The eatery at the Bus Terminal overflows with swarms of office workers and students snaking past food stalls and taking away dinners; the privileged few gorging theirs at crammed seats, some eyeing blankly the smallish flat-screened television up front. This is working-class Singapore in the heartlands, at dinner time.
Our family of five, are among the privileged few. We squash ourselves beside two young Chinese blokes minding their own meals at the corner and a Malay-Muslim ‘auntie’ slurping her soup. Darling settles the children as I waddle along the rows of people to find the ‘Korean’ stall. The children loves the ‘Saba’ fish.
It takes fifteen minutes to settle the children’s meals. Then it is my turn. The usual rice with ‘Yong Tau Foo’ soup. Darling opts for the same without the rice. The animated Malay-Muslim lady smiles at the children. We talk. It is not often Singaporeans have the chance to chat with strangers in this overcrowded wasteland of zombies and smartphone worshippers. People mind their own business a lot, here in Singapore. I miss the human warmth of rural life, despite never having lived in the countryside of rolling hills and dung-scented pastures. I can only imagine.
Her children are all grown, three of them, twenty-three to thirty, and single. The eldest still waiting for a flat before ever deciding to flash the ring. Our kids must have ‘boasted’ to her about their yet-to-be-born sibling for she nods towards Darling about drinking lots of soup. It surprises her for a Chinese family in 21st-century Singapore to not stop at two. There are many who even cringe at the idea of bringing up children. Darling hails from a family of robust Hokkien peasant stock, all nine of them, despite the ruling party’s social darwinian policies in the 1970s. I on the other hand have only two siblings. Sedentary city-dwellers, we have never lived in the ‘kampungs’ of pre-HDB Singapore.
I told Darling when we got married that my ideal would be five, although one or two fewer will do just fine. I told the auntie, unabashedly, and touching her shoulder, that children are blessings from God.
In a sense I fancy the Malay-Muslim community, at least in Singapore. Most Chinese, I tell her, are individualistic and self-centred. We see things in terms of dollars and cents, from the wedding dinner to the marital bed, and from having children to their university education. We think we are gods and we plan ahead. The Malays, according to the Muslimah, see life differently. There is no such thing as a ‘singular’ Malay person. There is always ‘family’ and ‘community’.
As I struggle with the beads of rice that litter the green bowl, sip my peppered soup and crunch vegetables and pieces of egg, the Muslimah asks to take her leave. She has finished her meal and drink and time for her runs late. Darling and I bid her goodbye. The three children nod their heads and grin their goodbyes amid facialised debris of food.
The lenses of the black framed spectacles blur as my smallish eyes beneath register the slow-mo demise of the diminutive figure of the kindly Muslimah as she clutches her bag and twists her way past the hordes of everyday zombies into the stickly hot night.
I stretch a smile to Darling, and at the squabbling kids I muster a sickly frown before returning to the unfinished bowl under my sweat-beaded chin.
Life goes on.