After wading through perfunctory pleasantries with my long-distant relative driver—I wasn’t fluent in the Hockchiang dialect, the only tongue he knew—I turned my attention to my cousin next to me.
“Surprise surprise,” I greeted my cousin. We decided to occupy the back seat together. The front seat went to a stranger, another young man looking for paradise, I suppose.
“When did you decide to go to Singapore?” he said. He lived in the village. I lived in town. So we didn’t talk that much during school. He was a kid of few words, or no words. I remember only once I went over to his house to borrow or copy some notes while I was still living in the village. “So you are not one of those planning to go to England for teacher’s training?” he asked curiously.
“Do you know anyone going for the training?” I avoided deliberately answering a personal question.
I didn’t expect him to know much about anything because I didn’t see him rubbing shoulders with any of the students in school. He was more of a loner, not a team player. At school he kept mostly to himself, at times with another boy from the village.
For a brief moment I avoided the Singapore question. I was completely in the dark or semi-dark myself as to who was doing what or going where. I myself did not keep in touch with many of my classmates or involved myself in any deliberate conversations regarding our futures and ambitions. And future destinations. Nothing unusual that we went our different ways, chasing after our different dreams—assuming some had dreams—without saying much after our high school graduation. Those were the days…
“So I assume you are looking for something to do in Singapore?” I asked. Lights now illuminated sections of our trail as the car headed straight south—the pull seemed greater than gravity—bypassing exits and rest stops. And small towns. And the air too was cooling down for a pleasant ride. It was dusk outside. Soon the stars would blanket the sky above.
“You know my cousin, the one who works for a bank in Singapore? He wrote me a letter suggesting for me to try an interview with his bank. He thinks there is a possibility for me to work there,” he said with some enthusiasm in his voice. At least he had something to look forward to, I gathered.
“He has been working for the same bank for some time,” I said.
“At least ten years or more. With his help I might be able to get a job…starting at the bottom.” He seemed grateful for the opportunity. His optimism was written all over his face.
“You are lucky. You will probably get it with his help,” I added. I somehow believed he would be offered a job at the bank. “I know you are good in math, right?”
“So-so, but I am willing to try…So where will you be staying in Singapore?”
“Father is there right now. I really don’t know anything about anything. I only know Seventh Uncle and his wife live in Singapore.” It didn’t seem appropriate to mention Uncle was involved with gambling and prostitution. And I might be the beneficiary of the dirty money. I continued, “We have relatives, actually children of my First Uncle, living and working there. I have never met any one of them. So I don’t know where I will be staying.” I wished I had more exciting news to share or thrill my cousin with. Everything seemed so hazy and tentative. To him I wasn’t too enthused about the trip south.
So back to the first questions my cousin asked me: When did you decide to go to Singapore? Followed by, How come you were not one of those going to England for teachers’ training?
The first question was easy. At age fifteen, I made the tough, inevitable decision to leave the village—essentially the pigs and the rubber trees and the farm and Mother, a living hell—to live with Father and his mistress in a nearby town. My goal was to get a good education. I had two more years of high school, thinking I would follow Father to Singapore after graduation.
And during those final two years of high school, not a single fellow classmate or a teacher—maybe I was not in the right places—ever mentioned or suggested focusing my energies and hopes on becoming a teacher. Had I heard of it or even a slight intimation by someone about the possibility of a teaching career, I might not be journeying to Singapore now, looking half-heartedly for something unknown or beyond my reach. The trip to Singapore was based on a false hope. Nobody was waiting for me. Nothing was waiting for me. A conundrum of my own creation.
(Eventually—years later—I did become a teacher and taught English and economics in America because that was my calling. Maybe I missed the voice at age sixteen or seventeen. I swear to God I would have pursued a teaching profession had I known of the opportunity to apply for it after high school—and avoided the unnecessary, long, arduous, painful detour to arrive at my ultimate decision to enter the teaching profession in the United States of America. What a stressful journey. Please don’t tell me it’s God’s will. Sorry, I don’t believe in a benevolent god that would do this to me. So what if I graduated high school at age seventeen? Many of my classmates left for teachers’ training in England right after high school graduation.)