Monday, October 24, 2005

10/18: i love the '80s and the 1890s

Right now B and I are sitting at Tea Chapter in Singapore’s Chinatown. We’ve had several pots of earthy red tea and one pot of slightly bitter green tea. Until about 20 minutes ago, 140 Chinese schoolgirls were taking tea lessons upstairs, so it wasn’t exactly tranquil. I don’t think I’d do very well in tea school. I feel big and oafish among the dainty porcelain cups (one for sniffing, one for drinking) and teapots (one for brewing, one for pouring). At Starbucks you get a venti whatever and you are kind of dwarfed by it. You don’t have to have refined tastes to enjoy a bunch of chocolate sprinkles and a triple shot of caffeine. This is stuff for people who like wine tasting and classical music. I like the idea of wine tasting and classical music.

Also, I just managed to acquire a tea injury when I seared my wrist on our boiling kettle.

Still, it’s all lovely and elaborate, and I think this might be one of my favorite days so far. Earlier this afternoon we visited the Chinatown Heritage Centre, a pretty impressive museum devoted to the Chinese immigrants who’ve come to Singapore since the 1800s. (It’s crazy that a city with a majority Chinese population even has a Chinatown, but that’s the colonial legacy for you.) I’ve always loved Jacob Riis’ photos of 19th century American immigrants. In high school I poured over floor plans of dumbbell-style tenements in my U.S. history textbook. B said, “I know how you love filth.” Maybe. There is something about the texture of that experience and the extremes people will go to for survival that I’m drawn to. So it was interesting to see a parallel immigrant experience that happened at the same time on the other side of the world.

Chinese shophouses—which had crowded workstations on the first two floors and crowded multi-family living quarters above—also had airshafts running down the middle, just like American dumbbell tenements. The museum had an almost full-size replica of a bunch of shophouse rooms, stocked with rickety furniture and retro posters and pots and pans and irons and sewing machines.

When I think of Klein family vacations, I think of wooden rooms with squeaky, old-fashioned beds and a rope across the doorway to keep you from going inside. So this museum made me nostalgic for both the 1980s and 1890s.

Yesterday was our last in Malaysia, a big surge of shopping. Visiting a poor country makes me want to live a simpler life on one hand, and buy while the buying’s cheap on the other.

Highlight from the scruffy, under-construction Kuching airport: a sign saying, “Emergency Procedure: In case of smoke or fire the person who spots it should shout, ‘Fire! Fire!’ in a loud voice.”

Almost as priceless as the instructional signs I’ve seen in a few of the bathrooms, explaining via detailed diagrams how to use a Western (as opposed to squat) toilet. We’ve all agreed that squat toilets are in fact much more sanitary than sit toilets. Still, there’s something inherently funny about reading instructions on how to do something you’ve been doing since you were two years old. Literal toilet humor. According to the pictures, if you squat on the rim of a Western toilet, you might fall in and get your leg stuck. Good to know.

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