Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Mythologies, or One Month in Singapore


Before we readied ourselves to move here, “Singapore” was not a proper noun I often said or often heard. In the months prior to the Big Move, dozens of friends passed along contacts and recommendations for our new lives here. I found it startling to uncover unknown connections to what was at that time a faraway, unknowable place.

This blank spot in my imagination’s map effects my daily life in a way I did not expect. I wander around this city without a representational map, without layers of history and mythologies to guide me. When we drop into a new neighborhood bar, we don't know how long it’s been there, what the neighborhood is called, what they serve, what language the locals speak, what religion they celebrate. It’s not at all like the West Village, where I can point out where the Velvet Underground or Bob Dylan first played, the temperature of the local contemporary scene and the highlights of scenes past, which restaurants are new and which are treasured, what ethnicity predominates now, and who was there before they moved in.

I’m no longer a tour guide. Now I guess I’m a resident tourist. It’s a feeling strange to me. Is this what acculturation feels like? Am I getting my first real taste of what it feels like to be a minority? Am I making the first steps towards assimilation or towards global citizenship, or even *gasp* expatriation?

In the month since we arrived on July 21st, we’ve figured out the bus system, comparison shopped our local markets, run errands all over central, northern, and western Singapore. We hit the ground running like we're on a shoot, enthusiastically applying every ounce of that talent for producing that James and I share. We’ve reveled in the details of new-homemaking. (And let's be honest: we were already fluent in "mall" and "ikea.") We have just begun to make friends and have even marked a few special spots we can’t wait to show the people we miss.

(We had very little to go on. I can recall four details about a-priori, pre-arrival Singapore. I’m embarrassed to include them here, but it seems somehow useful, to record my blindness before my eyes adjust and I can see what’s plain in front of me:
1) In the 90s, the story of the diplomat’s kid who was caned for vandalism dominated the Singapore myth.
2) Don’t chew gum.
3) According to Anthony Bourdain, the food is inventive, spicy, and cheap.
4) “We sail tonight for Singapore…we’re all as mad as hatters here…”
My dad, who was in Indonesia at the time, has told me another side, so that item of news seems tinged by the retelling. Still, I do miss admiring graffiti. I watched the No Reservations episode on Singapore twice before coming. So far, #3 strikes true. Tom Waits is probably not the best conduit of cultural knowledge of this sort, but the song sticks with you. None of these three wise men are Singaporean. )

I am delinating the counters of a blindspot, recognizing unknown islands of history, of cultural legacy, of ideology that mean so much to me and my work. Without storytelling, this place seems more foreign, even if the day-to-day-life, for better or worse, feels much the same.

We’re just catching up on what signifies what. I’ve never lived, or for that matter, been a tourist someplace I knew nothing about before. I'm a know-it-all with a penchant for living in places seeped in stories that fascinate me. I’ve learned, then taught, propagated, and enacted "Brooklynite" or "New Orleanian" as a resident actor and artist.

Maybe that’s why we travel? To walk through closed down markets of Paris at night, shining in the rain, to drive a convertible right up to the club door in Los Angeles, to shine a light into the cave of the Cyclops, and survive to tell the tales, and to have these tales become part of us.

I believe, following Roland Barthes, that the culture encoded in images and speech communicate great volumes of meaning, which are enormously powerful in practice. They influence communication between cultures. We're in the business of communication between cultures. When we shoot, we riff on this script of prior representations. So what myths will we learn, point out, and propagate here?

Earlier this week the locals started burning tissue paper luxuries – bundles of fake money, paper houses, paper shirts – in high piles in the park in front of our house. Altars covered in food and incense turned up all over. I knew from a walking tour of NYC Chinatown that these paper luxuries honored the dead. I’ve since discovered that this is Hungry Ghost month, when the boundary between the Other Place and ours blurs. There are new orange cakes at the market I had to ask about: they’re bland to living humans, to be bought for the ghosts. One of my students came up to me after class the other day to explain that I was not to walk through the piles of ash, or angry spirits might follow me home. How treacherous ignorance can be!

My starry-eyed honeymoon with Singapore has begun. These last few days James or I has turned to the other and said: "I really like it here" and "This is all turning out much better than we could have hoped." We’re hitting the culture scene hard to make up for lost time: talks, museum visits, art galleries, film festivals, activist happenings. I try to order something new each day: today's delights were Kickapoo Joy Juice and Prawn Mee (translation: Mountain Dew, but greener, and shrimp spaghetti, but yummier). I’ve signed up for an afternoon lecture on working with the different cultures that make up our new society. I ordered documentaries on Hungry Ghost and on Singapore history from the local Netflix. James has shared a you-tube video of the Prime Minister talking about cultural and religious tolerance. I expect we'll turn out to be a quick study in “Asia 101,” as we're putting all our energies into finding the groove of our new home.

But I’d like to acknowledge, one month in, what a humbling and intellectually invigorating road lies before us.

4 comments:

Kent said...

Kickapoo joy juice sounds like something dirty.

Carl said...

If all people practice a good cultural communications, maybe our racial differences would won't exist.

SGalf said...

Kickapoo, my favourite drink!

FunkFool said...

Welcome to Singapore and Tiong Bahru! Just learned about you moving in from Alvin (he got me my place as well) so I checked out your great blog. Happy to introduce myself and other members of our Tiong Bahru "family"...Alvin has my contact information if you'd like to meet us.

Cheers,
Jean