funds transfer, but after the second mortgage was in place on my parents’ house, we had ourselves a final final of whiskey and full-throated renditions of Pitbull and Sia4I’m guessing?  I am literally the worst at pop music.  These are real artists, right?.

I’d say we passed Nightlife, as well.

This whirlwind of walking and listening to music and eating food was hard work.  We were wearing thin after only a week.  Perhaps a bit too eager to pass our midterms, we both needed to learn endurance, so Sunday, in a biblically inspired move, was designated a day of rest, as we five all slept in, planning on meeting up at “the parents'” place downtown, a newly constructed condo with a top-notch pool area.  I took turns relaxing in the watery chase lounge chairs and the hot tub, both with views of the Sands, as the monsoon winds made the day feel like an honest to god Californian summer day.  Families got together on the BBQ as we retired upstairs, 25 floors up, to enjoy good-ol’ fried chicken and good-ol’ fried rice, staples of uh, a mixed cuisine.  A bottle of wine, brought over the Pacific, and bought at BevMo, went down quickly as we talked about everything and nothing in particular, made plans for the next few days, and bickered and laughed and joked and ate.

Yeah, high marks in family, as well.  I’d say we’re off to a good start on these midterms.



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