Some of the most interesting moments while traveling come under the most mundane of circumstances. This is why I commit to travel in a fiercely nonstop manner: check into the hostel, bag down and hit the streets. I call it bag-down travel.
Even when traveling alone, or perhaps even more so, the most poignant moments of my trips tend to be conversations. This is natural; we are social beings, after all. Many conversations happen in the so-called third place – parks, coffeeshop, bars, etc.
Any places that naturally force people into close proximity create social scenarios. This is why bars are popular for meeting new people. Well, that and beer.
Chinese restaurants are packed
In China or areas of Asia with large Chinese populations, restaurants are often places that squeeze strangers into small areas. Hong Kong is king in this regard. One of my favorite restaurants in the world is an unassuming ramshackle of a place that serves dynamite roast pork.
In a city with some of the highest rent in the world, Joy Hing Roasted Meat is compelled to force customers onto small stools around small tables with a small window to eat. All four times I’ve been to the restaurant, I sat with three old men who were also unfamiliar with their tablemates. You enter, order, squeeze next to randos, chow down and leave. It’s pragmatic out of necessity.
While not all Chinese restaurants are like this by any stretch of the imagination, it wouldn’t be shocking at all to receive this treatment. In Singapore’s Chinatown, it was somewhat similar. I was walking by a bunch of restaurants with waitresses out front screaming for our patronage in a dialect I didn’t recognize. – most likely Fukienese.
I found one that looked somewhat authentic and stepped inside. I approved of the menu and sat down. (Aren’t I so badass?) I ordered a tall Tsingtao, some steamed buns and my favorite Chinese dish of all, ganbiansijidou.
The restaurant slowly filled up to the brim, meaning I either selected the right restaurant or because I was there. In either case, I was the main reason.
Strangers in a Chinese Restaurant
Mind you, this one was actually a rather large restaurant. There were loads of tables, plenty of waitresses and a legion of chefs. At one point every table was occupied, but certainly not every seat at each table. And that’s when another white woman walked in.
As she entered, the wait staff didn’t blink an eye. They brought her past a dozen tables with Chinese folks, either solo like me or in groups, and plopped her purposefully at my table. They must be okay with this, right? Well, this is happening.
Fortunately, I was quite used to this kind of etiquette and luckily, she was a good sport about it. As we got talking, I learned she was an Argentinean woman on a business trip. As a lowly solo traveler to the city-state, I had yet to encounter many folks on business. It obviously makes sense; Singapore is an international trade hub. I just had not seen one, so this was an opportunity to chat about a new cross section of culture.
Spanish-language assistance in Asia
One thing I’ve noticed about China is that it is by and large very English-language friendly. There are certainly many areas where it is not, most notably the bus systems in virtually every city. Even in Beijing or Shanghai, bus route signage is almost exclusively in Chinese characters. Every bus station has the pinyin above it (the English transliteration), but if you’re on the bus trying to see how many stops are left til yours, you either need to be able to read Chinese characters or have the Baidu Maps app, which also requires some basic Chinese.
Other than that, traveling around large and mid-sized cities is fairly easy as you can definitely find restaurants that have English menus and you’ll always find someone with at least a tenuous grasp of the language.
One thing you’ll notice as well, is a relative dearth of Spanish-language menus and signage. Now, to be fair, even in the US, it’s not super Spanish friendly outside of certain areas. Texas, Florida, New York? Well, of course. Random other cities? It really depends.
This observation is just more matter-of-fact. It’s borne out anecdotally, as I just haven’t seen Spanish anywhere myself in all my travels. And it’s revealed itself to me through conversation with virtually every Spanish-speaker in China I’ve ever met. If you speak solely Spanish and travel in the Middle Kingdom, you’ll probably still be okay in the biggest cities, but outside of that don’t expect too much. (Great advice to give on an English-language blog.)
Anyways, she corroborated that in her travels, China is very unfriendly toward Spanish. She did admit though that Singapore is relatively accessible to her kin, as the city is a central business hub. I don’t think there are too, too many folks for whom a lack of Spanish is a deal breaker. Virtually every Spanish-speaker I’ve met in Asia is proficient in English, though this may also be a self-selecting bias.
[Out goes the power.] As we’re talking, mysteriously, unexpectedly, the lights cut, the fans stop whirring and the place goes quiet. It was a little eerie at first sitting in the muggy, dark air of Singapore in the very back of a restaurant with a stranger and nothing to consume but cheap beer and deep fried green beans.
But there I was and my new Argentinean friend was, yet again, a great sport. Everyone spoke in hushed tones that eventually grew louder as we realized nothing serious had occurred. We looked outside and every other restaurant was operating. We were the lonely folks on the street sitting in the dark.
As I had gotten to the restaurant first, all of my food had been served, but the Argentinean woman had only put her order in minutes prior. The waitresses came up to us and informed she’d need to switch her dish, as all the appliances were shut down for the unknowable future. We could order anything on the menu, as long as it wasn’t baked, seared, roasted, deep fried, pan fried, stir fried….
In fact, Singapore used to be notorious for power outages. At that time, it was a tiny island, a fledgling nation without any real natural resources. All those could be found on the Malaysian peninsula proper, and by then, they were separate nations. They had cut formal ties and Singapore needed to find its own power and its own markets. This was Singapore’s greatest fear in becoming involuntarily independent in 1965.
Further, as a tiny country located in the tropics, just a degree north of the equator, they had serious energy requirements. Humans struggle in consistently humid, triple digit weather it turns out.
No resources + high energy demands = bad
If you learn nothing from this essay, remember that. In any case, Singapore’s economy has improved steadily since independence and so this equation is balanced out with the influx of cash. Money solves everything.
Lights! Camera! Action!
And a few minutes after my friend put in her revised order, electrons miraculously flowed through tungsten, heating the filament red hot in dozens of glass bulbs, and light was restored. Hallelujah, she was allowed to continue with her original selection.
As we waited for her food, we then got discussing her background. She was born in Argentina, lived in Spain for 15 years and married a non-Hispanic white dude. And that’s when stuff got real. I went to Singapore in May of 2017, just a few months after Trump took office.
She revealed that she loved her now ex-husband. She loved him as a man. He was a wonderful person. He was great to her. But. But, but, but. He was a Trump supporter, and she could never love him again. She could never be married to a man who supported a man with his specific stances and policies.
I remember during the Brexit vote, I listened to BBC podcasts extensively on the subject and spoke to numerous Brits over contentious bar arguments (barguments?) about their families and friends back home. They recounted that friendships were broken irrevocably over the issue. Spouses were at odds and mother-daughter relationships irreparably severed.
I called bullshit. No way could a political issue like that in the 21st century be taken that way. That was until the 2016 election stateside and it became clear we had entered a new era.
I’m not saying this is right or wrong. This is just the state of the world we live in where marriages end over presidential elections and referendums to remain in supranational organizations.
It’s bizarre, too, that in a random Singaporean restaurant, during a power outage, a random gringo on Chinese holiday ate dinner with a random Argentinean businesswoman and could discuss Spanish accessibility concerns in Asia, British voting outcomes and relationship issues.
We live in a truly, wonderfully interconnected world.
Let me know what you think in the comments below! Agree, disagree, indifferent??
Like what you’re reading on Singapore? Check out some other related articles in: The Singapore Chronicles!