Saturday, March 23, 2013


Here is an excerpt from a memoir I have written.  It’s not specifically about being a TCK, but I do touch on my life in Asia.  In this section I talk about being thrust into a new Asian culture, Singapore.  We moved there in December of 1977, the middle of my senior year in high school:

Singapore has to be one of the most unusual conglomeration of cultures.  Its name translates as “Lion City”; Singapore is inhabited by Chinese, Malay, Indian and European folks.  It was once a British colony; the traffic drives on the left.  The influence of Great Britain is everywhere: there is a huge cricket pitch downtown, and the Raffles Hotel is one of its most famous landmarks.  The hotel was named after Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore.  The famous “Long Bar” at the hotel was the birthplace of the Singapore Sling cocktail.  Once an elegant emblem of the British Empire, the hotel in the late 1970’s had lost its sheen and glimmer and had fallen into sad disrepair. 

A visitor to Singapore will meander through parts of the city that are predominantly Chinese, only to turn the corner and find himself in the Indian quarter on (the incongrously named) Arab Street.  Little open-air shops line the uneven streets, with burlap bags leaning into each other, overstuffed with spices and beans, and diaphanous batik printed dresses hanging from hooks on the ceiling, turning and flowing in the warm breeze.  Back in the day, a trip to Bugis Street was in order; the parade of flashy transvestites was a sight to see for all the voyeurs in us.  (Sadly, they’re not around any more; Bugis street is just another pedestrian mall).

Even closer to the equator than the Philippines, Singapore’s heat can be unbearable.  Every afternoon, like clockwork, there would come a downpour, sheets of rain that would lash for 30 minutes.  After the rain stopped, the humidity was as thick as soup.  We lived in a concrete block of five townhouses on Shelford Road (more evidence of Singapore’s British-ness) off one of the main thoroughfares.  Our  neighbors were veddy, veddy English.

I only spent six months in Singapore before I left for college, but I was able to experience a good bit.  My mother and I visited the Sultan’s palace in Malaysia, across the narrow causeway that separates Singapore from the Asian continent.  We sampled as much of the multicultural cuisine as we could, including the food stalls in the median of Bukit Timah Road.  We ate typical British fare at Foster’s and Chinese delicacies at Shang Palace at the Shangri-La Hotel.  There was a little guy who grilled spicy chicken satay by the pool at the hotel, where we stayed for the first month.  I still have a vivid memory of another restaurant called the Omar Khayyam, across the street from the American Embassy, which had the tastiest Indian food.  The taste of curry, with naan and yogurt to cool the heat, always takes me back.

We flew to Singapore the day after Christmas.  I had said good-bye to my current flame, a smolderingly handsome Eurasian boy, with furtive kisses after the midnight mass the night before.  That morning, Mom, Dad and I had opened a few small gifts in our hotel room at the Manila Garden Hotel, which had been arranged around a tiny pinecone Christmas tree, before we packed our bags to head for the airport.  I was sick with a bad cold, adding to the sadness of having to leave the home that I had come to love.  I felt like my world was crumbling away.  There was no sympathy to be found from my parents.  My pleading to be allowed to stay to finish my senior year fell on deaf ears.  “Sorry, the company won’t pay for your school if you’re not living with us.”  A friend of my mother’s had offered to take me in, but the answer was a dismissive no. 

Digging into my suitcase soon after we arrived in Singapore, I sliced my finger on a razor blade.  Now I was experiencing a trifecta of pain: grief, illness, and now injury.  My misery was complete. 

As a very small consolation prize, my folks told me that I could go back to Manila for my birthday in May, which coincided with my (former) high school’s graduation and prom.  I spent my days in Singapore counting down each interminable day, one by agonizing one.  It was an eternity to me: each day seemed to last 25 hours.  I got an occasional letter from friends back in Manila, but their lives continued without me.  Even though my principal from Manila had graciously decided I had enough credits to graduate in December, my parents nonetheless handed down the edict that I would have to attend Singapore American School as a post-graduate.  Really?  Really?  In what universe was this fair to me?  Was it to keep me out of the house?  It didn’t matter.  I got to experience being the new kid yet again, at the tail end of my senior year. 

When we arrived, it was at a point in the school year called “Interim Semester”.  There were myriad choices of courses to take in this longer semester break: trips to Nepal, to Hong Kong, Japan.  Other courses were more mundane: remedial chemistry, robotics, chess!  I looked longingly in the brochure  at a trip to New Caledonia, an island east of Australia in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.  “Nope!” was the answer from dear old mom and dad, and instead, I enrolled in “Advanced Math Word Problems.” 

So, every morning I had to trudge to school to sit in class learning about Train A traveling east at 50 miles per hour, and train B traveling west at 40, well, you get the picture.  What had I done to warrant this punishment?  It was only a little more exciting than watching paint dry.  Talk about adding insult to injury.

When the “real” semester started, I only half-heartedly participated in my classes.  What was the point?  I already had my diploma; it had arrived, unceremoniously stuffed in the mailbox in a manila envelope.  I had a “small world” moment when we found out that my math teacher had lived in Brussels; he had been my older sister’s teacher as well.  His wife had taught fifth grade at the International School there.

I got an office assistant job with the guidance counselor.  Sometimes when the secretary was out, I would type letters to my mom.  Filled with minutiae of the day; that I had taken an envelope to the headmaster.  I sharpened some pencils.  I licked envelopes.

Then, the dreaded lunchtime would roll around.  You know that sick feeling you get when you get your tray and face a sea of people sitting in their little friendly groups, chatting away.  You take a deep breath and try to find an empty spot in which to sit, not feeling brave enough to walk up to a group and chirp, “Hi!  Mind if I sit here?”  A group of younger, bratty boys sat at the other end of the long table and threw peas at me.  “Hey, New Girl”.  Plop.  “Hey, what’s yer name?” Plop, plink. 

A very nice boy named Melvin took an interest in me, even though he had a girlfriend.  The girlfriend wasn't too thrilled with this, and I got a lot of nasty looks when I was walking around campus.  But Melvin took me to movies, and out to to eat, and came to work on homework with me.  It never went any further than that.  A TCK never forgets a kindness.  

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