in silence

carrot cake cities

let me tell you about the carrot cake man.
about the bells ringing in the void deck,
by the playground, you see his head
from the corridor, and you run down,
and he is there.

the carrot cake man would call and you
would run down to greet him. with an egg
from your mother’s kitchen if you wanted an egg
in your meal. sometimes, the police would come and he
would have to grab his things
and run. him, with the long basket balanced
on both ends, bamboo pole stretched long
over his back. running, running, away.

aunty roseline and uncle chiew are coming over tonight.
and they are bringing carrot cake. the home-made kind. the
sweet kind, orange, brown, cream cheese, moist bits.
my father’s disappointment: huh, this is carrot cake ah?

my childhood is filled with saturdays rolling out
of bed to the smell of grease, and egg, and turnip. brown
paper parcels and red rubber bands. graduating,
from the black carrot cake drenched in sweet sauce, to
white carrot cake, all egg and chili. (i am a big girl now)

my father’s act of love: walking to the coffee shop,
a 15-minute walk with the promise of sweat-drenched
t-shirts and maybe even a headache. but also food,
and the joy of waking your children up so they can jostle
with their chopsticks for the crispiest pieces, grease stains
on the living room floor.

when we were younger, we would compare
pot bellies. i always had a little paunch and my mother would joke,
“all inherited from your father”. we’d lie on our backs on
the bed and puff out our bellies. two sloping hills on pale islands,
i would laugh and laugh and laugh.

younger still, i found a playground between his legs.
humid afternoons the perfect lullaby, he would sleep with one
leg bent before him (itself a mountain) and the other propped
up on it (together, a cave). through the cave i would run,
from bed, to belly, and home again.

here it is spring but it is still snowing. the lightest
of snows. but somewhere else my plane is stranded
and i am here. in a house that is not my house, with a family
that is not my family. but there is a father, and a mom,
and a child, and a child.

a child yelling at her mother: you think you’re helping but you’re really not,
i’m stressed enough about it, will you just leave me alone?
a child on the edge of cutting in as his father and i talk
about kurdish film. the father says: you mean there are kurdish filmmakers?
it’s funny because that’s really not how i imagine kurdish people.
maybe the child says dad…, maybe the child lets out
exasperated laughter, maybe he doesn’t. but the father
is smiling so kindly and we laugh, and we laugh, and we laugh.

i am weeks away from leaving for college when my father
says over dinner: they are fair,  sometimes
there just aren’t people who are good enough.
men are just better leaders. there was so much anger that night.

days ago, my mother texts: i was thinking aloud with papa
and jie jie that your liberal arts education is not liberal enough.
i thought you want to learn to code? what about hard-core sciences,
like physics? go to MIT summer school! or Columbia! or Stanford!
i tell her i love her but am tired and going to bed.

somewhere else, it is always sticky with heat and there is a house that is
my house, and a family, that is my family. a father, a mom, a child.
i’m sure my father still walks to the coffee shop to buy food as a peace
offering after arguments. i’m sure my sister still rolls
out of bed to the smell of egg, and turnip, and grease. those
brown paper parcels, those red rubber bands.

when i was so small i weighed nearly nothing, i danced
on my father’s feet. the penguin dance. place your feet
on his, hold on tight, and let him do the dancing. that night i was so far
from the penguin dance, but so close to snow. i imagine
penguin feet on thin snow on new york city sidewalks, little
children dancing on the feet of their parents, little penguins
balancing in the night.

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the end of a semester. struggling through final essays, finding that i’m still the same old me! still struggling through my work at the last minute but pulling through, still finding moments to live and find beauty in the things around me though i’m not done with work hahahah there are things that are silly and full of comfort.

few more days till this semester is over. and then it’ll be harvest training and then it’ll be home. i’m looking forward to the plane ride a lot to be honest. just 22 hours of nothingness, of being able to sit and be and not worry about simply letting time wash by in a manner that i haven’t really been able to in such a long time. every semester at yale passes so quickly; we do so much, but everything just hurtles forward. not that there aren’t moments to sit and take things in, but there’s never time to be bored, never that much excess. which is a thing of luxury i think, but i’m also looking forward to the luxury of being on a plane with absolutely nothing pressing on my mind.

thinking about the goodbyes i have left to make. strange to think that in the next couple of days i will have to say bye to people who have come to mean something in my life, whom i have come to love in small ways, who i might (maybe) never see again? our lives are probably so much more mobile than we can imagine them to be in this very moment and perhaps our paths will all cross again sometime in the future. but for now these goodbyes have a sense of finality. i will miss you all, dear friends. sending all my love to all of you wherever in life you end up. i am grateful that our paths have crossed, if for the briefest of times.

some comfort in finding that you are finally moving closer to writing the way you want to write, saying the things you want to say, sharing the scenes you want to share! it’s taken so long and there were points where it felt like it was never going to happen but finally, these days, some days, it feels like it’s within reach and it feels like a small slice of comfort.

it’s been a semester of wondering what role things like moving, drawing, creating, and writing have in my life. (i say a semester but it’s really just a perpetual question of my life i think). but i’m looking through the posts on this page now and am wondering if perhaps it’s not such a bad thing if all these remain as small spaces of comfort for me. maybe it’s not such a terrible thing if i never really make anything of it, never make a major out of it, never make a career out of it. after all, there are still days where i can come back and look on the posts in this space and find some comfort and reliving the moments i was in when i wrote them, despite none of this feeling like Writing to me. after all, there is still so much joy in coming back to one of my first posts about tarkovsky and proust and still feeling their resonance – would i have remembered that moment and that text if i hadn’t recorded it down? probably not; what i am remembering is probably the image that i conjured and solidified upon transferring it to text, but it is some remembrance anyway.

still barely holding on to these things that feel important to me. but there is plenty to be thankful for. the experiences that i have had, the reminders that these things do matter, a phone call home with parents where everything is simple and easy, waking up to a photo of my mother with ice cream, conversations in a beautiful house a little while away from campus, little spaces of community.

i take a 10 minute nap and wake up to find that the sun is setting. my common room is shrouded in the last of the warm light of the day, spring scarf fabric; a gentle shawl of light draped quietly across the grey beige furniture, the clean white walls. no one has lived here before. i wake up and in my nap-haze this place feels like home. “home” not to conjure a sense of belonging (we are too far gone for me to pretend that this doesn’t feel like a place i belong to, that this doesn’t feel like a place i ‘come home’ to); simply what the tongue/ mind comes back to, the place that i grew up calling home. bedok reservoir, the pale yellow flats, the cats that roam around the estate, the marble floors, where the sun sets late, where i recognize the smell of all the food, where i took naps and woke up bleary-eyed and in time for dinner.

it’s been so long since i’ve even given in to the impulse to take a nap. for awhile now i’ve thought of myself simply as a person that doesn’t take naps. and maybe it was never a huge part of my life but in that moment, waking up, and for the briefest of seconds thinking that i was at home, my body remembered the way i used to fall asleep on the sofa in the living room, waking up to the imprint of cloth crumpled against my cheeks.

there are so many things and sensations i never fully give in too. times where i wonder if i am always on the brink of crying, of spilling over and saying, “this is it, this is all of it, just hold me for a little”. there is pride in the way i pull myself together. and it is not a falsity – when i say i am okay, i am okay, when i say i am good, i am good. so many things that still bring me little moments of joy and glee each day. walking out of my college early in the morning and hearing more birds chirping than i can count. being in a dance studio and finally figuring out a belay with a friend. gingerbread.

who knows. other things that i don’t feel like articulating right now. alas!! just a young person in the world!! figuring things out as people do. with the knowledge that i am lucky to be where i am, to be doing the things that i am, that it’s still scary and tiring sometimes but that nothing is too terrible.

carrot cake, remembering, and the ma-ta

mommy used to tell me about the carrot cake man who would come by the void deck. except this carrot cake isn’t the carrot cake with cream cheese; its dense, brown, fibrous bits. it’s really just turnip cake, its pale white paste either doused in soya sauce or soaked in egg, fried to some sort of a crisp, sometimes both. the carrot cake man would call and you would run downstairs to meet him, with an egg from your mother’s kitchen if you wanted an egg in your meal. sometimes the police would come and he would have to grab his things and run. him with the long basket balanced on both ends, bamboo pole stretched long over his back. in my mind he is running through the badminton court, out past the sheltered walkway, the playground but all that shivers weakly in the background. he is there with her and they are here with me and all of that will fade away.

think the three little pigs, set out on their journey, bags tied on little bamboo poles as they moved and moved and moved. the man is the third little pig and he runs away only to run back when the wolf has left.

“how did you know he would come back?”

“of course he would, to give us the carrot cake. he would come back after the ma-ta left.”

at the back of my mind there is the distant ringing “ma-ta chuan duan ku”, piecemeal phrases of a time I only know from stories and the lilts in voices, their excitement, my second-hand experiences. and we huff and we puff and we blow it all down. down to the badminton court,  where my cousins and I gather on a weekend, those lazy Sundays with so much time to spare, spinning shuttlecocks across the court. i am the runt of the litter and my shots never carry much strength at all. and then the badminton court, the space of funerals and remembrance, you know it is qing ming when the vessels all come alive for the briefest of moments, where little fa kuehs line the court, the cleaners that month have more to do, more to pick up. and then suddenly we find ourselves at Sundays with none of that at all.

sundays where our lives have grown up and moved elsewhere, where this is just how things are. my mother has stories of the carrot cake man, of playing hopscotch on the ground with a grid drawn in chalk outside my grandfather’s factory; my grandmother has other stories of drawing on the ground with charcoal, stories of boats and little girls; my grandmother goes to my grandfather’s old village in China and poo-poohs at the way the toilets there have no doors. you can ask her now and she will scrunch her face, shuddering, “ee-yer”. the vaguest memory of her pantomiming opening an umbrella to hide behind.

ever since I’ve been here all I’ve done is write about my family. I joke about how perhaps by the time I leave I would have exhausted all my family members and that is when I will know it is time to leave. today, right now, I wonder if I’m just writing to conjure some sense of home. I wonder briefly, if towards the end, these spaces of home here will begin to creep into the things I write. already I see it. already there are pieces of a classroom, already there is an interaction in someone else’s house, already the winter snow, already, already, already.

dreamt last night of giving in, of sobbing; i don’t remember whose body against which I finally break but it feels like a long time coming. it’s been days of finding myself tearing up whenever anyone creates space for that sort of emotion, for that sort of giving in.

we are in a dance studio and my professor talks about the way spaces constantly take from us, about mercury in retrograde, about how even for her the past week has been a struggle. i am seated across her in the studio, after an hour and a half of finally just letting my body move, letting my body be, and i tear up. i’m not sure if she sees. but at the end of class i ask if i can give her a hug and she gives me the kindest of hugs, just holding me for a little.

we are in a different classroom and today our class is about justice and history. my professor is giving us an overview of each of the trials that we are talking about today. there is the former yugoslavia, the khmer rouge, the holocaust. i’ve heard these stories before but today, hearing her talk about the gas chambers, and about people dying as they go to ‘take a shower’, imagining the anticipation and the dread, makes me shake and tear. i don’t know why. we are in the middle of a classroom and it feels silly to cry to i blink and i blink and i blink.

we are at a workshop for youth advocates for reproductive justice and we have just taken a gallery walk around the room, reading off the events that the presenter has selected as relevant to the workshop. forced sterilization, racial violence, the law against its people. the woman talks about intersectionality and making space. i am there and i am thinking about the translatibility, or non-translatibility of politics over space. she asks us what communities we care about and i think of singapore. i think of our island and i think of its people. i think about the conversation i have earlier that afternoon with my professor. what does reproductive justice mean to me? what is my reproductive justice? i think about how i feel like i can’t act, i feel like i wouldn’t know how to respond to claims that all of this is merely import; because, it is, isn’t it? i don’t know how to act in a way that wouldn’t invite those claims. but these are questions that i’m going to have to think about. and again i find myself tearing. this is the hardest time. it reminds me of days back in an office, with an administrator, the talking, the wavering, the sense that this mode of expression was silly, the desire to tell myself to stop. and again, here it is! i don’t know if i should feel grateful for it or ?

maybe i thought i would actually finish this post and come to something but nope not really, not today, not right now. today this is just for the recording down and the coming back later. the putting away so i can be reminded again.

Had one of those days yesterday where I just felt very strongly like I didn’t want to be here. Like I was tired of what this place was taking from me. It’s nice to feel that dissipating now. I think it was a mix of meeting prof c and hearing her talk about how it felt difficult to adjust to being back again. Because for some reason, when I was walking around today and feeling the drain of school, I recalled how, at dance class last night, we were talking about how she’d sleep just four hours a night for quite a number of years. And I had it in my mind that, perhaps it’s not the healthiest way to live, but that people who end up really making something of their lives, have the discipline to get by that way and then wondered if perhaps that just wasn’t in me. It was just comforting to hear from someone like her that it’s hard to come back too, that you can come back from a 2-week break and feel bad for feeling like you need more time away but still wanting that more time anyway. And then there was talking to her about the independent study project I wanted to propose, as well as my summer project plan, and just having her be so enthusiastic and entirely on board with it. Having her wanting to work out a way in which we could do it together even though she was going to be on sabbatical, having her talk about how it would be really useful for her process of thinking through her work as well, just all of that. Feeling like she really was excited to work on this with me. And I guess its moments like these, where I feel really grateful to be here. To have these moments of mentorship, to have people fired up about the same things that you are fired up about.

Reading A Comparative Ethnography of Alternative Spaces as I begin to do my research for one of my final papers and being hit with a sense that this is something that I really enjoy doing. That I sometimes forget it when pressed with the stress of time but I do really love it. Little things to be grateful for.

second time round

something i wrote awhile back, mostly written to be performed and listened to, and not read but oh well


we are by gong gong’s hospital bed when ah ma whispers, “at least with my heart, when i go, it’ll be quick. no more.” she says this softly, she knows it will hurt my mother if she hears it. ah ma’s pace-maker heart is ticking, counting down; my lips twitch upwards at the sound, at her lightness – this is our secret.

i remember my grandfather’s death. in the room with the floral seat-covers on rose brown wood, floor tiles neither green nor yellow, the standing fan humming, too new for its comrades, the altar gathering dust in the corner. it is here we uncover the bulge by his temples, its crumpled ash grey growth; the body giving birth to something in the process of death.

people sometimes describe cancer as the body turning on itself but my grandfather cradled his like a baby, let it grow when he could not live, nursed it till it could fend for itself. my uncle calls a priest to gong gong’s bedside. a last minute baptism. mercy for the hell-bound soul, mercy for the dying soul, mercy.

a week later gong gong’s plants disappear from the corridor outside the flat. my aunt says my grandmother threw them away. “how did she even move all of them herself?” my aunt and my mom laugh, the concrete corridors shiver with the sound; i am too young to decide what their laughter means.

a year later we burn paper cars and paper suits at the badminton court downstairs. pigeons pick their way through the cakes and roasted duck rice we set out on tiny coloured plates. red wax candles flicker and melt into the ground. we toss coins onto the stone floor because we cannot knock on his door, waiting, waiting, – “are you home? can we begin?” i am scared of fire but light the hell notes anyway, toss them into the rusty vessel, watch it swallow the clothes, the car, the house, swallow them whole, take them home.

somewhere, my uncle stands behind the smoke. i play spot the difference. his knees are a pale beige, ours grey with dust from the stone floors. bent, we wait till the coins flip in agreement – heads, heads, tails, tails, “i am home, you may begin begin.” my aunt mumbles, “it’s not like we are asking to him to pay respect to some god. it is his father.” my mom, silence. myself, silence. family is family is family, the flaking ashes from the house, from the Mercedes my grandfather never got to own in this life, from the suits, from our paper-note piety, float to the heavens, or to hell, each piece in its own trail. perhaps one finds its way back into the quiet room with the floral seat-covers, the rose brown wood, the floor tiles neither green nor yellow.

my grandmother always asks if there is a lot of snow here when i call her on the phone. i cannot speak Teochew so i laugh but do not answer. i draw two pictures of her today, one of us from before i left and one from a few days ago. i play spot the difference. the hospital has stolen the tight curls she would always preen, her skin unravels with her strands, her face older but also younger. how young is a woman when she starts trying to be beautiful? how old is a woman when she stops trying to be beautiful?

we are by gong gong’s hospital bed when ah ma whispers, “at least with my heart, when i go, it’ll be quick. no more.” she says this softly, she knows it will hurt my mother to hear it. this is our secret. i tell a friend how it is only recently that my grandmother has begun to look like someone who has had a stroke. i wish i could ask her how she feels now that it’s not so quick. how it feels now to be in a wheelchair. how it feels to miss her appointments at the hairdresser. but there are only the soundless smiles over the telephone, the close-up on a ear – “huh? what did you say?” not even her hands on mine, skin on skin to say “it is enough that we are here” as she says, “ah ma tiah boh,” “ah ma can’t hear,” “grandmother can’t hear”.

we are by gong gong’s hospital bed when ah ma whispers, “at least with my heart, when i go, it’ll be quick. no more.” she says this softly, she knows it will hurt my mother to hear it. i say this is our secret. but we don’t share the vocabulary for that sentence. i don’t know what the words are for “at least with my heart, when i go, it’ll be quick” in Teochew. i don’t know what the words are for, “with my heart” in Teochew.  I don’t know any of these words.

we are by gong gong’s hospital bed when my mother whispers, “ah ma says at least with her heart, when she goes, it’ll be quick, no more.” she says this softly, it must hurt her to say it.

this is my secret. ah mah. seh ah qi ah. i miss you. i miss home. i’m scared that by choosing not to go home this winter i will never hold your hand again.

one of those days

notes from one of those days where i had a little more time, when the sun was out on us, where i took a picture and shared it on my private account on instagram – tucking if but a tiny memory of that day away:

here i am, on the cusp of this pseudo adulthood, trying to rent an apartment. we are going through the motions, figuring out how to evaluate a place, deciding if light is important to us, if space is important; how much are we willing to pay for walls where the places where the plaster has once fallen off are still visible. what do we think of cramped kitchens? ground-level apartments? can we afford more? is it worth more?

but none of those questions are quite so pressing in this very moment. for now i am resting against the slope of handrails leading up to the stairway of an apartment. it is one of those lucky end-February days where it is almost too warm to be wearing my winter coat. across the street is a dive bar – “$4 craft beers on mondays to fridays from 4 till 7pn!”. so many bicycles chained to meters by the street, a postbox with graffiti sprayed lightly across its surface. already, i have forgotten what the graffiti looks like.

“miss, nice day!” he gestures to me in the flicker of space created between two other bodies that pass us by. there is something about his gait. the way his arms flick out erratically. his beanie, the way his eyes seem to bulge out just slightly. a dark black denim jacket, black nike shoes, pale blue denim jeans. he walks over to me, as if to say hi and then changes his mind, jerking his arm back and forth as if to say, “ah it’s okay, don’t mind me”. i catch the thought in my mind that wonders if he is just waiting for everyone else to depart and i think about how often it is that i think about how people see me as a small asian girl in this country. how often does that take on meaning? how often does it mean what i think it does? but for right now, i pretend to gaze at the cooperative housing across the street, its plain brown walls with wooden compound barriers, while i try to get a better view of him from my adjusted periphery.

another man comes by, green beanie, brown jacket. i don’t know where he’s from either. he takes each step really intentionally, like he has somewhere he must go. each step makes his cheeks jiggle, each one is a little stomp. “today’s a nice day!” the first man calls out to him, now my partner on the steps leading up to this apartment building. “you’re not supposed to linger at people’s property like that!” the man with the green beanie replies. he barely breaks his step as he says this, cheek-jiggling the rest of his walk away. i think about how before they converse i imagine them to be a part of the same community. i’m not sure why i assume that and still i’m not sure if they know each other. a few more men pass by as we wait there that tuesday afternoon. me, for a landlord and a friend, perhaps a new home; him, i’m not sure what for. each time he yells out something like, “it’s a nice day!” some reply, some are too plugged into their headphones to hear him, and there are others that i simply don’t remember.

i think about the way i imagine the communities he’s a part of here. i wonder how many of those imagined connections i make are true. i continue to wonder about green-beanie man. would he have responded differently if i weren’t there? would he have stopped to talk? what did i look like, both of us waiting on those steps? i imagine his community around us as we wait but i have my communities too. it doesn’t take too long before a friend comes by in her bicycle. we smile, we’ve been bumping into each other a lot on campus recently. there was a day where i see her on the same stretch of road twice – once when i’m headed to arabic class and she’s headed to the health centre and again when we are taking the returning journey.

“do you want to come in?” i smile and tell her that i’m actually waiting for the landlord – i do actually know the access code to this building because a friend lives here. she smiles and goes, “oh there she is crossing the road!” her bike is locked and she heads inside. the landlord is soon by us – me and the man with the navy blue beanie, her visitors for the day. she approaches him before she approaches me, “i’ve told you so many times, you can’t sit here, you have to go!” i don’t remember how the exchange that follows after goes but he does leave and soon it is just us – me and the landlord. “are you rachel?”; the affirmative and a handshake. “i’m sorry for that”. i’m not sure what to say in response – that there’s nothing to be sorry for? that it was totally fine? to ask why she’s apologising? i settle on a smile and a “nono it’s okay of course.”

and so we head inside, and so we enter the apartment with the peeling walls, but the high ceiling, and the hardwood floor. we look at the spaces people have created for themselves in this building, i quickly forget about the space we created just outside of this building, a friend and i talk briefly after about how neither of us felt like we loved the place, a friend texts me later about how “nothing about [this building] is ideal per se but it is good in many ways!”

such are our days, over and over again.

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