Very soon before sleep silenced my whole body, I succumbed to nostalgia, more like watching a newsreel of my entire life from the beginning until now. Torrent of images began to seep through the cracks in my brain like water leaking through an unguarded hole in a broken roof. A total of seventeen eventful years easily compressed to seventeen minutes or less on my mind screen. I might be searching for some kind of link between my past, the present, and the future. Progression, yes, but what about progress…maybe I was hoping to find answers to Why am I going to Singapore? Why does everything I do have to have a reason or a rationale or a motivation? Does anyone know or care what I am doing? What do I know about life at age seventeen?
Fast backward…without sound and orchestral accompaniment, I saw myself playing marbles with the kids in the neighborhood. I was six or seven at the time. I was raped by a relative. Brother’s wedding meant lots of delicious foods for everyone. I transferred from the Chinese school to the mission school and started my English education. I was eager to learn to tap rubber trees. As I grew older, Mother became the taskmaster, whipping us to work harder and longer hours because our livelihood depended on the farm, pigs, and the rubber trees. We were at the mercy of international events causing the price of rubber to go up and down like a yoyo. Father pursued his own opium business without a care what went on in the family.
Fast forward…I realized I was going nowhere in the village if I continued the path Mother had for me: she was happy with a son—Brother, her own son—working in the farm and raising a family. I was adopted and early on I had a dream of my own. I refused to wear his shoes and follow in his footsteps. I wanted to go to school because I knew education would be my ticket to a better life beyond the village walls.
Life became a daily conflict with Mother because I was questioning and trying to alter her blueprint for my life and her beliefs and values. Worse, I refused to accept the status quo. I felt I didn’t belong in the village—like two people out of sync with each other. I felt like a stranger to my own people, the Chinese. It was no use making the sacrifices because I always felt poor, deprived, and neglected. Finally I ran away at age fifteen to live with Father and his mistress and a bunch of orphan-like kids. Life was different in a small town, away from the village. A whole different world.
I should have paid more attention at school, now given the freedom to pursue my dreams full-time.
I should have paid more attention to those fellow students who could have had a decisive influence in my high school life. Especially talk about future careers. I heard none of that.
I did graduate from high school and had a certificate to prove it.
The way to pause the on-going screening of my life was to open my eyes…lazily. And once shut, it continued. Few pauses because I was desperately searching for an answer to my question. No rewind was necessary because I knew what I was reviewing: only events that had colored my thinking, molded my character, challenged my core values, and threatened my future.
At the end of the newsreel—I humbly confess—I still did not have a clear idea of why I am going to Singapore. The facts or truth eluded me, like soap bubbles.
With eyes closed, I was exhausted, all choked up because I knew I wasn’t prepared to face a new world. I couldn’t return to the comfort of the small town I had just left behind. The future seemed dark and indifferent, like the outside.
Yes, we did stop outside Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaya. The driver went for some coffee. He had a long way to go. My cousin spoke briefly to the Chinese-speaking passenger. Something about planning to go to Formosa (today’s Taiwan), about furthering his Chinese education. Someone in my village—in fact a neighbor a block away—did choose to go to Formosa for his college education. The only Chinese university in Singapore seemed expensive and the admission requirements were tough. His reason to try Formosa was his uncle and his family lived there. Unlike Grandpa and the three hundred-plus people who sailed way south to Malaya, many in fact from the same Fujian Province settled just across the straits in Formosa from the mainland of China. Fujian Province and Formosa are like on opposite sides of a wide river. That close to each other.
I felt the air getting a little chilly outside the warmth of the car. The seat had been like a mother’s womb. The short interlude was refreshing. None of the passengers ate anything. Close to midnight. Back home we would have been in bed for at least three hours or so. Back home life was simple with almost nothing to entertain us or distract our mundane existence.
For example, there was no electricity in my village. Every once in a while we would brave the cool night air and bicycle to the nearby town (where I moved to) to see a movie or listen to a female singer—new exciting import—from Hong Kong or watch a circus (usually once a year). If you didn’t mind the Christians in the village prying into your private lives and beliefs, you could go down to Pasir Panjang—our fishing village—and watch the Chinese opera performances once a year, the fishermen’s way of celebrating their heathen god’s birthday. Or their safe returns from the ferocious, hungry seas. Imagine the simple wooden sampans fishermen used, devoured by the angry gods out in the open seas. These once-a-year opera celebrations were staged to do penance and to appease the inscrutable gods that ruled the oceans.
For years I followed Father—scorned and castigated by Christians in my village because the opera was strictly for the pagans—to the stage because he catered to some performers who were addicted to opium. I had the best front seat, you might say, getting to know some of the actors personally, before and after their heavy make-up and their metamorphosis into stunning mythical characters on stage. For some, opium made a difference in how they performed, with vigor and brilliance. Their painted faces also made them come alive, very much alive, on stage.
For the rest of the journey along the west coast of Malaya, I was resigned to my fate…come what may. I had absolutely no control over anything from now on. I had surrendered myself to the Unknown. I knew I would be less spontaneous and talkative from now on. Only one thing left for me to do: I looked forward to seeing Father and the gang in Singapore.