Good Reading : August 2006
extract from Weeks are made of days, months of weeks, as I observe and try to understand the complexity of the family and the extraordinary culture I now live in. Ah Chee is a schoolteacher. Pupils attend either morning or afternoon school in Singapore, a system designed to accommodate the many eager students. Lunch for the family is at a hawker’s stall, or bought from a roving hawker, his food – wonderfully spicy – car ried in leaf-lined baskets swinging at either end of a long bamboo pole on his shoulder. My favourite quickly becomes hokkien noodles with prawns. My baby son rapidly becomes more Chinese than Caucasian in his appetite, eating chilli blachan, garlic and ginger as though born to it. The family gathers and eats together for the evening meal. I’m constantly amazed at the delectable food my mother- in-law cooks in the primitive kitchen. I begin to observe and help with the meal preparations, squatting beside her on the wet concrete floor with my baby beside me. One of my favourite dishes is pork in rice balls. I push morsels of luscious cooked pork into the centre of rice balls, then wrap them in leaves, bind them with string and finally steam them in layered cane steamers. The father-in-law’s animosity has quickly become evident and meals for me become a time of terrible anxiety. His snide comments, grumbles and constant complaints twist my gut with trepidation and my appetite diminishes under the stress. Although pregnant I begin losing weight. Like a neglected pet dog I am fed and housed, ‘just there’, as I inevitably sit quietly with my baby on my lap and listen to the con- versations as inconspicuously as possible. And all the while malevolence begins to grow like a weed, choking out any goodness trying to flourish. The room beside the toilet is the bathroom. To shower you stand and tip a dipper full of water over you, soap, then rinse – that is the shower. A wash-amah comes every day. Her hands are red raw, wrinkled and peeling from soaping, scrubbing and sloshing in the two tin basins as she squats on the wet concrete floor. To my shame my clothes and Dawai’s are added to the collection.The clothes are then threaded through bamboo poles and inserted into hollow round pipes cemented into the building. These are the flags I’d seen overhanging the street on the first day of my arrival. I am perpetually confused by the contrast between the obvious poverty in which we live and the expensive jewellery I wear, but I am too perplexed to ask. I try desperately to find a place in this household of complex customs. BOOKBITE by Judith L McNeil the girl with the cardboard port 50 goodreading ı AUGUST 2006 As an Australian teenager, Judith L McNeil fell in love with a Singaporean man named Richard, but her dreams of happiness were soon dashed. Annoyed at the disruption to his studies their baby son represented, he sent his pregnant wife Judy and their baby to live in Singapore with his family while he remained behind in Australia. So, still a teen- ager, Judy found herself living in a strange country with people she neither knew nor understood.