The other day, Amanda and I were on the 105 bus when a group of secondary school students hopped on.
Yes, Amanda, in all her Gucci and Prada glory, was on the bus, on account of the fact that she’d left her wallet at home, and I had all of five dollars to my name. “How do you even know which bus to take?” she’d asked earlier with great admiration as I lead her out of the Orchard MRT station to the connecting bus stop. “This is a whole other world for me! And you and Saffy do this every day?”
Eventually, she fell silent, somewhat overcome by the novelty of sitting on a real bus while I, lulled by the gentle motion of the bus, fell comfortably asleep.
One minute, there was the kind of complete silence on the bus that can only be achieved by a group of strangers doing their complete best to ignore each other. And the next, I jerked awake. It sounded like Madonna had dropped into your local wet market: screams and shouts, high-pitched nattering, and everyone practically squinting out of thick glasses.
“Oh, no,” Amanda murmured. “What’s going on? Why are there so many children? And why are they all shouting at each other?”
Midway to Toa Payoh, it occurred to both of us that there’s some law somewhere in Singapore which says that it’s illegal for five or more people, or some low number like that, to gather without a permit. I sometimes think that this particular piece of legislation should apply to school children, if for no other reason than to preserve the sanity of those of us who no longer are.
Like a physical wave of sound, the young teenagers swept down the bus, annoyingly secure in their youth and brazen in the safety of their number. To say the least, the conversation was riveting.
Apparently, one girl had just been in a fight with her brother who had called her a bitch. “And then, hor,” she said, her glasses fogging up with indignation, “wo gen ta jiang, ‘Ay, ni bu ke yi anyhow say one, ok?’ Just because ni bi wo da yi shui, cannot, right! You wait I tell our mah-dur!”
“Jialat, lah!” agreed her friend.
“I really hate boys, you know!”
“Maybe he is a gay?” her friend wondered with all the nonchalance of people talking about the weather.
At this point, I whipped out my notepad and began transcribing furiously. You just can’t make up this sort of thing.
“Ay, wo wen ni, hor, this weekend ni yao qu Mary de birthday party, ma?”
“I think is in Bishan.”
“Yao mai present, ma?”
Amanda, noticing that I was busy taking notes, tugged at my sleeve. “What language are they speaking?” she hissed.
“Seriously, Amanda, please don’t tell people that you know me.”
For days after, it was all she could talk about. “It was like I was in some foreign language movie but someone had forgotten to put in the subtitles!” she told our cleaning lady in Mandarin that was, thanks to many summers in language camp in Beijing as a child, pitch perfect. “What are they teaching these kids at school?”
“You need to get out more, Amanda,” Saffy advised severely.
“It’s a scandal!”
“Write to the prime minister,” Saffy said in bored tones, as she flipped her latest issue of Vogue. “He might bring it up at the next G7 Summit. Or whatever,” she added hurriedly, as Amanda opened her mouth to point out the obvious.
“But doesn’t anyone care?”
“Oh, what’s the big deal? Everyone understood each other, right?”
“But it’s not Mandarin!” Amanda’s voice rose several octaves.
Saffy sighed. “Look at this black top I’m wearing.” All eyes in the room swivelled to Saffy’s heaving bosom. “It looks like one of your Gucci tops, but it’s a cheap Shenzhen knock-off!”
Amanda’s eyes narrowed. “What’s your point?”
Saffy was astonished. “I don’t have a point. I just wanted you to look at my top. No one has commented on it so far.”
“How is this country going to record its history if the next generation can’t even articulate a complete sentence in grammatically correct Mandarin?”
“Don’t worry, Manda,” Saffy said soothingly. “It’ll all be on YouTube!”
I said I didn’t care as it was all giving me such good material to use for my column.
These days, every time Amanda comes across one of those “Huayu Cool” ads, she snorts loudly. “It’s a farce, I tell you!” she exclaimed loudly the other day, leading Saffy to tell her, “Listen, do me a favour. Don’t tell people we live together, OK?”