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.

13 thoughts on “Where am I?

  1. Brilliant article. After just a year we felt so changed by the whole experience that we just felt unable to return to our old town/lives. It does change you in a way that is hard to explain to those who have not experienced it.

    • I think repatriation is a lot harder than we anticipate. I’m amazed by how much I’d totally started taking for granted. I’m loving tracking the results of your return, though, Mrs S 🙂

  2. Fabulous, really enjoyed reading it. I have similar questions when I visit Asia and the Middle East etc – but yours is all on a bigger scale (cos you actually live there..). Obviously.

  3. Beautifully written Mo. You made me shed a lite year this morning (soft northerner I am!) Moments are very precious and they race by too fast x
    I am planning a quick trip to see clients soon so will give you a tinkle, hopefully we won’t cross over in the sky x

    • Jules you softie. Precious indeed. Please do give me a tinkle – any idea when? Will share a pint this time x

  4. Beautiful Moo, really touching and lovely to feel like I’m there with you. I bet Richard had a totally wonderful time. Amazing. Xxxx

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