winsome little nothings

Selina Xu Jewel Changi

S I N G A P O R E — engulfed in days of tropical thunderstorms and endless showers. The city is crying and I wake up to the pitter-patter of tears streaking a windowpane accidentally left ajar. The floor next to the window is slightly wet. I leave footprints all over the wooden floor, around my bed and books.

Early mornings are for eating round, white tangyuans soaked in rice wine, wolfberries, and dried longan, each ball soft and chewy with hot peanut and black sesame filling that cascades over my tongue.

I boil water myself and watch dark green Chinese tea leaves unfurl in the glass flask like underwater corals. I peel a hard-boiled egg and dip it in vinegar. I think of the green milk tea with golden bubbles from Koi, milk guan yin with white pearls from Liho, the cold soymilk from Lao Ban Soya Beancurd in the MRT underpass, and the constellation of routes I can take to each of them in the orbit of our family’s evening stroll.

When my parents aren’t watching, I sneak a pineapple tart from the container with a red lid. The sunflower-shaped pastry sits on my palm. The blob of sweet pineapple jam is washed down with steaming tea.

I find three types of red apples in the fridge, each from a different country. My parents know my favorite fruit. At home, I can scoop directly from ripe mangoes and pink dragonfruits, carving shapes and scraping the flesh. Hands sticky, juice on lips. The husk of the fruit left still on the dining table, nature morte.

Life doles me presents. I’ve forgotten the taste of milk in fried fish soup. Poached chicken in red chili. Fishcake in sesame oil. The rush of pleasure when singing songs at top volume and butchering high notes in the shower. The hum of neighborhood nightlife as I run around the LRT track, phone slick in my hands.

What can I hold you with? asks Borges.

Wet, splintered floorboards rubbed smooth by socked feet; warm rain on fingertips; late sunsets; the hiss and gurgle of boiling water; dewy green of cacti by the sill and rainforests in a dome; ambling down supermarket aisles dotted with Pokka, Khong Guan, Marigold, and Chinese New Year goodies; four limbs hugging a big bolster like a baby; yellowed pages of old books I’ve owned since I was twelve; loose leaves of paper damp with humidity; sweat. All these I offer you, murmurs my home.

Lots of love,

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Ode to My Youth • 母校,生日快乐

Saw a couple of tiny girls in Hongzi at Bugis today and suddenly remembered. Happy 102nd birthday, Nanyang! ❤

Selina Xu NYGH Graduation

一九一七八月十五,是宝贵的良辰。 在火药气味浓厚中,可爱的母校出现。

I remember those golden, burnt-edged secondary school days of folding notes and passing them with furtive glances in ordered classrooms when the teacher isn’t looking; of six heads huddling over one glowing phone screen playing Boys Over Flowers on blurry, drowsy mornings before the bell rings; of splaying over beds in late-night talks at the boarding school about boys from across the bridge; of group therapy sob sessions over fictional characters and novel endings; of shared Facebook stalking sessions of the latest eye-candy; of traipsing to Starbucks in the humid heat during 1-for-1 promotions paid for by pooling our allowances together; of weird shenanigans in class such as playing “I love you” on Google Translate when we had to discuss Romeo & Juliet and collapsing into laughing fits; of curiously acquainting oneself with the awkwardness of one’s adolescent body in the mirrored walls of the dance studio during Chinese dance classes; of the collective panic before NAPFA 2.4km tests around the red tartan track; of proudly making hilarious iMovies such as “The Hungry Games” (featuring four of us eating gummy worms at midnight), a talk show featuring us acting as To Kill A Mockingbird characters (I was Mayella Ewell), and a student council election video with young, shining, grinning faces; of the girlish excitement at looking older in our yellow blazers, blue flaps and white pencil skirts; of the simple pleasure of fried fish soup, hot milo, Soghurt stamps, school bookstore snacks, an early recess, bright jackets by each club to don over our pure white Hongzi; the novelty of (and subsequent disillusionment with) a sandwich vending machine; and hollering Jay Chou songs onstage.

I remember graduating in a blur of tears, photos, hugs, and that deep tidal wave of immediate nostalgia in the final moments (A Simpler Era furiously waving goodbye on the platform, receding into a speck).

我的青春,谢谢你温柔地来过。

Selina Xu NYGH Council

Lots of love,

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Happy 54th birthday, Singapore!

Happy happy National Day, all my Singaporean friends! 🎂🇸🇬✨

It’s weird how frequently I’ve thought of you, Singapore, in the day-to-day of my job. Like when the White House published a memo attacking China’s developing country status in the WTO and the first thing my eyes were glued onto in the text (read here) was Singapore. Or when it was LGBTQ Pride Month and we were looking for stills from different countries – Pink Dot’s Repeal 377A eventually made it onto the show, a brief glimpse, just for a second or two. 💗 Or when my boss tells me about his sons studying “Singapore Math,” which seriously cracks me up (it’s actually a thing in the U.S.).

Also, when you’re 54, I’m 21. This means I’m finally choosing between the dual nationalities which I’ve held for most of my life. (I was born in an Auckland hospital and got onto my first plane ride as a month-old tiny baby to Singapore.) But actually, the choice was made long ago. When I think of home, you are the first place that comes to mind. In a few days, I’ll be back on the island and will be officially taking my oath to be Singaporean only — for that, I’m grateful. Somehow, I’ve found you by choice instead of by birth or by heritage, and that makes our ties all the more precious and alive.

I was watching PM Lee’s NDP message on The Straits Times website today at work and he felt almost fatherly. I was enraptured by that familiarity — his inflections, mannerisms, the earnestness of SG politicians (of a technocrat breed), and inklings of the nanny state that really does seek to take care of you (I cannot imagine any U.S. politician genuinely saying, “Each one of us must strive to improve ourselves, do our best, and chase our dreams.”).

And, although you’re not perfect, you’re still mine. Somehow, being elsewhere around the world only makes me think of you — your ingenuity and almost strait-laced wholesomeness, your efficiency and embeddedness in a global nexus, and also your singlets and slippers, hawker centre uncles and aunties, lahs, humid heat, and all that fills my heart with a fierce fondness across the Pacific that can only be called love.

Happy 54th birthday, dear Singapore ❤️

Lots of love,

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Another Christmas Comes and Goes

Not winter, but always Christmas.

My mom sweeps into the room and starts shaking me by the shoulders. She briskly turns off the air-conditioning.

WAKE UP! she thunders.

For the first time in twenty years, I know that Christmas starts with no immediate present to unwrap on the morning itself, and so I roll around in bed and burrow my head under a pillow. I know that because my parents have already given me presents in advance. My mom has revamped my winter closet with new sweaters, skirts and a pair of boots after I fulfilled her condition of losing the freshman fifteen over the summer. My dad has allowed me to plan for our family vacation entirely from scratch — we will celebrate the New Year from December 29th to January 6th in Taipei, the cradle of bubble tea (≧◡≦).

Wait, so there’s really no surprise? No Santa? I mumble to seek confirmation, peeking from below the pillow with two narrowing eyes.

Go open the fridge, my dad calls from outside the room.

Against all odds, all past coercion to compel me into weight loss, and all the snarky remarks they’ve heaped onto my appearance, my parents — who currently would gladly trade one fewer A on my transcript for less 5 kilograms on the scale (indeed, a true paradigm shift in priorities since I got into college) — there are three pints of my new favorite ice cream flavor glittering in all their loveliness on the shelf: my beloved White Peach and Raspberry from Häagen-Dazs.

I have no time to taste it because my mom then shuttles us out of the house for dim sum at Mouth Restaurant. There are baskets of har gow and chicken claw and crispy liu sha bao and fried shrimp balls in Chardonnay sauce and the best carrot cake of my life and panfried chee cheong fun and crystal dumplings and squid ink char siew bao and the list (of items that go into my tummy) surges on.

We then watch Bumblebee, who is now my newly-crowned spirit animal. Honestly, I wouldn’t mind that much having to express myself through songs exclusively. Quite unexpectedly, the film also reminded me about hospitality (as often associated with Christmas) when faced with the Other (Autobots and Decepticons!) — a topic I wrote about in a paper last week comparing Liu Cixin’s The Three-Body Problem and Mohsin Hamid’s The Reluctant Fundamentalist.

As today draws to a close, another Christmas comes and goes. This year, there’s the taste of childhood, the glow of content on everyone’s faces, the thrill of being in that liminal place between childhood and adulthood (I still get presents, but they come with more responsibility), the drawn-out festive feeling that’s no longer as anchored to a particular calendar date —  Christmas is captured in an accumulation of moments: persistent photoshoots along Orchard Road, matching pink and red t-shirts under the sun, fake snow, illusionist performances, and mumbling lyrics through lemonade-coated tongues at Gardens by the Bay — and the immense gratitude I have for my parents who have given me the best gifts of time and love not just on this special day but also every day while I was growing up.

Thank you also to God, who further unearths with each year the magic of Christmas beyond the traditions and the symbols, the wrapped presents and the tree. Thank you, Father, for helping me find Christmas in my heart.

Wishing all of you and your families a wonderful and blessed holiday season. ❤

Merry Christmas, 🎄🎄🎄

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🎅🎅🎅

Happy 53rd Birthday, Singapore!

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Local icons for the 2017 National Day designed by homegrown illustrators The Fingersmith Letterpress & Festive Folks, http://thesmartlocal.com/read/quirkiest-hdb

To the sunny island-state who fed me a diet of chicken rice, pineapple tarts, dim sum, herbal soups, bubble tea, zi char, and Pokka green tea,

To the towering institutions, well-worn wooden lecterns, scribbled whiteboards, laughter-filled halls, bleary-eyed mornings before sunrise, and the strict, snarky but wise teachers who educated me, equipped my mind and oriented me towards the world,

To all the exams I’ve taken, the essays I’ve written, this looming belief in meritocracy that pulsates in the system and dominated much of my life, all the invisible privileges I’ve received growing up in a place that values the mind and its gauged merit, the unprecedented opportunities that would not have been possible for an immigrant family elsewhere,

To this country that anchored a girl to a metaphorical homeland that rises to the fore, even amidst the many heritages that crowd within her frame,

I say: Singapore, you have a big heart—you embraced into your fold a family with three nationalities and, although your own culture is hotly debated and nebulously defined, you embedded in an itinerant girl something she can never abandon—a love for cities that are created in the shape of you.

I also say: in times when people tightly grasp at territorial borders and erect concrete walls between one imagined community and another, I look back in wonder at the path that led me to where I am today,

And I could not have stood here, were it not for you.

So, happy 53rd birthday, my dearest Singapore! 🎂❤️☀️