Chinese New Year
By Wong Yong Li
A week before the Lunar New Year, I was dashing over to Grandma's home. It was tucked in a corner of an old block of flats, all the way on the 22nd floor. To get there, I would have to endure a three-minute jerky elevator ride, where the doors creaked and threatened to break open at every floor, then cut past a dingy dark corridor, while trying to avoid puddles of piss that I would usually be able to smell before stepping into them. The gates of Grandma's home were wide open and I almost tripped over a few pairs of shoes haphazardly scattered outside the entrance this meant that practically everyone was there already.
"Grandma!" I called out, beaming, as I stepped in.
"Late again," she muttered disapprovingly as she waddled up to me before nudging me to make my rounds: First Auntie, Second Auntie, Second Auntie's husband, Third Auntie, Cousin, Fourth Auntie, Fourth Auntie's husband.
By the time I sat down, Jess was already tauntingly smirking at me. "There're just so many of them, huh? They're standing in the way between you and your food."
I smiled but inwardly cringed at her attempt at a joke. Jess was my younger cousin by two years, which meant that she had just started her pre-tertiary education a phase of life where she would make every extra effort to be politically incorrect and disdainful of family traditions.
She had the other younger girls seated around her as they peeked at one another's phone, seemingly sharing some kind of information. "What's the scoop?" I asked, sitting down after piling my plate at the buffet.
"Do you know Tommy has a new girlfriend?" Jess whispered to me. She swerved her screen to reveal an Asian woman resting her elbows against the railing of a yacht, her eyes hidden behind gargantuan cat-eye shaped shades, her jet-black hair all the way past her shoulders.
"She looks rich," one of the younger cousins commented. "Super fair skin. It's almost like tofu," another added. "She's so thin," one of them whined as everyone let out a collective sigh. Tommy always had a knack for getting girlfriends with impeccable figures.
We swiped a few more photos before a noticeable pattern seemed to form in my mind. The photos of Tommy's girlfriend showed shopping streets in Guangzhou, eating streets in Beijing, stone bridges in Xi'an and cafes in Shanghai. It did not take long before one of the younger girls cried out, "Is she from China?" The girls clambered onto her Instagram account like vultures tearing up a half-mutilated carcass, trying to find incriminating evidence until one lifted her phone triumphantly to reveal the caption "Back in my hometown J" alongside a picture of Shanghai's city skyline.
Jess' disdainful reply summed up what everyone thought: "Why did he go get himself a girlfriend from China?"
In the weeks before the Lunar New Year, nothing much had changed in Singapore except for the incessant visual reminders that it was on high alert against a highly contagious and possibly lethal virus that came from China. As the city waged a battle against Covid-19, fear and uncertainty manifested in the appearances of blue medical masks and small bottles of hand sanitiser. People would go about their daily conversations but couldn't help resist making a virus pun or lamenting over how scary the situation was.
On the MRT, a sniffling or God forbid! coughing commuter would send passengers within a half-a-metre radius scuttling away, pressing everyone else further outwards against the glass doors of the train. And there were posters with taglines like "Virus Kills!" and "Stay Responsible. No One Can Do It For You." It seemed there was no way to ignore the threat of this microbial enemy in the city.
At the school where I teach, new structures were institutionalised to manage this crisis. A newly updated SOP came through my WhatsApp alongside updates of the latest news at the battle frontline. I created new spreadsheets for my students' travel histories, not to mention their table partners and list of students that had been in their proximity for up to 30 minutes. I traced and monitored the temperatures of at-risk students every two hours and reported the info upwards. I was activated the moment any student was reported to be suffering a headache or exhibiting flu-like symptoms. I would made the necessary administrative arrangements to send them home before following up with monitoring.
When school ended, my colleagues and I would gather at our pantry, waiting for one another to be the first to crack a joke, a virus-related one.
One colleague, who had recently become a mother, shared, "I was at the pharmacy the other day. I was buying masks, you know, for my younger children."
Another interjected, "So? They ran out of masks?" The national mask shortage was old news but still a timely reflection of our national tendency to overreact.
"No," she continued. "I had been to three other pharmacies and finally managed to get a box. But when I realised that the man queuing in front of me was from China, I threw down the box and left."
We all laughed.
Another colleague said, "I know. I wanted to have Sichuan hotpot that day and my boyfriend said 'That's from China!'" She rolled her eyes. "I was like okay, let's get something else."
We laughed and laughed, until we realised that the school gates would soon close on us. The conversation in the pantry stuck with me the way some completely chewed-out gum clung to the back of my teeth maybe the conversation had gotten too right-wing for my taste.
I was starting to realise how every mention of the virus would be followed by the word "China" in the next sentence. One day, I was on the escalator with my colleagues, when abruptly they dragged me two steps down. One of them glanced behind us before turning her head back again to whisper, "The ones behind are from China." I thought none of it made any sense because none of us knew if the young fair-skinned couple whispering to each other in accented Chinese were really from China or if they had actually even been in China over the last 14 days. If the sneezing Singaporean lady, who was next to them, had been in China over the past two weeks, she would have been a greater threat.
When my colleague ascertained a safe distance between us and them, she whispered, "These days, there're just so many of them." I thought the description was uncannily similar to what one would use to describe germs. She added, "I wished they would all go home."
Ten years ago, I was a student too one amongst 40 children in a hot and stuffy classroom, clothed in dull brown shirts and skirts. My teacher was announcing an overseas school trip, where the local students would get all their expenses covered by state funding. A student from across the Causeway, I was long used to being excluded from such subsidies.
None of my classmates knew that every morning I took an hour-long bus ride with Grandma to Singapore Customs at Tuas, and another 30min bus ride to get to school. As it was the final year at my primary school, this was probably my last chance to disclose my secret.
"Anyone here not a citizen?" My teacher finally asked, handing out instructions for alternative payment schemes.
My hand flew up energetically. "Wow, you are not local?" my desk partner whispered, filled with admiration and envy. Everyone else was a local which was seen as too boring, too common. I recalled, at recess that day, I was surrounded by my classmates and their never-ending questions. You never had Edusave? So you don't sing the national anthem or say the pledge? No, I never had to.
Now, as a teacher, I observe many non-locals in my classes avoiding the risk of drawing any attention to themselves. But foreignness is not something you can easily hide; you stick out. You try to ignore the anti-foreigner jokes from your classmates, until you cannot tolerate it anymore and then you just sit alone at a corner of the canteen.
On the first day of the Lunar New Year, I was late again. Grandma's home was already packed with people and, while she was nowhere to be found, everyone else seemed to be there.
First Auntie, Second Auntie, Second Auntie's husband, Third Auntie, Cousin, Fourth Auntie, Fourth Auntie's husband. I made my customary round and, as I scanned the room for Jess, I saw her: Tommy's girlfriend, sitting alone in the corner of the room, looking at the only device that kept her occupied, because Tommy, who was sitting next to her, was laughing and chatting with Third Uncle.
"Hey, what are you looking at?" I asked, planting myself on a chair inches away from her.
Her eyes reluctantly turned away from her screen to barely glance at me. "Tracking the number of cases in Shanghai," she replied.
Her command of the Chinese language and her accent took me by surprise. It was the kind of accent where you could still hear remnants of Chinese-ness, but most of it seemed worn down by local flavour.
"You're from Shanghai?" I asked.
She nodded. "My family lives there."
I thought of the World Expo and the Western architecture at the Bund. And then the virus. "I hope your family is alright."
"I think so. I mean none of them has gotten it," she said, before adding sarcastically, "yet."
The conversation had taken a rather pessimistic turn and I winced at her cynicism. The tendency to brace yourself for the worst with a kind of screw-it-all attitude is most people's coping mechanism with fear. Still, I wished she did not make talking to her so hard.
"I mean, I get that people here hate it when people from China come in. It's how I hate it when I see people from Wuhan travelling into Shanghai."
By then, I had no idea what kind of response would be appropriate. Or should I display some kind of general contrition for all the locals here?
She shook her head a little as though clearing thoughts out before eventually glancing up at me. "I'm sorry. I just haven't been back there in five years, and I don't want to return just to see them gravely ill or dead, you know?"
I could see fear and guilt in her eyes just as there is fear, and some guilt, in most people after they shun a sneezing person on the MRT, after they make a virus joke about China, after they tell foreigners to go home.QLRS Vol. 19 No. 2 Apr 2020