Fish Tales

My life in Singapore Taipei. And then some.

I messed up today.

And, I think I already kind of knew this – but, not really. Don’t stand your chopsticks upright in your meal. It’s not so polite. Like, really not polite.

Even if you are eating some take-away noodles in a plastic dish in a conference room.

Still not polite.

It represents the way incense is placed in sacrificial and funeral offerings. I promise I wasn’t trying to invite images of death to the meeting. Really.

Luckily, my co-worker let me know the error of my ways. Whew! Won’t be doing that during an important business dinner someday.

Apparently, I’m still an Asia newb.

Lunch Faux Pas

Not much to report today. Except for this awesome sign my friend Elvin noticed in the washroom at a local diner.

Everything clear? Follow the instructions, please.

I dare you to try breaking the rules!

Every night just before 9:30pm I hear Beethoven playing outside my window. And, it’s really loud. Almost noise pollution loud.

When I first heard it, I expected to see a monster ice cream truck serving kids running from every direction.

Quite the opposite.

I found adults arriving from every direction. With bags of garbage.

That’s right. No dumpsters needed in Taipei. Just hear Für Elise, wait for the truck, throw the trash in.

Garbage workers have it easy here!


The fast food counter at my local 7-Eleven in Taipei is different. Not different by Taiwan standards – there seems to be a 7-Eleven on nearly every block. But, different by US standards.

They sell tea eggs and sweet potatoes.

Yes, tea eggs.

They fill the entire store with an aroma of black tea leaves, spices, cinnamon, cloves, star anise, fennel and a variety of other spices. There may be some soy sauce. Inconsistent reports on that.

Have not tried yet. Too chicken.

7-Eleven, Taipei Style

An “ugly commute” conveys my daily experience in an optimistic tone. Those 32 kilometres (20 miles) between Xindian and Taoyuan always represent a constant hour+ fight against, what appears to be, a non-ending string of red tail lights ahead.

Not good for someone who hates commuting and views it as a complete waste of two plus hours each day.

But, luckily, my company runs a hourly coach shuttle bus that I’ve been regularly taking. A quick nap sure beats avoiding waves of scooters while driving yourself.

Plus, I’ve almost overcome my issue of getting car sick while reading in a moving vehicle. I wrote this entire post on my smartphone without throwing-up on the guy next to me, so that’s progress!


Riding the "school bus" to work...

Keep 'em outside

When it comes to tracking mud in the house, lots of Singaporeans have it all figured out.

Let me explain.

It’s common practice for anyone entering a home to remove their shoes – before stepping through the door. Like on the porch or doorstep. And it’s kind of a big deal for many people.

I found this out the hard way when I arrived in Singapore during my first condo viewing.

The realtor knocked on the door. A tenant answered. Some pleasantries were exchanged in Mandarin and we were invited in. Being polite, the realtor prompted me to enter first… and of course I barged right in with my shoes on.

Oops. They both looked at me like I managed to kick the dog as well. But, that’s what I’m accustomed to in America. Step inside, then  ask the host if shoes should be removed. Not out on the porch.

Disaster at the other end of the hall

Keep shoes outside the home!

I like the Asian way better. Who wants to track loogies, dog poop, and all other sorts of yuckies into the house? Not me. When you stop to think about it, ick.

The only problem? Shoes tend to pile up outside the door and look, unsightly. Some residents in my building experience problems keeping all the shoes under control.

Anyway, we adopted the local custom and have a no-shoes household now, though we sometimes cheat and take them off right after we enter. And, for us, shoes still belong in the closet, not on the porch. Old habits are hard to break.

But, everything feels so much cleaner now.

I once heard someone describe Singapore as “Asia for Beginners”. It’s true. Most everyone here speaks some English.

About the English part.

With such a diverse population, everyone speaks the language a bit differently. And that introduces minor inconsistencies in words and their meanings. Most of the time it’s not a big deal. But, for whatever reason, a few words seem to… distract me. Much more than they should.

The words:

Pity (pĭt’ē) – Sympathy and sorrow aroused by the misfortune, distress or suffering of another leading one to give relief.

Where I’m from, this word isn’t generally used lightly. It denotes something not-so-good has happened. Someone, somewhere is hurting. But, I’ve found people in Singapore use it much more casually. For example, read this email I received last week:


Whoa… was it THAT bad he missed the call? Okay. Maybe it was.

Nice (nīs) – Of good character and reputation; respectable. Having a pleasant or attractive appearance.

Easy enough, right? Usually there aren’t problems with this word. People and some things are nice. Got it. Except, when it comes to describing food. Most everyone in Singapore uses this word and it just sounds off. Food is good or great, not nice… right? Another email:


Maybe it’s just me. But, nice or not, it distracts me every time.

Would (wuh d ) – A past tense, present participle of will. Used to express the future in past sentences.

Another common word. But, sometimes I hear it used in a different way I’m not so used to. One more email:


See what I mean? I’m not an English expert, but I think it should only be used as a conditional tense for “will” – to give advice, to explain hypothetical situations or to give tentative options. Using it like this introduces a sense of uncertainty for me. Like, maybe he will revert… but, I’m not so sure he will.

Gentle Reminder

Okay, two words. But, I see this adjective + noun combination quite often in Singapore, especially in common, every-day type communication. Another email:

Gentle Reminder

For me, I’m used to “gentile reminder” being associated with a somewhat awkward topic. Like, “Umm, just a gentle reminder… you may want to use deodorant for your B.O.” But, in the example above I have no idea why it calls for a gentle reminder. Why gentle?

Sometime this afternoon I started to get a craving for Spanish-Mexican rice. Random, I know.

Since it didn’t go away I decided to do something about it tonight. And it turned out excellent, with great depth of flavors.

Here’s my own recipe that combines both Spanish and Mexican rice elements.


  • 2 ¼ cups plain long-grain rice
  • ¼ cup canola oil
  • 1 large yellow onion, diced
  • 1 bell pepper, cut into ½ inch pieces
  • 4 cloves of fresh garlic, pressed
  • ¾ cup tomato sauce
  • 1 can diced tomatoes, drained
  • 3 cups chicken broth
  • ¾ cup frozen peas
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon pepper
  • Pinch of cumin
Five minutes to prep

Five minutes to prep


In a large frying pan, warm oil on medium heat until is shimmers. Then add rice and sauté until it looks golden-brown. Then add the onion and green pepper and continue sautéing. This can take up to 20-25 minutes, but make sure it toasts and changes color. It really adds to the flavor.

Browned for extra flavor

Browned for extra flavor

Use a garlic press to crush the cloves. Clear the center of the pan and place sauté garlic until fragrant aroma emits. Mix into rest of rice.

Add the tomato sauce, diced tomatoes, chicken broth, cumin, salt and pepper. Bring to a boil for two minutes. Reduce heat, cover and simmer for 20 minutes. Check after 10 minutes and stir to avoid the bottom from burning too much (a little adds flavor).

When finished, stir in peas. Add some frozen corn, if desired.

Buen provecho!

Buen provecho!

Pizza & Singapore.

Not a combination of words I frequently use to describe a great dining experience. For whatever reason, Singapore struggles to make a good pizza. And, it’s not for a lack of trying. The island nation boasts about fifty pizza establishments. Unfortunately, all below average.

I’m not sure what the problem is. Are regional tastes and preferences THAT much different? Perhaps the bakers haven’t actually tried a top-notch New York pizza, meaning they just don’t know better? Or, maybe they believe they ARE making great pizzas?

I want to know. Would Singaporeans prefer a slice of American pizza or what they’ve already got here?

After nearly two years of asking this question, I thought I’d finally get an answer.


A Domino’s Pizza finally opened in Singapore! Hopefully, they would let me combine those two words into a positive statement.


FAIL #1:

When I called for a pizza delivery they informed me I lived outside their delivery zone. What? How can that be? It’s less than two miles away. Okay, strange. But, I decided to try take-out later.

FAIL #2:

Singapore restaurants hate it when you try to go off-menu and change the prescribed offering. It’s beyond frustrating for me. Especially at places where, as an American, I’m used to mixing and matching to make it just right. It’s just not done that much. Anyway, my favorite pizza is pepperoni, onion, mushroom, green pepper and olive. It’s what I always try to order. But, I don’t always get. Why? It’s not a set, prescribed pizza on the menu.

Luckily, when I visited the website they offered a “Make Your Own” option. Awesome. There must be a catch. Yep. After adding my sauce, cheese and five favorite toppings I realized they added an $18 SGD “surcharge” that made my 9 inch pizza cost $47.80 SGD. That’s $35 USD, people. For a 9 inch thin crust pizza!

Whatever. I settled for the 12 inch “Extravaganza” for $29.80 SGD.

FAIL #3:

Pizza is expensive in Singapore. Almost double what I’m used to paying in the US.

FAIL #4:

Most restaurants here are way too stingy with toppings. And even sauce. I’ve resorted to almost begging for double or triple sauce. But, it doesn’t work. I get a pizza with a super thin coat of sauce and not enough toppings.

I thought Dominos might be different after I saw the “Extravaganza” on the website!

"Extravaganza" pizza I ordered


But, that’s not what I got. Where are the veggie toppings? Sigh.

At least it had more sauce than normal


They must not have localized their advertising materials and are still using the American assets.

FAIL #5:

Beef pepperoni. Sorry, but it’s not pork pepperoni. Not even close. I get it. Some residents don’t eat pork for religious reasons, but others don’t eat beef. At least, make both options available.

FAIL #6:

It’s 2010. We just celebrated Earth Day. But, you’d never know it in Singapore. They use more plastic, styrofoam, and non-recyclable materials than you can imagine. And don’t even get me started on the lack of robust recycling programs. Anyway, Dominos didn’t break the trend.

They put my pizza box in a big, heavy plastic bag. Each napkin in its own plastic bag. Each red-pepper flake in a smaller plastic bag. My can of Coke in another plastic bag. Even my refrigerator magnet was in a separate plastic bag! In total, I walked out with one pizza and nine plastic bags. Nice.

A little pizza with your plastic?

A little pizza with your plastic?

FAIL #7:

The 30 minute delivery guarantee is way cool guys. Not something found in America anymore because of speeding delivery drivers hitting pedestrians and all. But, thanks for giving me a refrigerator magnet to remind me that you won’t deliver to my house.

Easy to remember number. Doesn't matter.

Easy to remember number. Doesn't matter.


The storefront and location is great. Retrofitted into an old colonial style shop-house building. Right next to one of my favorite Vietnamese restaurants.

Killiney Road shop-houses

Killiney Road shop-houses

Last week I found myself hoping for an emergency at the Taipei Airport.

Okay, maybe just a ‘false alarm’ kind of emergency. But, either way I wanted the situation to require everyone to evacuate the building. And, quickly.


Because we’d get to use the escape chutes!

I really wanted to peek inside

I really wanted to peek inside

I’ve never seen anything quite like it.

Rather plain, white steel boxes strategically placed around the airport. Easy to overlook at first.

And, certainly, if the boxes didn’t have “Escape Chute” written on the side you’d assume they contained some sort of… umm, I don’t know. Something. Whatever would fit well in a white box. Use your imagination.

So, can an escape chute really be in a white box? Really?

Yes, apparently they can.

Look at the instructions if you don’t believe me.

Click photo to enlarge instructions

Click photo to enlarge instructions