Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Gong Xi Fa Cai

January 26th was the first day of the Year of the Ox. Happy Chinese New Year! (or lunar new year or whatever the hell you want to call it.)

I'm not sure where to start with this post. I must have thought to myself 20 times over the past week, "I've got to blog about that!" There's no way I can write it all down or even remember it all, but I'll say this: Chinese people believe some crazy stuff.

I know, I come the comments. "You're so closed minded," and "Thinking like this is why everyone hates Americans."

Y'all can bite me. You didn't have someone in your office telling you your should wear an "apple green" shirt because you're a tiger and it would be a very fortunate color for a tiger in the year of the ox. Half of your staff didn't take Wednesday off after the 4 day weekend holiday because the Feng Shui master said Wednesday is an unlucky day to start a workweek.

Just to give you an idea, here's the "mythology" section of the Chinese New Year page on Wikipedia:

According to tales and legends, the beginning of Chinese New Year started with the fight against a mythical beast called the Nian or "Year" in Chinese. Nian would come on the first day of New Year to devour livestock, crops, and even villagers, especially children. To protect themselves, the villagers would put food in front of their doors at the beginning of every year. It was believed that after the Nian ate the food they prepared, it wouldn’t attack any more people. One time, people saw that the Nian was scared away by a little child wearing red. The villagers then understood that the Nian was afraid of the color red. Hence, every time when the New Year was about to come, the villagers would hang red lanterns and red spring scrolls on windows and doors. People also used firecrackers to frighten away the Nian. From then on, the Nian never came to the village again. The Nian was eventually captured by Hongjun Laozu, an ancient Taoist monk. The Nian became Hongjun Laozu's mount.

There are so many things like this that are just never explained to me. Everyone is driving around the city with two oranges up against the windshield inside their car. I know giving two oranges as a gift at the new year is supposed to have something to do with prosperity, I just don't know why. It's like visiting Mexico, but they traded everyone's statue of the Virgin Mary, with some fruit. It would be the funniest episode of Candid Camera ever.

One more. At the ABS Singapore year end client banquet, the first course of dinner was "Yusheng", otherwise known as raw fish salad. There's actually not much raw fish in it. It's mostly noodles and vegetables with a bunch of condiments and some thinly sliced salmon. It actually tasted quite good. Here's the catch. It comes to the table on a huge plate, with all of the individual ingredients separated. Tradition is that everyone at the table mixes the salad together with these 3 foot long chop sticks throwing the ingredients as high as possible to "mark the start of a prosperous new year and it's customary that the higher you toss, the greater your fortunes!" You should have seen the table I was at. By chance, there were only two Singaporeans at the table; everyone else was white. When we were done it looked like a family of monkeys had attacked. Noodles, fish and plum sauce everywhere, water glasses knocked was a mess.

Here's the thing about all of this. Can you imagine what a Chinese person thinks when he moves to the US? I can just imagine them calling home to talk to their family.

"Dad, trust me, these white people are crazy. For some reason, everyone went out last weekend, cut down a tree and put it in their living room! Then, the next day, that annoying loud lady from down the street stood in front of my door and sang unintelligible songs about a reindeer for half an hour, whatever the hell a reindeer is. By the way, do you know what's up with this 'Jesus' guy? Is he dead or alive or God or his son or what? Why can't they just keep things simple like us."

Here's what I do know about Chinese New Year. It's a time when you wish "Gong Xi Fa Cai" ("congratulations and prosperity" as far as I can tell) to all of your friends and family. No matter how far, you travel to spend time with your family, eat a meal and catch up on the past year. You give gifts to those in your family who are younger than you and accept them from your elders. Everyone takes a few days off to wish farewell to the year behind them and wish everyone prosperity in the year to come. Sounds like a good holiday in my book.

Happy new year everyone. Gong Xi Fa Cai.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009


There are a few hard and fast rules that I try to follow at work everyday.

-Treat my employees the way I want my boss to treat me.
-Try not to say anything especially stupid.
-Do my best to treat all of my clients equally.
-Don't talk about politics.

It's that last one that has been the most trouble recently. The coverage of the election of our new President has been a constant part of American life for the past two years. When I arrived in Singapore, I was surprised that I heard almost as much about it on BBC Singapore radio and the Singapore news media as I did when I lived in the US. The amount of the coverage of American politics in general was very surprising.

As you can expect, there aren't many fans of President G. W. Bush overseas. While he's not liked very much in the US now either, don't forget that this is a guy who got re-elected. America as a whole thought he did a good enough job in his first four years in office that we gave him another four. It may be hard to believe now, but it was not too long ago that half of the people in the US thought that he was the right choice for the job. Most non-Americans can't comprehend this. I'm asked questions about it a lot.

This brings me back to, "Don't talk about politics." The discussion just isn't worth the risk. It's so easy to offend someone with a simple statement that I just try to be as vague as possible when asked questions about how I feel about my own government. When you live 15 kilometers from the single largest Muslim country in the world (Indonesia), even whispering something like, "Hamas is firing rockets at Israeli civilians," can cause an extreme response. This is why I try to avoid the subject all together.

(Side note: I went to the US Embassy last week to get visa pages added to my passort because it was almost full. It was like entering a prison. There is no parking allowed. I went through 2 metal detectors, 3 very heavy (probably blast resistant) doors, two long empty enclosed corridors and had to leave my keys and cell phone at the gate. This is Singapore, the most pro-American country in South-East Asia, not Kabul. The need for such security is a sad thing. On a lighter note, the service was great. I was in and out in 25 minutes.)

The problem is that it is becoming almost impossible for me to avoid these Obama discussions. Almost daily I'm asked by people about Barak Obama and how his election will effect the rest of the world. This is also especially related to to the fact that I'm in the maritime industry which is strongly tied to the oil business. President Obama's energy policy is a hot topic. The stories you hear about how famous he is overseas are true. I didn't really understand why until a conversation I had yesterday at lunch.

I was talking with another ABS engineer and I told him how surprised I was about the high amount of coverage of the US election I was seeing on TV and in the newspaper in Singapore. He gave me a knowing look and then simply said, "Yeah, it wasn't like this 8 years ago."

A simple response that said so much. Think of the effect that US policy has had on the rest of the world over the last 8 years. Two new wars, people from all over the world imprisoned without ever being charged with a crime, deteriorating security in the Middle East (although that point is certainly debatable), an unstable global energy market and looming oil shortage and a worldwide financial collapse. Regardless of the facts (who knows what the facts are at this point anyway), the world perceives the United States as the cause of these problems.

Very much like people in the US, people overseas are looking at Obama like a savior of sorts. He's the anti-Bush, and that makes him popular. Putting aside all of the racial issues (not that they're insignificant, it's just not what I'm talking about here), our new President has a pretty full plate of things to deal with. What I can't predict is how people will react if things get worse before they get better. Some people are saying that if he doesn't prove himself to be the Messiah pretty quickly there will be a backlash. I'm more inclined to think the opposite. The bar has been set so low recently, it's not hard to make yourself look good.

I've been typing for 20 minutes and I'm not really sure where I'm going with this. Do I have a point? I guess I'm afraid to make a point for all of the reasons I listed above.

May God bless you Barak. The world is watching.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Summertime Plans

Melissa and I have pieced together a general outline of our schedule for this Summer. In case you're interested (or we're sleeping at your house), here it is:

Virginia: June 5-19
Texas: June 20-30
Virginia: July 1-12 (Matt arrives from Singapore July 11)
New York/New England: July 13 - Aug 2
Virginia: Aug 3-4
Back to Singapore: Aug 5

We don't have any airline tickets yet so these dates are tentative. As things solidify, we'll let you know.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Fish Feet and One Scary Animal

Melissa, Jack and I have been to the Night Safari in Singapore a few times. We went there again with Grandma Chris last week. The Night Safari is basically a nighttime zoo. It's full of animals that are either truly nocturnal, or ones that are just more active when it cools off in the evening. You can walk through the entire place on dimly lit walking paths or take the easy route and hop on the tram that drives through the whole park. It's not nearly the size of the regular Singapore Zoo, but it's almost as popular because it's so much cooler here at night. We don't really have many pictures to share, because it's just too dark to take any good ones.

There's plenty of places in the park to eat or just sit down and relax with a drink. Near the front of the park, there are the standard souvenir shops and Ben & Jerry's ice cream shop (Jack's favorite). There is one shop that is kind of unique though.

In Singapore, foot care (massage, pedicure, etc.) shops are everywhere. For some reason, people seem to be really focused on their feet. One thing I'd heard of but never seen were the foot eating fish. There are these fish that like to eat the little dead bits of dry skin from your feet. This shop has a long low fish tank full of these fish. For $10 you can have a five minute trial with your feet in the tank. There's a first time for everything.

It tickles. My feet must taste good.

Jack's Grandma Chris decided she had to give it a try too.

That's Jack's head on the bottom left corner.

There is also an animal show that features some nocturnal cats and a few smaller animals that is very interesting. One of the features of the show is when the presenters pretend that they lost and animal and then they "find" it locked under one of the benches in the stands. They then have one lucky person from the stands come up on stage and help out while they talk about this beautiful animal. Guess who's wife stood up and pointed at her husband when they asked for "a big strong man" to come up on stage and help. I'll let you watch for yourself.

OK. There's supposed to be a video of me onstage holding a 80 lb python, but I can't get it uploaded. It's just too big. I'm working on a way to edit it. If I can sort it out this weekend, I'll post it.

Saturday, January 3, 2009

Club Med - Ria Bintan

Last week, Melissa, Jack, Chris (Melissa's mom) and I took a long weekend and made a holiday trip to Indonesia. We stayed at the Club Med on Bintan Island in Indonesia.

On the Friday morning after Christmas, we left the house at about 9am and took a taxi to the Tanah Merah ferry terminal. After about an hour on a high speed ferry, we had made the short trip to the resort area of Bintan Island. We made it through customs very quickly because I expect that I looked quite gullible. As everyone was forming up into lines to get their passports checked, one of the Indonesian immigration officers walked up to me and smiled.

"Americans?" he said.


"Come with me."

Uh oh. What did I just get us into?

He walked us right past the line to the other side of the desk and told us to wait at the baggage claim for our suitcases. "I'll be right back," he said. He walked over to one of the immigration desks and started typing on the computer an shuffling through papers.

Our bags arrived after about 5 minutes and our immigration buddy wandered back at about the same time.

"OK, here you go. You're all done," he said as he handed our passports back.

"Um, thanks," was all I could think of.

"Maybe a little tip?" he said.

"Ahhhhhh....of course."

I handed him 30,000 rupiah (about 3 bucks) and that seemed to do the trick. We were on our way.

Still in the ferry terminal, there were desks for all of the resorts just after you left the baggage area. A nice guy with a Club Med shirt took all of our bags and got us checked into our rooms before we'd even left the terminal.

"Hop on the dark blue bus outside. It will take you to the resort."

And off we went. Half an hour later, we were in our room unpacking and looking forward to lunch.

We had two connected rooms. Melissa and I had this one, Jack and Chris were next door.

The bathroom

Our Back Patios

The food was served buffet style and we all enjoyed the selection. There are so many different people from so many different countries who visit the resort, they served all kids of food to keep everyone happy. Indian, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, American/European, there was always something good to eat. One of the definite highlights was the bread. We all raved about it. It was all baked at the resort and it was some of the best I'd ever had.

One of the reasons we chose Club Med out of all of the resorts on Bintan was because of the activities they have for kids. In the mornings, Jack would head off after breakfast to hang out with the KidsClub. He got to do archery and even got a chance to try the trapeze.

I was very proud that he climbed up there all by himself and jumped right off the board into the air. It was at least 30 feet high.

We'd all get back together for lunch and then spend the afternoon at the pool and the beach.

It was a constant struggle to save a seat a the pool.

View of the beach bar from the water.

We made a lot of sand castles.

Jack would play in the surf for hours.

After the beach, we'd head back to the room to rest, shower and get ready for dinner.

It felt good to wash all of the sand off.

Drinks before dinner in the lounge.

Even Jack had a beverage.


Most nights we'd be so tired by the end of dinner, we'd just head back to the room and read a book or watch some TV before falling asleep.

Overall, it was a very relaxing vacation. Club Med is the kind a place that's designed for a family to go and relax and have fun. We definitely enjoyed our first trip to a Club Med resort and will be going back as soon as we can.

Happy Holidays.