Monday, November 29, 2010

Dreaming of Angkor Wat

Every traveler has a dream destination. It could be the lighted splendor of Paris or the surf and sun of Aruba or the snows of the ever walkable Mount Kilimanjaro. It could be the foliage of New Hampshire's autumn or the scenic coast of California. For me, it was Cambodia.

Ever since I had seen Wong Kar Wai's film In the Mood for Love, I have been dreaming of Angkor Wat. It is a story of yearning, words never spoken and love never expressed, except whispered into a crevice of a stone pillar, and covered with a patch of grass. It was immortalized there, a speck upon the wall, a wall within the temple, a temple within the ancient city, a city within the ruined nation, a nation spinning its bloody history within the world. I believed I would find meaning there.

I never made it to Angkor Wat. Three times I came close, but fate intervened and relegated me somewhere else. Twice in Thailand and once in Singapore, all a stone's throw away from this fascinating country, and I kept missing it. In Bangkok, I somehow always deferred to my traveling companion. Once it was my mother who did not want to witness the aftermath of the Khmer Rouge's massacre. The other time it was my ex, who managed to run out of money for that leg of the trip. In Singapore, it was my health that failed me. Siem Reap was not the place you'd want to be right after major surgery.

In America, we are raised on the bread of manifest destiny. If you want it badly enough and work hard enough, it is sure to happen. Remember the law of attraction? You can bring everything you desire to fruition as long as you keep thinking it. Perhaps if I had pressured my companions or forced myself to go to Angkor Wat despite medical concerns, I would have lived my dream.

The older I get, the less I am convinced that we prevail in this age-old struggle versus nature. Mountain climbers tell me that they choose to climb in the best possible season, fairest weather, and still they would abandon the quest if it got too snowy or too cold. Experience taught them to indulge nature to get out alive. That's also true of life. While effort does help, we don't get our way because of our inveterate awesomeness. We get our way when nature's in a good mood.

I knew better than to keep pushing Angkor Wat. After Singapore, I found myself in Kuala Lumpur instead...

Saturday, November 20, 2010

An Asian Girl on Asian Girls

Aboard the Singapore MRT, sleek pulse of the city transporting everyone to everywhere they need to be. I was on my way from Eunos station to Tanjong Pagar station to meet a new friend for lunch. As I stood in the midst of that crowded car, I caught sight of my reflection in the immaculate windows.

There I was, full-figured by Asian standards, complete with cleavage. In my native America, I go unnoticed among waves of voluptuous Caucasian and African-American women. In Singapore, I stuck out like a sore thumb, plump girl with a full buxom who was conveniently wearing a strapless top. Boy, did I get stares. Even in 97 degree weather, I pulled my jacket over my shoulders and zipped it all the way up.

I began contemplating the varieties of Asian beauty. Singaporeans are typically Asian in origin, mostly ethnic Chinese. Women here are attractive, well-manicured, and highly maintained in expensive cosmetics and strappy designer sandals with rhinestones. Yet their exterior seems to be a production, a process of overlaying the material enhancements until perfection is reached. Their skirts are hiked high at mid-thigh; think lingerie length. In my part of the world, they'd be asking for trouble.

Korean women are willowy, leggy creatures, with the natural advantage of height and stature. Not partial to make-up; their features are soft and simple. However, their plastic surgery industry is renowned within the Pacific. Most female Korean celebrities tend to look alike because their double-lidded eyes and luscious full lips were borne of the same masterful surgical technique. Margaret Cho was not kidding. There were recent controversies because few babies resembled their mothers.

Japanese women have the loveliest complexions. Their features are delicately etched onto ivory skin, smooth as porcelain. Based on the history of geisha, who are living works of art, Japanese women have inherited that grace throughout the years. Even abroad, you can always tell a Japanese tourist by her elegance. But they do tend to be a bit short and stocky compared to their Korean neighbors.

Vietnamese women, too, are rather short; I grudgingly admit this. We are known for our extraordinarily long hair, waterfall of black silk. Despite being petite, we are very proportional. A Vietnamese girl might weigh only 99 lbs and stand 4'9" tall; still she can flaunt her curves in the alluring, fitted "ao dai." And we look deceptively taller (unlike our men). Of course, high heels help.

Chinese women? Even I will not attempt to generalize women from a nation of 1.2 billion in population. There are too many regions and ethnicities within that diverse melting pot of beauty. Same goes for Indian women. I will note, though, that Indian women are by far the most dazzling when it comes to attire. Regardless of economic or social class, Indian women are consistently garbed in wonders of jewel-toned fabrics, even if they are walking around cow dung.

So I stereotype, but quite honestly, we all do. The human brain is wired to make judgements. All political correctness has done was stop us from saying what we really think, not changing the way we think.

Of course, my Singaporean friend Helen broke the stereotype that I have so diligently crafted. We met flying back from Kuala Lumpur and she was a tall, bronze-skinned young woman without a hint of pretension. Between bites of sushi, we discussed career, travel, and of course boyfriend troubles. After sipping sake, I found myself confiding more details about my recently ended relationship than I cared to remember.

I realized that no matter where I went, I took my baggage with me and it weighed more than any physical suitcase. That's the thing about finding yourself. Unless you make peace with your past, it is bound to creep up on you in unexpected ways, in some strange land, sometimes in a bout of intoxication.

Monday, November 8, 2010

Great Singapore

My friends Samir and Shubhra had relocated to Singapore to pursue a better quality of life. Shubhra recently bore a daughter and cringed at the lifestyle of working mothers in the States. Reminiscent of India, the cost of labor in Singapore was reasonable and she could find domestic help. I bid them a tearful goodbye on their departure from New Jersey, haboring visions of their nearly royal existence in the exotic Southeast.

Fast forward four years later, and I was aboard Singapore Airlines for a visit. I had heard rave reviews about Singapore Airlines before and I am positive they all came from men. I was less impressed by their service than by the fire engine red lips all attendants puckered and their bosom-bearing cobalt outfits. Compared to stately Korean attendants in smart-looking suits from Asiana Air, I got a taste of Singapore before I even got off the plane.

Singapore gleamed at first glance. Floors, walls, and handles were polished until they shone. High-rises loomed from windows and interiors were vibrant colors like pumpkin orange or lime green. The airport was a luxury house in itself with shopping galore, shimmering marble surfaces, posh massage parlors and chairs, free wi-fi, and delectable foods from all over the world. I took the Metro to my friends' place, a modern silver train that made me ashamed of dingy NYC subway cars.

Amid kisses and jokes, my friends introduced me to Meera, their beautiful three year-old toddler and Alma, the Filipina "help." I was shocked when they opened the door to their flat. It was painstakingly bare. There was one table in the living area; only mattresses and sheets in the bedrooms. Refuge-style. The air-conditioning was turned off, despite a temperature of over 92 degreess Fahrenheit. Now Samir and Shubhra were both successful professionals in their fields, and I was under the impression both had been promoted in Singapore. Yet they seemed far more affluent in America. Then they shared with me the reason...taxes.

Samir confided, "Don't be misled by the low income taxes. I had no idea things would be this expensive." He proceeded to enumerate a litany of grievances. "In Singapore, you pay taxes on your home and on your car and on the radio inside your car. You pay a special tax for every television you own and every computer you use. You pay wages to a domestic servant, and then taxes for using her services, even though she is not affiliated with the state. You pay for a license to own a car, another license to drive it on weekends and evenings, and an additional license for unlimited use of your own car. Then you have the exquisite honor of paying a toll every single time you cross a stoplight, whether it is red or green. Multiple times if you are lost or looking for a parking spot..."

"No taxation without representation." So goes the famous American mantra. In Singapore, it is "no breathing without taxation." Every movement you make, everything you own or use, is fair game in the name of taxes.

I began thinking about expectations. My friends had envisioned an entirely different future when they moved here, one of prosperity and relaxation, far from the bitter cold of the American Northeast. Singapore was a veneer of glass and mirrors and glittering opulence, behind which they struggled. The city was everything in material success. The food was fantastic, designer brands were prevalent, and inviting real estate sprawled for miles. It just had no heart. And it was a dream they could scarcely afford.