[Story] The Writer

Author’s Note: This short story was submitted as the final paper for a class last semester.

The protagonist of this story is the act of writing itself. I am fascinated by the idea of the separation of the writer and the person into two selves, of the tension existing within the diasporic writer. Set in the present day, this short story is about an assimilated, Westernized writer returning to a distinctly Asian world that she had rejected as part of her writing identity. The narrator’s inability to write without artifice in a literary tradition she couldn’t reconcile with her own experience as an immigrant is a rethinking of the myth of belonging in a postcolonial world. 

While this short story is a synthesis of the ideas that jumped out at me throughout my course (ENG 90CNC) with Professor Homi Bhabha, it responds to the concerns of a few texts in particular: the themes of writing in V. S. Naipaul’s The Enigma of Arrival and memory in J. M. Coetzee’s The Childhood of Jesus.

I’ve been thinking about these themes as I struggle to create and simultaneously grapple with (rephrasing from The Idiot‘s dust jacket) “the growing consciousness that I am doomed to become a writer” (maybe not doomed haha, not exactly).

Exit the gleaming train station through its marbled walkway, turn left around the towering office building with the glassy exterior, yes, spot the beige-colored mall seven stories high, cut through the swaths of people and brands to the back entrance and emerge on the other side, do you see it? A row of two-story shophouses, Chinese-Baroque style, with the ground floor sitting back from the narrow tarmac road you’re on, and overhanging verandas supported by a brace of columns. The footway with its glazed ceramic tiles is five feet wide. Once you pass the hardware shop, the porridge joint, the old men with hooded eyes lazily smoking and grumpy aunties gossiping in threes, stop before an iron-grilled door.

In the years after, I traced that route. In my mind, the iron grilles weren’t locked and the doors would be flung wide open. There would be a stooped figure sipping tea behind the counter, with stacks of drawers rising up behind her like library shelves, like dusty archives. She would hear the sound of my soles on the creaky wooden floor and look up through a veil of steam. She would say, eyes crinkling, Ah-girl, you’re back.

When I actually made that trip, after an even longer one before that from New York to Frankfurt to this tiny island, the door was unforgivingly closed. I stood there.

There was a spurt of pain from something digging into the soft moistness of my palms.

Someone piped up from the porridge joint in a raspy voice, Miss, that shop has been closed for months. Swee Mui’s in the hospital.

I never wanted to come back. If I did, I never wanted to return in this way. Many things had led me to this moment, this standstill between a woman and a door, a past she rejected but now faced her. The international long-distance phone call, the ceremony, the urn, the papers, the key. The key was now clenched tightly in my fist.

It slid easily into the keyhole, I turned it, and the grille swung open.

There were some mutterings behind me as I stepped into the shop parlor and closed the door. Who is she? Swee Mui’s syunneui? Then the room drifted for a moment on the receding tide of sound before sinking into silence.

***

I had been writing in New York for ten years. Before that, I studied Creative Writing in a small liberal arts college in Clinton for another four. In those fourteen years, I had stayed resolutely in the Americas. There were occasional getaways with one or two college friends to Puerto Rico or Cancun or Guatemala, but that dwindled into nothing as they built their lives—a banking job, a partner, a family—while I stayed in my apartment, writing, still trying to become a writer.

The journey that seeded all the others was the very first one I made to America. It was to be my first pilgrimage to New York City, the first trip that would take me out of Asia, and the beginning of a true writer’s career. I had just turned eighteen and had received a full scholarship to study writing at an American college. My parents had protested, but Popo was the one I grew up with and the matriarch of our family. She gave her stamp of approval and that was it.

In the cool, shaded corners of the shophouse, I had grown up reading James and Salinger and then Wharton and Fitzgerald. My idea of a writer was stuck resolutely in a faraway universe—an obsolete picture, I knew—but endlessly alluring: a woman wrapped in a blanket, typing away on a rusty typewriter or scribbling on a thick notepad, a glass of wine beside her, or even better, a fireplace while the world snowed outside. It didn’t matter who she was. With just a pen or a typewriter, the woman could evoke the sheer extravagance of the glittering parties and the vain hollowness of the lives of the privileged to a wide-eyed, scrawny girl in Asia. The woman could step into the skin of characters with last names like Abbot and Chadwick, know them inside-out, and live a thousand exciting lives. Under a whirling rickety fan, surrounded by the smell of herbs, I devoured those books. The ambition was born and it also offered me a personality I wished to assume. I wanted to become a writer—the cosmopolitan, worldly writer.

My conception of writing was an immensely private idea, apart from all the school compositions and creative contests for high school students with prompts such as ‘Imagine the world in 2050’. The first story I wrote at fifteen was about a girl who realized she had a long-lost twin. Their names were Emma and Rosalind Montgomery. It was set in Manhattan, a place I had never been to. They looked and sounded nothing like me and my friends. It was the beginning of the gap, one between the person and the writer.

I knew I had to go to New York, the nexus of my literary universe. I could not truly become a writer when my senses were engulfed by the heat, the utilitarian checkboxes of my education, and the dull routine of island-life. In New York, I imagined, I would finally have first-hand material that would befit a writer’s experience. More than that, simply being there would offer the assurance of continuity, of inheriting a tradition and succeeding a long line of writers, who in turn had trodden in the footsteps of the continental greats.

Until that phone call came, I had been unwilling to extract myself from the idea of becoming a writer, fourteen years in the making. By most measures, I had become the kind of person I wanted to become. During college, I started working at a middling literary magazine as an unpaid copy editor. After graduation, I assumed the role of the sub-editor before rising to fiction editor after the position became vacant. The job involved getting pitches, going through the slush pile, and hours of networking at book launches, reading parties, and personal gatherings. Little by little, I had embodied the kind of worldly persona I aspired to. I now spoke like the characters I wrote—gone without trace were the sharp bark and yo-yoing intonation of my accented English. I occasionally scored an invite to a lunch at a place in the Tribeca or some art gallery opening thronging with women and men drinking wine and munching on hors d’oeuvres—if I closed my eyes, they could almost pass for the fictional parties that so enthralled me in my youth. I could effortlessly toss around names of editors, publishers, and rising literary stars as though I knew them personally. Yet, in the weekends or before dawn, I would sit at my desk in my one-room apartment with its stained walls and pretend to write, only to draw up nothing. The blank document with the blinking cursor was terrifying. What prose I could get onto the page was forced and unnatural. All my adult life had happened in a foreign country where I was a stranger. To be true to that social experience was to write about things that I had refused to embrace—not the wider world, but the smaller, more confined world that I came from which did not exist on the pages of literature. But, I was adamant or almost obsessed with writing about the world I now lived in. To write about the claustrophobia and humanity of the island I grew up in was to acknowledge my inability to become part of the New York cultural milieu. I witnessed the artifice of my own charade, but could not and did not write about it. The gap between the woman and the writer grew.

The dread of failure plagued me. I purged all remnants of unsophisticated Asia from my life. My mother would call me once in a while to tell me about Popo, Still running her pharmacy, rain or shine… Bought three new tins of tea… Celebrated her eightieth… She misses you.

I didn’t have words for that feeling that ate at me. I couldn’t face any of them. The girl who wanted to become a writer could not write even when her life depended on it. The closer I got to the altar of the literary circle I worshipped, the more self-conscious I became. I couldn’t listen to the gentle words of those who loved me when what I felt about them was something akin to shame. There was no place for them in my life, just like there was no place for the island and its people in the pages of my writing.

In The Enigma of Arrival, V. S. Naipaul described eating a roasted chicken over the wastepaper basket after arriving in New York, acutely aware of the smell and the oil. The writer of the diary was ending his day like a peasant, like a man reverting to his origins, eating secretively in a dark room, he wrote. I would rather have starved till the hunger devoured me than to have succumbed to the pull of a previous life.

The anxiety I felt towards my writing might have indicated an awakening awareness of the gap between the person and the writer. The incongruence between the two selves had existed throughout my fourteen years. I refused to eat the roasted chicken because I, like Naipaul, saw embedded in that act the bead of shame.

In my final weeks in New York, I started trying something different. I attempted to include traces of my identity—the island I came from, its colonial history, its newfound prosperity I saw online in news and heard from my mother—in a story I was conceiving, but the act was distinctly uncomfortable. My first major character that bore some semblance to myself was a woman called Kristen Song—the most generic, palatable name I could think off that could pass off as Western. Almost unknowingly, I was exoticizing her character. She was elegant, with a Western pedigree and way of speech as well as the exquisite Oriental features and tics so often fetishized. In doing so, I was justifying her reason for existing on the page.

The week before the phone call came I was sacked from my job. The magazine I worked at had at last found a major patron, whose office reviewed the journal operations and set forth some recommendations. Among which was the recommendation that the magazine find someone with more writing experience as their fiction editor, and the patron’s office had just the right person in mind for the position. I found myself up in the air. Now what? I toyed with the idea of returning to the island. Had I exhausted all my options of becoming a writer? They had taken me in and spitted me out. I had failed to make myself anew.

When the phone call came, I was ironing my clothes.

From the other end of the phone my mother’s voice sounded low and cracked. She left you the shophouse, she said, so come back.

When the call ended, the screen showed that it was only 3 minutes 53 seconds long. Popo had passed away.

***

I tasted sea salt and vaporous sawdust in the glutinous air when I came out of the airport terminal. There was a construction site across the road. I couldn’t remember what used to be there, what expanse of steel, glass or granite.

What was familiar was how hot it was. A wave of heat assailed me with each step I took further away from the air-conditioning behind the sliding glass doors. It almost mockingly mimicked the journey that I made fourteen years ago, a sequence in reverse, of emerging from the stifling hotness into the crisp coolness of the departure lounge—seeing it as portal of transition, a shedding of old, sweaty skin, the bridge to the far bank where the calling of the writer had some meaning.

Returning was a much more sobering affair. I had surrendered. There was no romance left in New York for me. I did not know how to reconcile the person and the writer. I didn’t want to acknowledge it yet, but I was ready to give up the writer. I had lived without grief for as long as I could remember, but, all of a sudden, too much grief appeared at this one point in my life.

My father was here to pick me up. He had flown back from Thailand, where he had spent decades working in an agribusiness conglomerate when I was a kid and now spent his retirement days. My mother, he told me, had to take care of the guests for this afternoon’s funeral. I stared at the lines on his face.

We’re glad you are back, he said.

There was an awkward pause before we moved to hug each other. It was both unfamiliar yet assuring at once. The bristly ends of his hair rubbed against my cheek. When I pulled away, the concentration of white hair by his wrinkled ear startled me. My father was someone who diligently dyed his hair.

He didn’t mention a word about my writing in the car.

Why don’t you take a long break and see what you can do with Popo’s shop? he said. Stay for a bit longer before going back to America. How long of a vacation did you ask for?

I looked in the rearview mirror at his hopeful eyes. I had not told anyone about my recent state of unemployment.

When our eyes met, he blinked a few times and hastily looked back at the road.

I will stay, I said. For however long it takes.

***

For as long as I could remember, the drawers had always been in the ground floor parlor. There were ten cabinets of varying sizes made from empress tree wood, some built into the walls, some still portable. Each cabinet had fifty to several hundred drawers. In their previous life, they used to carry herbs, minerals, and animal specimens. Leaves, roots, stems, flowers, and seeds, painstakingly ground into powder, extracted into liquid, rolled into granules, made into capsules, shelved and slotted into these drawers. Popo’s snowy hands pinching, twisting, tossing, weighing, feeling between the thumb and index fingers the coarseness of leaves and the texture of each particle of powder. A reel of seasons and then, those hands turned gnarled, like the shriveled, shrunken leaves they had healed life with.

Growing up, I never thought that I might someday touch these drawers, decipher them and own them. Most of the drawers were empty since Popo had closed her pharmacy when her health started failing. Across the Pacific Ocean, I was so thoroughly consumed by the idea of writing that the rest of the world fell away. I saw now that I was pretending to be something I perhaps could not be. In a fervent eagerness to become someone other than what a person of my background could be, in placing the writing personality above all else, I had turned my back on Popo and the shophouse. I had just assumed that she was always going to be there.

But.

I began a clean-out of the contents of the occupied drawers. A few cinnamon bark that felt sticky to the touch, one ginseng that had mold on its tendrils, clumps of wolfberries that had turned from red to brown, a box of peeled peony roots which filled my mouth with a bitter, salty and cold flavor when, on impulse, I gave it a tentative bite. I threw everything away except for two things. One was a sealed container of canker roots, which despite their highly flattering name of goldthread resembled a mass of dried worms. By her scrawl on the label, they were supposed to help with inflammation, a feeling of stuffiness in the chest and insomnia.

There was something unexpectedly calming about sorting out dead plant parts. Each time I cleaned a cabinet, I brought my hands to my nose, sniffed them, and felt a jolt. It was a smell of age, of things dying and then—

Something sprouting beneath. The scent, against all odds, of a wisp of life budding from withered veins and dried flesh.

The other thing I kept was the consortium of tea. It was everywhere, in tin cans, silk pouches, jars, and wrapped in brown paper. I disposed in sequence the expired ones, but there were many more, brand new and unopened. I picked up the habit of drinking tea again, after years of drinking coffee and alcohol. It wasn’t an easy habit to cultivate. The first few cups I made confused me. The taste was not especially unpleasant but I couldn’t understand what the point of it was. It was so numbingly hot that my tongue swelled in my mouth and I couldn’t taste anything.

Two weeks into my cleanup, I found a tea set, complete with a tray, teapot, four narrow cups, four wide cups with lids and a motley tool kit of brushes, tongs, sieves, and a funnel. Using the set, I started making tea step-by-step, tool-by-tool. I watched my hands grow pink with sweat, steam, and spillage, clumsily grappling with the rims of the porcelain and clay which were almost scalding. Gradually, as the hotness abated into a comfortable warmth, the taste of the tea mattered less. The ambiance and the lull became everything.

***

It took me two months before I realized that I could finally put New York behind me. Despite the disappointment and panic associated with that city, there had always been a thought at the back of my head. Not “When should I go back?”, but “Can I write again?”. I had stopped writing since I returned. I didn’t know how to start.

Three months in, I decided to open the ground floor parlor again as a shop. A teahouse.

Unexpectedly, the heaviness that weighed on my writing lifted when the desire to fill the drawers struck. There were close to a thousand drawers of all sizes. I had tried counting them several times but inevitably lost count halfway through. Opening each drawer was like pulling out a window, an archive, or a cell. They were overwhelming in their emptiness, like a metaphor for something. While I didn’t have physical items, words were an economical way of taking up space. A single word could permeate the whole parlor, the entire two-story house, this island, this world.

I began writing letters to people who could no longer receive them.

Dear Popo, I wrote, I am here.

I wrote and wrote, all the words I repressed over the decades, the hazy and carelessly forgotten details that needed to be fleshed out, the unspoken sentences buried in the scrawny girl who always gazed outwards instead of at the multiple worlds contained within her. I wrote about the shophouse in the late sunlight and quiet moments, about the uncles and aunties sitting outside with cigars and kopi-o, and about Popo’s hands. I wrote about things that I was surprised I could remember—the swallowing of words in a seminar because I didn’t know how to pronounce them the right way, the mix of embarrassment and affection toward my three-syllable Chinese name, and the circuitous path my writer self took to find her way back to the person I was. It was not much, but, quite suddenly, the heart of life had opened itself to me. It was as though I had only been preparing to become a writer in all these prior years—I had refused to eat the roasted chicken not knowing that a starved soul could not create. In this moment, when person and writer started becoming one, I could finally write.

***

A few days after I opened the teahouse, people started wandering in. Some of them bought tea while some came to talk the afternoon away. The conversation with these customers inadvertently converged on the furniture in the parlor.

So many drawers, just like Swee Mui’s pharmacy, commented an old man with incredible sideburns when he peeked around the doorframe. His head was in the shop while the rest of his body was still firmly out in the five-footway.

He waddled into the shop to the upholstered bamboo pod at the corner and very naturally sank into the curved cushion.

Girl, he said, Swee Mui said you were a writer in mei guok.

Oh, I said. Oh.

What do you write about? Do you write about our island? he asked.

In my fourteen years away, my narrow conception of writing, my anxieties and my ambition had suppressed most of my memories of growing up here, even expunging them from my personal history. After the original impulse of writing letters had run its course, I found writing difficult again. The day before opening the teahouse, I had wanted to visit my neighborhood library opposite the beige-colored mall, two streets away from the shophouse, but in its very spot was a brightly lit supermarket. While I was gone, the island had continued evolving—demolishing and erecting. Much was unrecognizable. The writer may have come together with the person, but the person was adrift.

I have been away from this island for fourteen years, I said to the old man. I don’t know it as well as I want to. I sometimes feel like a stranger outside the walls of this shophouse.

Instead of answering, he eyed me through slits.

You sell tea? What kind of tea do you have?

You can choose, I said, gesturing to the tiny glass jars on the shelves and behind the counter. They are all here. I have the classic Puer, Oolong, Longjing, Tieguanyin and green tea.

How about a cup of tea for a story? he offered calmly.

We gazed into each other’s eyes. Since I first came into contact with English literature, I had doggedly tried to follow the sensibilities and aesthetic forms born in a different hemisphere at the turn of the twentieth century. But, as these words roll out from between the old man’s two rows of gleaming gold and yellowed enamel, I suddenly saw the far bank that I was looking for. Unfolding before me was a plain. Empty, curiously still, deceptively barren, its peaks and dips still unknown, no pattern or path carved out in its earthy brown and brilliant green, no road sign erected, no owner that laid claim to the land. But there was beauty in the wild, unruly, budding growth. There was something deliciously new in the blend of the spontaneous and the scripted.

Yes, I said, a story for a cup of tea, of course. Do you mind if I write it down?

[Story] 7-Eleven: A Summertime Romance?

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When she trudges home that night, it’s forty minutes later, after two transits and twelve stations. She is about to turn left, head down the bridge, cross the crossing under a flickering street lamp and follow that path she has walked for twenty-one days when she notices the 7-Eleven store. Undimmed, the fluorescent white from its windows beams steadfast into the night’s dark canopy. The orange, green, white and red stripes wrapping around its boxy edges are cheery, like a loud invitation to wandering souls. A stop for replenishing. A sanctuary for the untethered. Pre-packaged warmth, microwaved sentiment and cold douses of refreshment are for sale.

She pauses. On a night like this, hungry from dieting and exhausted from interaction, in a mood that can only be called ‘sunset’, the too pristine, uncomfortably synthetic, universally bright convenience store she has seen hundreds of times over in three continents suddenly looks welcoming.

The bell rings overhead when she walks in and a male voice intones a greeting. She moves briskly down the aisles. No one else bothers her after that initial welcome. Packets of food stare dully at her. The undemanding isolation of this shopping process ought to comfort her, but she feels a darkness descend. Whatever she has come to find, there is nothing here but the overwhelming urge to leave. She gives the fridge before her a perfunctory flick, chooses a small carton of strawberry milk and strides to the check-out counter.

There are a few prolonged beats of silence after the milk is scanned as she fishes out the coins from her pockets. She heaps the fistful of pennies and dimes onto the small tray, forming a tiny, tumbling glossy hill.

Sorry, sorry, she says, flustered, fingers clumsily picking out the unnecessary coins. Her head is bent in concentration because, after three weeks in this city, she still has trouble telling the coins apart. The cashier’s fingers enter into her vision, swift and practiced.

She’s pulling back her hand when her little finger and his index finger accidentally touch.

When she glances up, the cashier is blushing. He is slender but not skinny, with a buzz cut, a slightly tanned face, cat-like eyes, and an inscrutable countenance behind the practiced smile. Yet, as he blushes, his eyes crinkle and the banal demeanor ripples. She holds back a laugh. A sunrise, suddenly. Arigatō gozaimasu, she says. And unlike the other thirty-five times that she has said it today, she means it.

He stares at her and then, the blush recedes before he nods politely and recites the ritualized thanks, eyes unblinking and his role reassumed.

When the automatic door closes behind her, she eyes herself from torso to toe. She’s dressed in a baggy t-shirt and shorts, with sore feet clad in dusty sandals. Altogether unremarkable. She considers it for a moment and then sips her strawberry milk before turning left.

***

She goes through the same routine with him the next few times she visits the store on different days, at 11:07PM, 8:13PM and 8:30PM. She even feels something close to disappointment (but not quite yet) once at 3:23PM when it’s a glum-looking middle-aged man with an oily forehead who gives her change while cheerlessly smiling and bidding her thank-you. She doesn’t have time to stop by the 7-Eleven in the next three days. Serendipity, she thinks. And then she kills the thought.

On June 24, 2018, at 10:58PM, the local train pulls up at this nondescript station, twenty-seven people disembark and stream out through the gates. One of them feels her bloated stomach from a dinner of kishikatsu, furrows her brows almost imperceptibly and then gravitates towards the brightly-lit convenience store—standing like a beacon in the roiling silence of the night.

She feels his eyes on her the moment she enters the empty store. Did she imagine the swallow in his voice? The staple greeting sounds different to her. Her footsteps grow lighter. She doesn’t bother to think why she loiters at the central aisle in full view of the check-out counter as she blithely scans the fridge. The strawberry milk has grown on her, and she carefully picks one up after scrutinizing the expiry dates.

His lips twitch when he sees her in front of the counter.

After reading aloud the payment amount in his hackneyed intonation, she does not expect him to say anything (the sonata he performs has three movements: he announces the amount he has received from her; there is a lull, followed by a clear statement of the change amount; then, it all culminates in the dramatic thank-you—his unvarying finale).

In silence, she searches her skirt pocket for coins.

Strawberry milk again, he says slowly in English. His voice, stripped of the affected intonation, is unexpectedly boyish.

She freezes for a moment before hiding a smile.

Your English is good, she comments, looking up.

I’m having an English test. Tomorrow. he says, as he respectfully receives her handful of coins.

Daigaku? she casually asks. Her summer program classes take place at a private university a few subway stops down from Kyoto station.

High school, he corrects her in English. He meets her eyes steadily when he says those two words.

She tries to hide her surprise. You’re younger than me, she thinks.

I’m older than you. That’s what she says.

Really? he replies nonchalantly.

He thanks her as usual when she turns to leave, but before she’s out of the door, she hears him speak into the air behind her, Goodnight.

***

She comes back again the next day and the next. Ever since that first off-script conversation they had, a tacit agreement has been reached. He no longer bothers performing his sonata.

Not strawberry milk? he asks when she places a cup of yogurt on the cashier counter. She wishes she could have bought the strawberry milk but she doesn’t have enough coins with her after using them daily at the store. She thinks his English has gotten significantly better since she first remembered his face two weeks ago.

ī e, yōguruto tai, she replies. So has her Japanese.

He watches her empty the handful of coins from a pouch and blinks.

He suddenly bends down behind the counter and surfaces a few seconds later. There’s a dollar in his outstretched, sweaty palm.

You drop this? he says, slightly stumbling over these three words.

She is first confused. No, I didn’t— Oh, she says, oh.

When he gestures at the fridge, she floats there and back, a carton of strawberry milk in her grasp. She doesn’t even remember to check the expiry date.

***

So they keep talking—a few words here, a few words there. She mostly never lingers for too long. He never asks her to stay. Sometimes, there’s another customer and then, he gives her a shrug from behind the counter and she hears herself humming as she crosses the crossing.

Sometimes he tells her about this girl in his class he finds cute, or the Germany World Cup match he streamed on his phone. She would lean against the counter, sipping her strawberry milk.

Once in a while, in that winding two months, she watches a World Cup match with him on his cracked phone screen after he is off-duty, the phone propped up by two boxes of sour gummies between them on an unused countertop. He would pass her candy and recycle the wrappers. She would find herself stepping across the threshold into darkness hours later, the convenience store light a halo behind her silhouette.

***

She tells him that the date of her departure flight is near.

He just tilts his head.

I’ll send you off at the station, he finally says. It’s right beside the store, I can sneak out for a few minutes.

***

On the flight, she wonders what the past two months meant. She wonders about the first feather-like brush, the once-stale sonata, the coins passed between them and the blurry-eyed World Cup matches. She wonders how she ever thought to look up that day, from the isolation and her sunset, to glimpse a human face.

One person wanders, as she did. But two people are always going somewhere. She doesn’t know the route they treaded or the destination they wanted to reach. When he had leaned in beside the gantry to whisper ‘mata ne’, so close as if to kiss her, she had stuffed a carton of strawberry milk in his hands and pivoted on her luggage, darting into the station.

Moments later, he would have seen what she had written on the side of the carton and he would have smiled. He would.

strawberry milk carton

[Story] Why Believe in Fortune Cookies

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She works in a dingy pseudo-Chinese restaurant that dons several hats: a bar, a lounge, and a dance hall harkening back to the eighties. The interior is soaked in shades of reddish-brown timber. An earthy scent weighs on the entire ambiance—the glimmer from the gilded Buddhas and the gaudy frescoes gives it the air of a Chinese burlesque. She half-expects people to burst into song, in cheongsams or cone hats, juggling yellow fortune cookies and mechanically mimicking the paw-wave of the fortune cat. “Exotic Chinese Fare!”

It doesn’t take her long after she first got here to find out that restaurants spinning an identical concept sprout out in this New England city like a sea of bamboo shoots after a spring rain—they run the gamut from homely to inauthentic to tacky to tackier. She doesn’t know what to make of it; perhaps, this sensation of her sphincter contracting and her skin aging is a sign of a run-down, worn-out spirit. Not just that. Sometimes, she catches a glimpse of herself: a stooping, indistinct shape in the glass windows with arms as thin as chicken feet. Tòu míng. She is sprinting in the snowy countryside. Slow down, màn diǎn. Down winding dirt paths that converge with the silken moonlit sky, every step is a frame in a receding reel of seasons. Chūn xià qiū dōng. A girl in pigtails tied with glossy red ribbons inhales to puff up her pudgy cheeks, flushed like a freshly picked apple, takes a quick, bold lick of a fistful of snow and giggles like wind-bells in the breeze. The restaurant window lightly quivers with her unadulterated wonder and the interior seems cheerier to the eye for a while.

Děng děng wǒ, she says to the girl. But the grimy windows can’t bear the weight of her gaze. She stares at her history until it stares her out of her own countenance. The bright-eyed girl cannot stay for long because this world of General Gau’s chicken, fortune cookies, tips, foreign tongues, white ghosts, and imposing ivy-covered Georgian collegiate buildings is not for her. Sometimes, when she closes her eyes, she is still sprinting, but the dark rolling hills and the moonless terrain no longer look familiar and she doesn’t stop to think of where she is going because she just might not know anymore. After a while, these images lock themselves up in a room. What room? She has misplaced the key. A life before now is—is increasingly like a film that she has watched a long time ago, a familiar mélange of etched lines, lilting duets between red-cheeked girls and hardworking boys, a rotating roster of characters, and blurry details. What stands out is the ending. A cheap triumph.

In this city reside smiling students in woolly red sweaters and bleached collars, ambition penetrating through their eyes and gleaming off their slick silver laptops, so young and yet already exuding the scent of privilege and success—Like that son of whats-his-name with those foreign candies. That must have been thirty years ago!but here it’s doused in an entitled sense of smartness. It drips all over the floor she mops, a stain that she can’t unsee. She cannot help but overhear sometimes, the students rattling off English like a hymn to a partial God whose covenant is so complex that even after thirteen years here she cannot pray to speak. That is how she always tells the students apart from the other diners. She will not bear to tell the rosy-cheeked girl licking snow what it is like here. Tell her what? The floor is never clean.

Sometimes, she will look up as the door chimes and see in the contours of a fresh-faced student the face of her xiǎomèi back home. The affection swells and wells up in her hands and eyes and lips and she cannot keep herself from breaking loose from wobbly English to ask them for their order again in halting Chinese. They will crinkle their brows distantly, or in polite confusion, and then she knows what she already feels in her bones—they are all not xiǎomèi and can never be.

It’s a hazy afternoon when business is a trickle that she decides to eat one of those fortune cookies that the restaurant gives to diners with the bill. The slightly sweet, but almost tasteless cookie pokes against the roof of her mouth. She crunches it hard, then pulls out the half-wet strip of paper from between her chapped lips.

She doesn’t understand the words on it at the first quick glance. As she makes out the aphorism, she feels and sees first the grease on the paper, the curled edge of it slightly soggy with her saliva, and the words in tiny print, an almost cruel shade of blue on white.

L-i-f-e i-s f-a-i-r t-o a-l-l.

She watches the white strip paper float, excruciatingly slow, before soundlessly hitting the ground. At the periphery of her vision, the ceiling overhead seems to close in on her. Méi guānxi, méi guānxi, méi guānxi. A frantic motto. The ceiling seems to collapse but it doesn’t. The ceiling doesn’t collapse but she knows as something strong finally begins to crumble.

[Story] On Black Friday Morning, in a Sun-lit Café

tatte

BLACK FRIDAY — 10:40AM, Friday

She sits there, her heart a solid thudding of the metronome, an old man’s pace. The café is a startling white, clean like a repurposed showroom. The rows of baked goods behind the open-air counter are a dash of brown-gold, like yolk nestled in egg-white. Patterns crawl across its interior; grey wisps swim on the marble tabletop; black tiles mark out the honeycomb mosaic floor her brown boots are tapping on. The monochrome is artificial to the strained eye. She has been up since midnight and it’s already almost noon.

To her right, another girl is collapsed against the bistro chair with shopping bags pooled at her feet—the little red star of Macy’s peeks at the trio.

“I guess this is the American Black Friday experience,” the guy on her other side says, somewhat in wonder.

She is too tired to make a scintillating comment. Her cleverness has abandoned her in the wake of the sheer exhaustion from staying up beyond 24 hours, the rapidly dwindling adrenaline of battling in the discount-strewn aisles, and the curious, surreal feeling that Thanksgiving night half a day ago seems like a fraying memory several-years-old.

The plate and cup before her are empty except for crumbs and foam on the rim. She remarks, “I’m starving.”

“Still?” the girl on her right laughs. She’s about to say something else when a server stops in front of their table.

“Oh, my food is here,” the guy says, sitting up, as the server places the croissant sandwich on the table and whisks away the number stand.

She might not know now but she will remember and thank this moment to come. This moment as wet sunlight is touching her weary face and a warmth buds unexpectedly, as the realization washes over her that perhaps all she thought she had known about what love means is wrong, as he nudges the sandwich towards her—stubbled face, black-rimmed glasses, blood-shot eyes, incompatible sexuality and all—and tiredly says, “Eat up.”

It dawns on her gently, an idea of what matters in this waiting and searching for someone to like simply and wholeheartedly. She hugs it close to her.

THE DAY BEFORE, THANKSGIVING DAY — 11:40PM, Thursday

She is in the car, listening. Her fingers are numb from the cold. She pulls out striped gloves from her pockets, wears them concentratedly, but cannot block out the la-di-da voices around her.

She knows, in this tiny vehicle weaving through the night, that she is placing something down. As she casts aside old understandings, she is uncertain what to think next. Some new understanding is taking shape in the dark, still nebulous.

She doesn’t know now that she will—in a sun-lit café the next morning after an unbelievable night—finally understand that perhaps reputation means nothing, as do complexion and pretensions, superficial impressions and fleeting interactions, and too much a dosage of self-assurance.

But, there and then, in the car, all she thinks is yes as her phone screen lights up with the message: Black Friday shopping? Like in 15 min?

Her gloved finger starts typing out a reply.

The Modern Child

modern child

Disclaimer: this is a piece of satire (not autobiographical!), but then again definitely all art imitates life. The structure is a parody of Girl by Jamaica Kincaid, which depicts a very different world of expectations — simmering beneath the mother’s long string of admonishments and words of advice to a daughter are the layered themes of domesticity, feminity, poverty, and sexuality. But what would the modern mother say to the modern child? I got so inspired once I considered this question that I typed the paragraph below out in 10 minutes in a burst of heavenly creativity 🙂

Here comes Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother meets Girl. 

Learn your phonetics on Mondays with Teacher Tan but don’t speak English to us; practice your Chinese characters before going to the playground; be back on time or else — five sheets of calligraphy; we are helping you to find your passion, so be sure to go for piano on Tuesdays; don’t forget ballet on Saturdays; be a good friendly Catholic girl on Sundays and make three new friends, darling, on each trip to the church; it’s a neighborhood school, so we won’t give you any stress; is it true Amanda did better than you in class?; it’s important to be happy, darling; at least 90 marks on every test is all we ask for, of course; doing well in English and Mathematics is a must!; but doing poorly in Chinese would be a shame to us; no Kit Kats until you memorize your táng shī; this is how you’ll have a good moral character; this is how you make no careless mistakes on quizzes; this is what doing your best means; this is exactly how you make us proud; this is how we know if you’re smarter than the rest; but I don’t ask Amanda for her grades; this is how to ensure that you remember to never, ever get 89.5 again; this is how you make friends with people you like in school; this is how you make friends with people you don’t like; this is how you become a prefect; this is how you get into the GEP [1]; let us fill this out for you; this is how you get into the best primary school in the nation; this is why we know best; Mrs Loh says you are very weak in Science compared to other students; this is what true diligence means; this is what is called full effort; this is how you pull up your grades; why, are you not sleeping enough?; do three mock papers a day, it’s the December holidays; this is how you top the class; time to wake up for school, darling, it’s 5.30am; this is how you earn real self-esteem; you should absolutely aim for 290, dear, it’s not impossible; this is how to become the PSLE [2] top-scorer—why?—because you can (and then you’ll be on the papers); we believe in you; this is how you disappoint us; but still this is how you keep pushing yourself; this is how you set more goals; this is how you achieve them; this is how you hone your leadership; this is how you excel in CCAs [3]; this is how you excel in your CIP hours [4]; this is how you have real passions; oh, darling, because it’s necessary not to be a nerd who can only study; this is how you have straight As; this is how to be filial to your parents; this is what we sacrificed so much for; this is how to be the best; why are your grades dipping?; darling, I know you want to relax, but your A-levels are coming; this is what JC [5] life is like; this is how the world works; what do you want to do in the future?; you can be a lawyer; this is why we always trained you to work hard; this is why you’ll thank us one day; this is how to make us proud, once more; this is how to attain the life we always wanted for you; this is what ‘success’ means; this is when it’s time to apply for Harvard; but um what if I can’t get in?; you mean to say that after all you are really going to be the kind of child who can’t get into Harvard?

*** THE END ***

Sometimes, I do wish that I could have had a parent who had all the answers in life, but I’m so grateful I don’t. For me, the caricature of the tiger mother resonates not because my mother is one (not exactly), but because, more than anything else, I have to deal with it as an excruciating voice within myself — one that keeps doubting, relentlessly pushes, and never settles. I’ve learned to turn that voice down when it gets too overwhelming and does more harm than good. You do that too 🙂

Footnotes, for those who weren’t in the Singaporean education system, here are the explanations behind some terms (loads of acronyms across the board):

  • 1. GEP: the Gifted Education Programme (about 1% of the national cohort is admitted into the Programme after selection tests in Primary 3; they will undergo an enriched curriculum in 9 GEP schools)
  • 2. PSLE: the Primary School Leaving Examination (a national examination which pupils sit at the end of their final year of primary school education; secondary school admissions are based on your aggregated T-score, with selective high schools having higher cut-off points over the years)
  • 3. CCA: Co-Curricular Activities (non-academic activities that all students participate in)
  • 4. CIP: Community Involvement Programme (most Singaporean schools have specified a mandatory number community service hours under this; it’s now called Values In Action)
  • 5. JC: Junior College (the final two years of high school before university)