Wednesday, October 26, 2011

It's Complicated

Here’s a question that haunts me each morning, from the moment I wake up till the second I slip off to sleep in the evening: since when did life become so complicated? Why is nothing simple anymore? Nothing.
The other day, I had to buy a new handphone and it took hours to decide which brand I wanted. And did I want a touch screen? Clam hinge? Pull down pad? “Samsung hor, the SMS very different from Nokia,” Melvyn, the bored sales assistant told me as I struggled to understand the idea of push mail.
In a state of mild panic, I tried to imagine if I would ever need an app that told me which direction north was. “This app very good for real estate agent,” Melvyn told me, even as he checked his email with one hand and scrolled around the test phone he was showing me with the other.
“Don’t you have a phone that only makes calls, and receives calls? I don’t want any of this other stuff!” I was aware of the rising whining tone in my voice. “And why is the font so small on the screen? I can’t see what I’m typing!”
I walked out of the Starhub shop completely defeated and headed for the nearest coffee shop where I was presented with a menu that had 15 kinds of coffee.
On TV, whenever people ask for coffee in a café, they get coffee. They never say, “I’ll have the organic Colombian single estate, please, with organic soy.”
“Don’t you just have plain old coffee?” I asked.
“What kind you want? Latte, macchiato, flat white, long black, skinny?” said the bored barista behind the counter. I was sure he was called Melvyn too.
And have you tried buying toothpaste recently? My God, it’s like advanced algebra. Never mind the twenty odd brands out there. You now have toothpaste with whitening agents. Or without. Toothpaste with sea algae. Some have organic mint and fennel. Some have fluoride. Other’s don’t. Which makes me wonder why they don’t, because on the box they say “NO Fluoride” in the kind of bold font that leads you to conclude that fluoride must be bad for you. Then they have toothpaste with at least five different kinds of mint, and some come out of the tube in two strips of white and blue.
“Don’t you just have ordinary toothpaste?” I asked Candy, the sales assistant, who just stared at me blankly.
“Do you speak English?” I asked. Candy’s eyes shifted sideways. Clearly, she wasn’t used to being asked questions by customers.
I ended up buying the one with mint and fennel and that evening, Saffy complained that she didn’t want to feel like she was eating a salad when she was brushing. “Why fennel?” she asked through a mouth full of white foam.
“You look like you have rabies, Saffy,” Amanda said as she struggled to programme our TV recorder. “Seriously, why is this stupid machine telling me I can’t record?”
Even banking is complicated. At last count, I have about eight bank accounts, some with the same bank, and a few with others. To access each, I need a separate PIN and user id, because I read somewhere that if you have the same PIN for all your accounts, if you lose a card, you have to change it all.
At the end of each month, I have a minor nervous breakdown when all the statements arrive and I have to work out which bank account to pay each one from.
“Aiyoh, why you don’t GIRO from same account?” Sharyn asked.
“Because I don’t always have enough in one account, so I have to shift between accounts!”
Sharyn stared at me, goggle-eyed, from behind her super thick refractive lense spectacles. “Ay,” she said finally, “you money laundering, is it?”
And can we talk about underwear? Have you bought underwear lately? Y-fronts, briefs, boxers, jock-straps, thongs. Waist bands that come in elastic, string, nylon. Some have buttons. Some are just open-front. Organic cotton. Breathable cotton. Silk. Silk blend. Cotton blend.
What I want to know is when did life become so complicated, with so many decisions to be made about the most mundane of things? Is it too much to ask for a cup of coffee, a slice of cake and a tube of toothpaste without having to draw up a Powerpoint presentation about each one?
Saffy says I should try buying women’s underwear. “You would just die!” she said.
The saving grace about just dying is that then I won’t have to worry about what kind of coffin I want. 

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Cook Off

As children, we were never encouraged to cook, much less step into the kitchen. Sure, we knew where the kitchen was, but we knew this in the vague way that you know which direction north is, but you never really want to bet your life on it.
            I remember once we were lured into the kitchen by the noise and wonderful smells. We stepped in to find the whole place bustling with activity. Pots clanged and fires blazed. At the big marble bench top, the cook was busy rolling out a thin sheet of dough that she then cut out into neat circles and filled with a teaspoon of filling from a pot of minced pork perfumed with shaoxin wine.
            When the cook caught us loitering at the door, she shooed us away. “You’re bothering me! Get out, otherwise I’m telling your mother!”
            Later at lunch, as we wolfed down the steaming baskets of pork dumplings, I remember wondering by what strange alchemy that unappetizing sheet of dough and pink meat had miraculously turned into this wondrous parcel of soft textures and flavours.
One of my mother’s favourite dinner table stories is about how she literally did not know how to boil water till the day after she got married. “I walked into the kitchen in the morning, turned on the tap and then I just stood there because I didn’t know what I was supposed to do next! Can you imagine that?” she still asks to this day before bursting into peals of laughter.
            “I’m surprised she even knew how to turn on the tap!” my brother Jack once whispered to me, which earned him a rap over the head by Mother who has the aural ability of a bat.
            Which more or less describes a ridiculously privileged life in a nutshell. And it also explains why, over the years, Mother’s attempts to cook invariably ended with Father packing us all up in the car and taking us out to lunch at the Goodwood Park hotel.
            You know how this story ends, I think.
            One day, we all grew up and moved out of home. I ended up in Australia where I woke up one morning and realized that I didn’t know how to cook. I couldn’t bear the thought of McDonalds. A lifetime of good home cooked meals had instilled in me a horror for fast food. But I also knew that I couldn’t subsist on a diet of Maggi mee, or a ham and cheese sandwich even if it was made with Provolone and honey-baked ham.
            And that’s how I learnt to cook. I bought a Delia Smith cookbook, turned to page one and started from there. I learned how to boil an egg. Next, an omelette, then scrambled eggs. My first soufflé was a culinary triumph greater than the invention of the bread machine.
            When I’d exhausted Delia, I started on Jamie Oliver. Then the Joy of Cooking. I’m currently working my way through Julia Child.
I became more confident. I peeled, chopped, sliced, and diced and then I stirred, opened and shut oven doors, lifted lids and tasted. Many times, I threw out entire pots of food and, once, an entire cake that didn’t rise because I’d forgotten to add baking powder.
            But to my surprise, I loved cooking. Still do. I love the magic that comes from taking different raw ingredients and turning them into something hot and fragrant. At the end of a long day staring at the computer screen, nothing spells comfort and relief more than the idea of a pleasurable hour or so in front of the stove, letting the simple act of slowing stirring the pot release the stress of the day at the same time as the sweet smell of sautéed onions fills the apartment.
Sometimes, Saffy and Amanda come home after a long day at the office, grumpy, surly and not in a social mood at all. And then, I bring out to the table a steaming Le Creuset pot of beouf Bourgignon with buttered pasta on the table. Like a switch, the frowns turn into dreamy sighs.
“Oh God, this is just what my hips don’t need, but I don’t care,” Saffy said the other night as she scooped up a huge serving of rice pudding with gula melaka.
My sister, who was visiting, looked up from her heaped bowl and sighed with pleasure. “If Mother could see you now…”
“She’d probably not recognize me,” I said.
“She’d recognize this though,” Michelle said as she added an extra lashing of gula Melaka. “She always recognizes good home cooked food.”

Monday, October 17, 2011

Foreign Affairs

I was at a dinner party a few evenings ago and sat next to a lovely Danish woman who said she’d just arrived in Singapore from Denmark, but was having problems settling into Singapore, especially in interacting with the locals. It was an understandable commentary: It’s never easy moving to a new country, having to adjust to new people with their different customs, habits and way of life.
Suddenly, from the other side of the table, someone piped up, “I’m sure this isn’t what you do, but we Singaporeans are generally very clean and green. I see a lot of foreigners who litter all over the place. Maybe that’s what they do in their own country, but we frown on that sort of thing here in Singapore. Once people understand this, it will be much easier to blend in!”
The entire table gasped.
First of all, the bald intimation that Singaporeans do not litter was breathtaking in its naïveté. Secondly, the Danish lady, now looking completely ambushed, had not even said anything about littering. But what was more worrying about the non sequitur was the underlying insularity and perverse logic. The equation worked like this: foreigners litter; Singaporeans don’t; and this is why foreigners often do not fit into Singapore.
Was this how Singaporeans really think, I wondered: That foreigners are a littering lot?
One of the things that visitors to Singapore always comment is how clean everything is. My friend Su-fei once coolly replied, “It’s clean only because we employ an army of cleaners to clean up after us. And, anyway, Orchard Road is not a good yardstick. You want to see the real Singapore? Go out into the suburbs.”
But surely, when it comes to welcoming foreigners, the issue cannot be one of cleanliness or even some simplistic expression of civic pride? After all, I’ve watched young adults toss empty cigarette packets into the gutter as they stroll along the streets; residents flipping through their mail at the letter box and dropping unwanted catalogues and flyers onto the floor before blithely walking away; and even parents huddled in a corner of the corridor of an MRT station urging their child to urinate onto the floor. Our longkangs are festooned with litter, the sidewalks with cigarette butts and drink containers, while our stairwells are dumping grounds for old newspapers, rusted bicycles and empty cardboard boxes for TVs and computers.
No, the issue here isn’t about race. Nor has it anything to do with littering (though there’s certainly a lot of that going around) and if it does, it’s not a problem that’s caused exclusively by foreigners.
Rather, the issue is one of humanity and common decency; of knowing how to treat each other, fellow citizens and foreigners alike. I have seen grown (Singaporean) adults frantically press the close-door button when someone is dashing for the lift. People have turned away and ignored me when I’ve asked for directions. I’ve seen customers who snatch up their receipt and shopping bags without acknowledging the cashier with either a smile or a word of thanks. Or perfectly able-bodied children and adults who blithely remain seated on trains while an old man sways uncertainly on his feet, right in front of them.
I once passed through an HDB block and came upon two boys aged around 12 (again, if you really insist on playing the race card, one was Chinese, and the other Indian). They were calmly lighting matches and throwing the flaming sticks at a stray cat. Angrily, I yelled at them to stop. One of the kids looked at me, a little bemused and a little embarrassed, and pointed at the other kid, “It wasn’t me, it was him!”, before both slunk off. I had no doubt that, within the hour, they’d be torturing another stray.
So my question is this: Is this the mentality that foreigners are supposed to emulate in order to fit into our society? Blaming the foibles of other races, and taking no responsibility for how we welcome newcomers to Singapore – is this the Singaporean way?
Of course not. It simply cannot be. And as if it needed saying, none of these examples is even, to pinch the old STB slogan, uniquely Singapore. The majority don’t behave like this. Rudeness, insensitivity, belligerence, littering – these things happen everywhere, all around the world; especially in foreign countries. But the point is that it’s often so easy to assume a superior stand, point fingers and virtuously assign blame.
So, how do we help foreigners (itself a vicious, loaded, xenophobic term) fit into Singapore? Well, we begin by picking up our own rubbish. 

Saturday, October 15, 2011

Mummy Dearest

A few days ago, my sister emailed me a black and white picture. Her message read: “I was just going through some old photo albums and found this. Isn’t it just extraordinary? Who would have thunk?”
            I stared at the picture on the screen and frowned. A pretty young woman in tight capri pants, floral blouse, sunglasses and a thick wave of hair leaned up against a white Vespa. She wore a sly, enigmatic smile that said she knew something and it was simply delicious and that she couldn’t wait to tell you about it as soon as she was done with this shot. It was a classic 1960s pose – slightly provocative and yet incredibly innocent.
Funnily enough, the woman in the picture looked incredibly familiar, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it.
And then it dawned on me. It was my mother.
When my flatmates came home, I showed them the picture.
That’s your mother?” Amanda said, eyes wide open. “My God, she looks like a movie star, she’s so sexy!”
“Gosh, those cheekbones! What happened to you?” Saffy asked. It bothered me to realise that she was actually asking a serious question.
“I guess now that you tell me, I can so totally see that it’s your mother,” Amanda went on. “I just can’t get over the fact that she was so beautiful. Not that she isn’t now, but you know what I mean.”
My sister Michelle later said that it’s so odd to think of one’s mother in that way. “Or any way,” she added after thinking about it a bit more.
And that’s the thing. It never occurs to you that long before you were born, your mother actually had a life that didn’t involve you. She had her own plans in life, her own dreams and her own things to do. She was young and the future lay ahead of her. She just needed to nudge her Vespa in whichever direction she chose.
And we can be certain that none of her plans involved nagging three reluctant children about the importance of straight A’s and why 9pm was a perfectly reasonable time to leave your friend’s party.
“You need to study!” she would say. “There’s plenty of time later in your life for parties!”
What does she know about a good time, we thought sourly. By then, the young woman that she once was in that picture, standing so happily next to her Vespa, was long gone. Who knew where she’d gone?
I emailed the picture to Mother who immediately called me.
“That dratted Michelle,” she said by way of maternal greeting. “Where on earth did she dig up that old dinosaur of a picture?”
I said it was a lovely photo.
“Well, I know it’s a lovely photo, I’m just saying it’s a bit of a shock to see yourself looking so, well, unlined!”
There was a silence and I could hear Mother’s soft breathing. Then a quick rush of air.
“My God, I was 19 in that photo. Such a long time ago.” Another pause. I could almost sense the years unrolling. “It was Christmas and the Vespa was a present from my father. I’d just seen ‘Roman Holiday’ and pestered your gong-gong for my own Vespa. Your por-por was horrified. She said well brought up young ladies did not ride on motorbikes. I said it was for me to commute to college and she said, ‘But that’s what the driver is for! The next thing you’re going to tell me is that you want to be a doctor!’”
I was surprised. “Did you want to be a doctor?”
“Oh, yes, I did!” Her voice rang like a crystal chime down the phone line. “I wanted to be Dr Kildare. Do you know who he was? A TV doctor. Richard Chamberlain played him. So beautiful. Such a shame he turned out to be gay. Anyway, young ladies didn’t become doctors back in my day. You only ever had three career options – nurse, teacher or housewife. I didn’t like blood, and chalk dust made me itch. So, I married your father. And that was that. But I still got to ride my Vespa!”
“Mother wanted to be a doctor?” Michelle said. “Really? How odd that we never knew that.”
I said that there was probably a lot that we don’t know about our mother.
“Huh,” Michelle said. “I wonder if that’s why she always wanted me to study medicine. I wish she’d told me. Maybe I might have listened.”
Still, looking at the picture of Mother from all those years ago, it occured to me that it’s still not too late to start listening. It never is.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Sleep Mode

Maybe it’s a sign that I’m getting older but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to sleep.
            When I was 15, I could fall asleep sitting up in class while my brother Jack had a freakish ability to sleep with his eyes wide open.
            “Oh my God, I wish I could do that!” my sister once said with an equal mix of admiration and resentment when Jack slept right through one of our mother’s dull lectures about the importance of straight As, all while managing to look remarkably alert.
            “His eyes never moved from mum’s face!” Michelle told her best friend, Betty Chan who said that her brother once slept through an earthquake.
            “Seriously, what is it with boys?” Michelle asked crossly, completely unaware that many years later, she’d still be asking the same question.
            Anyway, my point is, back in the day, it was easy to sleep.
            These days, I’m like Sleeping Beauty with OCD. The room temperature has to be just right. If it’s too cold, I toss. Too warm, I turn. The bed sheets have to be folded back just so. It helps if I’ve had a nice hot cup of chamomile tea just before getting into bed. I can’t have any noise. Which means I usually can’t sleep until my flatmates have turned in, otherwise the sound of their gossiping in the kitchen will keep me awake.
            And when I finally fall asleep, I am plagued by dreams. A rotating cast of people from my past will show up. I’ll be in taxis that are lost. I make my way through Takashimaya but the layout has changed, so I spend a lot of time wandering the aisles. I suddenly realize that I have an exam in half an hour for which I’ve not studied. Sometimes, I’m sitting on the loo in a public place and there are a lot of people I know around me and I’m trying desperately to be discrete. In other dreams, I’m wandering around wearing just a tee-shirt and no pants or underwear.
            Of course, I wake up exhausted.
            “Maybe you’re sleeping too much?” Saffy said the other day on Skype during her lunch hour.
            “Eight hours isn’t too much, is it?” I asked.
            “Maybe you only need six? They say the older you get…” I disconnected Skype.
            “Try drinking some sherry before bed,” my mother suggested.
            “She must have mistaken me for her!” I told my sister.
            Amanda finally suggested that I might be having some psychic problems and dragged me to her regular psychic, a chubby good-natured Filipina called Mel.
            Mel shuffled her tarot cards, laid them all out in a row and solemnly announced that my grandmother was trying to get in touch with me. I said this was physically impossible as both my grandmothers are dead. Then I remembered where I was and who I was talking to and said, “Oh.”
            Then I added, “Oh, God, no!”
            “It’s your father’s mother. She’s trying to send you a message!” Mel said in the same tone that your office receptionist might use when you ask if anyone called while you were out at lunch.
            “What does she want?”
            “It’s not clear,” Mel said firmly. “But you have to be more receptive to her messages. You’re blocking her, that’s why you can’t sleep!”
            “God, what does she expect?” Saffy later said. “If my dead grandmother was trying to get in touch with me, I’d be blocking her too!”
            “Maybe she’s trying to tell you where the rest of her fortune is hidden?” said Amanda, Professional Gold Digger.
            “Did Mel say how you’re meant to be more receptive?” Saffy asked.
            “Well, apparently, now that I know the cause of my sleep issues, every night before I sleep, I’m meant to ask her what she needs to tell me.”
            My mother thinks the whole thing is just so typical of her dead mother-in-law, whom she never got on with. “She was such an attention seeker when she was alive. Why am I not surprised that even when she’s dead, she’s still trying to hog the limelight! If you ever get to speak to her, tell her I said so!”
            Leave it to Sharyn to put things in perspective. “Aiyoh, you, ah! Where got such thing, one! You think dead people have nothing better to do, is it? I see the way you eat dinner – big steak, big plate of rice, big cake, of course you can’t sleep, what! You got indigestion, lah!”
            Still, I’m not taking any chances. Tonight, I’m sleeping with a rosary. And just in case, I’ve also taken three antacid tablets.