Saturday, July 30, 2011

Those Perfect Strangers, My Family

Every year for my grandparents' birthdays in July and October we have a three-table celebration at a restaurant, with the traditional 10-course menu. Every year my family rushes to leave the house on time, and every year we somehow manage to be late. Every year I resolve to act like an adult, but somehow the sheer awfulness of having to spend time with my relatives seems to squash me back into a petulant five-year-old, kicking the table leg with one high-heeled foot.

First course - steamed longevity buns filled with sweet bean paste

All the fuss over where to sit has finally been settled. My eldest uncle's wife (she has facial hair!) tried earlier to kick my grandfather's maid out of their table, citing a lack of space. El Moustachio's attempt is unsuccessful; the maid celebrates victory by valiantly preventing my diabetic grandfather from eating his bun, and thus prolonging his 84-year-old life. Nobody notices their little wrestling match - they're too busy stuffing their own faces.

Second course - cold lobster combination with spring rolls and baby octopus

In stark comparison to the raucous laughter and hoarse voices at the neighbouring table of aunts and uncles, the conversation at our table centres around Japanese buffets, European tour packages, foods that prevent cancer. No surprise - both my father and uncle married a certain type of woman: the kind who makes your life beautifully comfortable and civilised, and also has your balls zipped up nice and safe inside her Coach handbag. Hey, it's a fair bargain.

Third course - shark's fin soup with crabmeat

The soup is ladled out into little bowls by our waitress from China. My pathetically weak protest is overruled by my father, who insists I eat my bowl of soup. I compromise by eating half. Yeah, that's definitely going to make things better for the sharks.

Fourth course - roasted duck

Over at the next table they've broken out the beer and XO. Somebody reports that my alcoholic grandaunt has already knocked back two glasses of the hard stuff. Needless to say, nobody's drinking at our table. ("Dear, aren't you driving us home later?") My father - perhaps feeling slightly guilty for making me eat the shark's fin - offers to get me some XO. I decline. Like that's going to make things better.

Fifth course - steamed pomfret with preserved vegetables

It's not fresh. I hate steamed fish, I hate preserved vegetables, and I am rapidly devolving into a sulky teenager with every passing course. My cousin, only three years older, walks by with his toddler in his arms. I suggest letting our alcoholic grandaunt take the kid for a spin outside. My cousin doesn't smile, but he does pulls his child closer to him. Fucker never had a sense of humour, even when we were growing up.

Sixth course - Yam ring with prawns and scallops

I love yam rings. Eating a large chunk of it calms me down somewhat. Or maybe it's the latent streak of traditional thinking just waiting to burst out of me. By the end of dinner I'll have married a doctor, enrolled in an accountancy degree and bought a three-bedroom condo in the suburbs. My mother is going to be so happy.

Seventh course - Sea cucumber with broccoli and clams

My younger cousin abstains, saying he's allergic to shellfish. Bubble Boy is allergic to everything, and has a mysterious back injury that got him out of strenuous NS duties to boot. Even my brother - the walking, talking, PS3 playing definition of "sheltered" - thinks of him as a giant pussy. My father tries to make my cousin eat some clams. "A little bit won't hurt," he says. My aunt does not look amused.

Eighth course - Braised abalone with spinach

Everyone's talking about how full they are and which dishes should have been removed from the line-up, arguing over whether the yam ring or duck was more fattening. I'm not sure if it's rage or boredom, but I'm still going strong. I have a second helping of the abalone and spinach. If I had to live with these people 24/7 I would be morbidly obese.

Ninth course - Fried noodles with prawns

My mother and aunt are discussing slimming therapies. My eldest uncle swings by with yet another cousin's baby in his arms. "Babies like me a lot," he says proudly, his face flushed with alcohol. It's because he looks like a big old baby himself, in that flabby, liver-spotted way some middle-aged men have. The baby's mother, my cousin's wife, rolls up and makes a joke about leaving the kid behind so she can finally get a night's sleep. I'm so desperate at this point that it comes across as the funniest fucking thing I've heard in my entire life.

Tenth and last course - orh nee (yam paste) with gingko nuts

"This is what my daughter came for," says my father to the entire table, thus exposing my greed to all the relatives present. Then he runs over to the next table to help the maid, who is now trying to stop my grandfather from eating more than two spoonfuls of the sweet, oily dessert. I eat my bowl, and then I eat half of another bowl. My relatives observe in awe. Got to live up to the gluttonous reputation.

After dessert has been cleared away and the birthday cake brought out, the birthday song sung once in English and once in Mandarin, and the remains of uneaten cake cleared away, it's finally time to go home. People jingle their car keys. Somebody helps my alcoholic grandaunt into an uncle's Honda. I get into my dad's car, sitting on the left-hand side of the backseat like I have for the last 27 years. Nothing changes. We'll be doing this all over again in October.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Kids These Days

The great thing about working with teenagers is that they are wonderfully capable of surprising you with their wit, intelligence or insight. I genuinely enjoy talking to them, listening to their ideas, helping them explore their own opinions and test their conclusions. Not all of them are kids from top schools either - some of my most mature and interesting students come from neighbourhood schools most Singaporeans wouldn't know the names of.

Some of the girls are amazingly sweet and kind, old-fashioned darlings who make you understand what Louisa May Alcott and L.M. Montgomery were forever wittering on about. Then there are the more complex adolescents, more willing to experiment and likely to become chain-smoking sophisticates overnight. These unpredictable young women are always amusing to watch, even if they do intimidate most of the other students.

Among the boys we have the good-natured sweethearts, the angry young rabble-rousers, the socially awkward cerebral pretenders. The last group is both infuriating and heart-breaking at the same time. Unpopular at school and resentful of charitable attempts, they can be purposely hurtful, obnoxious and childish. But the point to remember is that despite them being of shaving age, these boys are still only children, bewildered by their own inability to blend in. Occasionally they can surprise you, with rare caveman grunts of approval or grudging gratitude.

So much for the good side of things.

The other day, a 14-year-old girl - a known teacher's bully - told me in class that I was lame for trying to tempt them with a word game. It was 9pm and despite the cheerful front, I was in a decidedly bad mood from having to work on a Friday night. The last thing I needed was a kid clothed in pimple scars and a pasar malam T-shirt, telling me I was lame.

"Excuse me?" I drawled, employing full use of my (fake) accent. "You're calling me lame? Hate to break it to you, but I'm much cooler than you. In fact, I'm cooler than all of you combined."

Great, I thought inwardly. While my peers are going out for drinks after work, I'm stuck in a fluorescent-lit community centre classroom arguing with a 14-year-old about how cool I am. No wonder their previous teacher upped and quit.

Surprisingly, the girl sat down and shut up. I felt a little bad for pulling the accent trick on her, but not bad enough to regret it. After all, this is Singapore. She's the majority in power, not me. And I felt that her teachers at school - not to mention at the tuition centre - would be secretly grateful to me for temporarily deflating her ego.

The more I work, the harder it becomes to maintain a teacher's identity. I sometimes wake up and feel so terribly bored at the thought of wearing sensible flats and high necklines, of enduring kids' constant assumptions that I have no social life and no past or future - nothing apart from being their teacher. I am tired of living in fear of parents calling up to complain that I have taught their teenagers to think for themselves, to approve of gay people, atheism and liberal politics, to read books with swear words and sex (violence is A-OK, however). I have a growing collection of designer clothing that I don't wear, because the last thing I need is to walk past the rows of waiting parents and have one of them realise that my shoes cost $200 (in their books, tuition teachers should not dress better than them). Small wonder then, that I actively encourage my students to feel sympathy for the domestic and foreign workers around us. I have to do it, because I have a sneaking feeling their parents won't.

Perhaps the conflict within me will grow strong enough that I'll drop out of the tuition gig. It will be a pity, but the problem with kids these days - as it has been for kids of all time, and all days - is that they are always, always, always, the products of their parents. Poor things.