“Someday soon this won’t be normal anymore,” Stephanie observed glancing up momentarily from her plate of white rice, oily vegetables, and saucy mystery meat, fork and spoon gesturing conductor-like to our surroundings.
I began to take in the environment more carefully: a stout Chinese woman shouting shrilly at her son over the clang of metal spatulas tapping metal woks; an old, glassy-eyed uncle without a shirt or shoes sipping what must have been his fifth Tiger of the early evening; a timid, petite girl stealing shy glimpses our way while chopping hot red peppers to make the kind of sauce that clears your sinuses when you look at it; a beer girl, just passed her prime, wandering between crowded, yellowing plastic tables and chairs. “When did all this become normal?” I wondered, racking my brain for the exact moment when I walked passed one of the outdoor food courts, which often smell of fish insides and curry spices, and didn’t bat an eye.
But here I am, 14 months beyond my first Hawker center experience when I sat poking balls of white fluff with an awkwardly held chopstick in an effort to reveal whether the inside stuffing looked edible or not (I have since discovered that these snow-ball like pastries filled with anything from pork to lotus to red bean are called bao). And I haven’t once thought about the pungent smells of the seafood stall, the kind of health code violations that my dad would probably spot in the kitchen of the stall from which I ordered my mixed vegetable rice, or the sweat trickling down my lower back, the heat of the night amplified by the cooking fires and the close proximity of people. I then look down at my own plate and realize, in true Singaporean fashion, I’ve subconsciously grabbed my spoon with my right hand and am using my fork to scoop the food onto the spoon before eating off the spoon only. It is considered impolite to put the fork in your mouth.
All this, the thoughts, the sensations, the realizations, happens in a fleeting moment. I look at Steph, shake my head, roll my eyes, and smile an understanding smile that slowly fades as we lean back in our chairs lost in our own thoughts. “When did all this become normal?”
It is hard to believe at this moment that those people and things which have become such a normal part of my everyday life in Singapore will soon again be exotic, strange, a memory. It is even more difficult to believe that that which used to be normal in my life in America will probably, at first, seem exotic, strange, a memory re-incarnated.
So, I guess what I am trying to say as I prepare to return to America is: please bear with me when I walk into Super WalMart and nearly burst into tears, because everything I need is all in one location. Please bear with me when I have a craving for Indian food and scoff at the Mexican I’ve been craving all year in Singapore, because Little India has been just a train ride away. Please bear with me when I turn into a lane of oncoming traffic, because I’ve been riding on the other side of the rode. Please bear with me when I ask you to explain once again why we can’t go to the beach in January, because I have been living a three-hour plane ride from Bali. Please bear with me when I walk snottily passed every Chinese restaurant in the food court, because it is not real Chinese food. Please bear with me when I say a phrase that sounds like English but you cannot really fully understand what I mean, because I have been speaking primarily to Singaporean adolescents all year. Please bear with me when I complain about how cold I am, because I have been living in a sauna. Please bear with me when I speak of the foods, cultures, histories and geographies of Southeast Asian countries as if everyone should know and relate to what I’m talking about, because I’ve learned a lot this year and it is all incredibly interesting to me. Please bare with me as I readjust to life in America, because they say reverse culture shock is often worse than its predecessor.
But, to lighten the culture shock blow a bit, for the next five weeks I will be on a vacation adventure which should leave me, while quite happy, exhausted and ready to return home for Christmas. As I make my way across Myanmar, India, Bangkok, Laos and Vietnam, I look forward to the final surprises Asia has left in store for me.
For now, I am packing my life into a backpack and three suitcases and enjoying my last views of the Singapore skyline, my last picnics in the botanical gardens, my last farewells with my students and friends ,and my last Hawker Center meals. You’ve been good to me…bon voyage Singapore!