in silence

Month: October, 2014

star charts

When I was four, I believed I was immortal. Or rather, when I was four I believed six was the age of infinity. And that is why my email address is rachel_xxxx6@hotmail.com – four year old me had thought ahead. “When I am six, it’ll be exactly my age”. I clearly never thought I’d grow up.

But I did. I grew up to learn to stand with my tummy tucked in, toes pointed, every inch of my seven year old self straining for perfection that was never really in me. I grew up gazing at my ballet teacher through a faltering telescope. Every star that followed the other faded slowly into oblivion along her freckled earlobes, her piercings tracing a constellation in the milky way. Because when you are so small, everything looks so big.

As I strained my neck to reach for the single constellation I began plotting the pathway of my life about it. I wonder if you can plot a graph of every light that has been in your life from your birth till now. That first flood of light that takes you whole as you swim out of your mother’s womb, I cannot remember it, it doesn’t count.

The second is the yawn of day crawling through foreign blinds in a country where the sun wakes at 4 am instead of 7. The third the fireflies that evade me by dancing through trees that at 14, I had forgotten how to climb. The fourth lightning as it cast its blistering shadow over the thinning plastic as we watched the silhouette of yesterday’s laundry fly off our tent.

Can we plot a graph that traces the fireflies, the blistering nights and everything in between? I am only searching for a thread that will bind me to the constellations I’ve been tracing since my birth. Because with the stars running further and further away from us, their trails turning redder and redder in their wake, my eyes can only mirror the star trails as I chase after their shadows in the dark. Physicists tell us that when an object moves further away from you, it’s light grows increasingly red.

All I can tell you is that as birth moves further and further away from me, my light is burning out.

white-washing

Recently I’ve gotten to thinking how much I used to white-wash what I wrote. The characters I created, the worlds I created. Whether these characters were created as part of a narrative piece or as a game. When my sister and I used to play The Sims, I never thought to give my families Chinese surnames. They were never the Lim family, the Tan family or the Ng family. It was always McStar or Green or Armstrong. I created worlds for the characters I created in my head to live although in reality I had no way of piecing together those worlds.

I was born and bred in Singapore. By nationality, I am Singaporean. By ethnicity, I am Chinese. Singapore is known to be a highly globalised, cosmopolitan city. My classmates in film class and I laugh at how film productions tend to come to Singapore when they’re looking to shoot in a city of the future. Here, although the majority of the population has Asian ethnic roots, our lingua franca is English. English is the language that is taught in all government schools as a first language. In the schools I have grown up in, most of my peers rarely speak their Mother Tongue at home – English is our go-to language for any form of conversation. Yet, despite our very much globalised city, our whitewashed buildings and education system, our skyscrapers of metal and glass, at the bottom of it all there is still something markedly different about our culture that means the lifeworlds I tried to imagine for the McStar, Green and Armstrong family I created were lifeworlds I had never been a part of.

Yes, the language our entire education system is based on might be English. Yes, the lifestyle that the affluent enjoy in Singapore might be very similar to the ideal of an affluent lifestyle as propagated by the western media. However, our roots are not something so easily shaken off, thank goodness. We are known for our use of Singlish which is a pidgin form of English created by including phrases that are unique to the various ethnic groups that exist in Singapore – the Chinese, the Malay and the Indian. Adding lah and leh to the end of our sentences, describing an experience as shiok or a dish as sedap can only be understood properly in the context of Singapore, and possibly with our Malaysian neighbours.

While I am definitely more comfortable expressing myself in English than I am in Mandarin, my Mother Tongue, there are some words that simply come more naturally to me in Mandarin. Take 阿嬷 (ah ma) for example – the Mandarin term for Grandmother. I will never feel the same sense of intimacy and kinship that I feel when I say 阿嬷 if I were to replace it simply with Grandmother. I have come to realize that, to some extent, the language that reminds me of family, of kinship is still ultimately my Mother Tongue. With it comes a more relaxed, laid-back version of myself that is harder to locate outside of the house, harder to locate when I am pushing myself to be seen in the most presentable, put together manner possible.

Language is a key medium through which we locate our identity. For years I understood this but refused to represent myself honestly. Whenever I wrote on a public platform as a child, my characters kept (what I believed were) All-American names, living in the quintessential American family, of which I had absolutely no real knowledge about. Perhaps I did not know it at the time but I was subconsciously locating my identity in a world I had never been a part of.

Alas, many years have passed and in the past year or so, I have learnt to be a lot comfortable in presenting myself honestly through what I write. This doesn’t mean pushing myself to constantly take reference from my Chinese roots in my writing – it doesn’t mean I have to use a Chinese character in ever piece, doesn’t mean I have to employ Singlish in every other sentence. Because that’s not who I really am and because some pieces simply don’t need that. However, when pieces require that element to be real, I no longer deny them it. When writing about my grandmother, I cannot avoid referring to her as 阿嬷 at least once throughout the whole piece, if in the title. I cannot avoid describing the dishes she cooks with their actual terms of Sambal KangkongSoon Hock. I cannot, and will no longer whitewash them again to be a bowl of salad or baked fish on a platter.

I have come to acknowledge the fact that I feel a need to write because of who I am as a person and hence I cannot truly write without acknowledging who that person is and how she has come about. I cannot write without acknowledging the pieces of my ethnicity and my culture that have shaped me into who I am today. If there comes a day where I find myself writing from a different place, writing not from a tiny island at the tip of Malaysia, then perhaps the way I write and what I write will change again. But if that is to happen, it is to happen naturally. It is to happen because a new facet of myself is being built by the changing environments that I am in and now because I have falsely created a new environment for myself out of failure to recognise and be proud of the one that I exist in.

When I write, I write about emotions and snippets in time, many of these things I hope are universal to people living across the globe and are relatable across different cultural contexts. I am humbled whenever anyone tells me that what I write struck a chord to them, meant something to them, whether or not they live a thousand miles away or are right here at my doorstep. I will continue to write to address these universal emotions and universal snippets in time but when I cannot fully address what I am feeling or what I seek to invoke without placing into context who I am and where I come from, I refuse to deny it anymore.

阿嬷,我爱你

The face is the illiterate’s notebook.

When my grandmother goes to the optometrist, she uses the chart which, instead of carrying letters our whitewashed tongues have been taught to read, displays only the letter E facing four different directions. She needs only to tell the doctor which way it is pointing – if need be she can skip the speech and point along with it, silent.

But in that room, it can never be silent because her pacemaker heart is ticking. My grandmother is no crocodile from a Disney movie but from her Tick-Tock, Tick-Tock I know when she is near me. My grandmother’s heart is a clock, counting up the seconds she spends on this island, counting down the nervous moments she has left in the optometrist’s room.

When my grandfather died she joked, “At least when I die, with my heart it will be fast. No more”. My mother did not think her joke was funny.

The fortune teller reads wealth, health and happiness from the lines on our palms. But in my grandmother’s fingers I read the recipe for my favourite sambal kangkong, black pepper prawns, my cousin’s soon hock. In her eyes I read concern as it is scribbled on the speckled skin that scrunches up when they see the rash on my joints, the bruises on my knees. In her stiff neck my mother reads the signs of a possible heart attack as she hastens to get her to see a doctor.

Since my grandfather’s death, my grandmother has refused to move in with any of us. In her time capsule of a flat with her familiar floral covers over the sofa older than I am, a dim light hangs gently on. “Aunty -” The metal front gate rattles. There is camaraderie in the way her neighbour writes the results of the daily lottery on paper for her knowing that, alone, she has no way of sourcing them out herself.

The light in her apartment is slowly dimming but in the failing light, I ask for permission to read her story. From her laugh-lines, wrinkles, disappearing teeth, I take it all in.

thank you Proust

Haven’t posted in ages so I thought I would today. However, this isn’t written by me – I’ve been in a bit of a dry spell lately, maybe I’ll try tonight. For now, here’s something from Tarkovsky’s Sculpting in Time: Reflections on the Cinema that we read in film class. It’s actually written by Proust I believe.

“The steeples seemed so far away, and we appeared to be making so little progress towards them, that I was amazed when, a few minutes later, we stopped in front of Martinville church. I did not know the cause of the pleasure I had felt from seeing them on the horizon, and it struck me as very laborious to have to try and discover that cause; I wanted those lines, stirring in the sunlight, to be stored away in my head, not to have to think about them anymore…”
“Without actually telling myself that what was hidden behind the steeples of Martinville must bear some relation to a fine sentence, since it had come to me in the form of pleasurable words, I asked the doctor for pencil and paper, and, despite the jolting of the buggy, in order to ease my conscience and obey my own enthusiasm, I composed the following fragment…”
“I never thought about the page subsequently, but at the moment when I finished writing it, there in the corner of the box where the doctor’s coachman usually put the chickens he had bought in Martinville market, I felt so happy, so freed by it from those steeples and from what was hidden behind them, that, as if I myself were a hen who had just laid an egg, I started to sing at the top of my voice.”

I don’t believe I’ve read a piece that’s moved me so much before. It encapsulates everything I feel about writing and the need to distil the moments around me into sentences. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

%d bloggers like this: