Expat Living in Singapore

The Thursday column is primarily about other countries that I’m interested in, but it would be remiss to overlook Singapore, which is also a travel destination, and is particularly popular for expatriates to live in. After all, most of us speak English as our first language, which already places us higher than other parts of Asia. The only other Asian country I can think of with a good command of English is Hong Kong, but they belong to China now (so I really must stop calling them a country) and I expect Chinese regulations are still a lot more stringent than Singaporean ones when it comes to business. Maybe.

I believe I never really knew what foreigners think of the Singaporean accent. We poke fun at the Hong Konger accent very often (at least, Singaporeans do) but what do they think of us? Are we so boring that our accent isn’t even noteworthy? I haven’t encountered a situation where a foreigner didn’t understand our accent yet, so all should be well on that front.

In any case, while I’m on the subject of Singapore and Hong Kong, I found a useful and beautiful website to guide expats on living in these 2 countries. Expat Living Singapore has articles on a variety of aspects of Singapore, organised into categories like “Kids”, “Homes”, “Wine & Dine” etcetera. In each category there are also sub-categories. Under Kids, there are things like “Mums & Babies”, “Tweens & Teens” etcetera. It’s quite comprehensive and useful to know. It lists the top infectious diseases to watch out for in Singapore, showcases the homes of some expats, and of course recipes for cooking with Singaporean ingredients. I envy expats reading this thing! I bet there’re loads of things in there that I don’t know myself.

The website is just http://www.expatliving.sg.

I think, though, that 1 big thing to note when in Singapore (which I’m unsure if the website really covers) is that it’s almost always a waste of time asking locals for directions — especially the younger ones. Older people are alright, but a youngster will just look back at you with glazed eyes even when your destination is right in front of him. Singaporeans just rely too much on Google Maps to bother remembering where anything is in the vicinity, and are pretty much also a bunch of not-alert and not-curious people. So if you want to go anywhere, always consult a map or Google Maps before asking people. Unless you want to ask them to help you check Google Maps, which they will gladly do.

Sometimes reading these articles reminds me of things I take for granted too. The medical article, for instance, says Singapore is packed and therefore colds and flus spread easily, and also that Singapore being a warm and humid country ensures viruses stay active and infectious for longer than colder climates. And I start wondering whether Singaporeans do fall sick more often than people in temperate climates in that case. I’ve heard many people mention such, that viruses survive better in our happy sunny climate (really, everything thrives in this kind of climate, even fruits) and indeed, there’re many diseases that occur only in tropical countries. However, there’re many Singaporeans who have never fallen ill for most of their lives, so maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds?

Either way, be sure to take care of your health when you’re coming to Singapore, and consider spending a year or 2 here. We’ve commonly been named one of the best countries to live in anyway, and especially so in Asia!

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Singing Gestures

My friend recently showed me a stage performance of his favourite Japanese duo, Chage & Aska. They seem to be an oldish duo who sing rather oldish songs, but what struck me the most was the humourous repetitive gesture of 1 of them (Aska, I believe). As he was singing, he kept holding out a finger, moving it upwards, then putting his finger behind him, before holding it out again, rinse and repeat. It’s a pretty funny gesture if you’ve spotted it, which brings to mind some other signature moves by other artistes on stage.

For instance, we all know LiSA’s signature body jerks on stage, much like how she does it in her music videos. FLOW has some signature moves as well, like holding their hands out. And of course, SID has probably carefully orchestrated their every move and rehearsed it many times over. Even so, Mao has some moves he always uses when performing, like holding up 2 fingers when singing “futari”. I’m sure fans of SID will know of many other moves that appear regularly.

Contrast that with Faye Wong, the Chinese singer who is famous for not knowing how to dance, at all. She always stands stoically straight as she sings, refusing to move her body more than she is comfortable with. Well she has always been known as being a bit of a diva, but her vocals are so great that her temperament is forgiven. In fact, some find her endearing, because she tells you what she thinks without sugar-coating her words. If she doesn’t want you to interview her, she’ll just tell you to your face, “no, I don’t want.”

And really, sometimes I pity rock or metal bands. Not only are their songs quite taxing to sing, the vocalists are also required to make exaggerated body movements, jumping, screaming at the audience, cheering. And yet they have to preserve their voices for singing 20 to 30 songs at 1 go. I can imagine that much of pre-concert preparation goes towards arranging the songs to be least demanding on the throat.

And how do you move when you sing? I know a friend who shakes his head whenever he sings in karaoke, so he’ll be singing and swaying the microphone and shaking his head. Most people will move their non-mic hand in some way, though usually in a repetitive motion that’s just as funny. You may want to take a look yourself at how you move when singing, especially when you’re not using a microphone. Do you stand still or sway, and are your hands tucked obstinately to the side?

The New Future of Anime and Manga

I was reading the manga Hoshi no Samidare recently — haven’t gotten to the end yet so I shan’t speak about it — and the manga brought to mind (quite intrusively) the defining element in all anime and manga of the 21st century. This is usually present in many anime — sometimes even anime that take themselves seriously — and certainly no less in Hoshi no Samidare. Even in anime that don’t have it, we keep a sub-conscious eye out for it, especially during the action scenes.

Ready to guess what it is? Panty shots.

Panty shots have always dominated the anime scene, even in Miyazaki Hayao’s My Neighbour Totoro (and some other Studio Ghibli projects), where the girls had such strangely billowing skirts and their little petticoats were always peeking. However, in recent years, the rise of hentai allusions in even non-hentai anime has resulted in panty shots being a thing. Even without them, characters would remark on them, as in the case of Mondaiji-tachi ga Isekai Kara Kuru Sou desu yo ne?, where Kuro Usagi, or Black Rabbit, was said to have the magical skill of being able to jump about in her little miniskirt without ever letting anyone see her panties. And in one scene, male lead Izayoi was determined to see her panties at least once (well admittedly in the entire show everybody seemed to be perving on Kuro Usagi). And of course, in Hoshi no Samidare, panty shots are a recurring joke whenever Samidare is fighting.

In the past century, boobs had been the thing. Everyone had ridiculously big boobs showing from excessively revealing clothing. In this day and age, moe becomes the winning factor, and breasts have correspondingly been scaled down to more realistic limits, and cleavages covered by slightly more decent clothes. Flat-chested girls are also seeing the limelight (though still continually being pointed out) and so the focus has shifted to underwear and the adorable panties, or “pantsu”, that ladies wear. It seems most girls delight in pink panties with ribbons and cartoon faces on them. Women out there, if you’re dating a man who watches anime, be sure to visit the children’s section when buying lingerie.

So, yes, if a little girl is too young to have boobs, she must have panties. This is the new hentai of the century. And speaking of hentai in general, I don’t know if this is because I’m growing up and seeing anime of my age range, but there seems to be a staggering increase in pervy jokes (like Seitokai Yakuindomo, an anime dedicated entirely to pervy jokes, with Mangaka-san to Assistant-san to coming in a close second). Even Sword Art Online had a strange undressing scene (between adolescents, no less), though SAO did turn into a hentai/harem fantasy towards the end of the show. I can see now why some Japanese men say that they see so much hentai that they’re immune to it.

Then again, Japanese men have the most peculiar sexual fetishes in real life, so I’m not sure what to believe. Either way, it can’t be good if your plots keep getting derailed into X-rated humour. Please show the ladies some respect, even if anime has traditionally never really done so.

Temeraire

Recently I finished the seventh book in the ongoing Temeraire series. I forgot if I talked about it before, but perhaps not in much detail. In any case, I shall talk a bit about the series and what I think of it. The eighth book was out last year and the ninth book is due in 2015, so I’m not that far behind.

The series is historical fantasy, which will immediately make you think of Pride & Prejudice & Werewolves (well that is for some reason the first book that came to my mind). The creative twist to this is that it follows quite closely the events of the First World War, when England was fighting against France and Napoleon’s forces, but this time their “aerial forces” are dragons. The Air Force ride dragons in combat, with different dragons bred specially for certain properties. To add a personal touch, each dragon bonds with a captain for life — the first human it sees when it gets out of its egg, pretty much. And dragons learn languages when they’re in the shell, so if the egg has been transported from England to the Netherlands on an Indian cruiser, the dragon hatches being fluent in English, Dutch and Tamil/Hindi (I mean of course it depends on what dialect those Indians speak).

I like how she lays out her dragon mechanics in a very unique way. She explains the bonding between dragon and captain, their language fluency, is consistent over different dragon breeds and what they can and cannot do (the Longwings, quite cutely, accept only female captains, which is why women are secretly in the Corps as well). You’re really immersed in the believable and well thought out world. I mean, it’s got to require a lot of planning and explaining to fit dragons into an entire war history. Plus, dragons all have a distinct personality in that they like hoarding treasure such as gold and jewels, and have a distinct outlook of life (they’re quite incredibly selfish, for one, and are constantly finding ways and means to show off their captains). It also brings to mind just what we as humans assume about the world, and how we sometimes trap ourselves with social rules and conventions.

Not only that, Naomi Novik, the author, also challenges herself in 2 other ways. First, throughout the book, all the characters speak in an excellent old British sort of way. They say things like “By God, you will apologize, or for halfpence I will have you flogged through the streets.” You know, the old Jane Austen sort of way? Except it’s written by a modern-day author, and I believe she must have proofread the language over and over again to ensure its accuracy.

Secondly, which is really the highlight of the series, is that each book talks about a particular country’s way of regarding its dragons. I find it very impressive that she has captured the essence of each region and incorporated it believably into dragon culture. For example, England regards dragons as mere fighting machines, whereas China regards them like people, and hatchlings are sent to school and educated. In South America, the Incan regions, dragons are the heads of tribes, and each dragon has an ayllu, or a bunch of humans, under its charge. This is like a complete role reversal, where dragons are the ruling parties over humans. The characters travel to different parts of the world, and each part is fleshed out interestingly.

The dragons themselves are also interesting, particularly Iskierka, the dragon you just love to hate. She is loud-mouthed, unruly and materialistic, and yet so lovable because of it. She is the character who is imperfect and yet because of that she makes the story even more colourful. I hate her, and yet I cannot bring myself to hate her that much. Fortunately, the main dragon, Temeraire, is much more decent and is indeed lovable for the right reasons.

So, yep, this is a pretty different take on conventional dragon tales. If you like historical fiction with a dash of fantasy elements, have a look!

Time

I’ve never felt the uncertainty of time as acutely as when I started planning for the trip to Japan. I didn’t want to put too many activities, or too few, into a single day, but it was really hard to estimate just how much time we would spend in 1 place. Would we get bored early? Would we take a lot of time to walk around? How long would we spend doing certain activities?

I never really understood what Einstein meant about the relativity of time before, when he said that time was relative to what we were doing. He probably meant it as a joke (“When a man sits with a pretty girl for an hour, it seems like a minute. But let him sit on a hot stove for a minute — then it’s longer than any hour. That’s relativity!”) but recently I’ve fully comprehended what he meant. After all, we’ve been living for most of our lives based on our clocks, and yet why don’t we ever know what the time is without checking it? No one has been able to say with any degree of confidence what time it is without referring to the clock. How many times have you glanced at your clock and gone, “oh dear, it’s this time already?” Indeed, time is quite difficult to grasp, even though we would expect to have gained some proficiency in it with our eighty years in the world.

What can you do in a minute? You’re fairly sure you can do more than get up and take a mug of water, but probably less than the time you need to take a shower. 10 minutes is the time some people can run 2.4 km in school (the boys, that is) and yet it is only the duration of 2 songs. 3-hour seminar classes seem to drag on for ages, but you can spend 3 to 4 hours easily in a karaoke and think there wasn’t enough time to sing all the songs you wanted — but isn’t each song only about 5 minutes? As we grow older, we take the uncertainty of time for granted. Classes and recreation are regarded with different metric systems.

This doesn’t really solve the problem, though. After all, look at the (increasing) number of people coming late for appointments. We simply don’t know the precise amount of time we need for transport unless we specifically measure it. But of course, you may argue that time is there to serve us; we’re not slaves of time. We don’t have to do everything to the precise second, of course, but it does mean even greater uncertainty. When someone says they will be there at 11.25 am, do they actually mean 11.30? 11.40, even? Some people would even leave the house at 11.25. It’s all part of a culture which has accepted that time is only a reference.

So how much time should I set aside for each location? Time doesn’t tell.

Hearthstone

I don’t think I’ve written about Hearthstone yet, even though it’s become my go-to casual game of the year. Hearthstone is basically an online card game, which means there aren’t any real cards, and works like Magic: The Gathering except with a slightly more RPG element to it. It’s funny how cards have become so synonymous with certain connotations that even in an online game, they are used to represent things that are in your hand that can be played for certain effects. I mean, they could well be tokens, or icons, or commands, but having them look like cards somehow gets one into a particular mindset.

What is this RPG element that Hearthstone has? Well, for one, you get to play as a Hero, and you can even fight with a weapon, or use an ability. Secondly, when your creatures take damage, the damage is permanent. That reminds me of RPG games where creatures chip at each other till one dies. Other than that, it’s mostly like Magic, where the objective is to beat the opposing player by getting him to 0 life.

There’s a lot less flexibility in Hearthstone. For one, certain cards are “class-specific”, meaning only a particular Hero can play them. I’ve long dreamed up great card combos like Innervate + a whole bunch of Rogue combo cards, but nope, impossible. Secondly, you can only have 1 deck of a Hero at one time. You can’t have 2 decks of the same Hero simultaneously. Thirdly, you have a maximum amount of mana. In the early game, you’re relieved that you can play all your cards without worrying about drawing into mana. In the late game, you’re just frustrated that you’ve got to count the mana costs of your cards and the moment they hit 11 it’s just impossible. And fourthly, the most stupid of all, you can’t play with people on a different server without wiping out all your data. I mean, why do they think people will play on a different server if they’ll lose all their cards there?

And compared to Magic, Hearthstone has much fewer win conditions, and by that I mean just 1. You chip away the dude’s life. There’s no way out of it. No alternate win conditions, no X-mana cards (I mean if X is at most 10, there’s not much you can do), no enchantments or artifacts. And of course there aren’t funky cards that say “you don’t lose if you have 0 or less life” though there is a Mage spell that renders you immune for a turn, I believe. That said, I do believe the coolest part of Hearthstone is probably Arena.

Arena banks on the fact that Hearthstone is strictly a computer game. In Arena, you choose a card from 3 randomly generated ones of equal rarity, 30 times till you form a deck. RNG is what Hearthstone boasts that Magic cannot. The most Magic can do about RNG is mandate coin flips like in Pokémon TCG, but it won’t have the same impact as an Arena Draft. Magic Drafting is also rather random, thanks to the randomness of booster packs, but it is totally different from Arena and can never be anything like it.

Of course, another advantage is that you can play Hearthstone anytime, whereas for Magic you’ve got to head down to a physical shop and find a stranger willing to play with you. It’s usually not a problem, but for shy people who would rather hole themselves up at home, Hearthstone is much less social than Magic, and you get to play with people anytime of the day, always completely different (though I do see a few names repeatedly).

What do you like or dislike about Hearthstone? Tell me!

How To Make Your Trip Fun

So I’ve been slaving away today, almost without rest, researching on things to do and where to go around Tokyo, where I’ll be going in June. It’s a pretty tiring process, but it does save on time and money, and prevent some unpleasant shocks that do so often creep up on you. When planning your own trip abroad, you get to go to only the places you want to go, which makes all the hard work worth it.

For those planning your trip abroad, aside from ensuring accommodation and flight, you may want to note the following other features to make your visit cosier.

1. Internet!

The modern traveller cannot go without internet. Most hotels offer WiFi services, and so do many public places, assuming you’re visiting major cities like Tokyo. For internet on the go, it’s usually expensive to use roaming 3G. There’re prepaid SIM cards for your phones, and some costlier prepaid cards include some internet data too. Of course, most heavy-duty internet work should be done in WiFi spots.

2. Transport

Public transport in cities may be convenient, with virtually every corner of the city reachable by 1 or 2 train lines, but such convenience also comes at a cost — complexity, especially to tourists not used to the routes. Transport cards are usually bought at the stations, and you should be familiar with the train routes and major interchanges, to make the most efficient way to wherever you want to go.

Remember, when it comes to public transport, all roads lead to Rome, but some roads are longer than others.

3. Food

I always find that food is the single most troublesome part of a person’s life. Regardless of the person’s wishes, they have to eat thrice a day, and a substantial portion at that. When travelling, food is sometimes hard to come by at the right time. I would suggest bringing snacks with you as you walk, in case you storm recklessly into the nearest restaurant when your tummy starts rumbling. Also, only eat when you’re really hungry. It prevents food wastage and lets you get the most out of each dish. After all, foreign cuisine is something to be savoured with gusto!

4. Tax refunds

The most important thing that most tourists miss out on. The airport offers income tax refunds to tourists, as long as you produce the receipt. In countries where taxes are high — which are pretty much everywhere nowadays — you shouldn’t lose your money unnecessarily. Find the tax refund counter and make sure you get back whatever you’re owed; you’ll be surprised at the amount.

5. Sleep well

Tourists sometimes forget they need sleep. They wake up early to see locals in the midst of action and stay up past midnight to bask in the atmosphere of the nightlife. All this excitement is likely to cause illness if one keeps it up for too long. The first night is always going to be harder to sleep, but subsequently you should get used to the new environment. Try to get at least 6 or 7 hours of sleep, if not 8. Being unwell while travelling is one of the worst things that can happen.

So these are some simple reminders on what to note when travelling alone. Always plan for them so you don’t forget (yes, especially Point 5). Bon voyage!

The Search for the Tune of Old

When people talk about their favourite game music, they mention things like, I don’t know, Harvest Moon? Pokémon? Sure, I love all the different instrumentals representing different cities in Pokémon games, and am amazed at the vast number of quality works that can be produced for each game. However, my favourite game music, the one that struck a chord with me most, is for the game whose name I’ve forgotten.

It was a handphone game, back when I had my… was it the Nokia phone? Yes, it was probably those times. I was about 17 or 18 then (so not too long ago) and I loved these games on my phone. No, no, I’m quite sure now it wasn’t in my Nokia… it might have been in the one before that… what phone did I have before my Nokia? One’s memory can be so alarmingly flawed.

Either way, I was really good at that game. It was basically a variant of Tetris, I think, where different kinds of seashells fall from the top of the screen and you position them such that 3 seashells of the same kind form a line and disappear. A pretty boring game (then again, look at what people are playing nowadays. Candy Crush Saga, not much better) but the music was so soothing, sometimes it sent a tear falling down my cheek. Even today, even when I cannot tell you the name of the game, I can still hum the tune as if I had heard it only yesterday.

And yet, without the name of the game, I simply cannot find the music again. It was a very peaceful, tranquil sort of tune, slightly jaunty and upbeat, but not at all the stressful, adrenaline pumping kind you expect in things like Space Invaders. It was so stress-free, so pleasant, it felt as if the tune understood me. And so the game became a relaxation. I was in no hurry to beat the game — the game was supposed to please me. And so whenever I was bored or miserable, I would open the game just to listen to that sweet and well-done music again. It was a simple game, and probably wouldn’t be very popular, but it was like a hidden gem that I had uncovered, and so it felt personal to me.

Sometimes these little undiscovered tunes are what stir the heartstrings. You feel as if you’re the only one with that emotional connection to it — the 2 of you had met, long ago, in a secret, private place, and sought a mutual understanding and bond that the outside world does not comprehend. They do not see the true meaning of the tune. Have you had such an experience? Perhaps only instrumentals can forge such an effect.

And this is why I constantly hunt for that tune. Someday, someday I will find it again, and we shall be reunited once more, dancing in the wild pastures of my imagination, free from society and its new-fangled mobile phone games.

Anime Movie Marathon

I did an anime movie marathon with my friends at the Anime Club on Friday. I watched 4 movies: the Steins;Gate movie, the AnoHana movie, REDLINE and Kazetachinu (the Wind Rises). I shall talk a little bit about each of them here.

Firstly, the Steins;Gate movie, Fuka Ryouiki no Deja Vu. It was a pretty great movie, set after the events of the special episode. Basically Okabe is still the only person who remembers the events of the anime, but it seems that all those pent-up memories are causing him to develop a variant of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and more urgently, causing him to disappear from the current timeline. One moment he is talking to Kurisu, and in the next he has disappeared. What is worse is that in the minds of everyone else, he has never existed. Daru became the founder of the lab, and the position of Lab Member 001 was “never filled”. The only person who remembers Okabe is Kurisu, and it is up to her to take the Time Machine, with Suzuha’s help, to find Okabe and make him stay in this timeline.

Doesn’t this sound like an exciting premise? I consider it Steins;Gate, Kurisu version. She re-creates the Time Machine, goes through time, and does basically all the things Okabe did in the show. Fans will be filled with great nostalgia during the show. Granted, the ending (to me) is a bit lame — then again, Steins;Gate had a great ending to contend with — but this is still very much worth a watch.

Secondly, in contrast, AnoHana’s movie is pretty puzzling. It is puzzling in that I don’t know how they expect fans to sit through it when it is 70% recap of the anime. The movie literally strings together all the events in the anime (with just a bit extra). Of course, all of us cried all over again at the memory of the last episode, but the movie provided nothing new, except perhaps a small resolution of what became of the characters 1 year after the events of the anime. That said, they didn’t really resolve the romantic tensions between Jintan x Anaru and Yukiatsu x Tsuruko either. The only redeeming quality there is that Yukiatsu has become a much more good-natured person.

Thirdly, the action-packed fast-paced intergalactic racing anime, REDLINE! Kimura Takuya has always been a rather acceptable seiyuu — his voice is a little rough, and not particularly distinctive, but he portrays the characters very well, just like in Howl’s Moving Castle. REDLINE is a very manly anime, and people who play Mario Kart would appreciate the adrenaline from tracks that resemble things like Rainbow Road, and cars with weapons to fire at the competitors. There are a lot of funny aliens, from slimy gooey monsters to tin can men who can turn into the wheels of his own car, and of course in such movies one can’t miss out on busty women. There’s a lot of action and not much thinking required.

On the other hand, the last movie, Kazetachinu, has loads of thinking, so much so that it left me quite baffled halfway through. The story is about a man (Horikoshi Jiro, who was really the designer of the Mitsubishi A5M and A6M Zero, which were used during World War II) who has dreamed of building aircraft from young. Once in a while, he will dream of Italian airplane designer Caproni, who inspires him with some new aircraft technology.

The truly confusing part comes in the middle of the movie onwards. Jiro grows up and is employed into some aircraft designing firm (which I learn from Wikipedia is Mitsubishi), and then goes to Germany to do technical research. The only part I understand is that he meets a girl he knew from his youth and they fall in love and decide to marry, but the girl is the daughter of a rich man and is afflicted with tuberculosis. They are forced to part as she goes to the mountains to get treated, but halfway through she comes to visit him and they decide to get married and live together. To them, they would rather spend her remaining time together, rather than let her stay in the mountains and risk not seeing each other for years. Naturally she died towards the end.

What with aircraft technical terms being thrown around in Japanese, the audience was sent on a mind-boggling ride (complete with bad subtitles, but that’s not the movie’s fault) and the ending wasn’t particularly helpful. Suddenly, quite without warning, it ends off in dream mode again, saying that Jiro’s airplanes were used in the war to wreak harm onto civilians, and went against his original dream. And so I guess it was a bad ending? The movie’s so intelligent that the audience doesn’t even know what is the correct feeling they should have.

And so this is a summary of what we watched. There was the intelligent, the emotional, the action-packed. There were familiar and new characters alike. Movie marathons can be pretty thrilling when you get to make comments with friends and enjoy them together!