Saturday, October 22, 2005

10/8: fine city

If you live in a country with all sorts of theoretical rights, but never get around to practicing them, is your country really different from one without rights? Ryan’s example: So we have freedom of the press, but all we read is Us Weekly. Going about town in Singapore today, I didn’t feel like I was in a police state. There were lots of signs reminding me not to litter and a number of cameras, but I got the feeling that I could live more or less the same life here that I do at home. Ryan claims to be a fan of dictatorships these days. I can’t tell how much of that is sincere, how much is an ideology he’s sort of trying on.

A lot of America’s rugged individualism is just stupid. Like, “Ain’t no government gonna tell me where to throw my trash. Ain’t no government gonna tell me to carpool.” But I wonder if I’d been raised in a country that didn’t even have a pretense of nonconformity if I’d be an even bigger wuss than I am now. And I hate the idea of not being able to choose my college or my job, and not being able to be openly gay. So ultimately I’m going to have to go with the U.S., even if it’s just the devil-I-know.

Okay, enough politics. Here’s what we did today:
  • Wet market near Ryan’s flat. Loaded up on dragon fruit (bright pink with curvy petal-arms), mangosteens (which look like a cross between an eggplant and a persimmon but taste lychee-esque) and these little things that taste like grapefruit-flavored lychees.
  • The Esplanade, nicknamed The Durian because of its round, prickly shape. Looked at an exhibit of gorgeous, explosively colored artwork by school kids.
  • Hammed it up at the big merlion statue, just like a good Singaporean couple should. At one of the gift stands nearby you can buy T-shirts that say, “Singapore: It’s a Fine City” above a list of all the semi-crimes you can get fined for. Kind of like the “You are now entering the Soviet Zone” T-shirts we saw for sale in Berlin. Even oppressive government is marketable.
  • Took a riverboat from the merlion to Clarke Quay. We inhaled gasoline fumes and looked out onto rows of yuppie bars and restaurants that occupy the old waterfront warehouses.

Then onto Little India. There are lots of Tamil men in Singapore, mostly doing manual labor jobs and sending money home to their families. Sound familiar, California? B had heard this was a good area to get an inexpensive, hand-tailored suit, but all the tailors were busy sewing for the Deepvali Festival. Plus they specialized in Punjabi suits, basically an embroidered tunic and Hammer pants. B is more businesswoman-chic. The guy who sold us rosewater ice cream explained that Deepvali celebrates the triumph of good over evil. We tried to think of a holiday celebrating the reverse, and Halloween was the closest we got.

We walked through a Hindu temple where a different, non-Deepvali festival was going on. The outside of the building was covered with many-armed gods in a rainbow of colors, and the inside was packed with worshippers and gawkers. A stream of shoes led to the door, to a cloud of incense. It was a sweaty, happy, open place. And yet because I knew so little about the religion and the festival, it was hard for me to experience it as more than just color and music. It was hard not to commodify.

Same with the outdoor market in Little India. It was buzzing and bright, with bins of tin bangle bracelets, flower wreaths, clay incense pots, Bollywood CDs, inlaid jewelry. But one of the problems (and one of the joys) of living in a place like LA is that so much is already available to me. I can get durian at 99 Ranch and Indian jewelry at Venice Beach. In a way, being here is a reminder that a culture is not the sum of its souvenirs. A good thing to be reminded of. If I want to take something home, I have to look deeper—except I don’t think I’ll be staying long enough to truly do that.

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