A few months ago, I was weaving my way through a subway station with my friend, Geri.
We were talking Asia and moving from it, since she and her husband Jack, who have lived in Asia for several years and are unabashed Asiaphiles, were returning to America only a month or so later.
“What will you miss, Geri?”
A cluster of black-haired schoolgirls in plaid parochial school uniforms shuffled past us in their white athletic shoes, chirping and giggling hands over mouths, each of their back packs many times their combined weight.
“Oh. . .just about everything.”
A hunched grandmother hobbled in front of us, grandson’s pudgy hand in her veiny clutch, her face a study in erosion, shoulder blades protruding under the stretch of her thin floral blouse, legs (thinner probably than my forearm) barely discernable under baggy pink stretch pants. Neon purple house slippers.
“So what do you mean, ‘everything’? The buildings? The access to the rest of Asia? The food courts? The concert hall? The Botanic Gardens?”
People darted toward approaching trains, heads down, shoulders bearing so many back packs, most referring to their iPod, iPhone, iPad, their i-what-have-you. A small man, maybe 4 ft tall and 35 kilos—average size here—wearing an official-looking blue jumpsuit, swept the floors with a natural bristle bamboo-handled broom. I nodded to thank him. He smiled back, flashing more holes in his mouth than teeth. There was a tattoo of an impressive Chinese dragon spitting flames up the side of his neck.
“I’ll miss dark hair. All this wonderful, dark hair.” She was fading off in thought. “And little things. So many, many little things.”
(Geri, I should note, has very dark hair, very fair skin, and is very slight. Everywhere we go, she passes for a near or far Easterner—Israeli? Pakistani? Vietnamese? Laotian?— until she opens her mouth and speaks. And speaking of speaking, I might mention that Geri has all her teeth.)
Not long after that subway conversation, I found out we were moving, too, and since then I’ve been alert to the little things I’ll miss.
Geri took dark hair already, so I’ll give the next things I’ll miss.
Little things. I will miss little.
People here are little. At least littler, for the most part, that I am. Next to the general smallness that surrounds me, I fee like a maypole, a redwood, a Hulk. By western standards I am average, I suppose, and didn’t surprise anyone in Oslo, Munich, New York or Paris when shopping for size 10 shoes. But here I am always met with an aghast, “Hen da de jiao!” (“What big feet!”), which makes me wish there were still places to get these paddles of mine bound.
The smallness in others makes me restraint myself. Already feeling overbearing just standing there breathing, I try to rein in my volume and gestures so as not to blow anyone over or away. I like wondering how an adult visibly smaller than my already skeeeny twelve-year-old son, can ever eat. Does she? Do they? Do they get their whole bodies bound, I wonder?
I’ll miss the little shoe repair man whose open air shop in is no more than a shoe box on a curb, and is one of my regular haunts. He crouches in a little splotch of shadow, and whacks away at people’s shoes while they catch lunch, barefoot, I guess, in a neighboring hawker center. He does good, cheap work. And is very, excruciatingly, physiologically impossibly little.
When I pay him, he does a little thing I will miss. I hand him my 20 SGD bill with two hands, of course, nodding and looking him right in the eye, (handing with one hand and avoiding eye contact when paying is rude and sends bad luck), and he reaches up to take the bill either with two hands or, if he’s got a tool in one hand, he takes the bill with the free hand, the other hand bent to touch the inside of the elbow of his extended arm. This gesture is repeated every time I exchange anything with anyone — business or credit cards, a receipt, money, a gift. We extend with two hands, receive with two hands, (or at least with the one hand touching the inside of the extended arm’s elbow), nod slightly, and look one another in the eye.
Little. Civil. I’ll miss it.
There’s another person, a little woman, I will miss, although she has no idea I will. She wanders through this hawker center, selling individual packets of tissues for one SGD each. When you buy your platter of baby kai lan (my absolute favorite leafy green vegetable doused in garlic and oyster sauce), you don’t automatically get napkins. You pay extra, from a roving napkin vendor. I thought it rude to take a picture of her, so you must imagine: she has a case of scoliosis that reduces what must be a 4 ft frame to 3 ft, making her smaller than my nephew, who is five years old. Her silent, pleated face tells stories I’m not even worthy enough to listen to.
Then there are the little ladies strolling Orchard. I will miss them. “Orchard” means Orchard Road, the shopping boulevard slicing in half Singapore’s commercial center like a cashier’s receipt unrolled to a length of about three kilometers, three dozen interlocked anchor stores, or a year’s wages, whichever comes first. This is the mani-pedi crowd, who are, again, remarkably little but made less so by wearing platformed heels that weigh as much as they do themselves, doubling both their weight and height in one teetering step. (And who said stilettos can’t be functional?)
The skirts are little and the shorts are littler, leaving little to the imagination. The handbags and false eyelashes, however, are not little. In fact, my boys have sometimes wondered aloud about the caloric expenditure from balancing on such shoes and carrying a hardware-encrusted handbag and holding up the weight of a patio awning on each eyelid. And in case I have misled you, these ladies are not what you might be thinking they are. There is legalized prostitution in certain areas of Singapore—Geylang is the most reputed zone of ill repute— and there are prostitutes who solicit actively after hours along Orchard Road. But what I am describing here are your average daytime shoppers. I will miss their attention to little details.
I will miss, too, how the women carry parasols against the sun. And when there is no parasol, a book, a placemat, a plucked palm leaf. I’ve seen them all. Flawless pale skin is the beauty standard here, and equatorial sun is blistering, so Asian women are serious about their parasols. And I never, ever leave the house without a little collapsible umbrella. I will miss needing that.
When the parasol women laugh, they draw their hands to their faces, covering their open mouths and teeth, in a Geisha-esque gesture of modesty. At first, the hand-over-mouth gesture puzzled me. But before long, I realized I was flapping both hands over my mouth every time I laughed. So I suppose I will not miss that, since I will take it with me.
Little signs charm me here in Singapore, like the one over the public toilet in one shopping center:
Ladies, please do not stand on seat for your performance.
Hmmmm. Little details like that just don’t seem to occur to you in Switzerland. But when you’ve used a public (squatter) toilet in Beijing or Xiamen as I have, you know that some habits are hard to break. And a sign is needed.
There are also the electronic driver alert signs suspended above the major motorways. They glowingly report of an upcoming jam, of the tree pruning, of the radar-patrolled zone you are entering around the bend. But my favorite little sign is the genteel, homely warning:
Drive carefully. Think of your loved ones.
When I drive on that motorway, I often have to enter toll roads, but because of the ultra-efficient ERP System (Electronic Road Pricing), I don’t have to queue up at some toll booth, dig for coins under the passenger seat, drop the money in a funnel or give it to a bored toll booth attendant, only to lurch on my way again. Instead, there are detectors suspended above all toll roads, which read the encoded cardholder installed in the front window of my vehicle. It looks like this:
That little contraption (and I am going to miss it!) kindly beeps with each automatic deduction and, when it s approaching empty, reminds me again to top up my card.
A little nifty, don’t you think?
And when I enter virtually any parking garage (of which there seems to be an endless abundance), the ERP system reads my card, beeps me in and out, without me ever as much as rolling down a single window to insert a single ticket.
If I want to park in the open air and not in a covered garage, there is another option that involves punching out by hand on a card the year, month, day and hour of arrival and placing this card on my dashboard. It is a goofy system, to be honest, but I find it so tactile and yesteryear, that I have grown attached to it. All those itsy-bitsy punch holes. I’m going to miss them.
Say you aren’t keen on driving (it’s the left side of the road here, remember), then you can take a taxi. Since they are subsidized by the government to keep the number of private vehicles down, taxis are relatively inexpensive. They are also reliable, all over the place, and a fabulous way to get free Chinese lessons and culture capsules from the drivers. What I will also miss about taxis, (besides the cheap fare, and built-in Chinese and culture lectures), are the little dashboard shrines complete with statues of goddesses or Buddhas, incense and a stack of fruit intended to appease ancestors.
What I will miss about the taxi drivers themselves, are their long fingernails. One driver, who was especially gabby, was happy to explain to me why his nails were at least four inches long, and his pinky nail even longer. “They are good luck tokens,” he explained from his rear view mirror. “Long nail, long life.” So they soak their hands in special herbal tinctures to make the nail thick and chip resistant. Those little taxi driver nails. I won’t forget them.
And I’m only getting started here. There are so many minute details I find I’m hooked on. Chop sticks. Rice. Eating rice grain-by-grain with chop sticks. Seeing people squatting to eat rice grain-by-grain with chop sticks. Lots of people squatting or leaning deep over their fragrant bowls, flung into loud squawking conversations, every other word a “Lah?” or “Ah!” or “Nah!”, that verbal burst above the chatter like a burp above a bowl of rice.
Those burps, too, I will miss.
Smaller still, I will miss golf-ball sized snails on my garden wall. I’ll miss the freakishly translucent geckos on my ceiling, and even more the ones burrowed deep in my handbag at 5:00 a.m. when I am looking for my car keys in the pitch dark. And I’ll miss a certain flock of teeny birds that, in early autumn, dive and loop in a pelt of neon yellow across the china blue sky just beyond my bedroom window. They are my Fruit Loop birds, as unbelievable in color as they are in zip.
There is so much of the little I will miss from Singapore. But I can’t write more, because I’m supposed to be filling out reams of online customs forms this very minute. Now I’m perched atop a cardboard box at the end of a hall, typing away while a crew of Indonesian movers pushes through our household. An advancing army, they have driven me to the edge of my territory, filling their assignment of padding and then boxing things in cardboard before the steamy sea voyage.
They are clucking away in Bahasa. What a florid, trilling language, and I will miss this sound as I will miss hearing ten other languages floating around me as a matter of course every day. They are barefoot, these men, good humored, serene, and skinny as sticks but tough as (a taxi driver’s) nails.
When we wanted to buy them lunch for their break, we asked what they would all like to eat.
“Madame,” said the leader, a guy with the shoulder-length blackish hair of an aging rock star and eyes as golden as the moon awaiting an eclipse, “It can be anything. Only if it is halal.”
He said the last phrase with his palms pressed together as if in prayer, fingers touching the underside of his chin. Those moon eyes dipped low.
Well, just so happens, McDonald’s (at least Singapore’s) does halal.
A big sheet of moving-grade cardboard spread wide in a carport serves well as both a midday prayer carpet and a picnic spot. The crew used it for both.
It’s the little things you’ll miss. Like Big halal Macs.
© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and melissadaltonbradford.wordpress.com, 2012. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.