Those who knew me growing up may remember that I was cared for by my maid, Beth, for more than ten years. This essay was particularly difficult to write, because it forced me to dig into my memory, acknowledge certain truths, and reconcile the separation. I was very close to my maid and, more often than not, I try not to think about our past in order to move forward in the present. Interestingly, the process of writing this turned out to be rather therapeutic, and the final product is, in a way, a celebration of our relationship. Who knows, one day she might chance upon this and we can be reconnected again. Till then, here’s our story in Litro Magazine.
So things have been a little crazy lately (hence the long hiatus) but three main things happened that have kept me more than occupied! One, I’ve a baby! She’s a beautiful girl who is turning 7 months this month! Two, I’d graduated from the University of Southern California with a Master’s in Professional Writing (Fiction). Three, I’ve completed my novel!
So lots of things are happening at the moment, and at the same time, I’ve been publishing some of my shorter pieces of work. Here’s the link to one that was published a couple of months back:
How the Financial Crisis Broke My Family
When the financial crisis hit, many families were affected including mine. Here’s my story in Role Reboot. I’ll post the links of my other stories that had been published in other journals/reviews soon. In the meantime, you can check out my new other blog on motherhood and parenting at www.bigandtinylove.wordpress.com
Every time I make a trip back to Singapore, I will inevitably feel a sense of displacement. Many things can change in a year. Buildings get torn down, new infrastructures raised. Places I used to frequent no longer look the same or, worse, are no longer there. My church has moved and its old space has been demolished. My parents are not living in the same neighborhood. Old favorite restaurants or hawkers have closed down. Even when I meet up with friends, there is always a little dissonance — as if everyone has moved on in the one year when I was absent.
When I told this to a friend, she quickly replied, “But you have also moved on!”
While that is true, I guess the difference is that I wasn’t around to witness the happenings (new engagements, weddings, pregnancies, job promotions) and even though I was updated while living overseas, it can still feel a little overwhelming and sudden whenever I meet relatives or friends face-to-face. It makes me feel like we are all really growing up, and there is nothing anyone can do to stop it.
Not that growing up is a bad thing, but with that also comes a longing for the past. Which brings me back to my first point. I find it harder and harder to hold on to the ever changing Singapore, where I am not around to make new memories, and old ones are constantly being torn down.
This time around, my trip back to Singapore was very short, because it was a stopover en route to Ireland where my husband was going for a conference. Nevertheless, I was glad to be able to spend time with my family and meet up with some friends. I was the one who had bugged my husband for weeks to make a trip back to Singapore, and I was so excited to return that I couldn’t sleep the night before my flight. But less than a week after landing, I began to miss LA.
And that is my problem.
When I am in LA, I would long for Singapore. But when I am in Singapore, I would long for LA (#firstworldproblems). And while that may sound like a privilege (and on most days, it is) what also happens in actuality is that I end up feeling like I am always between two places, never belonging to one. Life in LA is much more relaxed, and I must admit that there is a certain appeal, and a certain kind of freedom and liberation, that comes with going to a place where no one knows you. Suddenly, I find myself having all the time in the world without any obligation to anyone. Yet, the flip side is that it can get lonely, especially in the beginning (you will be surprised at how disconcerting it can be to not know simple things like where to get a haircut or buy groceries) and at the end of the day, I am still a foreigner in the States. And believe me, that truth becomes particularly stark when say, you are stopped by a traffic police officer or are in sudden need of urgent care at a clinic. Those were the times when my husband and I wished we were back in Singapore where we were familiar with such procedures.
Many people have asked us (very often, in fact, and understandably so) when my husband and I will be coming back, and if we are coming back at all. Our response is always that Singapore holds our family and friends and that makes it home for us. But at the same time, we cannot deny that living overseas has its perks (lower cost of living, for one!) and ultimately, it depends on what opportunities we will have when the time comes. As for now, I guess the challenge of being in between places is learning to make a third place out of it: to make it as homely and personal as possible, wherever I may be.
Back in the 1960s, my grandmother would push her small wooden cart down the streets of Singapore, calling out to passers-by to try her laska – fat yellow noodles coated in rich spicy coconut milk. My father said that his mother’s laska was one of the best he had ever tasted. Yet, despite how delicious it was, each bowl only earned my grandmother a few cents and she had struggled to make ends meet.
Given how poor my grandparents were and the conditions my parents grew up in, it is not surprising that my parents were not great fans of the arts. Painting, writing and singing were thought to be a pursuit of the rich and my parents discouraged me from taking them seriously. It didn’t help that at that time, the government had largely emphasized on commerce and sciences as key drivers of the economy. Doctors, lawyers, bankers and engineers were the occupations that would secure your future. Writers, designers and musicians were not.
In secondary school, my parents wanted me to study science. I wanted to study literature. We compromised and I did both subjects. When I graduated, they saw that I had zero affinity with Chemistry and Physics and urged me to do business. I wanted to write stories. Again, we compromised and I graduated with a degree in journalism — a career that came with at least a paycheck.
This disinclination toward the arts, however, was not to say that the older generation were devoid of creativity. My mother often reminisced how supple and juicy her late mother’s handmade fish balls were. My grandmother would meticulously debone the fish, smack the meat incessantly with her hands and then painstakingly roll each thumb-sized flesh into a ball and cook them in soup. Sometimes, she would form them into rectangular shapes and fry them as fish cakes. I only eat fish balls because they are easy to get in any supermarket. To make them from scratch is simply too much work. I couldn’t understand why she would spend effort doing that. Isn’t it much simpler to just steam the fish whole? When questioned, my mother paused for a while before simply replying, “She did it so that we won’t be bored eating the same thing every day.”
When I heard that, I had newfound respect for my grandmother. This was a woman who had to go to the market before the crack of dawn, help her husband sell fish, return home, clean the house and look after over ten children. Yet she found the time and interest to roll fish meat into bouncy balls! She was definitely an artist in her own right. I wondered where her passions could have taken her if only she had the resources to pursue them.
In that sense, I consider myself lucky to be born after my parents, at a time when my country is finally taking a broader step in cultivating the arts. More schools and companies have been set up to shape artists, playwrights and athletes in the last ten years compared to my parents’ generation. I find that comforting because this means that the younger generation will have more opportunities and outlets to express themselves. But more importantly, this also means that there is now more ways to catalog our past. As a writer, I am fascinated with the details of my family and often find myself referring to the ways my grandparents and parents had led their lives in my stories; details on how they had made the most of what little they had. It is such anecdotes that define my culture and I find it difficult to separate them from my writing, and count it a privilege to be able to recuperate some of this history back into my work.