Monday, December 14, 2009

Singaporean children can be really ill-mannered

Last weekend I went on an amazing fishing trip to a Kelong off of Sibu island, Malaysia. The premise of the trip was this: we traveled 5 hours by bus from Singapore to a jetty in Sibu, and then took a 45 minute ferry to a football-field sized platform constructed 3 km away from the nearest island (Sibu island). We then spent the next 36 hours living on the platform and fishing for hundreds of small fish called Kunin, while eating extremely fresh seafood prepared by local chefs on the platform. It was one of the most amazing weekends of my life.

For more pictures, see

I went on this trip with several other staff members from my school, Ngee Ann Poly. This was my first chance to interact with some of my colleagues in an informal atmosphere, and many of them had also brought their families along with them. I learned more about their children than I ever wanted to know from this trip.

At the first meal that we all sat down to together, I was at a table with fellow PiAer Dan, two colleagues, and four children aged 8-11. The entire meal, I basically sat there aghast as the children virtually claimed the best and most of anything set out on the table for us to eat, with absolutely no regards for the presence of anyone else at the table. One child in particular kept saying, "Let me have the best piece of fish Daddy! I deserve the best and I don't care about anyone else, especially these Ang Mors!" (Ang Mor is a derogatory term for a caucasian, it translates literally as "Red Hair" and is an obvious reference to the lighter complexion of Westerners.) But the most shocking part of this interchange was that there was no semblance of discipline or lecturing from the parents - they kept succumbing to their children's every whim, fueling their selfish and inconsiderate behavior.

Part of the basis for this self-centered behavior in the young children, I believe, stems from the social framework of the Singaporean household. It is considered the norm here to have a maid in the house (and unfortunately, these maids are always Filipino, Indonesian, or Burmese, giving these three nationalities a greatly diminished stature in Singaporean society. There are countless shops in every mall advertising the "pureness" of their maids' heritage, as these groups are virtually locked into only this role in society.) Therefore, children grow up with the mindset that there will always be someone to wait on them and perform menial tasks for them.

Over the course of the whole weekend, I saw numerous examples of these young children's selfish behavior: from the child that watched cartoons on the lone TV until 2am on full blast, while 150 other people were trying to sleep, to the child who exclaimed upon entering the speedboat "Daddy we need to have someone dry off our seats for us so we can sit!" to the boy who disobeyed his father's request to not eat more than 2 pieces of a 10 piece chicken meal for 8 people... he proceeded to eat 4 pieces, as I sat and watched and received no chicken. And yet, there was no discipline or scolding from the parents at any point during the weekend. It was unreal.

The weirdest part, though, is that my students, only 5-6 years older (17-18 years of age), are some of the most well-behaved and considerate young adults I have met. They thank me after every class I hold with them and after every quiz or exam I administer, and they often walk/run fifty feet out of their way just to come up to me to exclaim "Hi Mr. Zoller!" and run away. So somewhere between these two age groups, an enormous metamorphosis must take place. I just don't know what instigates it, because I certainly haven't seen the directions coming from the parents or household system.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Worm tea, black garlic, and tiger balm: TCM 2009

So are you getting sick of the constant flux of three letter acronyms, or TLA's, as they're called here? Almost anything that's labeled with three words is shortened to a TLA in Singapore; it makes for a very confusing conversation with someone if you have no idea what they're talking about. Regardless, this past weekend, I attended a two-day conference on TCM or Traditional Chinese Medicine.

I heard about the conference through my staff email, and after seeing that it would be a two day exhibition on traditional herbs, roots, and animal products used in Chinese Medicine throughout SE Asia, with presenters from the ministry of health from each of the major countries in the region, I was hooked. As a future doctor (I hope!), this topic is extremely interesting to me, because I find it fascinating to see how medicine operates in different cultures. What made the conference even more appealing to me was that my school agreed to pay the registration fee ($150), and it was going to be held almost entirely in Mandarin with translators speaking through headsets... very U.N.-esque.

Anyway, on Friday I was able to leave work at noon for the conference, and headed down to the largest convention center in Singapore, the Suntec Singapore International Convention Center. This place was enormous - it was floor after floor of wide open space filled with various events, shows, presentations, and conferences. And on the bottom floor... an enormous hawker center (of course, because Singaporean culture revolves around food. Which I love.)

When I walked into the TCM conference on Friday, I immediately noticed that I was the only white person in the room. And so did all the photographers. I arrived thirty minutes before the talks were scheduled to begin, so I wandered around some of the exhibits, where I was able to sample cordyceps tea (a tea brewed from a worm grown at 4000m in Tibet, priced at $100/g), black garlic (normal garlic treated with herbs and processes until it is black, soft, and sweet, priced at $12/head), and tiger balm (the omnipresent miracle cream in Singapore, it cures everything from mosquito bites to flatulence to muscle aches). All the while, there must have been over 50 pictures taken of me by the photographers, as I was clearly unique to their conference.

Once the conference began, I moved into the presentation room with all of the other industry members and trade workers who actually belonged there. I was passed my headset, and quickly put it on as the first presenters began delivering their talks in Mandarin. The translations were actually quite decent, and it was fairly easy to follow the talks along with the presentation slides (which were often half English/half Mandarin, but not always). But I learned some pretty interesting things from this conference on TCM:

- TCM has been used for thousands of years throughout SE Asia and Asia in general, with the traditional prescriptions being passed down from generation to generation
- Only in recent years have there been implementations of regulations on the use of TCM, and actually TCM in many countries is approaching the same level of legislation and regulation as for mainstream medicine
- Recent research on TCM has grown to the point that specific scientific breakthroughs, like targeted capsules and microsphers, are being applied to TCM in much the same way as mainstream medicine

But even with these "mainstream" advances applied to TCM, TCM has still not garnered widespread political support, even in SE Asia. Many of the speakers still focused their presentations on defending TCM against mainstream medicine, while trying to prove the benefits and advantages of TCM over mainstream medicine. Much of these defensive arguments probably arose from the following, disturbingly apparent, fact:

In the English speaking population of Singapore, up to 61% of the population will choose a TCM doctor before a mainstream doctor. So there is a huge market for TCM in Singapore, as well as in SE Asia in general. HOWEVER, Singaporean businesses require MC or Medical Certificate for any sick day taken - but ONLY from mainstream doctors. So even though the great majority of its citizens prefer to utilize TCM doctors to treat sicknesses, they are still required by the government to visit a mainstream doctor if they don't want to get in trouble at work. This simple fact cripples the TCM industry against its mainstream competitors, even though much of the patient population choose TCM over mainstream medicine.

What does the future hold for TCM in SE Asia? TCM suppliers of ASEAN, or the Association of SE Asian Nations, are currently focused on forming a unified TCM distribution group to increase their market size (from small country-based fragments to >500 million patients), which would siginificantly increase the political and social support for TCM. Who knows, maybe in the near future applications from TCM will find their way into Western medicine...

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Observations on the Singaporean education system

I figured I would take the time to write down some of my recent observations on the Singaporean education system, at least as far as I have experienced it. I had two very powerful interactions with my students this past week: first, one group of students interviewed me for their project on "Cultural Awareness" for a separate class; and second, I lead a class-ful of presentations on controversial topics in Cell Biology. Both of these gave me very interesting insights into the minds of my students, particularly with regards to how and what they're taught throughout their lives. What I found out is that they seem to be very sheltered and narrow minded, if just from my observations.

First, the interview. A group of my students approached me last week asking if they could ask me some questions for their project from another class, involving cultural awareness. I agreed, and we set up a time. Basically, the "interview" unfolded as more of a test of my knowledge of Singaporean culture, as their questions included, "Do you know five Singlish phrases?" "What are the respective colors of each of the three ethnic groups in Singapore?" "What are the aspects of Singaporean culture that are most different from America?" and "What can Singapore improve upon?"

The last two questions were the most difficult for me to answer, as Singapore is very particular about it's "freedom of speech." Criticism of the government and of the way things are run is almost non-existent in Singaporean culture, so it was important that I watch what I say. Regardless, I spoke at length with the students about one of most glaring differences I've so far encountered, which has to do with the education system.

In America, as most of the people who are reading this will know, your education is your own. You are free to choose your major or your path based on your interests, your strengths, and your desires. If someone or something tries to influence your future decisions (ie your parents, your peers, your advisers) so be it, but ultimately, you have complete control over your future. Not so much in Singapore.

When I spoke about this aspect of American culture with my students, they were shocked (and rightly so). In Singapore, the educational matrix is very highly regulated, even at the level of the individual student. Students are locked into a rigid track from an early age (about 12) based on a set of test scores, which virtually predicts their entire future. What's more, the MOE (Ministry of Education) releases a list of needed industry workers each year to the various JC's and Polytechnics (the just-before-university schools), and this list is what these schools base their entrance criteria and enrollment size upon - not upon school resources or students' capabilities, but upon the future needs of Singapore's industry.

With that in mind, Singaporean students are generally groomed into a certain field early on in their education, and there is very little flexibility to adjust one's path once they're set into a track. My students were downright shocked to hear about the flexibility available to students in America, with how they could change their major seven times (ie me) and with how much freedom they have to control their own future. I was shocked to see how shocked they were - it was a bit disconcerting to see so many hundreds of thousands of students locked into such a rigid education system.

Second, I had an even more disconcerting observation during my students' presentations on ethical controversies in Cell Biology this past week. The topics they had to present on included stem cell research, cloning, genetic testing, and artificial life forms. They were required to field questions from the rest of the class for 3-5 minutes following their presentation (of course none of the students asked any questions) so I challenged each of the groups with some thought-provoking questions. (Or at least that's what I had expected).

I tried to probe into the students' ability to grapple with dense ethical dilemmas, so for example, I asked the stem cell research group to discuss the ethical limitations on stem cell research, particularly with relevance to embryonic stem cells (which requires the destruction of an embryo in order to obtain viable cell lines for research). This is an ongoing controversial topic in the world of biology, and I was interested to see how my students had been educated on this topic, and on all of the controversial topics, and how they would be able to discuss both sides.

Unfortunately, their responses were very much pre-programmed responses. Rather than intelligently diverging into the pro's and con's of each side, and weighing the costs and benefits of a variety of arguments, each student group spewed out what seemed to me to be an engrained answer. Each student seemed to have a very narrow minded view of science, one that was completely detached from the culture and society growing around it. They all spoke of the "necessary sacrifice to destroy an embryo, because all science requires sacrifice" without comprehending the human side of the argument; or the "necessity to have genetic testing done on everyone, because the knowledge would be so beneficial" without discussing the psychological and emotional impact widespread genetic testing could have.

It was kind of disturbing to me that they almost had no comprehension of the duality of many of these issues, and it seemed that they were almost brainwashed into pursuing the religion of science without being able to assess its impact on the world around them. Through these two interactions with my students, it seems to me that one of the difficulties inherent in the Singaporean education system is that it leads to narrow minded, inflexible learning; this is not a beneficial quality to distill upon hundreds of thousands of fresh minds each year.

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Nusa Dua ialah tompat surf yang paling bagus

Only three weeks after my jalan from Bali, I embarked on part dua of my adventures at the Bukit. I had the single best surf session of my life, hence the title to this entry: "Nusa Dua is the best surf ever," in Bahasa Indonesia (the language of Indonesia).

Three weeks ago, I went to Bali with only one other person; it was a trip in which we got to call all of the shots and we got to decide what we wanted to do, when we wanted to do it. For this most recent trip, however, I had booked the travel details at the bequest of one of coworkers... through a travel agent. At the time when my coworker invited me and several other of the IFs on the trip, I had jumped at the opportunity to plan a 3 day weekend in the surf capital of the world; during the days leading up to the completely pre-arranged, travel agent-sponsored, every detail already paid for luxury-fest, however, I was not so excited. Part of the excitement for me being in Asia has been and is the opportunity to explore new adventures every day, and I bring this attitude to each of my travels around this part of the globe. Therefore, boarding the plane for Bali, I decided to completely ditch all of the travel agent's pre-arranged plans for us and do my own thing the whole weekend: surf and explore.

On day 1, after landing, the rest of the group embarked for their full day tour led by a tour guide with 15 other tourists while they toured a volcano as part of their tour package (notice how many times I used the word tour. I really do not like guided tours). I, on the other hand, decided to skip out on the pre-arranged bs which would have driven me into psychosis, and decided to return to Uluwatu to surf for the first day. This time around, I knew the lay of the land, and was able to bargain for a surf board for much cheaper (10 USD for the day). Uluwatu turned out to be smaller and a little mushy on Friday, but it was still a fun surf session nonetheless. Afterwards, I sat at a bar overlooking the cliffs and temples of Uluwatu and watched a beautiful sunset over the coral reefs with a Bintang bisar (large Bintang) in hand, while listening to the sounds of Bob Marley and Bahasa chatter in the background... it was really one of the most relaxing, satisfying, and completely rewarding moments of my life.

On day 2, I decided to check out a new surf spot that I had talked about with some surf travelers in passing. I had heard about this break called Nusa Dua (which literally means Island 2, on the East Coast of Bali), which was about a 40 minute drive from where I was staying in Kuta. It was supposed to be an epic right-hander reef break about 1.5 km from shore, and you needed to hire a fisherman to get you out to the break. I left my hotel at 6 in the morning for a ride over to the beach, after securing a new board for the next 2 days (15 USD for a 6'2" squash tail in pristine condition). Arriving at the beach in Nusa Dua, which was a very touristy, built-up resort town, the first thing I noticed was the waves. At 1.5 km in the distance. Even at that distance, I could tell it was big. You could barely make out the specs weaving up and down the faces of the waves, but you could feel and hear the power of the waves. I excitedly prepared my board and self for the sure-to-be scary session, and headed over to the group of fishing boats moored just off the beach, waiting to take surfers out to the break.

I forked over the 30,000 rupiah (~3 USD) for the passage out to the break, and then sat down to wait for the journey to begin. The boat took us out a deep channel that skirted the reef and allowed us safe passage to the back side of the break, where we would not be hit by incoming sets. When the boat stopped about 100 meters beyond the break, I jumped into the crystal clear water with my 3 boat companions, and we all paddled over the line-up, where about 40 other surfers were floating. As I paddled nearer to the lineup, I could feel the size and energy of the swell - even though no set was currently coming through, I could tell that it was big. And powerful.

I asked the first guy I paddled over to in the lineup to tell me some advice about the break. He told me, "It's fast. And powerful. And the tide's starting to go out, so that means it's about to get shallow on the inside. Don't take your waves too too long, or you'll get caught on dry reef." Man I wish I had listened to that last part a little more carefully.

When the first set rolled through, I finally saw how powerful these waves were. Eight to ten foot sets were rolling through, with the occasional twelve foot bomb. They were lining up for perfect rights that extended for almost 200 meters down the line, and it was a beautifully smooth drop-in. For 2 hours, I tore apart right after luxuriously long right, and had some of the most amazingly fast rides of my life. Then I started paddling into one wave that looked like it was lining up forever. As I dropped in to the face, I heard some locals hooting and cheering for me; it was a sick wave. I lost all inhibition and charged down the face for a good 300 meters, almost 30 seconds of wave riding. Suddenly, though, I looked down, and all I saw was reef. The water was not more than one foot deep, and the wave had started to close out on me. I was forced to push out in front of the white water, and was unable to safely pop off the back of the wave. I was now riding the wave directly towards shore with a 10 foot wall of white water rapidly catching up to me. My only option was to jump backwards off the board and lay as flat in the tumbling madness as I could, hoping to not get caught in the reef.

For two to three seconds, I safely washed around in the whitewater; then, I felt rock bottom. I bounced off of the reef a good 3 or 4 times before the wave finally finished having its way with me. I luckily only suffered a couple minor scratches on my foot and leg, as the section of reef I had hit was fairly smooth. Still, I was worried about reef rash, as coral is filled with S. aureus, the bacteria responsible for staph infections. (I later found some antibiotic lotion for the cuts - don't worry). But I wasn't out of the woods yet. I was now caught way inside, trying to float over 1 foot of water and reef, with 8-10 foot walls of whitewater still charging down at me. I basically had to lie as flat as possible next to my board as each successive wave hit me, hoping to not get thrown vertically into the reef. Luckily, I escaped three waves before I was able to get back on my board and scramble for deeper water.

Once out in the line-up, I took a couple minutes to catch my breath and let my adrenaline subside. Then, I proceeded to charge down some brilliant righthanders for another hour before my fishing boat pickup. All in all, Nusa Dua ialah tompat surf yang paling bagus.

On day 3, I headed over to Kuta Reef for my final surf session. Like Nusa Dua, I needed to hire a fishing boat (for 50,000 rupiah round trip) to take me out to the break. Unlike Nusa Dua, Kuta Reef was much mellower, but still barreling. Kuta Reef was about 3-4 foot, with the occasional 5 foot on-set wave, breaking in beautifully fun little barrels. I spent a solid 4 hours just playing and enjoying life on those fun little lefts and rights, and especially compared to the adrenaline-filled thrills of Nusa Dua, I definitely enjoyed the more relaxing but still absolutely amazing surf of Kuta Reef.

For lunch later that day I had Indonesian roast pork, which is an amazing meal: deliciously tender strips of pork, soaked in a light chili sauce with a side of white rice and crispy pig skin. Washed down with a Bintang, it was one of the better meals of the weekend.

I was so glad at the end of the trip that I ditched all of the pre-arranged travel agent crap. Even though I probably lost about 100 sing dollars worth of services I skipped out on, being able to do my own thing and explore the island as I wanted was so much more valuable to me. Bali is known as one of the best surf locations in the world; so far, it has lived up to its reputation.

Monday, November 23, 2009

A 50 year storm, a request to be the school landscaper, and Thanksgiving at work

Three brief stories from my school this week:

1. This past Thursday, it started raining. Like really raining.

We're in the rainy season here in Singapore, but that doesn't usually translate to rain all the time but rather just an afternoon thunderstorm every other or every third day. These storms are amazing because it cools everything off and you can finally stop sweating. Then, on last Thursday, the normal afternoon thunderstorm started at 1pm.

By 1:15pm, the entire sky was black.

By 1:30 pm, it was raining so hard that it was literally like a thick fog; you couldn't see more than about 15-20 feet in front of you outside.

By 1:45 pm, I started to get nervous, because I had a class at 2pm that was a 10 minute walk away. Time to get wet. I started walking towards my class, and was able to stay under covered walkways for the first 6-7 minutes or so of the walk. Finally, though, I reached the last road that I needed to cross to get to my classroom; unfortunately, the road was covered with knee-deep water. I walked along the road in both directions for several minutes and found that all roads surrounding this road were also knee deep in water - it was a verifiable river flowing through campus. Luckily I also ran into my students who were also stumped by the river, and so we all were able to converse about what to do together.

As I was about to tell them to follow me to another building, I turned around and saw half of them had taken off their shoes, rolled up their pants, and were wading across the river to our lecture location. Meanwhile, they yelled, "We're doing this for you, Mr. Zoller!" Needless to say, it was a pretty good feeling. Apparently they cared enough about my class to wade through torrential rain and knee deep rushing water in their school clothes, before having to sit through a 3 hour class with me. I eventually found a path to walk around the river (after wandering around for a good 15 minutes).

I later found out that this storm was a "50 year" storm, or something that only happens once every 50 years in Singapore; the storm was so intense that it reached local newspapers (Bukit Timah is the town I live in). Between 1.20pm and 1.50pm alone, 92mm of rain fell. Overall, 110mm (or 4.5 in) of rain fell throughout the 2 hour storm, almost HALF of the monthly average for November (a rainy season month). It was incredible.

2. A request to be the school landscaper

This morning, I was sitting at my desk when my office neighbor, with whom I usually barely speak with because he's very eldery and I didn't think he spoke English very well (because he barely speaks to anyone), stopped by. He noticed my four mini cacti that I have as a decoration on my desk, and asked "You like plants?" I responded, slightly startled because I'd never heard him talk, "Oh, umm, yea, I do." He replied, "Come with me." I got all excited because I thought he was going to take me to some place to get some cool plants for my cube.

We started walking towards the greenhouse; I got even more excited. We walked inside the greenhouse, and he started pointing out different species of exotic orchids, cacti, bamboo, and ginger plants. Then he pulled out the garden hose. At which point we proceeded to water the entirety of the greenhouse for 45 minutes, and during which time I was attacked by a thousand mosquitoes. (Meanwhile, I'm supposed to be at my desk as I have a ton of prep work to do for next week's classes.)

Ok, fine, I thought, he's just getting his excitement from showing me all of the different plants that he works with everyday. I enjoyed his excitement, because my co-workers here take a lot of pride in showing us around the town and around their various areas of expertise. So as we finally left the greenhouse, I was still fairly pleased that he had taken me around his area of pride.

Then, he turned to me and said, "So, you liked these plants a lot?"

"Yes, I did. They were quite nice," (a standard Singaporean phrase to describe food or other items).

"Well then, can you water, fertilize, and add pesticide to all of these plants (about 2-300 in all) once a week? It will only take about 2 hours each week and you can work up a great sweat!"

I was taken completely by surprise. ".... Uhhhh ..... These plants are quite nice but..... uhhhh.... well, the thing is ..... uhhhhh" I was stalling; I had no idea how to say no without offending him. People here often ask us to do a lot of tasks, because I think they know we can't really say no, but I thought that this task was way over the top. Finally, a perfect excuse hit me:

"Well I'm really allergic to pollen (I am, really, but not that bad), and with my asthma and all, I don't think it would be such a good idea for me to do that..."

Phew. Trivial, menial task smoothly avoided, feelings left unhurt.

3. Thanksgiving at work!

Today, I spent Thanksgiving at work (well obviously, because clearly Singapore doesn't celebrate Thanksgiving). BUT, our department had scheduled a pot luck Thanksgiving lunch in our honor! So last night, I prepared a sweet potato/marshmallow/brown sugar casserole recipe, while other colleagues prepared the turkey, stuffing, vegetables, and an assortment of traditional Indian and Chinese dishes, including a loaf of bread stuffed with chicken curry, and a duck/vegetable soup. We also had chocolate fondue, pumpkin pie, chocolate chip cookies, and an assortment of other desserts and side dishes that rounded out a more than fantastic Thanksgiving feast. My dish was very popular and none was left by the end, and I was continually complimented by co-workers on how "quite nice" my sweet potato dish was.

I will upload pictures soon.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Knowing how to do "The Worm" has finally paid off

For the past 3 1/2 weeks, I, along with the 14 other new staff in my department (LSCT) at Ngee Ann, have been preparing for a talent show that we were roped into by our senior lecturers. The 15 of us included the three IFs (International Fellows, including myself), new lecturers, TSOs (Technical Support Officers), and RAs (Research Assistants). A whopping grand total of 1 of us had any dance experience - a tiny little TSO by the name of Li Yan who's been belly dancing for years.

For 2 afternoons a week during this period, we would all meet and try to scramble together a performance that wouldn't completely suck. Over the course of our preparations, we built together a fairly solid routine - we designed a belly dance routine to Shakira, a bangara routine (a typical Indian dance), a Michael Jackson routine for the 3 IFs (of course they had the white people do MJ), and finally a routine to "Sorry Sorry" by Super Junior (a very hip, popular Korean Pop song among the teenagers here). As all of the pieces of our routine started to come together (including the MJ performance which we choreographed 8 hours before our performance), we started to get really excited to perform - in front of 600 students in our department!

During the moments before the performance, waiting backstage in the dressing room, I started to get the same feeling of nervous excitement that I would get before swim races - it was a rush. We walked out in the dark as the previous act was singing, and assumed our starting position for the belly dance song. As soon as the curtain opened, the students erupted into a scream - we were the only staff performance in the talent show, and already the students have fallen in love with the American lecturers. Each time I or Trevor or Ana performed on stage, the students would squeal with delight. In particular, I had a solo at the end of the performance, during "Sorry Sorry" where I performed "The Worm" - a break-dance move where you wave your body along the ground, moving backwards. I picked up this trick mainly as a party trick over the years, and it's pretty easy to do but looks really cool. As I went through the motions for the dance, all I could hear was the deafening roar of the crowd. They simply went nuts during this part, it was one of the coolest experiences of my life.

The best part about doing this dance performance has been the after effects. All of my coworkers have come up to me at some point to comment on my ability to do the worm - they all think I'm some kind of gymnast or dance performer from the past. It's hilarious. Even better, the next 2 classes I walked into, my students all erupted into cheers as I walked into the room. It's certainly a great feeling to enter a room with this kind of reception!

For one of my classes, the students had a projector already set up with the youtube video of my worm performance on the screen and all the lights off, and timed it so just as I walked in they were in the middle of watching it, erupting into cheers. In addition, just randomly walking around campus now, I will walk past a group of students whom I have no idea who they are, and they will shout out "THRILLLA!" (in reference to the MJ performance). We're kind of like mini-celebrities on campus now. Check out the dance performance below:

Yea, it's awesome here.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Bali: Check one off the life goals list

This past weekend, I finally accomplished one of my biggest goals for my year in Asia: I surfed Indo. To me, this was one of the biggest drawing factors to living in Singapore, was that I would have very easy access to Indonesia, which is home to some of the world's best and most consistent waves. It took 6 weeks for me to get my feet wet and venture into Indonesia, but it was well worth the wait.

I took Friday off from work with Ana De Roo, another PiAer who also has no class on Fridays, and we prepared to fly off to Bali for a long weekend. I had spent the previous night printing out page after page of information on surf spots and locations in Bali, and I knew that my first priority was going to be Uluwatu. I was so excited Wednesday night before the trip that I wasn't able to sleep, and Thursday at work dragged on forever. But finally 6 o'clock rolled around and Ana and I taxi'd over to Changi Airport for our 9:45 departure to Bali.

Our plane landed in Bali 45 minutes late, and of course the pre-arranged free airport pickup from our hostel never showed up. So we taxi'd from the airport to our hostel at 1am, only the taxi driver had no idea where he was going (except he didn't tell us that). We didn't realize he didn't know where he was going until he dropped us off at a hotel and drove off; we walked inside only to find out that we simply were not in the correct location. By this point it was 2am and we were exhausted, so we proceeded to call taxi number 2. 10 minutes into this taxi ride the driver pulled over to call his operator and ask where our hostel was. All I could think was, This hostel better exist somewhere, or tonight's going to be a long night... But the cabbee assured us he knew where it was.

We then turned into a street that was so narrow that the cab had only 2-3 cm of free space on either side of the sideview mirrors. We noticed the cabbee's apprehension about continuing forward, so we asked him how much further to our hostel. He told us only several hundred meters, so we decided to get out and walk down this pitch black alleyway at 230 in the morning, as we received a cat call from a loitering Balinese man. We quickened our steps at this point, but finally saw a sign for "The Island Bali" - our hostel at last! After these missteps, all we wanted was a bed and a roof: little did we know that we had stumbled upon the nicest hostel either of us have ever stayed at.

For only 25 USD a night, we had an air conditioned room, a beautiful pool and outdoor lounge area, an amazing free breakfast of fresh tropical fruit, clean sheets and towels, and a location that was only a 2 minute walk to the beach. I was in heaven.

I could write pages upon pages about my first trip to Bali, but I'll let my pictures do most of the talking. You can check out my first Bali album at But I do want to write about my experience at Uluwatu, as this was one of the biggest goals of my life to experience.

On Saturday morning, Ana and I woke up and met Robbie, our personal driver that we had hired for the day (for a mere 15 USD pax). He drove us the 45 minutes from our hostel to Uluwatu beach, at which point I realized I had just stumbled into heaven. Uluwatu consisted of a small beach village with about 30 small shacks on the side of a cliff, of which 20 were surf shops and 10 were restaurants/bars. The village extended down the side of a jagged cliff and you needed to walk down several hundred steps to reach the bottom of the cliff village. At this point, you find yourself surrounded by surfers from all over the world - I saw/heard people from Australia, Britain, US, Russia, France, Germany, and of course Indonesia. Now the cliff opens up onto a secluded beach surrounded by caves, and at the far end of the caves, the stone walls give way to a beautiful crystal blue ocean filled with stunning coral reef. I could not have been happier.

I then embarked to haggle with the surf shops to rent a board, and was able to bargain with a store keeper for a 6'2" Ed Sinnott Pro series "The Ace," which was the best board I've ever ridden. I got the board for 4 hours for 20 USD, but I think in the future I'll be able to haggle them down a little lower. I then paddled the approximately 300 meters out over 3 feet of jagged, sharp, stunningly beautiful coral reef to the first of the four point breaks. I spent the next 4 hours catching wave after wave of endless lefts, all with a permanent smile etched onto my face (which would later literally become permanent from the sun-burn lines...). I had one of the best surf sessions of my life, as I rode 5-6 foot peeling barrels over a 3 foot drop into coral reef. 72 hours after this surf session, my arms and back are still sore, as I didn't want to take the time to rest or stretch, I only wanted to surf.

After finally exhausting myself in the hot Indonesian sun, and as the tide began to draw out leaving sections of the reef exposed to the air, I decided that it was finally time to call it a successful session. I half paddled/half walked back in along the reef, and then met up with Ana who had been relaxing in the secluded cave beach all day. We proceeded up to the village, where I found that surf photogs had been taking pictures of the surfers all day, and I was able to check out pictures of myself. I will wait till the next time I go back to Uluwatu to make some purchases, as they're able to store the photos indefinitely for you. Our final stop of the day at Uluwatu was at a bar overlooking the steep cliff that dropped into the ocean, where we sat for an hour watching the sunset and enjoying a few Bintangs.

That night, I was in bed and passed out by 9pm. It was easily one of the best surfing days of my life, if not one of the best days of my life.

We finally left Bali on Sunday, and I spent the whole plane ride wishing I had more time to spend in my own personal paradise.

Oh wait, I'm going back in 2 weeks...

Monday, November 2, 2009

"Don't Play Play" on Singapore Halloween

This past weekend was Halloween in Singapore. Do Singaporeans celebrate Halloween, you ask? You bet.

Well, not most. But enough to make this story interesting.

Leading up to the holiday, I had little idea of what to be for my costume. I had already heard some good costume ideas that my expat friends were being (including a papier-mache fortune cookie - it was pretty intense), so I knew I needed something that could stand up to the other ideas. In the past, I'm not one to take Halloween lightly - I like to put in the effort to get a good costume, even if it costs a few extra hours of searching for the right items.

Anyway, my friend Ana and I came upon an amazing idea for our costumes 48 hours before Halloween. So all around Singapore on the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit = subway trains) are public service announcements made by two of Singapore's most famous sitcom characters. The characters can only be described as follows: loud, obnoxious, corny, hilarious. The guy is called Phua Chu Kang or PCK for short, and the wife's name is Rosie. They come from a Singaporean sitcome called PCK, in which the main character basically runs around Singapore getting into all sorts of trouble because of his use of Singlish. In particular, his main catch-phrase is "Don't play play!"; I still have yet to find someone who actually knows what this means.

So on every single MRT door, you see posters that look as follows:

Notice 2 things about this picture. 1 - his enormous black mole on his right cheek. 2 - his hideously long right pinky nail. And there's one more thing that you can't see in this photo, but his trademark outfit includes giant yellow rain boots, which you can see in the following video: (this video is played nonstop on the MRT as well - it is a rap song by PCK enticing you to be courteous, as he dances around in his yellow rain boots. It is well worth watching.)

I found every detail to this costume. I owned a white dress shirt and black pants, I bought a perfect black wig, got black face paint for the mole, found glow-in-the-dark fake finger nails, got multiple gold chains for the necklace and bracelets, and found an amazing pair of bright yellow rain boots. With costume complete, I set out for the pre-game party before we moved on to club Zouk. See below for a comparison between the MRT pictures and the picture of Ana and I:

So safe to say, our costumes were pretty amazing. Little did we know that we would soon be celebrities though.

Upon arriving at club Zouk, a club we chose because they gave free entrance to anyone in costume, we immediately became swarmed with Singaporeans. Everywhere I walked, anytime I made eye-contact with anybody, all I heard was "PCK! PCK!" Every single local, whether guy or girl, loved the fact that an Ang Mor (derogatory term for a white person in Singapore) had dressed up as their favorite pop culture star. Over the course of 2 hours at the club, and this is no exaggeration, I had to stop for no less than 50 photo-shoots with my favorite fans. Every single group of teenage girls stopped me to take personal pictures with them, and of course I was more than happy to oblige. I wouldn't be surprised if my images are floating somewhere in the Singaporean tabloids right now, because I feel like somewhat of a celebrity after that night. Needless to say, with the massive ego-boost of a succesful Halloween costume, I had a fantastic night. The only downside is that my camera has been broken for the past week and so I don't have any footage from the club, but I'm willing to bet that you'll be able to see my pictures floating around someone's myspace or facebook or even US weekly sometime in the next couple of days. Just keep your eyes open for a white PCK surrounded by gaggling teenage girls.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Why not to facebook your teacher during class

So this week, I had the privilege to not only be facebooked by my students (the girls) during class, but to also catch them red-handed in the act. And I exploited every opportunity to embarrass them in the following lecture for not paying attention. Read on...

Starting on Monday, I began receiving facebook friend requests from some of my students. I didn't realize until today that it was only the girls, but up to this point I have six friend requests from girls and zero from the guys in my class. Interesting, especially since they can't tell me and Trevor apart (the other PiA-er in my department), so I don't know if they're trying to friend me or him. Regardless, I've had to scramble to adjust the privacy settings on my account for obvious reasons, as I don't want my students to see really anything of my personal life. They, on the other hand, have taken no such measures. And this has backfired on them.

After one student friended me, I clicked on the link to accept (and add her to my limited profile), which took me to her profile. And immediately there on her wall was something that I'm sure she (and half of the class) did not want me to see... See below. You need to be able to read the comments on the photo, so also check out the photo at

I took this screen shot with the sole purpose of displaying it to the entire class during lecture. So today, I began my lecture more or less as follows...

"Good afternoon class."

"Hi Mr. Zoller! Hi! Good afternoon lah!"

"So last time, during our tutorial, I realized that we didn't cover something which is crucial to our ability to learn biology in this classroom. Does anybody know what that is?"

"No lah... why he no can lah"

"So what we didn't cover last time was a little something that has to do with the internet. It's called... The dangers of facebook"

Dramatic pause...

Then I brought up the screenshot on the powerpoint projector.

Dramatic pause...

And then when the class read the comments, they erupted into one loud, synchronous "OHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" The entire class of students all started gasping and laughing and clapping, while the two students who were featured prominently on the slide turned beat red and tried to slink under their chairs. One of the other other girls in the class who was featured on the slide LOVED the attention, and just started giving the stereotypical 2-finger V to everyone in the class while smiling the whole time. In fact, Ana was teaching in the classroom next door, and she later told me that she had to stop her class and explain to them what was happening in mine because it got so loud.

At this point, I warned the students "Don't think I don't know what I'm doing up here. I can see when you guys are not paying attention. And I'm very sneaky when it comes to finding things out about you that you might not want me to see. So you guys should probably pay attention in my class..."

And then I proceeded to give one of the better lectures I've given so far this semester, with the most active student participation thus far. Mission accomplished.

Monday, October 26, 2009

When in Pulau Ubin, don't do as the locals do

Or rather, don't do as John the Belgian who's been in Singapore for 4 years (so I guess he counts as a local) does...

This past weekend, I traveled to Pulau Ubin, which is an island that is technically still part of Singapore but completely unlike the rest of the country. Whereas "mainland" Singapore is generally all urban hustle-bustle with its fair share of NY style driving and seemingly limitless street vendors, the island of Pulau Ubin is a beautiful respite from this atmosphere.

I made the trip with Trevor, Ana, and Mark (three other PiAers), and we also met Kin Hoe (my coworker) and John (his Belgian friend) and Don (John's Filipino friend). The seven of us met at the Changi Village ferry station on the east coast of Singapore, and from there we took a 10 minute bumboat ride (yes, it is called a bumboat. Grow up.) to the island. The bumboat was this tiny little ferry that could barely hold 10 people on it, but it was an amazing experience to be able to sit on the top of this ferry as we were cruising away from the city and towards the jungle of Pulau Ubin.

What we knew about Pulau Ubin before getting there: it was a jungle, you can go biking there. That's about it.

What we found out about Pulau Ubin when we were there: it is a combination of a local village (about 100 people live there), a tourist mecca for cyclists and hikers and explorers of all kinds, and it's a place where people die (or at least, get very very hurt. More on that in a bit).

So John was our guide for this trip, as he's been coming to Pulau Ubin to bike for a couple years now, almost every weekend. Upon stepping off the boat, he took us to one of the multitudes of bike shops that rented bikes to people looking to explore the island, and it was a good thing we had him as our guide because he knew the best shop to haggle with for a good deal - we paid 6 dollars per person for a bike for 3 hours, whereas walking around I noticed that other people were paying upwards of 20-30 dollars per bike. The bikes we rented were decent - they had a rear suspension, and the brakes worked; but in many cases the shifters weren't too, well, shifty, and in other cases the chains were stretched out so much you couldn't put very much power into any given stroke. But, well, you can't really complain, this was just going to be a leisurely ride, right? And you don't need a highly functioning bike for that, right?


We followed John onto the first trail, which we all noticed was conspicuously labelled as "Black Diamond." Now I'm fairly confident of my skills on bikes, but the rest of the people in our group, excluding John, were not; to top it off, none of us were wearing helmets, because John assured us that the trail "was not too difficult, you just need to be careful." So we all embarked on the trail, John first, myself second, the others behind. Within the first, oh, 15 meters of the trail, everyone else in the group except for myself, John, and Don had decided that the narrow, twisting, rocky, tree-laden, steep dirt path was too difficult for them (wisely) and turned back to take the "Blue Square" trail. I continued to follow John along the trail, although I was taking it much slower than him, and Don was following my pace behind me. We approached one particularly steep/tricky section in the trail, at which point I slowed to a near crawl, and actually just hopped off my bike in the middle of the section because I did not want to hurt myself. Suddenly, I heard from behind me a shattering "thud" and I immediately heard Don cry out in agony.

I threw my bike to the ground and ran back to him, as he was trapped under his bike off the side of the trail. Don had lost control going down the section and was now lying on his side, grimacing. I immediately feared for the worst, because as I already mentioned, we were not wearing helmets. Don's left shoulder, left hand, and left knee were severely cut up, and he was also complaining of vision issues and feeling faint. I was afraid that he had hit his head, although he claimed that he did not. John returned to the scene at this point, and we assessed Don's situation. He was able to stand up on his own after several minutes, and seemed to have suffered no further injuries; he also said his vision cleared up and he no longer felt faint. He claimed to want to keep riding; I refused. I told John that this path was too dangerous for us, as was clearly evidenced by what should have been a larger injury. We then decided to leave the path, and instead walked our bikes back out to the main road. We returned immediately to the starting point to meet up with the other members of our group, a little bit shaken but not too much worse for the wear.

Despite this nearly-serious accident, we all still had a fantastic time. The scenery around the island was beautiful, and it was great to get back on a bike for the first time in several months. Unfortunately I don't have any pictures from when we were on the island, because my camera finally broke as I was walking off the ferry (it's been slowly breaking for a while), but I will definitely be returning in the future. However, I don't think I'll be checking out the "Black Diamond" trail any time soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

My first week on the other side of the classroom

So I'm almost done with my first real week of teaching classes, and it has already been quite a ride. I've had experience in the past doing some private tutoring and teaching things like swim lessons and surf lessons, but I've never actually led a classroom full of very animated 17-18 year olds (who, by the way, don't look much younger than me...). I showed up to my school, Ngee Ann Polytechnic, 3 weeks ago for my first day of work, and my only preparation and training for teaching has basically taken place during that period. So let me start from the beginning.

First, my school. I work at Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is a 3-year diploma program for the 2nd-tier Singaporean students. In a nutshell, the Singaporean education system works as follows: all students go through primary school and then take the PSLE (Primary School Leaving Examination) at the age of 12. This exam virtually determines their entire life future, as their results from their test place them into one of three tracks, and it is nearly impossible to break out of a track once placed into it. The best students go on to secondary school, take their "O levels" (kind of like an SAT for mid-high school), then JC (junior college) for 2 years, then take their "A levels" (like an SAT only much more significant), and then the lucky few may go on to study at university. The middle-of-the-road students go on to lesser secondary schools and then enter the polytechnic system. They study at the polytechnics for 3 years, and historically this was the end of their education, although in recent years more polytechnic students have gone on to enter university and a few have even pursued graduate education. However, these students have already been selected by a national exam to be in the "average" education system, and have been told for much of their life that they are just that. These are my students.

For the three weeks leading up to my first class this past Monday, I have basically been trying to learn how to be a teacher (most people go to school for years to do this). I learned on the first day that I was leading a module on Cell and Molecular Biology, which basically means that I have FULL control over every aspect of my class - from giving lectures, leading tutorials (=precepts for the Princeton people), leading practicals (=labs), setting quizzes and exams, designing projects, organizing the syllabus, marking (=grading) everything, and basically any other random administrative task that goes into leading a class. In addition, I found out I would be leading one practical each week for a microbiology class, something that I have virtually no background in. Needless to say, I was a little bit nervous going into this week, especially since the extent of our professional teacher training given to us by Ngee Ann was a single 8 hour session from which I don't really remember anything.

Then started this week. My first class was a practical for my CMB (Singapore loves TLAs or three-letter-acronyms if you haven't noticed), which was almost a disaster. I had planned a 20 minute introductory presentation on powerpoint for my students, and of course when I went to plug my computer into the projector I didn't have the correct driver installed on my computer. So I then fumbled through what I could memorize from the presentation. After, I moved on to explaining the lab equipment, most of which I had forgotten how to use, but didn't know I had forgotten until I tried explaining it to the students and then realized my ill preparation. Luckily, though, I have a FANTASTIC class of students, and they all were extremely excited to meet someone from America and were super friendly/giggly the whole time I was talking with them. So even though I kind of bumbled through my first class, to have them shyly ask me how old I was or if I liked to play counterstrike or if I was on facebook or what I was doing in Singapore made it all worth it. And, when I let them know that I was from Princeton and going to medical school next year, they all let out a collective "oooohhhh." Needless to say, certain aspects of this job are going to be a real ego-trip.

The rest of my classes this week went a lot smoother. I repeated the same lab with other students later in the week, and it is so much easier to lead a class when you actually know what you're doing! I've also given 2 lectures at this point, which have been an amazing experience. You really can't recreate the experience of talking to a group of students about a subject that you're passionate about, and noticing at one point when you're discussing something really interesting that the entire class gets absolutely silent and entranced on every word you say. It is one of the most amazing feelings in the world. Today, for example, after class one of my students came up to me to ask a pretty good question about the mechanics of viral infections in cells. I started drawing an example for him on the white board, and when I turned around, there were no less than 12 students surrounding me focused on every word I was saying. It was an amazing moment.

I'm really excited for the rest of this year, as I should really get to know my students well since my main class is only 21 students and I see them 3 times a week. I don't think that they've ever had an American teach them before, and it's going to be a blast to be able to share with them my culture while I learn about theirs.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

The Best Food Day of my Life

This past Saturday, Kin Hoe Chong, a coworker of mine and the 2 other PiAers in LSCT, invited Ana, Trevor, and I (the three LSCT fellows) to his place for lunch, movies/swimming, and dinner at what he promised was a fantastic seafood place that only locals go to. We started off the day by meeting him at the MRT (Mass Rapid Transit = subway) stop by his place, and then proceeded to tour around the Yishun wet market. I haven't been to a wet market up until now, and even though Kin Hoe assured us that this was a "clean" wet market (especially compared to Cambodia/Vietnam), I still managed to get sprayed by dirty fish water as I meandered through the aisles. I was overpowered by the smell of freshly cut fish and severed chickens, as well as the less-than-appealing odors of throngs of humans pressed together in the balmy atmosphere. There were multitudes of different shop keepers hawking their wares to the customers, and if I wasn't promised a fantastic Thai lunch by Kin Hoe, I probably would've been enticed to purchase some fresh Tilapia.

After the wet market, we proceeded to "A Taste of Thailand," an outdoor hawker-center style restaurant which Kin Hoe claimed to be the best Thai food in all of Singapore. 5 of us (including two of Kin Hoe's friends) waited while Kin Hoe ordered all of the food for us, which turned out to be a feast of a lunch. We were soon presented with 2 fried whole Tilapia (see the picture), Tom Yum soup, fried cuttlefish, sweet and sour pork, pineapple rice, sauteed leeks, and another mushroom/prawn soup which I can't remember the name to. This food was so unlike the "Thai" food I'd eaten in America (which consisted mostly of pad thai and crispy duck), and it was incredibly delicious. My favorite part of this meal was the fried cuttlefish, which came out looking like french fries, but were actually large slivers of squid, which you dipped in this mayonnaise-like sauce. Amazing.

Then after lunch, we went back to his place to rest and digest, while we watched "Role Models" (which was a hilarious movie). After a slight hiatus from eating, we moved on to sampling a variety of local fruits that Kin Hoe had prepared for us. He had purchased rambutan (a fruit who's name means "hair" because of the hairy projections all over it - it looks like a red sea urchin with green hair), jackfruit (an orange-ish fruit that tastes kind of savory), pomegranate, mangos, and the Queen of Fruits, mangosteen (it looks like a plum, but is harder, and you pop it open to reveal what looks like garlic cloves but tastes like heaven). We spent half an hour sampling and rotating between each of the different fruits, after which we finished thoroughly sticky, wet, and satisfied. See below for the mangosteen, which may just be my new favorite fruit:

After this mid-day fruit bonanza, we rested again by watching a French movie called "Priceless", which was also a very good movie, and perfect to digest hordes of fruit to. Around 8 o'clock at night we picked up our things and moved on to Mellben Seafood, which served us the best seafood meal of my entire life, hands down. Singapore is famous for its Chili Crab, a dish that we had not tried until this night. Kin Hoe had promised to bring us to the best chili crab place in Singapore, and he delivered. We arrived at the restaurant, which had a 20 person line out the "front door", in quotations because it was an open-air setting with just a roof over about 40 tables and chairs. The atmosphere was very local and gave me the impression that we were sneaking into one of Singapore's better kept secrets. We ordered our food while waiting in line (SO EFFICIENT!) and the waiter gave us a card with an estimation of when our food would arrive (I wish more US restaurants were like this). After sitting at our table, we had the chance to look around at the one wall in the place, which was covered with crab shells of all different shapes, sizes, and shades of orange.

When our food arrived, I think I started salivating onto my shirt. Kin Hoe had taken the liberty to order for us again because he knew the best entrees to taste, and again he astounded us with the selection of food. The waiters set down in front of us: garlic bamboo clams (I thought these were just served on bamboo rod, but no these are actual 8-inch long clams in what looks to be a bamboo shoot, and each one was covered with the equivalent of about 10 cloves of chopped garlic), fried yam with vegetables and prawns, scallops and shrimp in a sweet curry sauce, and two types of crab. The first was the house specialty, which was a large crab boiled in a salty broth and noodles, allowing the crab flavoring to infuse into the noodles. You eat the crab while drinking the broth and noodles, and I was overcome with the freshness of the meat. But the second crab - oh my god the second crab - was chili crab. This was another large crab served in a bowl, and it was smothered in this chili/egg/tomato broth, which was the perfect combination of spiciness and flavor. Hands down the single best crab I've ever eaten. We all left the restaurant agreeing that we had discovered one of Singapore's local secrets, and we were asleep a short few hours later due to the effects of disastrous food coma. But I know I will return there as soon as I can so I can relive the experience of that chili crab. See below for the garlic bamboo clams and chili crab:

That's all for now. See all the food pictures at I have my first day of real teaching tomorrow, so I'm sure I'll have a ton of new stories after this week, depending on just how unruly my students are! I've been told they can be a handful, so I'm a little nervous but very excited, so look for the next update.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Back-halfing an almost disastrous weekend

Last weekend I underwent my first experience as a backpacker, travelling to Melaka, Malaysia for the weekend. But barely.

As the week came to an end, I made plans to take the 4 hour bus from Singapore to Melaka with several other PiAers on Saturday morning at 8am. Knowing that Friday night was a hallmate's birthday party, I decided to pack everything before the party, and made sure to zip up my passport into a secure pocket in my backpack, before heading out for a night of drunken debauchery. Good idea, right? So I thought too.

I woke up Saturday morning, or rather was woken up by a friend at 730, a mere 40 minutes later than I was supposed to wake up, in a drunken daze. I rushed around my apartment, trying to gather all my things and run out the door, all with the heavy weight of a hard night of drinking on my mind. I grabbed my backpack, after rushing through its contents, and sprinted out the door to catch a cab to the busstop.

Sitting on the bus, sobering up slightly, I decided to check through to make sure I had all of my important items. IPod for the 4 hour trip... check. Camera... check. Employment pass.... check. Passport.... passport... passport.... PASSPORT.... PASSPORT!!!!!!!!! Where the hell is my PASSPORT!!!!!!

It suddenly became brilliantly apparent that I did not have my passport on me. I started freaking out on the bus. I ran off the bus, hailed a cab back home to my apartment, and started tearing through all of my belongings. 90 minutes and a thousand expletives later, I was still passport-less. It suddenly dawned on me that my passport could have been stolen. I attemped to call the US Embassy, only to find that they were closed until Monday. On my way out the door to go the police station, after abandoning all hope of making it to Melaka for the weekend, I stopped at my friend's apartment to let them know what happened. He recommended checking one more time in my apartment to make absolutely sure it was gone before moving forward. We went back into my place, and I made one last cursory sweep of my belongings. Finally, I decided just to check my toiletry bag just for completeness' sake, knowing it wouldn't be there... EXCEPT THERE IT WAS. Holy shit, I was an enormous moron. At some point between the beginning of Friday night (and drinks) and sitting on the bus Saturday morning, I had unknowingly switched my passport to a place I would never check... I'm an idiot.

But now it was time to try to catch a bus! It was 10:30 am, the bus stop was a 25 min cab ride away, and the last bus I was willing to take to Malaysia left at 11:00am. I sprinted out to the nearest cab station, sweat ensuing, and fidgeted for the 25 minute ride to the station. Pulling up to the busstop at 11:01am, I had exact change ready, and literally jumped out of the moving cab towards a moving bus. Waving my arms, I got the bus to stop, as the driver leaned out and asked, "Melaka?" "YES!" I exclaimed. 20 Sing dollars later and I was finally on a bus seat, passport in hand, and able to pass out.

4 hours later, I arrived in Melaka. Rather than describing my whole weekend during this already lengthy post, you can check out my pictures at Some highlights: an amazing hostel for $11RM (~$4.00 US), karaoke in the center of downtown in front of hundreds of spectators, and little boys staring at us because we were the only white people in town. I was able to visit some amazing cultural sites in Melaka, including some original fortresses and churches from the Dutch and Portuguese inhabitations of Melaka in the 1600s, as well as various open-market stalls where hundreds of locals wandered through looking for assorted goods to purchase. I sampled baba laksa, a local specialty comprised of shrimp, chicken, fishballs, noodles, and a coconut/curry broth; this is my new favorite Malaysian dish. Later, I haggled with a shop owner for a piece of artwork from 139 RM down to 40 RM, which now sits proudly on my wall in my apartment. On Sunday, my friend and I took some time out to relax on the roof of our hostel overlooking Melaka to drink some local coffee and munch on pineapple tarts, which are omnipresent in Malaysia. Finally, we took a bus back home for 19 RM, and I enjoyed the luxurious afterglow of a successful trip that almost didn't happen.

Singapore is creepy. Like really.

Every where I walk in Singapore, I'm constantly reminded of the government's influence on its citizens. Everything you hear about Singapore is that they are extremely concerned with their national and international image, particularly with regards to their citizen's ability to speak English "good", "smile levels", and international math test scores. There are campaign posters put up periodically around the country encouraging Singaporeans to speak less Singlish and English "more good" (which in itself is hilarious), as well as to smile more (so that the country is happier-seeming), and the country also allows its grade level students to take international math tests as many times as necessary to ensure that their national average is among the best in the world. However, none of these examples are as creepy as the following picture:

If you can't quite make out the poster, it is an advertisement for "Essence of Chicken" pills, which is being endorsed by two 12 year-old students who aced their PSLE (an EXTREMELY important standardized test taken by 12 year olds in Singapore. This test virtually determines the student's entire academic- as well as career- future). At almost every bus stop in Singapore you will see some variant of this poster, always claiming that this Essence of Chicken crap helped the students score higher on their tests. Personally, this poster makes me want to laugh and scream at the same time - laugh at the pure absurdity of its message, scream at the kids whose parents put them through this inane ordeal. These posters seem to me to be the equivalent of the stereotypical American female beauty posters which drive many girls to develop eating disorders and other self-esteem issues. No wonder Asians always seem so driven to excel in school, being bred in a culture such as this.

Friday, October 2, 2009

I guess this makes it officially a blog

Because according to Coach, up until now this was only an "article" and not a "blog," so thank you Coach for inspiring me to upgrade to blogger status.

Now that I've been here a week, I've begun to get a grip on how things work here. There's a couple things here so far that stand out in my mind right now, and they are: the transportation system, the food, and my job.

The most brilliant thing about Singapore is the public transportation system. It is psychotically easy to get around the city with the bus system, because it is the most well organized public transportation unit I have ever experienced. Basically, there are about 15-20 different bus lines, and at each bus stop, there is a list of the buses that service that station with the list of future and past stations serviced by each bus. In addition, using the website, you can find the exact bus route from any spot in Singapore to any other, and the best part is that you can take a 45 minute bus ride for about S$1.00 (US $.65). It's so cheap, you'd wonder why anyone in Singapore would buy a car (especially since it costs S$15,000 to buy a license of entitlement BEFORE you even can purchase a car).

Second, the food has been unreal. Singapore is a crossroads for an eclectic mix of ethnic groups, including Chinese, Malay, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, and others, including Muslim. That being said, the mainstay of the Singapore dining experience is the "hawker center," or outdoor markets comprised of a multitude of independent shops each selling a specialized cuisine. You can go to one location and get Thai chicken satay, Indian dosai (my personal favorite), roti prata (also amazing), chicken rice, breaded pork curry, and soooo many other options. What's more, you will stuff your face for less than S$5.00, and often for less than S$3.00. As the renowned "fat kid," I am more than in culinary heaven here. Just see below (I don't even know what I'm eating in this picture...):

Finally, my job. I'm working as an international lecturer in the Ngee Ann Polytechnic, which is basically a second-tier pre-university education facility. The Singapore education system is extremely track oriented, and the polytechnics are for those students who don't score well enough on their O-level exams (the equivalent of the SAT, except with much stronger consequences) to place into the University track. These students graduate from the Polytechnic and enter directly into the workforce and basically have almost no chance of admission into a university or other higher degree program.

So I'm teaching Cell and Molecular Biology to first year Pharmacy Science students (17-18 years old) as well as Microbiology to first year Biomedical Science students. I'm responsible for 3 hours of lecture, 3 hours of lab, and 1 hour of "tutorial" (precept for the Pton people), plus 9 hours of lab for the Microbiology class per week. For some reason, the staff at Ngee Ann thinks I'm the most qualified person for my job ever (I'm not), and they think I'm the most exciting thing to happen to this deparment in a decade. But realistically, I have little to no experience in a microbiology lab, and no formal teaching training, so I will be learning a lot as I go in the next couple of weeks. I look forward to the challenge though, and hopefully I can stay one step ahead of my students at all times.

That's it for now, I have a couple exciting events coming up which I'll update once they happen.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

I'm finally here

So I finally made it to Singapore, after a 4 month wait post-graduation. I could not wait for this year to get started, and here we go! The first 24 hours have already been very eventful, albeit very HOT. Stepping out of the airport at midnight Friday night after 30+ hours of travel, the first thing I noticed was the overwhelming humidity and heat in the dead of the night. For someone like me that sweats a lot (understatement), this could prove to be interesting.

First off, I named this blog "what the fish, man" after a popular Singlish euphemism for a phrase I'm pretty sure you can figure out. Singlish is a mix between, well, Singaporean (which in itself is a mix of Malay, Mandarin, and other barely discernible phrases) and English; compounded with a British accent, it's extremely entertaining to listen to the locals converse. However, it's also extremely difficult to understand them...

I landed last night at midnight local time, and due to the large local taxes on alcohol, preceded immediately to the duty free shop in the airport to fill up on the maximum allowable amount of alcohol for import (1 liter each of liquor, wine, beer). The duty free shop is a 60% markdown from city prices in Singapore, so it's a good rule of thumb around here that any time you travel through the airport, you stop and load up on booze. My employers had arranged for me to be picked up at the airport, and I soon found out that I would be making the trip to my apartment in a white Mercedes Benz limo... pretty sweet.

Proceeding from there to my apartment, I learned that I would be living in a sick setup for the next year - I have a 1 bedroom apartment, + dining area + living area + bathroom + kitchen + way too much closet space, combined for what I'd estimate to be about 1000-1200 square feet of space, all for TWO HUNDRED AND FIFTY dollars a month. Incredible. See below for a picture of my common room, and the following link for more pictures:

Today, I found out that the food in Singapore is not only amazingly delicious, but also incredibly cheap. I stuffed my face for breakfast on prata pisang (a fried pastry-type flat bread with bananas inside) for S$1.50, and then for dinner we headed over to Little India for dosai (a flattened fried lentil-like bread). You dip this bread into three different sauces, all pretty spicy, and the bread can be stuffed with masala chicken, fried in butter, or served plain, all of which are delicious and less than S$2.00. Safe to say, I'm pretty excited for the food options over the next year...

And finally, we then headed over to the annual Singapore F-1 Grand Prix event in downtown Singapore, where we got to stand less than 10 feet away from screaming F-1 cars flying at speeds of over 200 mph down straightaways and taking 90 degree turns at around 50 mph. The Backstreet Boys were also putting on a concert at the show, but unfortunately they were playing in a site where we didn't have access to with our tickets, but that would've been AWESOME (of course).

That's it for the first 24 hours, and I'm sure things are going to be picking up soon.