Friday, May 28, 2010

Baby Talk

It’s taken me a long time to realize this, but it’s only clear to me now that the idea of children means different things to different people.

For me, children have always been kind of like a flowering shrub: Pretty to look at, but I don’t spend too much time lingering. It’s just another flowering shrub. Move on. Plenty of those around.

I just don’t get it when people hover over the pram of a complete stranger’s baby and coo, making mushy gushy noises like someone with a very bad cold.

I tried doing that once to a friend who came into the office with her new baby. Dutifully, I bent over the pram and went, “Awww, she’s so cute!”, to which the mother icily said, “It’s a boy!”

“How was I to know it was a boy?” I later complained to Sharyn who rolled her eyes.

“Aiyoh! How you not know? Nine months she tell us in the office is a boy and when she had her going away party, we all sign a card that said ‘Good luck, Son-shine!’ and you still doh-no! How like that?” she pleaded, her worried eyes huge behind her Coke-bottle thick spectacles.

But my bigger point is that as I bent over the child and cooed, I felt nothing except a mild case of disinterest. Like I said, another flowering shrub.

And then there are people like Amanda who go into hormonal spasms at the merest hint of a baby within 20 metres. She’ll stop and gaze at the child with such penetrating wistfulness that, eventually, the parent will get all uncomfortable and push the pram off hurriedly in the other direction.

My sister says that she could never bring a child into a world as whacked out as this one is. “This is not a safe world,” she said the other day when I told her I was going to write about children for my next column. “You’d have to be criminally negligent to have children in a world that thinks it’s ok to blow up cars and eat whales.”

“So you don’t want kids. Interesting,” I said, as I scribbled into my notebook.

“No, I didn’t say I didn’t want kids,” Michelle said. “I want kids so badly, I sometimes think I could just die from the sheer unhappiness of it all. But I think I’d be so worried for its future, I’d be one of those anal-retentive mothers who has a nervous breakdown when her child fails her Chinese exam!”

“Interesting!” I repeated, scribbling harder.

My mother on the other hand firmly believes that her children were put on this earth to look after her and our father when they get old. “Why else would you have children?” she would tell her table of mahjong-kakis who, as one, would nod solemnly.

“Do you think,” she once asked in a voice that could penetrate steel, “that I endured three years of morning sickness, got all out of shape, and had three epidurals on top of a total of 28 hours of eye-popping labour pain just for fun?”

I remember my father leaning over the dining table and whispering to me, “Do not answer that question! Don’t even look her in the eye!”

Meanwhile, Saffy, never one for toning down her drama-meter, once had to sit down and blow into a paper bag when she made the mistake of walking through the Forum. “All these baby clothes!” she wailed as she puffed hysterically.

By the time she pulled herself together, an interested crowd of Sunday shoppers had gathered around her.

“Ay, what’s wrong, hah?” someone asked.

“Doh-no, I think she lost her baby!”

“Aiyoh, really ah? Where’s my Sharon, ah? Girl? Where are you!”

Later, as she recovered her composure at Starbucks, Saffy said that being in such proximity to all those baby clothes made her realize that her biological clock was ticking very loudly.

“It’s deafening! Can you hear it?” she asked Amanda who actually stopped sipping her latte and listened.

“I think I’m hearing my own clock,” Amanda concluded sadly. She looked down at her bag of children’s outfits that she’d bought while Saffy was having her breakdown in front of Mommy’s Lil’ Sweetheart. “Did I really just buy all these kids’ clothes? I don’t have kids! Is that sad? I don’t even have a boyfriend! What’s wrong with me?”

“I don’t think that’s sad at all,” Saffy said stoutly. “What’s sad is that I actually think just being inside Forum has made me lactate! My bra feels wet! Here, feel this! No seriously, Jason, feel it! Hey, where are you going?”

Friday, May 21, 2010

Mother Dearest

My sister has never had an easy relationship with our mother. Father likes to say that Michelle was born literally screaming at Mother. “And she’s not stopped screaming since,” he said recently with the doting, indulgent smile of a father who’s never fallen out of love with that wrinkled bundle of squawking, pooping mess he first cradled in his arms.

When she was 15, Michelle got into a great row with Mother over a pair of diamond ear-rings.

“Why can’t I wear them to Dionne’s birthday party?” she yelled.

“Because unless you’re the Queen of England, you do not wear Van Cleef and Arpel ten-carat flawless diamonds to a fifteen-year old’s birthday party!” Mother said in that maddeningly serene way of her’s.

Upstairs in our bedroom, my brother Jack turned to me and said seriously, “You know, I stopped understanding that sentence after ‘England’!”

“You’re so mean!” Michelle’s scream reverberated through the house. “I’m moving out as soon as I’m 18!”

“Be my guest,” Mother said calmly. “I’m sure these diamonds would look much better on your brothers’ wives anyway!”

Michelle, who’s always had the instincts of a barracuda, promptly shut up. She dropped the subject and showed up at Dionne’s birthday party in a pretty pink Target frock paired with cheap costume jewellery. But for years, she always brought up the Diamond Incident as an example of Mother’s uncaring feelings for her.

“Oh my God, is she still going on about those stupid Rip Van Winkle diamonds?” Jack cried the other day all the way from Rio where’s he hiding from another of Mother’s mad match-making schemes.

“Van Cleef and Arpel,” I said automatically. “And I’ve always wondered if Mother still has them or if she’s given them to the Mother Teresa’s nuns like she was always threatening to do.”

“It would just be so typical of her if she has,” Michelle said when I spoke to her. “I always believed she would have been much happier if she’d had three sons!”

And there it was. The unspoken fear that haunts us all at some stage of our relationship with our parents – that suspicion that we were, in fact, not wanted. For how else did you explain the careless words, the unthinking glances of disapproval and quick silences between half meant words?

More than Jack or I ever did, Michelle has struggled the most in her ongoing love-hate relationship with Mother. If it wasn’t Mother’s critique about Michelle’s hair (“Darling, do you really think purple is an appropriate colour for hair?”), it was about her sense of dress (“Darling, why are you always wearing black?”); make-up (“Darling, less is more!”); boyfriends (“Those are a lot of tattoos, dear!”); and grades (“How do you fail in Chinese? It’s your mother tongue!”).

Of course, looking back on it now, you can see so clearly where Mother was coming from but I suppose when you’re dealing with a rebellious 18, you just can’t win as a parent. You just learn to tread a little more carefully which, in turn, is interpreted as uncaring. But there’s very little you can do about the accumulating pile of little wounds which never really heal.

I remember Mother once wondering which of her three children she’d come to stay with when she got old.

“Why would you want to stay with us?” Michelle immediately asked.

“Well, you can’t expect me to stay in an old folks home!”

“What are we, life insurance policies?” Michelle murmured to me later.

“Yes, if you want her to leave you those diamonds,” I said, wise beyond my nineteen years.

Of course, one of the things about growing up is that you slowly, and belatedly, come to realise that things are never quite as black and white as they once were when you were a child shouting for your mother’s attention; that the wall we build up to keep from getting hurt might also be what’s keeping us from being loved.

“Was I a handful when I was a kid?” Michelle suddenly asked the other day on Skype.

“Define ‘handful’.”

There was a hesitation. Then: “Was I really mean to Mother?” A pause. “I think I was. I’ve been thinking a lot about how I behaved as a child.”

And just like that, a piece of brick in that high wall came loose. It couldn’t have been an easy admission to make. After a lifetime of fighting, what would Michelle’s busy heart now do with itself? Which is not to say that she’s ready to let go of a lifetime of hurt, tears and anger. There’s still the issue of the diamonds.

But it’s a good start.

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Happily Never After

One of the rituals of growing up is the bedtime fairy tale. Cinderella, Snow White, Jack and the Beanstalk, the Princess and the Pea, Hansel and Gretel…All miniature stories where the hero, after battling a bunch of evil stepmothers, giants and nasty witches, triumphs and heads off into the sunset.

My sister Michelle especially loved the fairy tales where the princess marries the prince and lives happily ever after. “One day,” she told me very seriously when she was eight, “one day, I’m going to marry Prince Charming! And then he’s going to lock Mummy up in a dark prison!”

To which our mother, who’s always had the sensitive hearing of a bat, shouted from the kitchen, “Not if I get to him first!” Not surprisingly, Michelle would grow up blaming Mother for all her social inadequacies. “If I die a lonely spinster, it will be all her fault!”

But the one thing fairy tales never really tell you is just what exactly happens after the “happily ever after” bit. Did Snow White get bored of her sex life with the Prince and have an affair with one of the dwarves? (This would be the cue for my mother to tell you about the live sex floor show she once saw in Amsterdam featuring a transvestite Snow White and seven real life dwarves.) Did Sleeping Beauty turn out to be a nagging shrew and divorce her good for nothing Prince?

For some reason, all these questions raced around my head as I listened to our friend Lynette sob on our couch. Her husband Tim, it seemed, was having an affair with his secretary.

What made the revelation all the more shocking was we’d always thought Lynette and Tim were the golden couple. They were the ones we all aspired to be one day. They were high-school sweethearts. Married when they were 24. Three children by the time they were 28. He, a devastatingly handsome and successful lawyer. She, a gorgeous high flying banker.

“I want to have children with that man,” Saffy drunkenly told everyone at her table at Tim’s wedding. “Heck, pour me another gin and tonic, and I’d have children with that woman, too!”

“They’re going to have such beautiful children,” Amanda predicted without a single note of jealousy in her voice.

Which is why news of Tim’s affair struck not just Lynette, but it wounded my flatmates. For here was absolute proof that landing the man of your dreams was no guarantee that the happily ever after glow was going to last forever.

For days, it was all the girls could talk about. What Saffy couldn’t understand was why Tim would cheat in the first place.

“Doesn’t he know how horrible the dating scene is?” she asked. “What are the odds of finding someone who likes you back?”

“Six trillion to one!” said Amanda, who’s actually done the maths.

“It’s the jackpot!” Saffy sang like some gospel choir. “And he wants to give all that up? For what?”

“It just goes to show that you never can tell,” Amanda said.

“Men are stupid!” Saffy decided.

Of course, what worried the girls more was the fact that if two such perfectly matched people as Lynette and Tim couldn’t make it work, what hope was there for singletons like them? And more importantly, what was the point of all the dates they’d been subjecting themselves to, if the end result was an unhappy marriage?

“I’d be better off speaking French!” Saffy declared.

“Learning French, you mean,” Amanda said. She was rewarded with a Look.

“My point,” Saffy said with stiff dignity, “is that we might as well all just stop dating. It’s pointless. I don’t want to torture myself every Friday night, primping, waxing, exfoliating, getting dressed and going on a date only to have it all end up in a divorce court!”

“Oh, they’re not getting divorced,” I piped up. “They’re getting marriage counseling. Tim told me at lunch.”

Both heads swiveled around in my direction. “You’re having lunch with that cheating prick?” Saffy asked, her bosom heaving.

“Hey, there are two sides to this, you know,” I said stoutly.

“That’s such a cop-out! You don’t go have an affair just because you have marriage problems!” Amanda said.

“That’s so typical of you men, always sticking together even when you’re clearly in the wrong,” Saffy sniffed.

The latest is that Lynette is making Tim get a blood test to check for any nasty sexually transmitted diseases, but Amanda says he should also be taking an IQ test. Meanwhile, Saffy has signed up for French lessons. “Je suis not taking any chances,” she told the bewildered woman at Alliance Francaise.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Vege Might

A few months ago at dinner, Saffy looked up from her bowl of spaghetti and meatballs and announced that she was going to become a vegetarian.

Her statement was greeted with the kind of scepticism that must have greeted Jesus when he said he was going out for a stroll on the sea.

“Why?” I asked.

“You wouldn’t last a week,” Amanda predicted.

“I love how supportive you are!” Saffy said stiffly.

“No, really, why?” I asked.

Saffy’s bosom shifted slowly as she thought. “Well, I read somewhere that eating beef is really bad for the environment. Apparently they fart a lot and all that gas is choking us to death!”

Amanda later said that if Saffy had been involved with Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth”, that movie would have sunk under the weight of her sloppy research.

“Not eating beef isn’t going to save the planet!” she sniffed with all the disdain that a Harvard law degree can generate. To which Saffy replied that if Amanda had to kill a cow to get her hamburger, she’d be a vegetarian too.

“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard!” Amanda exclaimed. “What about vegetables?”

Saffy blinked. “What about them?”

“Well, you’re killing a carrot when you uproot it! Does that mean you can’t eat vegetables too?”

Saffy’s bosom inflated. “Vegetables don’t have feelings!”

Amanda snorted. “Just because they don’t moo or cluck or bleat doesn’t mean vegetables don’t feel things. It’s probably more traumatic to rip an onion from the ground than it is to put a bullet between a cow’s eyes!”

As I later said to Karl, if that horrific image didn’t make me want to become a vegetarian myself, I didn’t know what would.

As it was, Saffy said she didn’t care what anyone thought. She was going to give vegetarianism a go. And so, the next night, she struggled home from Cold Storage with bags of broccoli, spinach, tofu and tins of beans.

“Beans?” Amanda whispered to me. “She’ll be farting the whole night!”

I looked at all the food spread out over the kitchen counter. “Are you sure you know what you’re doing, Saf?” I asked. “Going cold turkey, pardon the expression, may not be the wisest thing to do, you know.”

“I’m doing this for the cows,” Saffy said.

“But it doesn’t make sense! Whether you eat them or not, they’re still going to be around and farting into the atmosphere.”

“Only if we keep breeding them for food! If we stop eating them, then they’ll all die off naturally and we’ll have a cow-free world!”

“So, you’d rather they went extinct?”

Saffy shrugged. “Better them than me!”

For days, her strange but oddly compelling logic haunted me and for a brief moment, I too flirted with the idea of making a vegan-burger a lifestyle choice. But by then, Saffy had turned into a raving lunatic.

Her body, so used to its daily infusion of char-siew, beef rendang, chicken tikka and sop kambing, and now so suddenly deprived, began turning on her. She trembled and became grumpier by the day and her eyes took on a glazed sheen whenever the perfume of fried chicken wings from our neighbour Lydia Kumarasamy’s kitchen wafted in through our window. She even began looking at the food bowl of Pooch, my beloved adopted mongrel dog, in a way that made him so nervous that he would gulp down his dinner of minced beef and rice with both eyes cocked in her direction.

“You’re giving that dog indigestion!” Amanda said one day.

“I think I’m hallucinating,” Saffy murmured. “Pooch keeps transforming into a hot dog!”

Which got us all so concerned that I took Pooch with me everywhere, even into the toilet. “I’m not letting him out of my sight!” I reported to Karl.

And of course, Amanda and I began eating our meals in hawker centres. We didn’t know what would happen if we ever unwrapped a packet of chicken rice in front of Saffy.

The breaking point occurred when Saffy was aimlessly flipping TV channels and suddenly, Nigella Lawson came on. “Now, I love spring!” Nigella chirruped in her provocatively posh English accent. “And for me, nothing says spring more than a juicy roast leg of lamb!”

Hypnotised, Saffy watched Nigella stuff the leg with garlic and herbs and by the time it emerged from the oven, brown and sizzling, she was dialing McDonalds.

“I told you it wouldn’t last,” Amanda said smugly. But I’m not taking any chances.

My bedroom door is still locked while Pooch is tucked in with me in bed.