Harvest

Seven other nations celebrate Thanksgiving or a holiday akin to it. Whether you’re sitting down to a stuffing-ladened turkey in the USA or if you’re eating a special banana dish in the Norfolk Islands, the premise is the same: it’s a time to give thanks and to enjoy the fruits of our labor, which historically have been a successful harvest.

Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday. There are no gifts, but there are stories. Aunts and Uncles gather around a table and speak of memories from the “old days”, when they lived in the “old house” and all the kids shared the same bedroom. They giggle about the time when someone went outside to the privy in the middle of the night and was almost bitten by a rattle snake. They confess to things like when my mom hid underneath the porch with her brother and they pulled the heads off her dolls to see what was inside. They laugh at us “younger” generation and how we have no patience or respect. We let our kids get away with murder (as the saying goes) and employ these newfangled parenting techniques like time-out or the punishment corner.

“Spare the rod…” someone starts.

“…and spoil the child,” someone else always finishes.

A chorus of “umhmm” erupts.

Everyone takes a turn at being the subject of laughter for awhile. Like the time my cousin snuck off to school with her mom’s high heels on only to have my Aunt appear in her classroom to retrieve them. Or the phase I went through when no one could tell me that bright red lipstick was not my color. (Those photos have been burned and buried.)

But whether you’re being laughed at or you’re laughing at someone else, you feel the love. It flows around the table like the scent of sweet potato pie. For this one moment everyone’s together, and that means something.

We weren’t the family to start our meal by taking turns to recite what we were grateful for. We prayed. Usually my Uncle said a very long and tear-provoking prayer. We amen-ed, and then set about enjoying the fruits of our labor, the laughter quickly returning.

The last time I had a Thanksgiving like that was in November of 2000. I was moving to Japan the following January, and my family traveled to my mom’s to see me off. I was prayed over, hands were laid on me, but mostly I remember our joy at being together again.

Thanksgiving isn’t a holiday in Singapore. My husband worked, but I still made a dinner with a few dishes from the “good old days”. I sat at the table with my two daughters, and before we could join hands my eldest had already put a spoonful in her mouth. I explained to her that from now on we will start our Thanksgiving meal by reciting what we are grateful for (or what makes us happy given she’s just three-years-old).

She looked confused and so I went first. I told her that she made me happy. Then I asked if she remembered the time she was in the school play and she wore a chicken costume? I told her watching her dance the chicken dance and singing in Mandarin with her classmates made me happy.

She laughed and said, “That was fun, right?”

She didn’t quite get it, but that’s ok. I was planting seeds. I was creating the first of our Thanksgiving memories.

As we ate, I thought of my Mom, and knew she missed me the way that I will one day miss mine. I thought of my Aunts and Uncles and their stories that my children won’t hear. I thought of my friend who is having her first Thanksgiving without her mom. And another friend who is having a quiet Thanksgiving because her son just had surgery. I thought of the empty space at the table my husband’s absence created because he was still at work… so that I could be at home.

And I was thankful.

Community

I was born in South Carolina. It was a rural town with route numbers for addresses. There was a corn field to the right of us and a soybean field in front that was also a tobacco field and a cotton field depending on the year. We had dogs. These weren’t the kind of dogs you took to dog parks. (There were no dog parks back then.) These were the kind of dogs that lived in a pen in the backyard, past the washing line. They dug holes to get out at night and often killed the stray cats that I played with.

We used to burn our trash until there was a dumpster installed between us and our neighbor. Then we drove it there.

We did our big grocery shopping in the next town over, about an hour’s drive away. There was a local store, more of a mart, where everyone knew my name. Well, not my name per se, but they knew my kin. I was Bubsy’s gran (i.e. Bubsy’s granddaughter). I liked that. I felt special in a small way. I felt like part of a community.

I’ve been searching for that sense of community ever since I left. Funny that I should find it in Singapore, where I don’t have any kin, but those at my local hawker center and wet market know who I am. It’s easy to remember me. I stand out. I’m a Black woman with short, natural curls. I push a long double stroller with an adorable little baby that’s clearly biracial. I turn a lot of heads.

It’s become a part of my morning routine: drop off eldest at school, then head to the hawker center for wonton noodles and iced lemon tea followed by local coffee. The tea reminds me that I’m Southern. It tastes almost the same as my Aunt Geraldine’s. No one ever made it as good as she did.

For those who don’t know, a hawker center is like an outdoor food court. Because the weather is tropical, there’s a lot of alfresco dining in Singapore. There are different food stalls from which to choose. The closest you get to a western breakfast is peanut butter or kaya toast. You can get that with or without runny eggs (half-boiled eggs where the white is just as runny as the yolk). There are stalls with Malaysian, Chinese, Indian, and Muslim cuisine. There are also a few nondenominational ones as well–like the bean curd stall that sells all different flavors. (Mango and almond just happen to be my favorite.)

I have this little routine that the lady at my favorite drink stall finds funny. I order my noodles, and while the “auntie” is preparing them, I go and place my drink order. She knows that I will order two drinks from her: first my iced lemon tea to drink with my charsiew- and chili-flavored noodles, and then my local coffee afterwards. She’s learned not to try to sell me both drinks at once. She accepts that I’m willing to make the second trip.

Singaporean coffee is an art form. It’s strong and thick and only $.80 for dine-in, $.90 for takeaway. I savor my coffee at the end of my breakfast. I usually meet a friend or two who have also just dropped off their oldest at school. We sit and chat about nothing–mostly what it’s like to be stay-at-home moms with kids who’re constantly bringing home some new virus in which to infect the rest of us. We support one another through our share of challenges: every night it’s the same thing at dinner time, why am i constantly repeating myself, she won’t ever put on her bloody shoes! You know, mom shit.

After we’ve eaten and fed our little ones who are too young for school–they start school quite early here in Singapore; I’d guess the average age is around two–we head up to the wet market. A wet market is like a farmer’s market. The food costs a fraction of the price of the grocery store’s and is twice as fresh. It’s not really the place for organic, but who can afford organic in Singapore except the truly wealthy?

This is my community. The aunties and uncles know my face and those of my children. They smile at me and make baby noises at my 11-month-old. I don’t live in the HDB that houses my hawker center and wet market, but I live nearby. My eldest daughter plays at the playground, and the moms, aunties, and a-ma’s sit on the bench with me and watch. Sometimes we’re separated by language, but more often than not everyone’s willing to strike up a conversation. It usually starts with asking me if my youngest is a boy or girl. I’m always surprised at their surprise when I say, “girl.” They most always ask again to make sure they’ve heard correctly.

I’m not “Bubsy’s gran” anymore, but I am part of a community again, and it feels nice.

In the Beginning

The echo of a jackhammer and a baby’s intermittent cries are my morning music. A clotheshorse with the days washing blocks my view of Geylang River and the Nicholl Highway bridge.

This is my 30-minute respite for the morning. My eldest is at the playground and my youngest battles the pull of slumber. My husband wants to talk gardening, but I’ve been thinking about this post for a week, so I ask him to wait his turn. For now, I’m first.

I’m using this time to search for my center, reclaim that peace that gets me through the storms of sleepless nights and frustrations born of never having enough time; it’s what keeps me from snapping and keeps me thinking.

There is a part of me that resurfaces just when I think I’ve lost her to parenthood. She’s the piece of me who sacrifices sleep to draft a business plan. She’s the one who fills out the forms and spends a month thinking of a business name that speaks to her goals, her services, and her future. She reviews clients’ work for a ridiculously meager amount, but simply loves helping others when she can.

She’s the writer. She looks at every situation as a potential short story or a scene to a much larger piece. She falls asleep thinking about how she will rewrite the first scene in her novel. She gets my house in order by forcing me to recreate a schedule and follow it.

Ten a-m is her time. She has 30 minutes, and in that time she’s learned to start and stop and re-immerse herself into a story seamlessly. Things like food and toilet wait. Time slows down and each word becomes an expression of creativity.

Her discipline is derived from knowing she is not alone. At ten a-m, some other parent somewhere else is doing the same–cordoning off her space, reacquainting herself with herself to figure out who she wants to be now that she’s a mother and her values have grown.

She finds comfort in knowing that others have done this before, in harsher circumstances.

At ten a-m, she asks just one question of me. Who do you want to be? And in those 30 minutes it’s my actions that answer her.