Now playing on Otherppl with Brad Listi podcast, a conversation with Vanessa Grigoriadis , author of Blurred Lines: Rethinking Sex, Power, & Consent on Campus (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). It is the official October pick of The Nervous Breakdown Book Club.

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3543_browning_frankTo read Frank Browning’s latest book The Monk and the Skeptic: Dialogues on Sex, Faith, and Religion is to eavesdrop on series of confessionals, and to be party to the converse positions and erotic agreements of Browning and Brother Peter, a homosexual Dominican monk, a relationship that begins in kitsch surroundings that Jean Paul Gaultier might want to rip off. It is to enter a rich demimonde frocked in drag and incense, at times sensuous and melancholy, at others cavalier and threaded with paradox. The confessions leak from the ecclesiastical to the secular world, revealing the sexual wounds of the Catholic church, the often painful duality required of gay men within the institution. The relationship between Browning and Brother Peter is—in all senses—touching. The Monk and the Skeptic is a remarkable book, full of yearning and transcendence. I was fortunate to have the opportunity to correspond with Frank about his book and to have him elaborate further on some of the questions arising from it. Since then, Time magazine has named Pope Francis ‘Person of the Year,’ an accolade about which I suspect we would both remain skeptical.


We have had a place in the universe since it occurred to the first of our species to ask what that place might be.

—Marilynne Robinson, Absence of Mind (2010)


Over the last few nights, half-longing for sleep, I’ve seen Lisa as she was at 14, the two of us almost side by side, about to take the front steps of East Hampton High School for the first time.

Jurgen Fauth has written a terrific new novel called Kino, the story of a silent film director in Nazi Germany and his granddaughter’s quest to redeem him. With a cast of characters including Joseph Goebbels, Fritz Lang and Leni Riefenstahl, Kino raises important questions concerning the nature and purpose of art at the intersection of politics and culture.

Jürgen Fauth is a writer, film critic, translator, and co-founder of the literary community Fictionaut. He was born in Wiesbaden, Germany, and received his doctorate from the Center for Writers at the University of Southern Mississippi. He lives with his wife, writer Marcy Dermansky, and their daughter Nina. Kino is his first novel. Follow him on Twitter at @muckster.

Prior to our firsts, we call ourselves virgins. Afterwards, we call ourselves people. This transition serves as one of the basic story arcs in western literature, the crux of our mythologies and our odes, the drama of our novels and climaxes of our plays. It has formed the backbone of our libraries from the time of parchment to the age of the printing press, and it remains a viable tale even in the age of the e-book.

Thomas Thwaites is an interesting fellow.  He describes himself as a “designer (of the more speculative sort), interested in technology, sciences, and futures research,” and his work as “communicating complex subjects in engaging ways.” Armed with an MA from the Royal College of Art Design Interactions, Thwaites has written a book called The Toaster Project: Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch (Princeton Architectural Press, 2011).

It was selected as one of NPR’s Best Books of 2011.

In Miranda July’s latest film we are asked to identify with a cat in a cage that could potentially be euthanized.While many film critics cite using a cat as a narrator as another one of July’s drives toward sentimentality, I actually view this move as incredibly, unequivocally ballsy.A recent New York Times write up of July cites her as a somewhat polarizing figure, and, indeed, many reviews of July’s latest film, The Future, characterize the film as being contemplative while also imperfect and uncomfortably sentimental.

Preface – The People Who Are Special, Too

I strongly believe there is no species of millipede I will ever find palatable. The particular version I found in my bowl on a warm summer evening in the summer of 2005 was an easy call. There were hundreds of them, red and pink, each about an inch long. They had however many legs it takes to make something “milli” as well as angry-looking pincers from both the front and back. They had been deep fried and were left moist with oil. The dish included long sugar sticks that one could lick and dip into the bowl. The millipedes that stuck would get sucked off the stick in what I had been assured was a delicious combination of sweet and sour. Nevertheless, I demurred.

“I cannot eat this,” I told my host, a middle-aged Communist Party official in a dusty blue jacket. We were two of the dozen or so people who had gathered at the center of Unicorn Hill Village #3—a tiny hamlet of perhaps thirty single-story houses constructed of cinder block and wood—to celebrate my visit and the arrival of the Peace Corps. We were sitting around a low, round table on fourteen-inch-high plastic stools. The millipedes glistened before me in a chipped porcelain bowl. The group stared on in silence as the village leader looked from me to the millipedes and back to me. He had a spindly frame and tanned skin that was drawn taut against his cheekbones. He looked like a Chinese Voldemort.

“Eat the food,” he grunted. His wife had made the millipede dish according to what my guide told me was “a very special recipe of the Bouyei people.” The Bouyei were a tiny, impoverished ethnic group concentrated in the mountains of central China. These were some of the very people the Peace Corps had sent me to live with, learn from, and—in theory—teach. My first meal in the village and I was off to a bad start.

“You can eat this,” my guide said with a nervous smile. “It tastes good.” He demonstrated for me, licking his sugar stick, dipping it in the bowl, and sucking off one particularly hairy millipede. “They’re sweet,” he explained, crunching away happily, “and Americans like sweet things.”

I nodded. “That’s true.” I groped for a polite escape. “But I’m a little different than most Americans.”

This gained me perplexed looks from both my guide and my host.

“I’m a Jew.”
Gasps. Widened eyes. Furrowed brows. Awkward silence. I said this last sentence in Chinese. “Wo shi youtairen.” The phrase, loosely translated, meant “I am a Person Who Is Special, Too.”

Why—oh why—had I said this? This was atheist, Communist China, after all. Didn’t Karl Marx say religion was the “opiate of the masses”? Had I just told my hosts I was a drug addict? And hadn’t Chairman Mao condemned religion as one of the “Four Olds,” a remnant (along with old culture, old habits, and old ideas) of the feudal past the Communist Party sought to destroy? I wondered if the arrest and deportation of a Peace Corps volunteer would make the evening news back home in Philadelphia.

As the silence around the table deepened and my face turned ever-darker shades of red, I marveled at the desperation of my religious mea culpa. I should have known better. I had, after all, already undergone months of Peace Corps training, sweating through seemingly endless hours of language classes, daily safety-and-security lectures, and occasional lessons in cross-cultural sensitivity. All of this, however, had taken place in Chengdu, the wealthy, relatively Americanized capital city of Sichuan Province, which was now a sixteen-hour train ride to the north. Chengdu had McDonald’s, Starbucks, and an IKEA. It was the China of Thomas Friedman and other American pundits touting China’s rise. I was now in Guizhou Province, the desperately poor, rural province in the dead center of China that would be my home for the next two years. Guizhou had . . . millipedes.

I was happy that my training was complete and I was finally on my own. I was happy to be in a part of China I had rarely seen covered in the American media. I was feeling like an authentic, trailblazing Peace Corps volunteer on an Indiana Jones adventure. Unicorn Hill Village #3 was no Temple of Doom, but this was far from my typical dinner.

Dr. Jones played it cool; I was desperate. Embracing my Jewish roots at that particular moment was a foggy-headed attempt to get excused from the table. I had never yearned so powerfully for a bagel.

“Jews can’t eat insects,” I mumbled, my eyes scanning for reactions from the men who surrounded me. “I don’t want to get into it, but there are a lot of rules for us . . .”

The tension seemed to mount until, quite suddenly, the silence was broken by a hoot from my host’s wife. Her cry was followed by smiles from others in the group, pats on my back, and even some applause.

“Comrade Marx was Jewish,” said a man sitting a few paces away from the table, staring at me intensely.

“So was Einstein,” beamed the man to my right, offering me a cigarette.

“You must be very clever,” said my guide, as the bowl of insects was removed from my side of the table, replaced by a dish of steaming meat.

“Why would the CIA send us a Jew?” mumbled Voldemort. I wasn’t sure I had heard him correctly, but the raised eyebrow from my guide let me know I had, officially, just been accused of being a spy.

It was all a little bewildering, but I smiled like an idiot, happy to avoid the millipedes. I dug right into the mystery meat, and the men around the table quickly began eating their food as well. There was a toast to my health, then another to my success as a teacher, then another to American-Chinese friendship. We all got good and drunk.

I had passed the test. I was a Jew in the middle of nowhere, China.

Excerpted from Kosher Chinese by Michael Levy
Copyright 2011 by Michael Levy
Published in 2011 by Henry Holt and Company
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.

I’ll get one thing out of the way first of all, to address whose in the know, and as a point of interest for those who aren’t. “Akata” is to some a pretty nasty word. It’s Nigerian Pidgin deriving from the Yoruba for bush civet cat, and is used as an epithet for Americans of African descent. Some people claim it’s not derogatory in intent, but I don’t really buy that given the context in which I hear it used most of the time. It certainly leaves an offensive taste in the mouth of many Nigerians, especially in diaspora. Yeah, taboo language sometimes marks the most superficially surprising vectors. Nnedi Okorafor, author of the recent fantasy novel Akata Witch (Viking, 2011 ISBN: 978-0-670-01196-4), is well aware of the controversy she courts with its title. It takes an extraordinary book to put such an abrasive first impression into the background, and in short, I think Nnedi has well accomplished this.

Just before and throughout my time in graduate school I worked at a bookstore. It wasn’t a local bookstore. It was a big chain, and one of the pleasures of working in a big chain bookstore (there are a few) is recognizing just how many different types of readers are out there. Sure, chains are, to a certain extent, a bit soul-sucking. Chains don’t try to promote the same sense of self-satisfaction that local bookstores tend to do. Go into a local bookstore and you are suddenly part of a self-congratulatory community of people who think they are better than everyone else because they are such avid readers they seek out specialty books.You have your elite bookstores where you find specially brewed eight dollar cappuccinos and second-hand chairs that look a whole lot more comfortable than they actually are, as well as books that cost a heck of a lot more money than if you went to a chain. In these places you pay for the experience of feeling like a smart member of a smug elite. Another type of local bookstore you may have experienced is a “second hand” bookstore. People who go to these types of bookstores are also part of a smug elite, but they are, unfortunately, poor members of that elite. People who habitually visit these kinds of bookstores claim they love books so much they don’t even care what it is they are reading. They go in and walk out with a pile of ten books, each which has looked as though it has survived some kind of fire-the pages are yellowed, the covers are torn. This seems to somehow cement the fact that the books are important, that they’ve survived so many hardships, even though half of the books people walk out with in these stores are pretty terrible-–hardware manuals, guides to pregnancy from the ‘40s, outdated medical supply guides. But people who visit these types of bookstores are less interested in content than aesthetics (even though no one will admit to that).

I lean over the railing, watching shrieking seabirds swoop overhead, feeling a swift sea breeze rearrange my hair from purposefully tousled to straight up disheveled. Fishing vessels chug out into deeper waters and boats span their sails to catch a  westerly. Lighthouses peak out from rocky coves. Towering homes with waterfront views stake the claim of unseen wealthy residents. Taken as a whole, the scenery panning outward from the deck of the Martha’s Vineyard Ferry is a Norman Rockwell-esque interpretation of New England summertime utopia.

After the ferry docks I stroll through the port town of Vineyard Haven. Stonewalls frame the perfectly manicured lawns of cedar-shingled homes with fresh white trim paint and Nantucket-blue doors. Restaurants proudly boast on hand-painted signs that they sell organic, island-grown food. Bikers zoom up and down the streets, navigating between shiny imports in that annoying, spandex-soldier manner of cycling enthusiasts

I proceed to the rendezvous point and await my friend’s arrival. While I’m standing there a cop approaches.

“Hi, excuse me, sir. I don’t want any trouble or anything, but would you mind not waiting here? This is the taxi pick up zone. I’m sorry to bother you, but it’s for safety reasons.”

I stare at him, perplexed. I’ve never had a cop speak to me like this. I’m used to brutes with sausage arms addressing me with the humanity of RoboCop. This guy is like a boy scout. He’s talking to me in the defensive way I normally speak to an officer.

“Hey pal, move it along,” I tell him. “Go on, beat it, get out. I don’t want to see you around here anymore, understand?”

Okay, I don’t say that. But I’m certain I could get away with it.

My friend pulls up in the taxi zone. I heave my rucksack into the bed of his truck, slide into the passenger seat, and we’re off. The cop gives a friendly wave in parting.

“So what do you think?” says my friend.

“It’s really fucking white here,” I say.

This single, offhand comment serves as the entry point for a goal I loosely set for myself over the course of the month I am to spend in Martha’s Vineyard. The mission: to discern the essence of Whiteness.

Touching down on this island, I feel the way I imagine Darwin did when he arrived on the Galapagos. Although he may not have immediately known the place would give birth to the theory of evolution, surely he must have felt a sense that the creatures there were a portal to some greater truth.

While arguably scientific, my research is nonetheless painstaking. I linger long after my meal is finished at restaurants and listen in on conversations. I lie on the beach, my eyes hidden behind dark aviators, observing the behavior of the vacationing fauna. At supermarkets I keenly observe what people are buying. While a guest in peoples’ homes I make mental inventories of their possessions. I am, in short, a total creep.

Not long into my project I identify three major varieties of American Caucasian. The first demonstrates an inclination to enjoy such things as copious amounts of horsepower, blowing the fuck out of quadrupeds, and speaking derisively of France. They tend to overestimate their physical prowess while underestimating the importance of family planning. These whites are very rare on the island.

The second major type of Caucasian is abundant during the summer months on the Vineyard, tending to winter in other parts of their eastern range, including New York, Boston, Washington, New Jersey, Connecticut, and Virginia. When not driving their high performance four wheel drive vehicles on dry, flat pavement and subtly endorsing eugenics, they generally keep busy by making sure themselves and their family are spared from inhaling the plebian stench of the first type of white person.

By far the largest gathering of Whites on the island occurs within a third group, and it is this variety of Caucasian that ultimately became the subject of my research. With each passing day the master list of ideas, pastimes and objects that define this group grew into a collective snapshot of their essence. Darwin would be proud. In fact, if he was still alive, he would probably be considered among this group.

Things were going great until somebody forwarded me a link to a website entitled Stuff White People Like, which became so popular it earned the author a book deal with Random House.

I had been foiled by my fellow white man; relegated to mere Alfred Russell Wallace status.

Despite my disappointment, there a good number of differences between our lists, enough so that I feel justified sharing a portion of mine. Besides, I’m not going to let weeks of investigation go to waste. If I’ve learned anything from my research, it’s that distinguishing yourself ever so slightly from your peers is, dare I say, the white thing to do.

Thinking they can speak Spanish

When you ask a white person if they speak Spanish, their answer is typically “a little bit” or “some” or “I know a few words.” This is a lie. It is invariably true that all white people can speak a little Spanish. But when pressed, their knowledge rarely extends beyond what one can learn from hanging out at a Taco Bell trying to get laid by the cute little Latina who works the counter. White people somehow think that America’s proximity to Mexico has resulted in lingual osmosis. As impressive as it is that they we as a nation can say tortilla, tequila, hola and adios, this nonetheless does not qualify as speaking Spanish.

Starting a blog

At some point, most white people consider starting or actually start a blog. White people deem their ideas to be highly valuable, as they spend many hours of their life reading, watching documentaries, amassing degrees, and otherwise learning things that will in no way make them more employable. But one-upping others via pseudo-intellectualism is far more valuable to white people than money. A blog offers the perfect forum for them to repackage their unoriginal thoughts and receive undying praise from a handful of family and friends.

Granite countertops

White people revere granite for its strength, durability, breadth of colors and the fact that it appears in the kitchens of other white people. Although granite is considered top of the line, quartz, marble, slate, limestone and soapstone are also acceptable. Faux granite, if it successfully passes as authentic, could earn a white person praise for their clever taste and value consciousness. If it is easily spotted as a knock-off, however, the impostor’s true hard-stone-owning peers might wonder what’s coming next. Engineered wood flooring? An above ground pool? A Daewoo?

Ideally, granite should be matched with stainless steel appliances and illuminated by recessed lighting. Extra whiteness points are awarded to those who do the work themselves, buy environmentally friendly, re-quarried granite, and extend the use of granite into the bathroom. Nothing says white like browsing The Economist on an e-reader while dropping an organically-generated deuce and appreciating the millions of years of geological activity required to form the vanity top.

Yard sales

White people are fond of shunning materialism, and often speak of “decluttering” or “simplifying” their life. Doing so serves as a material cleanse that leaves them feeling morally superior to their hoarding friends and family. Selling possessions at a yard sale, garage sale, rummage sale, flea market, or any other event geared around the purging of old possessions is a good way to achieve this. For the white buyer at a yard sale, they can feel good about not creating more waste and pollution through the manufacture of new products. It’s a whitey win-win.

Salmon clothing

From a young age we are taught that pink is a color appropriate for girls, not boys. But somewhere around high school white guys substitute the word pink for salmon and begin to occasionally wear clothing of this hue. For the white male, wearing pink is a way to demonstrate he doesn’t care what people think and is an individual who eschews established trends. Both of these qualities are extremely important to white people. Salmon haberdashery is also a hit with white people because it is considered more European, and white people generally consider anything from Europe to be more sophisticated.

Knowing the weather forecast

Due to their connection to nature and need to spend as much time as possible outdoors, it is important for white people to know the weather forecast. More advanced white people can even tell you sunrise and sunset times, when high and low tide occurs, and the current lunar phase. Some white people are so gifted that they can explain the difference between scattered and isolated showers as well as partly sunny and mostly cloudy skies.

Having a good vocabulary

Having a good vocabulary is essential for a white person. It is a way to demonstrate that they are well read and intellectual. Among mixed company, a white person may employ big words as a probe to find other white people. However, they must be careful when taking this approach, as it could be perceived as hostile by those whose vocabulary is not so expansive. When this happens, a white person needs to be able to quickly disguise their words to match the prevailing vernacular. For example, if a white guy uses a word like canard or vicissitude, and subsequently draws dirty looks and/or furrowed brows from other males, he needs to quickly be able to find common ground by talking about the local sporting team and/or degrading women.

It is important to note that one white person will never admit they don’t know the meaning of a word used by another white person. If stumped, they will smile and nod in understanding, then use their 3G equipped mobile device to perform an internet search for the word meaning.

Another interesting case occurs when one white person encounters another of equal lingual talents and a subtle vocabulary standoff ensues. When this happens, the winner can usually be decided by determining who has a greater understanding of word etymology, or who has a better vocabulary in a foreign language, as most white people speak or claim to speak at least 2 or 3.

Historical reenactments

Mock Civil War and Revolutionary War battles. The sites of historical battlefields. Living villages where workers dress in colonial garb and present themselves as blacksmiths, candle makers and grocers. Those places where you can watch knights joust while a serving wench brings you a side of beef and a giant glass of ale. If it involves history being reenacted or otherwise kept in the present, then white people are on board. When considered alongside their predisposition for antiquing, it follows logically that white people have an affinity for anything from the past (which they might refer to as rustic, classic, or traditional). Think of the hours of joy an older white man can experience watching the History Channel, or the fact that most white women would give a fallopian tube to live in a Victorian-era home. This also explains, in part, why white people love Europe. Just by going there and walking among the historic buildings, they consider themselves to be more civilized. Focusing on the past also suits white people because they like to bemoan the soullessness of modern life and offer rural, agrarian lives as a utopia.

Having a shitty job when they are young

Young white people are expected to work at least one degrading job when they are young, such as slinging burgers, working on a construction crew, or being sodomized by a priest. Although the work does not have to be physically demanding, it should be low-paying and foster a sense of hopelessness towards a capitalist economy and consumer culture, two institutions that white people will continue to speak derisively about for the rest of their lives.

Having a shitty job is the closest thing white people have to a coming-of-age ritual. Once a white person graduates from university and takes a stable, well-paying, benefited position, they have entered “the real world,” as they like to call it, and are officially an adult. As such, they gain the authority to talk to younger white people about the importance of temporarily scooping ice cream, mopping floors, stocking shelves, etc. They can explain to the youth that in order to become a know-it-all in regards to the shortcomings of Western culture, it is necessary to first gain firsthand experience in one of its more base aspects.

This period is also a vital opportunity for white people to learn tolerance, another principle that they laud. By working alongside and getting to know foreign and uneducated people, white people learn that members of these other groups, despite holding outdated views on health, politics, religion, and aesthetics, are nonetheless decent. This stance is well summarized by a favorite white expression: “They’re not bad people…they’re just ignorant.”

British Accents

If you have a British accent, white people automatically take you to be more attractive, well-spoken and charming. People from England have the purest form of this tongue, although those from other parts of the UK, as well as residents of New Zealand and South Africa, are also acceptable. Australian accents are tolerable as a last resort.

White people perceive a British accent as an oratory superpower that turns a speaker’s every word into mellifluous diction. When George W. Bush and Tony Blair presided over their respective nations, white people found Blair utterly charming, whereas Bush was seen as a pariah, despite the fact that both men lured their country into an unjustified war using bogus information. When watching Blair spew lies and propaganda, white people responded by wondering why they couldn’t have a thoughtful, intelligent, well-spoken leader. But when witnessing similar behavior from Dubya, white people tended to watch Zeitgeist, talk about how America was become Fascist, and reference Orwell’s 1984 ad nauseam.

All white people dream of dating somebody with a British accent. Being seen with even an average-looking man or woman with a British accent instantly raises the credibility of a white person. When asked to explain the appeal, however, white people generally can only offer up unconvincing comparatives such as, “it just sounds more sophisticated/classy/distinguished.” White people also come up empty when attempting to explain why a British inflection virtually disappears when words are sung.

Thinking they are part Native American

White people are, naturally, of European descent. This fact, however, does not keep a great number of them from insisting that they are part Native American. White people who claim to be of Native descent typically follow the same pattern. They begin by offering a fractional amount of their heritage, such as ¼, 1/8, 1/16, etc. and end by referencing a shadowy family legend about the Native American in question. A comment may also be made about just missing the cutoff that allows people of Native ancestry free admission to Dartmouth. They may go on to attribute their dubitable genetics to a great number of things, including athleticism, woodcraft skills, and the inability to hold their liquor.

White people consider all things Native American, like those from Europe, to be wiser and more desirable. While they have no idea how to live off the land and in harmony with nature, white people still pay lip service to the value of such a lifestyle. It is also en vogue for white people to speak out against the genocide of Native Americans and shun the barbarism of Manifest Destiny. But the fact remains that white people have a much better chance of being related to somebody who killed a Native American in the name of Caucasian dominance than actually having a Native American relative.

Singaporean Merlion

I love Malaysia. It’s a truly integrated culture of traditional pirates, fishermen, farmers (a few headhunters) and now respectful hardworking people from around the world, who actually get along with each other very, very well considering the grand divides of religion and language that they face. I’ve never been anywhere where people know as much about other people living in their community who are “different.”

I love smoking hookahs in Kuala Lumpur with crazy chattering Arabs. I love the mélange of Chinese, Indian and Malay. I love Penang. I love the jungles of Borneo with a thunderstorm coming up over the mountains (even though a spider bite I sustained there got so infected I nearly lost an arm). I love sea kayaking and parasailing in the South China Sea. I love the respect a Buddhist monk gets walking in the warm leaden rain past a mosque.

But I also love neighboring Singapore, which while technically separate, has much in common with complex Malaysia (which we must remember also includes the strange realm of Brunei, another world yet again).

I get annoyed when people often diss Singapore as not “exotic” enough. What they mean is code. Things are too clean and well managed. The situation is too livable. I say if you want grit, Bangkok, Hanoi and even Hong Kong are good places to start in Asia. You can certainly find some hassle now in Thailand. And if you want danger, I recommend Manila. Take but one step off the tourist routes in Cambodia and Laos and odd things can happen. But Singapore is just fun and welcoming-and after a police incident in Shandong and animal cruelty in South Korea, maybe a Singapore Sling and a Singapore fling is just what’s needed.

Singapore has long been a crossroads maritime center and its founding origins reflect the diversity of cultures that have played a role. Until very recently (when it was overtaken by Shanghai), it was the most active seaport in the world. Located strategically relative to the Straits of Malacca, it was from early days a hub in the trade of blue and white porcelain, rosewood, fish, tea, hemp…the list goes on.

Sir Stamford Raffles, who gives the name to the famous colonial style hotel that people like Somerset Maugham celebrated, put the British Empire stamp on the region, and that colonial flavor lives on in much of the architecture still.

But Singapore has had to work hard to preserve its history because new buildings are forever on the rise. Its central location makes it a natural business center in global terms, and it’s quite remarkable the number of places that two hours in the air will take you to from there.

Today, the city boasts an impressive skyline for the size of the population, and one of the most modern working wharf facilities anywhere. The days of the great shopping bargains may be over. The depressed world economy has meant a slowdown even here, and the cost of living is high. But this hasn’t stopped a large number of students from foreign countries enrolling in universities here, and the luxury apartment complexes for cashed up retirees from Dubai to Sydney keep going up. I can see a lot of excellent reasons for that. Here now are the five special things I love most about Singapore.

Sultan Mosque seen down Kandahar StreetThe first thing is the stark contrasts…between the super clean modern buildings and the mysterious laneways in Chinatown and Little India…the rumble and groan down on the wharves, and the quiet of the lush gardens and parks…the mix of Hindu temple, Buddhist shrine and mosque. There’s always some sharp juxtaposition, if you keep your eyes open. Stern, no fooling policing…and yet an air of freedom and spontaneity in the people. Just when you think you’ve made your mind up about the place, something you hadn’t seen before appears.

I like to start my visits down on Clarke Quay on the Singapore River. While there’s something to be said for having a Singapore Sling at the famous Raffles Hotel on Orchard Road, you really only do that once. Clarke Quay is much more inviting, with a range of great restaurants and bars, and an atmosphere that’s both festive and relaxed. (In fact, on weekends, the partying goes on until dawn.)

I was once innocently sitting at a Vietnamese-French fusion restaurant at Clarke Quay, with the Brandy & Benedictine on the rocks (with a sprig of mint) kicking in, my svelte Malaysian host looking ravishing in a plungeline coral shaded linen dress and a teardrop shaped pink Argyle diamond descending down her bosom, when I chanced to spot these amazing things flying around in the park across the water. And that, as they say, was that. Remote control kites with lights. You can take the drugs out of the boy, but you can’t…

I had to have one. The folks who launched this enterprise are all young student types, and they are absolute kite flying masters. Check them out. Kite flying is a great tradition in Singapore and Malaysia, both an art form and a kind of ceremonial combat. But these young people have done something really inventive and inspired with it. And I think of this as a symbol of the Singaporean mindset overall.

The eating in Singapore is superb, with its wide range of influences: Malaysian, Indonesian, Vietnamese, Chinese, Indian, Thai and Middle Eastern. Because Hindus don’t eat beef and Muslims don’t eat pork, there are many quality vegetarian places. Seafood is exceptional, with the famous dish being barbecued stingray, char grilled in rich sambal sauce. But what I enjoy the most is the simplicity of satay sticks in the night markets with a Tiger beer (you’ll find the street peddlers wander through selling Kleenex and napkins for a reason-you never have enough napkins with good satay).

There are several markets lined with hawker stalls, but better still is to follow the students, the golden rule when eating in Singapore. Go where the young Singaporeans go. You’ll steer clear of the older tourists, and more importantly find good food that’s cheap, with some lively company that may introduce you to some dishes you’ve never tried before. The relentless fusion of culture and cuisine means there’s always something new happening, even at the hawker stall level. You can eat fabulously in Singapore without spending a lot of money.

Wherever I go, I always need to have a little perverse fun (to enhance my sense of belonging you understand) and when it comes to the markets, particularly on especially hot, humid days (and bear in mind the humidity is pretty constantly at damp shower curtain level), I like to get a Thai coconut in one of the open markets (and the Chinatown markets are especially good for this). Thai coconuts are particularly sweet and refreshing, and short of hot tea are far better actual thirst quenchers in the heat than anything else. Then, while sipping casually from my coconut with a straw, I like to waylay British tourists, the most disoriented and pasty skinned group I can find (or, failing that, any group complaining in French). I wait for that immediately recognized tribe, who are so fundamentally middleclass of heart they’re never happy anywhere and always getting sunburned while you watch them. I then sell in the delicious and reinvigorating benefits of Thai coconut juice like you wouldn’t believe, and send them on the most complicated route I can devise through the swarming thick of the most congested parts of the market, where the odors of food and sweat, the pushing and the jostling are all at peak levels, and of course as far from refreshment as I can arrange. Cruel? Yes, but enjoyable. And I always savor it most when the interaction occurs right in front of where I’ve bought my coconut, because it’s so clear that these people aren’t looking around in the least. They gullibly follow a white person’s advice, when their own eyes would tell them what they wanted to know, and they’re so distraught by the wafting scents of tamarind and ghee, they don’t realize others are noting the polyester perspiration that arises from them.

Sri Mariamman Temple, Little India

Even higher on my list of twisted amusements however, is haggling with and hoodwinking Indian tailors. They’re everywhere, and they’re intense. They stand in front of their shops and will literally grab you and drag you inside for measurements. There’s no casual fondling of fabrics with these gentlemen. The sales job is so aggressive, coconuts and tea don’t work after, if you manage to escape. Only alcohol and Malaysian chili crab will do, followed by a water pipe on Arab Street, and in extreme instances, a dalliance with a Singaporean call girl (who range from exquisite to just very nice and make the service seem professional and even dignified, especially when you tip them and have a cocktail by the pool with them afterward, instead of beating them up like some Indian men do).

I was terribly in love with an Indian woman once. Two of the smartest men I’ve known were Indians. I remain good friends with a young Indian I wrote a recommendation for years ago. The maze of Indian culture, music, food, religion and stories amazes me.

But I’m the sworn secret enemy of Indian tailors. After about three of their manhandlings, I thought fuck this. I went to one of the many copy centers and had some fake business cards made up, using one of the many local answering services as my office number. There are a lot of people swinging into Singapore who get business cards made up fast. And you can get some slick ones very quickly.

I then have two different strategies. First, I seek out the real offenders, the hardcores. Once I’ve got my targets in mind, in one instance I go out dressed as fashionably as I can afford. Fancy brand label stuff. I flash a wad of money and my best-looking credit card. I offer my new business card straight up. I insist on taking their attention away from other customers. I want a fitting. I want a whole new wardrobe in fact. I want a classical look in the finest fabrics. I don’t want their two suits and some extra trousers offer, I want ten suits, ten other trousers, and a whole casual ensemble to match, plus ten of their most beautiful shirts. And I want it all ready within a week.

Of course, you’re thinking they’re going to want a deposit, right? That’s when my drink gets delivered. A young Chinese lad comes in on the pre-arranged cell phone text message beep, and I have some French champagne delivered, to toast my new tailor friend and to nurse me through the grueling ordeal of the fittings. They’re not expecting that, and they’re all so competitive, you can run this little scam and not have any of them confess to anyone else that they’ve been done.

When they do ask for a deposit, I say simply, “That’s not the way I do business. Have the suits ready within a week or not. Or I’ll go across the street.”

They’ve now invested time in the procedure. They’ve seen an act they’re not sure about. And it’s not like I’m walking out of the shop with anything. It’s what I’ve left behind. Gnawing doubt. Their whole hassle-you-into-buying deal has been turned around on them. It’s suddenly their risk, not yours. I leave them with the bottle of champagne and move on, strongly suspecting that those suits will be made. Maybe they can sell them later. I’m an average sized guy after all.

Then I seek out one of those tailors who’s actually making headway with a group of numb, sun-reddened, panting Brits (the very sort of people I sent looking for coconut juice down the organ end of the market, where the smells get rich). I wait until he’s just about closed the sale and some real money is about to be put down. Then I come in fuming (and I do good fume). I come in SCREAMING actually. No one is ever prepared for that. I bellow and rant about shoddy workmanship. Nothing fits. I’ve been taken. I’m going to call the police, the government, and the media. This is outrageous! You yell that loud enough and people listen. But you have to be cranked up for it. Suddenly, these hard ass, cutthroat, do-anything-for-a-sale guys give it up. That look in the eyes. That’s worth the whole exercise right there.

“Oh, I’m very sorry,” I say suddenly. “I think I’m at the wrong address. I had your shop confused. Carry on.” Of course the Brits have bolted by then.

View from Jurong Island, looking South

The final thing on my list of favorites is something I think is very underrated. The beaches. There are quite a few of them close by, and if you’re renting a car, the possibilities open up still further. It’s true that there are a lot of freighters always lying offshore, but that’s where the energy of the area comes from. To me they add to the atmosphere and not detract. This is a bustling center of international culture with one of the finest major arts festivals in the world. This ain’t no tropical island. It’s one of those places that reveals more the more closely you look.

I am very protective of my son’s experience of my childhood. When he stumbles across some detail that was shocking, formative, or pivotal to how I related to stories and how they relate to the world I do as subtle a dance as I am capable between revelation and obfuscation. I recognize that this is futile. I do it nonetheless. This was  made abundantly clear to me recently on an evening walk.

My Early Assumptions About France

* more enlightened

* better food

* less restrictive attitudes about sex and gender

* mastering the language would take a few months tops

* the lifestyle of the writer is amply rewarded

* it’s pretty much like the film Amélie

* but with painful taxes and secret social codes

* and citizens who sometimes get stuck in the past

* and believe the world turns around their country

My Wife’s Early Assumptions About America

* can do spirit alive and well

My father, a man with a degree in physics and an impressive resume of important sounding acronyms, does not really read.

As an avid reader who grew up in a house full of crowded bookshelves, it has taken me several years to recognize this, though I still have not fully accepted it. The worn paperbacks that constitute the majority of my parent’s library are thin sci-fi and spy thrillers, which I eventually realized had not been read for years.