Monthly Archives: September 2012

Buddha Tooth Relic Temple in Chinatown

As Ran and I headed toward Chinatown, I noticed that many of the buildings had unique architectural styles. It’s amazing how many different types of designs exist and how modern and traditional buildings stand side by side. When we arrived in Chinatown, I thought it was just as chaotic as all the others I’d visited in the U.S. However, since this was Asia, there was an even more overwhelming feeling surrounding the place.

Shops and people competed with one another for a bit more space. Stores selling Chinese medicinal herbs stood next to souvenir shops that were across from fruit and vegetable stands that surrounded restaurants and electronic vendors. The idea of personal space is completely out of the question here. I don’t think it’s a concept that many in this part of the world know about yet. And if they do, they’re opponents of it and not supporters.

Ran and I waded through the sea of tourist and touts until we finally came to a square that was large enough for us to breathe in. Across the way the Buddha Tooth Relic Temple stood grandly, if not a bit intimidatingly, before us. Rows of paper lanterns hung from its wooden boards and incense sticks burned for the gods. A whole host of people waited patiently for their chance to pray hoping their wishes would be heard and answered.

If I thought the outside of Buddha Tooth Relic Temple was staggering, the inside was beyond anything I’ve ever seen before! There were thousands of relics, statues, candles, fruit offerings and incense throughout the building. The room and all the decorations were in reds and golds.

Buddha and many other Chinese gods and goddesses had special alters in front of which people could donate and pray. And, yes, that’s the most popular order of things – give, then pray – at many religious sites, but I thought this place was impressive due to its scope of deities. I’m positive that there was one god for each of your worries and that you could literally address all of them and offer up a prayer with a small gift to each deity. Figures hung from the walls and looked down upon you as you walked about seeming as if they were daring you not to donate.

Even though visitors and non-Buddhists were openly welcomed within the temple, I still felt like I was stepping on someone’s toes as I walked around taking photos. Throughout my life I’ve been to a couple of Buddhist services, mostly funerals, but I’m not well-versed in many Buddhist traditions, practices or beliefs. As dozens of people stood around me offering prayers to the gods, bowing and shaking their sticks of incense, I just felt very awkward. It was as if I was witnessing something extremely personal between them and Buddha and I was a peeping tom.

In any case, even if I couldn’t understand the intricacies of the religious practices going on around me, I could appreciate the artistic craftsmanship and skill it took to build and keep up the temple. The religious figures and effigies were masterfully sculpted, etched and painted, and you could tell the temple was highly influential to people in the area. How could you not be moved by such beauty?

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Culture Shock: Asian vs. Asian American Identity

I don’t want to come off sounding like just another arrogant American, but I’m astounded to admit that I’m actually experiencing some culture shock in Singapore. The culture shock has nothing to do with my inability to deal with the differences between an American and Asian worldview. In fact, the problem might be in my own little crisis of identity.

As an Asian American who was born and raised in Hawaii, I believed I’d find the adjustment to Asia a bit easier than the typical American from the continental U.S. I’ve lived my entire life in a place where Asians and Polynesians make up almost 50 percent of the population and where almost 23 percent of the population claims to be of more than two races. I, myself, fall into this category as I am Japanese American (my dad’s family emigrated to Hawaii many generations ago) and Vietnamese (my mom emigrated from Vietnam in her 20s).

In this multi-ethnic community, I’ve become very familiar with different Asian beliefs, traditions and cuisines. This life experience has influenced me to identify strongly with the Asian culture. I think other Asians in Hawaii may also feel this way as well. However, now I am beginning to see how vastly different the Asian and Asian American perspective and experience is and how significantly the American culture has affected me.

The culture shock stems from identifying myself as an Asian when I am not Asian but Asian American. Before arriving in Singapore I didn’t even think about the difference. I didn’t even realize that there was one. Of course, this is silly now that I say it out loud but it’s true.

By identifying myself as an Asian, I misled myself into thinking that I knew what to expect and how to act in Singapore and beyond. I figured that Hawaii was a microcosm of the rest of the world and being in southeast Asia would be similar to Hawaii. I thought that I’d feel at home here where there were a lot of Asians like me (in comparison to Australia and New Zealand where most people are Caucasian). But when I did not feel at home here I was caught completely off guard. This is the culture shock I experienced.

I realize now that despite its large Asian American population, Hawaii is completely and utterly American. Just because we may look Asian and take part in Asian culture, it doesn’t mean that our fundamental doctrines and pedagogies are Asian. Our ideals are very much American. Our worldview is definitely American. It’s as if we see the world through Asian-tinted glasses, but at the heart of it, we are American with an American understanding and an American interpretation and an American opinion. This doesn’t mean that we’re better or smarter or even right in the way we see the world, but it does mean that we’re different from those who are actually born and raised in Asia. No matter how close to our ethnic culture we think we are, our nationality has a stronger grasp and influence upon us. I am not Asian. I am Asian American.

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National Museum of Singapore

One of the main things I missed about big cities is their abundance of museums, so I jumped at the chance to visit the National Museum of Singapore with Ran, my new Indonesian friend. The National Museum of Singapore is the oldest museum in the country and a cultural and architectural landmark.

Even though I have no background in architecture, it’s easy to see how impressive the building is on the inside and out. Many tall, white columns support the entranceway and the first floor features arched windows. There is also a dome with a spire in the middle. Inside, the museum’s wooden floors and glass ceilings give the place a modern look.

The museum had a special exhibit on the cheongsam, a traditional, tight-fitting dress worn by Chinese women. The show traced the dress (and the powerful women who wore them) through the years and showcased different cuts, fabrics and patterns. It followed the dress as it subtly morphed with the times and paralleled the rise of women in Singapore.

Ran and I also visited Clarke Quay and Fort Canning, a green space in the middle of a concrete jungle. We spent some time in the spice garden, which is a reproduction of Sir Stamford Raffles’ first spice garden. He is known as the “Father of Singapore.”

It was hard not to notice how vastly different New Zealand and Singapore are even as I stood surrounded by Fort Canning’s greenery. In comparison with Rotorua’s Whakarewarewa Redwood Forest, Fort Canning felt artificial and its preservation seemed to be an afterthought during the massive urbanization of the country. The realization that I was no longer in New Zealand finally hit me. As the saying goes, “I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more.”

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