Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Japan, quickly

Before I pass out from all the delicious sake:

1. Perhaps even better than a hotel room robe is a hotel room kimono, especially if it's green with a dark purple tie.

2. The guide books to Tokyo are all wrong. They should just say this: Look, you will get lost. Take the subway to such and such neighborhood and just walk around. We won't bother suggesting any particular restaurants because you will never ever find them. Nor will any cabbie, so don't bother going that route because you will just embarrass him and frustrate you.

3. I have seen signs for no smoking while walking and no putting on make-up on the train. These are smart people, the Japanese.

4. Restaurants tend not to give out napkins with dinner, although they do give you a heated, warmed towel, which they do not collect. So, I guess you are to keep this on the table and wipe your fingers on it if they get sticky. Laps remain unprotected, however.

5. At the izakaya bar we happened onto after dinner this evening, they offered various grilled things. For less than $2 you could get a couple bites of the following, grilled: onion with cheese, tomatoes with cheese, Kyoto pepper, wheat gluten, rice ball, leek. We tried all those and they were all delicious. I love a bar that offers interesting snacks, especially in inexpensive, small portions.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Notes from Penang, Malaysia

I arrived in Penang on a Friday evening and checked into my $35/night hotel (the Sunway). The hotel gave me a free map, which gives a very vague idea of the layout of the downtown. It seemed only the main streets were listed. The street my hotel was located on was not listed. The concierge aka server in the dining area circled a spot on the map and said the hotel was roughly located in that spot.

With my sense of direction being as bad as it is, I was a bit trepidatious about setting off on a walk just before dark, armed only with a mediocre map. But on a 48 hour trip, one does not hang out in the hotel room.

Not too far from my hotel I happened upon a temple of some sort. A big sign said WELCOME over the door, so I wandered in. A man in a turban sitting by the door said, "go in, go in!" A couple of women told me to go ahead and go upstairs. The motherly one of the group showed me where to find a loaner scarf and where to leave my shoes. I went and had a look. Honestly, there was not much to see and I felt strange being trusted to be in their worship area all by myself.

Back downstairs, the motherly woman said they were going to a festival and asked if I'd like to come. I said, "thank you, no," and headed back in the direction of my hotel on foot. A few minutes later, a car slowed beside me and beeped. It was the 3 women. "Are you coming?" the one said. What the hell, I thought. An adventure.

They took me to another temple, where they were celebrating the birthday of the prophet Guru. Shoes off, head scarf borrowed from the communal pile, upstairs to pray. I held back, but she beckoned me over. An old woman sat on the floor, doling out small portions of some sort of sweet, mushy grain. I ate the portion offered me. A man on a dais was reading from a holy book. The four of us women retreated to the back of the room where we sat on the floor and ate the snack.

Back on the first floor, they insisted I join them for a vegetarian Indian meal. It was nothing special, but I felt compelled to eat it all. My appetite was then ruined for other Penang delicacies. But I rallied and went to the Red Garden hawker center after taking my leave of the Sikhs.

One of the Sikh women ate soupy lentils with her fingers and then used a spoon to eat custard. I think custard would have made for easier finger food. There were no napkins, only sinks.

On Saturday I took a taxi to Penang Hill. It seemed extravagent to take taxis everywhere, but they were cheap according to US standards: $14 for a 35 min. taxi ride. There are two funiculars to reach the summit of the hill. Each one goes halfway. There are several cars with one bench per car. Everyone else squishes in and stands. It's a little excrutiating, but I think the walk back down would have been even more so. It takes nearly a half hour to reach the summit.

I was extremely disappointed to discover that the capopy walk is indefinitely closed for repairs. I was really looking forward to that. To make up for it, I wandered off of the well-marked paths, but did not see anything particularly interesting.

After Penang Hill, I went to Kek Lok Si, a large Chinese Buddhist temple complex, also containing a small funicular to reach the top level housing the 50-foot Buddha. I think this was the highlight of my trip. The temple was so striking.

I felt I had to see the beach. A drive-by would have been more than sufficient. Instead I spent 2 hours on the dirty beach, waiting for the night market to open at 7pm. Turned out the night market sells mostly the same stuff they sell in Chinatown in NYC.

Sunday a.m. was a bit of a wash. I failed to budget my time appropriately to explore more of the downtown, but did see the so-called floating mosque and the snake temple (underwhelming as well) and had one more delicious meal from a hawker market. Due to a lack of clear communication, I got a taxi at 10am to take me to those 2 places and arrive at the airport at 3pm. I should have realized I was leaving waaaay too much time for this excursion and wandered around the downtown before getting a taxi. Oh well. Lesson learned. The driver suggested taking me to the Pinang Peranakan Mansion museum, which was not a bad choice. And I still did quite a bit with my half day.

Note to self: when buying a can of iced tea in Asia, first check that it doesn't contain aloe bits. YUCK.

Penang photos here.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

In which I talk about something completely different

You may get a pair of chopsticks or you may get a fork and spoon with your meal, but I have yet to get a knife with a meal.

Food is cut with the spoon. Presumably nothing is so tough that it needs to be sawed. And if it is uncuttable, you stab the entire piece with the fork and bite off of it, perhaps holding the spoon underneath it, in case it falls. Imagine doing this with a chicken wing.

I thought in Asia people picked up their bowls of noodles and slurped them into their mouths. It is possible that that is the case, but when it comes to a lunch dish that consists of a plate of noodles topped with slices of pork, it is not to slurped. I *think* you are supposed to pick up the noodles with your chopsticks and place them in the soup spoon and then put this in your mouth.

Or, I'm doing it all wrong and there will soon be another international incident.

I suspect that people have their work manners on when I'm dining with them at lunchtime. It was mentioned when I was taken for fish head curry that if my colleagues were not worried about getting messy, they'd be picking at the bones with their hands. I have to hope that they use their hands *sometimes.* I really can't imagine eating a whole chili crab speared on a fork.

For about $2.15, I can get a big cup of freshly juiced juice. I'm a novice at this juice thing. I never get it at home since it's so expensive. I've been wanting a juicer, though. It seems that not all fruits are good mixes. Today I got pineapple and kiwi. It tasted good, but it kept separating.

I thought I was going to be getting bubble tea every day, but juice it is.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

In which the bumbling American makes a faux pas

I knew about the business card culture in Asia. Rather, I thought I knew about the business card culture in Asia. I knew about how you are supposed to hand over your card using both hands, print facing the recipient. When you receive the card, you are to look it over and then carefully put it in your breast pocket. I'm not sure where it's appropriate for women to put them.

What I did NOT know is that in Asia, business cards are handed out like relief supplies after a flood (said one of my Asian colleagues). My colleagues in the Singapore office said they go through boxes and boxes of cards every year.

I have barely made a dent in my own box of cards, which I received nearly five years ago. I carry around maybe 10 cards at most at any given time and those 10 cards tend to remain in my wallet for months at a time. As a web editor I don't encounter too many people with whom I exchange cards.

Last night, some colleagues invited me along to some industry parties. I should preface this by also adding that last week when I arrived, the office manager asked if I needed her to order me any cards. At the time I thought that a strange question and I replied that no, I was good. (I had many in my wallet. Ten or twelve even!)

So, I go to these two parties and my colleagues are exchanging cards with contacts left and right and they introduce me as a person working on the web and these people are handing me their cards and I am saying: "Thank you, but I'm not actually in the industry. Please keep your card to give to someone else so that you don't run out of them." Neither of the people I'm with (both Singapore natives) is telling me this is the wrong thing to say, I might add.

Apparently what is even worse than refusing a proferred card is implying that you are too good to take the person's card.

The Singapore office found my actions extremely amusing and they laughed heartily at me. I protested that they ought to have warned me! This made them laugh even harder. If they weren't being so welcoming in every other regard, I would have to hold a grudge.