Sunday, November 30, 2008

My Singaporean Homecoming

Back in October, I took a trip back to Singapore for the first time in about 9 years.

As a kid, I traveled to Singapore with my family six or seven times. I can remember general impressions -- tossing around sweaty in my singlet trying to get to sleep; going to the zoo; swimming at the fancy club; my Kong Kong toasting me a slice of bread topped with cheese and sugar or running out to pick up oily chicken rice wrapped in a banana leaf; family members taking us out to fancy meals and giving me red packets; watching terrible Singaporean dramas; going to Sentosa; getting mosquito bites; munching on fried bananas; handing out gum to cousins I didn't know I had... all, in all, a great experience.

I love being half-Singaporean. It's always seemed way cooler than just being half-Chinese. Singapore's exotic, the land of beautiful stewardesses and orchids and canings. Whenever I hear someone with the quirky slightly British, totally distinctive, Singaporean accent with its liberally sprinkled "lah-s" and "aiyah-s" I feel a warming in my soul. But my love for all things Singapore is sort of an uninformed infatuation, rather than a deep passion bred by understanding. So though I thought my heritage was spiffy, I never really felt Singaporean (my aiyahs are forced and I hate durian).

So that's why I was a bit surprised when my recent trip made me feel like falling straight into the bosom of my motherland. Hanging out with my cousin Aidan and his friend Alex, walking around Singapore and eating at the hawker centers -- I felt at home, like I belonged. I was a little embarrassed because I didn't know the proper name for anything and I didn't ever know the protocol. But still, I felt like I could fit in here, like other people were like me somehow.

I was sitting at the kitchen table playing dominos with my aunties and uncle and Aidan and Alex. I had one leg hanging down, and one foot up on the chair, leg bent up against my chest. I sit that way without noticing, but my auntie noticed and told me that that was the way my great grandmother sat. Then one of my mum's childhood friends took me to her mum's house for lunch. Her mum remembered my mum from when she was a teenager. She kept calling me beautiful and telling me that I was a "simple girl" just like my mom.

The city is full of hapas -- half this and half that. In a way it's annoying because being a half-breed is just par for the course here, but it's also weirdly comforting. And then there was the food -- the chili laden, deeply flavored multiethnic food. I figured out why I love to add so much spice to everything I eat. It makes complete sense when you come from a food tradition with such exuberant smells and tastes. So many things to eat and drink that I associate with childhood and comfort -- pineapple tarts, ovaltine, chicken rice, satay, kuay boluh, char kway teow, paratha, chrysanthemum drink, milk tea, barley water, fishballs.

It's strange to think how differently we experience things as we grow up. When I was young, going to Singapore was like going to another planet. Yes, these were my relatives, but I barely knew them. But going back this time, I felt like in some indirect, but powerful way, this country helped define me. Even down to some of its more repressive elements. Perhaps that's why I never had a penchant for flouting authority (or maybe it was growing up in conservative Orange County?)

The casual dress, the obsessive academia, the love of food -- they all spoke to me; so when my cousin Aidan suggested that I move out for a year to take another Masters degree or teach English or do random anthropological research related to food, it sounded like an amazing idea. I've since revised my initial enthusiasm -- for someone who hasn't grown up there, the heat of Singapore simply saps all my life force -- but though it probably won't happen next year, I'm not ruling out the possibility of coming back.

The Singapore skyline as seen from the Flyer

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