A Place That Will Stay Within Me

Flying between SIN and JFK takes 21 to 24 hours, depending on which direction you're flying in and which airport — LHR, FRA, DXB — you stop over at. In this dead time zone I would transform myself from a Singaporean to a New Yorker, from a New Yorker to a Singaporean.

I am typing this at Changi Airport, IATA code SIN. I am not flying anywhere. I am just overnighting at the airport for peace and quiet, to have some time and space to think and write and work. I've done this for years, since before flights were a regular part of my life. In those times, I would look at the departure board and feel in my flesh the poisonous malaise of unfulfilled wanderlust.

One of my first breaks home from New York, I remember telling a friend that Singapore felt different. Not that it was different or that I was different, but that Singapore felt different -- the humid tropical air no longer felt so oppressive, the mass of people no longer felt so soulless, the daily routine no longer felt so tinged with quiet desperation.

This, I decided, was because I now knew I had somewhere else to go. I had another city waiting for me.

I was afraid of coming here to overnight. I remembered what it was like the last time I came to the airport to do work without knowing when I would next leave Singapore. I remembered the peculiar hopelessness of feeling stranded on my own island, the urgent need to be somewhere else, the sensation that my destiny lay elsewhere and that it was slipping away from me.

My misgivings are unfounded. The despair does not grip me anew. I ask myself why.

After four years of shuttling between Singapore and New York, I thought I had mastered the art of keeping the minutiae of my Singapore and New York lives separate. I had a Singapore wallet and a New York wallet. I had a Singapore phone and a New York phone. I had a set of New York keys and a set of Singapore keys. I had a Singapore accent and a New York accent. 25 June, June 25. Colour, anodise, grey. Color, anodize, gray. Pavement, traffic light, pedestrian crossing, road. Sidewalk, stoplight, crosswalk, street. Lift, toilet, dustbin. Elevator, bathroom, trash can.

Every time I flew back and forth, I played a little game: how quickly could I rid myself of the appearance of having just stepped off a plane? How soon could I settle into the rhythm of each city? How easily could I begin to behave as if I had never left?

If you're flying to SIN on SQ, the transformation back to Singaporean happens prematurely, whether you mean for it to or not.

It begins at the gate, when you glimpse a fellow red passport, and then another, and another. Stepping on the plane, the flight crew greets you in the unmistakable lilt of Singlish, the first shock to the system. You greet them back, the unaspirated obstruents and shortened vowels feeling at once foreign and familiar.

Settling into your seat, you open the duty-free catalogue and find yourself looking at a watch with the words "kan cheong" and a spider on the watch face. At mealtime, you ask for the roast pork and get a tray with the main dish labelled "char siew".

Some habits seep through the insulating barrier of space and time. I have developed a brazen willingness to fling limbs at closing lift doors, and it takes an inordinate amount of discipline not to waltz across an empty road when the traffic light is against me. I walk aggressively close to cars, stationary or otherwise. Koping seats with my bag now feels like an unnatural act of trust in the universe — when I remember to do it at all.

Then there are the habits of mind that no one knows but me. I notice myself adding time instead of subtracting it, wondering if 7-11 does cashback, reaching for $20 bills that don't exist.

I have a confession to make. I have yet to eat bak kut teh in Singapore. The first time I had bak kut teh was in Penang, and all the other times were in New York.

I can't explain why, but bak kut teh became my comfort food in New York. I would order it from Nyonya whenever I was sick, upset, or plain meh — a large bowl’s worth delivered to my New York apartment would last two meals.

The strange thing, of course, is that now, all bak kut teh reminds me of are cold winter nights in New York City, nursing sniffles and a warm bowl of home.

"How's home?" asks my friend.

"Home is strange, it feels really familiar, and then the littlest things jump out at me, like the fact we don't have $20 notes," I say.

"Huh. $20 for - oh, like bills," says my friend.

Four years suddenly stretch to infinity in my mind as I try to remember if I have ever referred to a bill as a note to my American friends.

One day, on a too-crowded MRT train, a thought imposes itself on my consciousness.

I miss the subway.

I told my mother that if she wanted chilli sauce in New York, she would have to bring it from Singapore. Sriracha is an inexact substitute.

Two mornings ago, I stumbled out of bed and asked for a comfort-food lunch of instant noodles with egg and chilli sauce.

"We don't have any chilli. Left it all in New York," my mother said.

At Books Actually I spot the book for John Clang's exhibition, Being Together. John Clang is a New York-based photographer and — as tends to happen with Singaporeans, what with being a small country and all — an acquaintance of my ex-roommate. In Being Together, he shot photos of Singaporean families divided by landmasses and oceans, projecting Skype video calls with geographically distant family members to form family portraits.

I rifle through the pages looking for one photo -- just one. It has to be here. I can't find it. I look at the index and I see that it's in the book, somewhere, but it doesn't tell me where.

I flip through it again and this time, right on cue, the book falls open to the photo I'm looking for.

It's not my photo. It's a photo of another family, one I don't know. I study the photograph and notice the window blinds look similar to mine, even though they weren't the same — the tenant in the photo took the blinds with her when she moved out. I see she had an AC — an aircon — and I remember her telling me that there was no AC in the room. She took that with her, too. I look at the bed pushed into the corner, the desk with the flatscreen TV, the laundry basket by the heater. It's configured completely differently, but I recognise it; I know every dusty corner of it, the way the window doesn’t completely shut, the sharpness of the sunlight that filters in on summer mornings.

This is my room.

This was my room.

On the train, I am engrossed in some news item or another on my phone, earphones in my ears, tuned out from everything around me. One word pierces my personal bubble and by a four-year-old reflex, I pull my earphones out, look up, and search for the voice that said the word "Singapore".

Then I realise where I am. I'm on the MRT, not the subway. It was just some random college student talking about local current affairs.

I spent much of the lead up to my O Levels in 2005 camping at the Funan McDonald's mugging away, eight hours or more a day, with my friends. When the A Levels rolled around, we returned to that spot and saw out those exams there too. When I worked in the MICA building, I would go to that McDonald's and wait out rush hour before heading home. During winter and summer breaks home from school, as if for old times' sake, my friends and I would often end up there to chill, hang out, get some work done.

This time, upon returning, I do my rounds as I usually do, making a mental note of everything that's changed. At Funan, the realisation doesn't hit me immediately — it sinks in slowly, washes over me like a wave, emerges in a chuckle.

McDonald's is gone.

In its place stands — of all things — a bak kut teh restaurant.

Whenever I am feeling low I look around me and I know There’s a place that will stay within me Wherever I may choose to go…

At the airport, I look at all the people going to other places, leaving, travelling, passing through.

Something clicks. I get it.

Once, New York was a place I needed to go to. It was a place that existed in the distance, and it was something I desperately needed to be a part of. I wanna be a part of it…

Now, New York is a part of me. It is in my feet as I weave through a crowd, it is the momentary wish to dabao a meal I cannot finish, it is the way I pull out my earphones to listen when the muzak of Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York comes on over the speakers at Changi Airport.

I left New York, but I didn't leave New York behind. It came home with me.

First published on POSKOD.SG.

On Attending Pink Dot

I would refuse to go to a homophobic heaven. No, I would say sorry, I mean I would much rather go to the other place. I would not worship a God who is homophobic and that is how deeply I feel about this. — Desmond Tutu

I am heterosexual, I am cisgender, I am a Christian, and this year, for the first time, I will be going to Pink Dot.

While the core of my opinion of homosexuality and the church hasn’t changed, my view of the public discourse surrounding homosexuality has shifted considerably over the last few years. I have always felt that what consenting adults do behind closed doors is between them and God, and neither the church nor the state has a right to legislate that.

Theologically, it seems to me that the church tends to operate from the assumption that homosexuality is a sin worse than all the other sins, which is doubly dangerous: if you believe that homosexuality is a sin (and I’m not sure it is my business to judge what sin is or isn’t, I barely know what it is myself. Adam and Eve ate a fruit they were told not to eat — a sin — and Abraham was on the verge of killing Isaac, which he was told to do — not a sin), you cannot possibly believe that it is worse than any other sin. As a result, I am not sure why the church has such a problem with gay people when it has no problem with everyone else, as if everyone else did not also sin. As if God had any phobias, as if anything we did could surprise Him.

I think that the hand-wringing over “tradition” and “marriage” is pointless, and it would be far more helpful if civil unions replaced marriage in secular public life, with “marriage” only being used in private religious contexts. If people privately want to recognise their union as a marriage in God’s eyes, then they should be free to do so, but from the state’s point of view every marriage should be a civil union. This, of course, is a more extreme position than necessary for progress towards equality, and developments in the last few years have made it clear that we are going the way of the same-sex marriage rather than of the opposite-sex civil union. At the end of the day, this is a minor detail in the grand scheme of things. I note it here for consistency's sake.

While I have always been sympathetic to the cause of LGBT rights, I’ve never felt that it was my battle to fight. In a way, I’ve never felt that I had a right to fight it. It seems silly to say it now, but I suppose it felt presumptuous to assume that my help was needed. What has changed this year is that, for the first time, I have felt that the Protestant Christian voice in Singapore has begun to presume to speak for me in a way that I am not comfortable with.

I am not comfortable with the idea that our “national values” involve the systematic oppression of a group of people whose “crime” I can’t even define, while these same “national values” tear apart families who disown their gay children, cause indescribable suffering to those forced to remain in the closet, and prevent what might very well be loving families from being formed.

I am not comfortable with the idea that we have a government that allows the descendant of an archaic 1534 law to stay on the books ostensibly for reasons of symbolism, promising not to prosecute anyone under it, conveniently neglecting to acknowledge the fact that as long as 377A is not repealed, there can be no progress with LGBT rights (which is surely the symbolism of the act in the first place). An entire community will remain discriminated against in real and tangible ways (ahem HDB), while they enjoy the “privilege” of not being prosecuted under a law that still considers them to be criminals.

Most of all, I am not comfortable with knowing that if I do not plant my flag, state my stand and claim my own voice, others who have stated their intention to be loud and vociferous in their opposition to Pink Dot and LGBT equality will claim to speak for me. To quote Archbishop Desmond Tutu for a second time:

If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.

At the end of the day, I am not looking for arguments for or against, theological or social or political. This is not about who has the most logical argument or the most consistent theology. I like to think that I do not let institutional loyalties sway my own convictions, and I would sooner leave a church than pretend to subscribe to beliefs I cannot hold. (Don’t write to me saying “your pastor once said…” I know. There is no church in the world that can precisely match an individual’s personal theology; the question is, what is most fundamental to the theology and do I agree with it?)

In any case, it is not for a church functionary to decide whether or not to excommunicate me from my relationship with God for choosing to stand with the oppressed rather than the oppressors.

This is simply about obeying the dictates of my own conscience.

See you at Pink Dot this Saturday.

L'estaca, Lluís Llach

This is a translation I've wanted to do for a long time, but I always ran into some kind of block or another. Finally, tonight, thanks to a persistent insomnia, I sat down (or more accurately I sat up in bed) and worked one out. This song is L'estaca by Lluís Llach. It is a song with a storied history. Lluís Llach is a cantautor, a singer-songwriter, from Girona, Catalonia. He first came to fame during the Franco dictatorship, when the regional languages of Spain were banned from public life - except, for some reason, in music. Catalan songs thus became, intentionally or otherwise, a medium for protest against the Spanish State, and Catalan cantautors became the focal point for such political protest.

L'estaca was approved by the Spanish censors in 1968 (on the eighth submission) and became a popular hit. The following year, the authorities finally caught on and banned the song, but it was too late. In December 1969, Lluís Llach gave a performance at the Palau de la Mùsica Catalana where he was unable to sing L'estaca due to the ban - so the audience sang it instead. The song spread across Europe and, after being set to new lyrics by Jacek Kaczmarski, became the unofficial anthem of Solidarność in Poland. More recently, it was the anthem of the Tunisian Revolution in 2010-11.

The Catalan Wikipedia has much more complete information on Lluís Llach and L'estaca than the English Wikipedia does, and that's where I'm getting much of this information. I'm taking the liberty of sprinkling it here because information on Llach in English is relatively scarce. The Siset mentioned in the song is Narcís Llansa i Tubau, a barber and former ERC councillor whom Llach met in his youth, and whose republican and Catalanist ideals influenced Llach's own political development.

I was first introduced to this song during Speaking Freely classes at NYU, where I heard the most famous version of the song, which has just two verses. While researching this translation I noticed that there is actually a third verse on Lluís Llach's own website — so I translated that, too. It's much too important to leave out.

L'avi Siset em parlava
De bon matí al portal
Mentre el sol esperàvem
I els carros vèiem passar
Siset, que no veus l'estaca
On estem tots lligats?
Si no podem desfer-nos-en
Mai no podrem caminar!

Si estirem tots ella caurà
I molt de temps no pot durar
Segur que tomba, tomba, tomba
Ben corcada deu ser ja
Si jo l'estiro fort per aquí
I tu l'estires fort per allà
Segur que tomba, tomba, tomba
I ens podrem alliberar.

Però Siset, fa molt temps ja
Les mans s'em van escorxant.
I quan la força se me'n va
Ella és més ample i més gran.
Ben cert que està podrida
Però es que, Siset, pesa tant
Que a cops la força m'oblida
Torna'm a dir el teu cant

Si estirem...

L'avi Siset ja no diu res
Mal vent que se l'emportà
Ell qui sap cap a quin indret
I jo a sota el portal
I mentre passen els nous vailets
Estiro el coll per cantar
El darrer cant d'en Siset
El darrer que em va ensenyar.

On paper, this should have been easy to translate - simple words, powerful imagery — but it wasn't. I usually tend to favour a more literal translation, especially for a first pass, because that preserves the turns of phrase, the syntax, and the way the brain twists to make connections, but when I tried it here everything turned flat and lifeless. That's the reason I sat on it for so long. At some point I realised that it wasn't the words, it was the imagery. I had to find the imagery. L'estaca is, in spirit, a folk song. Precision is not the point; connection is.

When I did that, things started to fall into place.

Old man Siset spoke to me
Before dawns, in the doorway
While we waited for the sun
And watched the carts pass us by.
Siset, can't you see the stake
To which we have all been bound?
Unless we undo ourselves from it
We shall never walk free!

If we all pull together, it will fall
And it can't stand much longer
Surely it must tumble, tumble, tumble
It must be so rotten now
If I pull hard over here
And you pull hard over there
Surely it must tumble, tumble, tumble
And we shall at last be free.

But Siset, it's been so long now
My hands have been scoured so much
And when my strength slips from me
The stake grows bigger and stronger
I know for sure that it's rotten
But Siset, it weighs so much...
Sometimes my strength forgets me —
Sing me your song once again...

If we all pull together...

Old man Siset speaks no more
An ill wind bore him away
Only he knows to where —
And me, still in the doorway.
And as the young kids pass me by
I lift up my voice to sing
The final song of Siset
The last song that he taught me.

The strange thing that happened was that after the first pass, I noticed that the English translation had a certain unintended rhythm to it. The stress pattern was (and still is) a little off, but without meaning to, I had produced a translation that was seven-ish syllables to a line. Once I noticed that, I cut down some lines and lengthened others, making the progression of the song more even. What's interesting here is that the number of syllables in the Catalan and in the English are very, very similar — that's not true for many language pairs.

Some challenges: conveying the imperfect aspect of "parlava". The most precise English translation would have been "Old man Siset used to speak to me," but that really slowed the line down, so I left it and used "before dawns" to indicate that the talking was a regular, ongoing occurrence. The first translation of "fort" that sprang to mind was "strongly", probably because of the link with the word "força" (force, strength), but I really needed a monosyllabic word there, and it's surprising that it took me so long to think of "pull hard" as an alternative to "pull strongly". Most other translations I've seen opt for "to fall" rather than "to tumble" for "tombar", but there conversely I really wanted a bisyllabic word — a monosyllabic word interrupts the falling; it breaks the fall, as it were. In any case "tumble" and "tombar" share an etymology (Old French "tomber").

"Escorxar" and "scour", as far as I'm aware, do not share an etymology, but "flay", "peel" and other candidates just don't sound as good. There is something about the /sk_r/ combination of sounds that drives home the sensation of something cutting into flesh (scratch, screech, scare, scorn, scrape...) And finally — "I lift up my voice to sing" is a tricky one. The verb Llach used was "estirar", to pull - the same verb that he used to refer to pulling the stake. Clearly the repeated use of "estirar" is significant, but "I pull my voice" just does not work. In the end, I opted for "I lift up my voice" because "lift up", by itself, has a connotation of physical effort, and yet when applied to singing it has a quality of offering, as in worship, or of being outside of oneself.

Here's the three-verse version of L'estaca. Enjoy.