Imagine you’re lucky enough to snag a table at The French Laundry, the chef’s tasting menu, multiple courses with wine pairings, ingredients locally sourced and Michelin-level prepared by Thomas Keller himself, and after swallowing the last morsel of dessert perfection you pop up and rush to the restroom to brush your teeth. Unthinkable! No! An experience like that warrants time on the palate, time for savoring. Those exquisite and complex flavors need a chance to imprint themselves. They should be allowed to fade slowly.
Our re-entry to the west is always like this. It takes us a few weeks to allow the recent experience to fade. Time to process, to reorient, to recalibrate to this cultural baseline.
Our last port of call in Asia was Singapore. We had the good fortune to stay with our friends Kim and Tom. Not only did they store a mountain of cold-weather gear for us, while we played in Indonesia, they acted as wonderful hosts and guides in a town that now ranks in our personal top 3 Asian cities.
Everyone has heard how clean Singapore is (yes, it is against the law to chew gum in public) but really, it is insanely clean. My mother’s housekeeping standards are based on the magazine layouts of Southern Living. As a kid she made me vacuum my way backward out of rooms so I wouldn’t walk over the sweeper lines in the carpet’s nap. Even she would be impressed with Singapore. Add in its tropical flora, and it’s understandable why the kids kept saying “I feel like we’re at Busch Gardens”.
Somehow Singapore has found a way to blend English, Chinese, South Indian, and Maylay cultures without watering down any one of them. The best place to see this is in the food hawker centers. Tiny mom and pop owned food stalls specialize in the authentic cuisine of the owner’s heritage. By picking multiple stalls our mealtimes often resembled a buffet at the U.N. Satay and coconut rice, saag paneer and tandoori baked naan, chili crab and buns, even a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, all laid out on long communal tables and washed down with bottles of Tiger Beer.
Singapore is famous among foodies and was even featured on an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s Parts Unknown. The celebrity chef called Singapore the most food-centric place on the planet, and our host Kim made sure it lived up to the hype. I had a religious experience with soup dumplings, Jen spent an afternoon sipping authentic Singapore Slings, and the kids discovered the little-known Singaporean Ice Cream Sandwich.
Even food expert Bourdain missed that one. An inch thick slab of ice cream slapped on a slice of psychedelic colored sandwich bread, eaten taco style. It
sounds ridiculous, but the lines at these carts attest that it is ridiculously good. The texture of the bread makes the whole encounter reminiscent of a strawberry shortcake.
The food, the mix of cultures, the clean streets, a crime rate that is conducive to 10 year olds taking the subway unaccompanied, Singapore left a taste we wanted to savor.
Even departing Singapore was pleasant. Smiling immigration officers stuffed the kid’s pockets with candy. In contrast, their kevlar-clad U.S. counterparts welcomed us home with scowls and the news of the latest school shooting.
Culture shock makes sense. You’re in a foreign environment, so obviously you should feel a bit off balance. But reverse culture shock, the struggle to feel at home when you’re at home, is much more distressing. You’re in an environment that should feel comfortable and normal, and yet things still feel alien. There are too many cereals to pick from at the grocery store and not enough smiles to help soothe your indecision.
For the past month, this has been our little struggle. We’ve felt out of step and misunderstood. Fortunately, we returned to New Haven for another month of work at Yale. Hearing Arabic or Russian on the bus is nothing special in New Haven, and 90% of the kid’s friends here have passports. Also, we have been able to connect with some of our HVO-Bhutan-volunteer buddies. We had
dinner in Avon with surgeons Rob and Sharon, and their giant Newfie Hagrid. Charlie and Carolyn had us over for cocktails in Branford. And
Jen and the kids spent the better part of a week in Maine at Betsy and Randall’s camp. Spending time with these people, friends who understand why we go and how we feel when returning, has helped pull our heads out of the sand. We’re all feeling a bit more at ease. The kids no longer balk at brushing their teeth with tap water.
So we’re back to normal. Or at least as normal as Byerswithoutborders can ever be, which means… moving day!
My month-long contract at Yale is over. It’s time to hit the road again.
”We’re like birds. Wherever we land we build a nest” Given