You told me so

There, I said it for you.

I also changed my title page tagline, did you notice, because we are no longer on a ‘two-year’ Singapore sling. Having had a wrinkle in his otherwise unblemished career path, Mr PC found himself on an extended holiday late last year and managed to push the edges all the way up to now – but the party’s over, so back into the trousers-and-shirts combo he goes and the house will once more be quiet. We’ll miss him, me and SM – he’s worked out all the meal plans, played endless football after school, and although his break coincided with one of my busiest spells ever, he was a great companion on my days off when all I wanted was to hang out with someone familiar. A special thank-you sandwich in his lunchbox on Day One, I think.

But to practicalities – his accepting a new role in Asia takes our family away from the homelands for longer than we planned. We always used the ‘two-year’ rule of thumb as a benchmark but I think we secretly knew that it would be longer – as did all of you, because you told me so left, right, and centre. What could I say at the time? While Mr PC was already off to the airport and living out here faster than you could say ‘removalists’, I was back at the ranch wrapping cups in newspaper, crying, giving away old books, crying, rehousing the cats, crying again, attending the last school assembly, doing the drinks and parties, missing you all so badly already. Saying goodbye. “Two years” was breaking it gently. In fact, as you all pointed out back then, two years is not a long time.

Who are we kidding, we love it out here of course. It’s not for everyone, some can’t wait to head back to the chill and reality of their homelands, and it has taken the full two years for me to get over the sadness of the move, to really get into things, but I’ve found as much peace as I ever will, with a good set of friends, places I love, and plenty still to discover. So of course we want to stay, it’s been a group decision and in some ways we could have been back in London by now. Still, having not been given the chance to get properly stuck in, one of our family needs a second run-up at living and working out here and so life really is a mixed bag, on the one hand I’m so thrilled for Mr PC and all that his new schoolbag contains. On the other, the heart-wrench of homesickness has never been stronger than this week.

A local friend, when reading something of mine that mentioned how my ‘head was in Singapore but heart in London’ took offence and told me so. I didn’t think that was entirely fair: more than four decades of being in love with your hometown is not going to fade overnight. I’m not a London snob, I don’t believe it’s the best and only city in the world and I hate some of its seedier, more sinister corners and I don’t miss the dog poo, but it is my home and I will always be committed to the idea of coming back. I just have no idea when.

One key person will dictate this, to a certain extent – of course he doesn’t realise it, but our son has the world at his feet out here. He comes home from school and goes running off outside without me having to heave myself off the sofa. I don’t organise playdates, kids just wander up to the door and ask for him. When we do go out it doesn’t take too long to get anywhere, and there is that small business of the tropical beach at the end of the line: privilege in a capsule. What he is missing, though, is crucial to me: two grandpas and an aunty, old friends with connections that matter, the responsibility of living out his life in a tough city that you don’t get when bouncing around on the soft surfaces of Planet Expat.

I won’t say “two years” again, but I must say it’s a timescale I’m curiously comfortable with – my life since leaving college has fitted into weird two-year blocks. Until I gave up the journalism career ToBeAMum I had moved jobs roughly every two years, and the first four years after leaving, oddly, took the same shape: two years on writing courses, then two years writing the phantom book (the one that’s now in the bin), then these first two years bedding in out here. As I mark off the calender days until our summer break to the UK, I am trying to look a little further down the line and can imagine the next two years coming in a tidy package as well and I wonder what they will bring.

Of course these days I know better than to put a timescale on things…

Drawn to it

Last weekend the Affordable Air Fair came to town, setting up behind the Flyer for the third time since I’ve been living here. This was my second visit; last time I went to the bunfight of the opening night and spent the entire evening being careful not to spill my bubbles on the artwork. This time I went early one Saturday, going along for the ride with the same friend who took me before. She’s an art buff, she knows her apples, and she can recommend what to look for. She can also tell you what she likes and doesn’t like – she’ll give you a polite: ‘hmmm…’ if you show her something unsatisfactory. If she likes it she’ll propel you right up to the exhibit like a member of Miami Dade police at a house raid. While I prefer to dot in and out of the cubicles, firmly telling people I’m ‘just looking’ (as you have to here in the shops to avoid being hassled), ArtFriend is falling over herself to accept those grabbing hands. She gets drawn in by vendor after vendor, asking for cards, adding her name to lists, asking all the right questions, and – in fact – usually walking away with some other stunning bit of kit to go with the growing gallery that makes up her beautiful home. Watching her work the floors is as satisfying as the artworks themselves. Me, I just like to potter.

I did go to art school, actually – ArtFriend was surprised to learn this as we drove away from the show in a halo of good art vibes. Oh yes, I got a degree in printmaking, having spent my second year putting the painting tutor to the test by doodling a series of scrappy Tony Hancock-style feet in ‘simplistic style’ and being heralded as someone funky and innovate when, in fact, I’d just scribbled a few toes. That taught me, and in my third and final year I moved on to screenprinting, where the nuts and bolts of the technique blended with my passion for writing and I completed a series of sarcastic prints that heaved me up and over the precipice (along with a competent thesis) of a shabby Third and got me the 2:2 degree I didn’t really deserve. As a result of my cynicism I didn’t leave college with a great deal of knowledge about or love for modern art, but those years at art school at least left me with an idea of what I like on my wall. I go through phases: it was portraits for a while, and for that I had London’s National Portrait Gallery, a place I now realise I never visited enough. Now I’m in Asia Lite I find myself drawn to paintings of goldfish, for some reason, and I found several of those as I wandered around the galleries last weekend, sipping my free [brand name] espresso.

Although my happiness at blagging a precious ticket to the AAF wasn’t so much about ‘getting something’ but was more about dipping a tentative toe back into the art arena, I did love the venue and I loved the show, room after room of fun, fascinating, clever, poignant and funky pieces of original art, with friendly faces to tell you all about it and that nice free coffee thrown in. In fact I loved about 80 per cent of the pieces on show and after a while found myself seeking out local artists, looking for something different, something fun but not garish, most importantly something to put my current life in context.

I’m never going back with ArtFriend again, that’s for sure – she was far too good at the whole thing. It’s because of her that our dining room wall will, in about three weeks, look substantially more beautiful, and that whatever holiday fund we were hanging onto just went down to zero. It was definitely worth it. The ‘local’ context has ended up being a somewhat more far-off blend of Shanghai and London, but it will do. There are also no goldfish, but the fun theme is there and so is the beauty – it’s going to look amazing, and to top it all off the artist went to St Martins School of Art, where Mum went in the 50s. I think she’d have been happy with all that.

As for naughty ArtFriend, she is banned from taking me anywhere else for a while (though if there’s any more of that free coffee I might come along for the ride).


As our summer trip to the UK approaches I am remembering what it was like to be pregnant or have a small baby. It’s not an obvious connection – and it started with a new-mum friend from home posting on FB about how annoyed she gets with people’s attitudes to the whole sleep thing, and it reminded me of all the questions I hated, and the bump thing as well: I was ‘huge’ to one person and ‘tiny’ to another, and really, who cared but me?

‘Is she sleeping through the night yet?’ they ask my friend, pointing at her four-month-old daughter. ‘Well,’ replies my friend, ‘I’m not sleeping through the night yet, and I’m 32’.

It’s the same with the How Long Have You Been Here question. ‘Almost two years,’ I am now telling people and always, ALWAYS I get a raised eyebrow and ‘Oh, is that all?’ in response. What? Is what all? What? I have no idea how long I am supposed to have been here before I elicit a different response, and when I do get a different one, what will it be? And again, who really cares?

This goes on ad nauseum, I’m guessing. I might do a deal – when my friend’s baby sleeps through the night I’ll start telling people how long I’ve been here.

Strange fruit

I said in my last post that I needed to get back to studying my current location a bit more. That’s paraphrased, it was a long post and it held a lot more depth than that. But all the same, how timely it was that a few days after sending that out into the big beyond, Vesak Day (Buddha’s birthday) came to these shores. I failed again, sadly. I could have got the bum boat back to Pulau Ubin and watched the little temple on that funny mangrove-laced Singaporean relic light up with celebrations, as reported in a fellow blogger’s diary, but instead I went for a run.

Of course nothing here is ‘normal’ for long, and as I crested one of the few hills on that route, I saw an elderly local man running towards me holding a large Olympic-style flame (lit). We exchanged running smiles and carried on. That was the only sign for me that something was going on, apart from the hairdresser being closed and various people making the most of the holiday by leaving the island and the condo falling very quiet.

I still haven’t researched that eerie torch sighting, mainly because odd stuff happens here all the time. To prove the point, a few days before that I had walked under a tree and narrowly avoided being hit on the head by a falling mango (which came down with a huge crack) as did a little lady just in front of me. Neither of us picked it up and took it home, it was quite squashed, in any case I was more interested in jotting down this strange happening than fishing around for a spare plastic bag. The other day I was waiting for the school bus at the condo gate when I saw a girl carrying a huge parrot down the road. As you do. And in January on a daytrip to Sentosa, we saw a woman with a Brahmani kite on her arm. I only ever see those in the zoo or on tropical islands far up in the sky. ‘Exotic’ doesn’t really cut it.

The point is, I really don’t have to do much to experience a feeling of extreme distance from London and all that was previously familiar. It’s all around me, enough material to fill countless iPad Note pages, and I know I won’t have to wait long before the next Weird Thing happens.

For now, I’m going to put the laundry out on the deck as the lightning risk has passed after this morning’s tropical storm. Once that’s done I must find the ant gel and deal with the latest infestation in SM’s bedroom, before checking the cucumber plant out front, which is shooting up faster than anything ever did in our muddy UK window boxes.


Where am I?

Dad has been and gone. So precious are those days that there’s no room for writing, no time for anything but bug-foraging, story-telling, island-exploring and plenty of tea drinking while we talk. How I miss those talks, and him.

When Dad comes out there’s not a minute to lose, we want to show him everything: one day we’re getting a $2 bumboat ride to Pulau Ubin with a group of spotty evangelists; next day we’re in a private air-con car humming towards the border with silky tunes oozing from the wipe-clean dash. Another time we’re picking through the Botanic Gardens looking for touch-me-not ferns; next we’re pounding hot concrete in a playpark, watching SmallMonkey dangle from the bars. I take a museum tour, and Dad is in the background as I recite heritage facts to my small and willing group; they nod, and follow me to the next cabinet. Dad’s proud and I’m a bit proud too. But he’s independent and chatty, and quite able to chalk up his own encounters – like the ones with the Man Who Made Kites and the Leafblower In The Woods, both of whom gave him their own impromptu history lessons that were of more value than any hour-long schlep around a gallery.

There’s a different flavour every day: we borrow other peoples’ clubs (British, Tanglin), throwing SM into Olympic-sized pools while we sip coffee on the side. We go up the East Coast to crack chilli crab in a seafood restaurant that once did actually stand by the sea. Then it’s Indian curry at the local hawker, western soup in an MRT mall, pork pau picnics with hairy yam balls, roti canai, cendol, rendang, even a bit of German sausage for good measure: the food supply is relentless, bountiful. We scale the Pinnacles, swim with tankers, host an Easter barbecue, do an egg hunt, go to school by bus, come back by cab, sit it out at endless soccer sessions, do the Night Safari. We drop Dad off at parks and shops and for the odd meeting in town, and each time we enjoy the stories of how he gets back home again. We break for the border twice and escape to Malaysia, east coast first, then west: real sand beneath our feet, durian scents wafting up from the drains: aaahhh.

Exhausted? Yes, he probably was by the end, but only as much as the next person. At least two total strangers commented, in that candid local way, about how they couldn’t believe that he was my father. Yeah, I’m still not sure how to take that.

Last year we were needy, getting over the shell-shock of the move. Another year down the expat timeline we’re nicely bedded in – confident, casual tour leaders trying to show as much as we can, possibly showing off a little, and it’s all effortlessly enjoyable. SM in particular benefited from those days with Grandpa, from the shared cabins on the beach, bonding moments on double bus seats, swapping stories from opposite ends of the growth charts. With newfound confidence, though, often comes a lack of attention to detail. When we paused to consider how a newcomer might view things, we realized that we’d forgotten quite how bonkers Singapore could be for beginners.

Dad’s a grown-up so he can cope just fine. He’s a teacher and philosopher, though, with a special interest in the cultural ramifications of children who move around the globe, so he wants to know stuff. First off, to have one of his kids living out the finer details of just what he talks and writes about must be fascinating. We were expats before of course, in the 70s when we lived in Baltimore for a year with Dad teaching science in one school and us girls hopping on the big yellow bus to the nearby elementary. But our expat existence was not remotely like the one we are living now. We went out on a wing and a prayer, bringing as much bank trouble as we had optimism. We were frugal, local, immersed ourselves in the community, wore halter necks and denims, ate Hostess Twinkies and drank Grape Kool Aid in a tent in the back yard with the neighbours’ kids, went walking in the rain and the snow to suitable soundtracks, hosed each other down in summer. There were no members’ clubs to borrow, no handy blue cabs, and the most exotic thing was to try out the new ‘Bubble Yum’ flavor ice cream at Baskin Robbins.

So this shiny new life of mine, it turns out, is a petri dish of some peculiarity for Dad. ‘Didn’t you work in international schools for 40+ years?’ I ask him, but I know it’s different on the other side of the desk: studying a pattern is one thing, living the dream is quite another. Eventually, somewhere around the middle of Dad’s trip, questions began to arise. Some were factual, and could be answered by a quick Google (Q: what is the population of Singapore? A: 5.6m). Some had physical solutions (Q: where and what are HDBs? A: pointing from bus: there, there and there). Some, I’m afraid, just couldn’t be answered at all (Q: where do you see yourself in 10 years? A:…)

There were lots of subjects that weren’t actually questions but still begged answers: long restaurant bills, lavish living rooms, sparkling swimming pools, tropical trips for kids who don’t know they’re born, chores taken care of without request, malls and malls with endless possibilities for those with the wallet and the time – and those who don’t have either of those things were very politely not spoken of, which in itself gave rise to many other questions to do with social demographics and cultural comparisons. Finally, on top of all that, there was a layer of personal posers that I might have given slightly defensive responses to in sheer frustration of not knowing the appropriate answers – or perhaps choosing not to know. Eventually I stopped trying to answer anything at all.

We got a lot of information from cab drivers, some of it very real and some quite possibly the result of 16 hours on the road. Towards the end of the trip I introduced Dad to a local friend, also with a background in education and also a fan of philosophy, and he gave Dad more knowledge in two-and-a-half hours than I had in two-and-a-half weeks. What you don’t need an expert to tell you is that Singapore is an ongoing project with hazy origins and blurred lines, and just as you’ve got to grips with a concept you need to stand back as the building that housed it comes down and a new one goes up.

I wish I could have been more helpful; I am left wondering if there’s a way of catching up. I feel like I have missed an entire chapter of revision and, to make matters worse, then turned up to the exam a day late. Like I’ve been caught watching telly when I should have been doing my homework. I tried to answer what I could because it wasn’t enough to glibly say: ‘Oh have another mai tai’. Most of the time, you see (OK, all of the time) this was exactly Dad’s point.

Funny, isn’t it? I thought I had come so far, but in settling down there’s a lot that gets left behind, because you just can’t take it all with you. A good method for battling homesickness is to employ the vertigo technique of not looking down, concentrating only on looking up and out, which is what I spent most of last year doing. I can explain to people that in order to adapt I have most likely changed a bit – but in doing so I must accept that what is now normal to me might not be so normal to them. I now realize that I’ve left a Mrs PC-shaped cocoon back in London, into which I probably won’t ever fit again, and not just because of the pork pau.

I can’t remember who it was that told me how her parents don’t ever come out because ‘they think we have moved to the moon, that it’s all bamboo huts and jungle.’ In many ways this is just the sort of woody, chaotic scenario that people who don’t like Singapore’s sleek chrome lines would much rather come to. If you’re planning a trip out to see us, then (and not many can do the trip, granted, but just for the record), you might as well be warned right now that many things in our life are new and shiny, and a lot of them have a western tang because this is Singapore, a teenager of a country still playing with its brand new iPad. Much is very similar to our old life in terms of what we do at weekends, with a few climate- and culture-based exceptions. In fact we don’t always eat with chopsticks, we embrace Sentosa for the splashy fun park that it is, ignoring the fact that this is where Singapore fell to the Japanese in WWII. We joke that our deck is looking ‘old’, having been completed in early 2012, and we’re seemingly oblivious to the island-wide construction that never stops, not even on Sundays. We might get a month of smog or a mini drought but we continue to drink the water and spray it all over our gardens, filling up our swimming pools regardless.

Thanks to Dad’s visit I now know I have a long way to go in terms of catching up with those expat notes I was frantically scribbling last year. What happened to sticking a pin in the map once a week? I’ve passed one test but what about the others? I take my own Peranakan tours confident in the route with my bullet points refreshed in advance by a quick spin round the rooms, but I have to admit that I’m quietly still unsure as to what ‘Peranakan‘ really means. An expert once told me that our son is Peranakan because of his paternal/maternal lineage. I look at him sometimes and I think: if he’s Peranakan then I might as well be Bedouin. But like everything else that’s happening here, I must take it all at face value – and keep on looking up and out.

With Dad back home, the questions have stopped and life is quiet and, frankly, rather empty, and possibly not entirely right for us since he fits in so very well to our family unit. No matter, SmallMonkey reminded me in a rare pragmatic moment during the cab ride back from the dreaded airport drop that Grandpa must return to what he does and we must do the same, and that before long we will be back for our summer break doing jungle-treks on the Heath. He’s got a good point. For now I’ll carry on ‘trekking’ through napkin-sized corners of untouched land out here, following SM round the back of the condo as he pretends to be an explorer, and all the time I’ll try and take notes that might be of some value further down the line. And perhaps when we’re back in London this summer, standing in the deli queue to buy our Heath picnics, I might take a fresh look at my surroundings, remind myself who I am and where I’m from. It will probably be the M&S deli queue that I’m standing in, but at least it’ll be a start.