Mothership and The Birthday Collective are in collaboration to share a selection of essays from the 2019 edition of The Birthday Book.
The Birthday Book (which you can buy here) is a collection of essays about Singapore by 54 authors from various walks of life. These essays reflect on the narratives of their lives, that define them as well as Singapore's collective future.
"Tell me a story about how you grew up" is an essay contributed by Daryl Sng, a management consultant and former Singapore diplomat.
Sng's essay is reproduced in full here:
By Daryl Sng
“Tell me a story.”
And so it begins, every dinner.
Most days, I spin fantastical stories about superhero chickens or what the furniture gets up to while we are all asleep. Those stories are easy enough: woven together from stray bits of pop culture, the fatherly impulse for punning humour and my own love of absurdity.
But sometimes, the request changes. “Tell me a story about how you grew up.”
My son was born in Washington DC, and all his seven years have been spent in America.
They say the past is a foreign country, and my past is as foreign as can be to him, separated not only by oceans and half a world but also by the sheer passage of time.
At this point, I am 41 years old, only 13 years younger than Singapore itself — my country — and the Singapore of 1978 is so far away from the Singapore of 2019.
I have so much to tell him.
Stories about my childhood in Singapore
I tell him about how I would walk after school to the old National Library in Fort Canning and read for hours while waiting for my mother, who has since passed away, to finish work and pick me up.
I tell him about being in the army and about the training accident that caused me to lose the use of my right hand for half a year.
I tell him about how an MRT station finally opened near my home, which meant that when I walked home from the station I had to walk past squatters’ huts and get chased by wild dogs.
I tell him about sleeping on the train from home to school and the panic when I would oversleep and miss my stop.
But already I see I’m reaching the limits of what I can tell him if he doesn’t have the context from being there every day.
And so, I drop the details from my narrative. I don’t say that along the way to the library I would pick up saga seeds to play with or describe the ineffable scent of the trees near the carpark.
Or that I still remember the Octopus library card with the bar code or the bees that hovered near the ice-kachang machine at the nearby hawker stall, attracted by its sweetness.
I don’t describe the groaning sensation of waking up too late and knowing that the MRT train was now on the interminable stretch across the reservoir between Yio Chu Kang and Khatib.
I don’t say that where the dogs chased me was near Tanah Merah station. Which means I don’t say “tanah” — or talk about the land or the soil I stood on.
As a diplomat, I've had to talk about Singapore
My narrative isn’t the hardscrabble immigrant narrative so beloved by Asian Americans when they tell the stories of their families; I can’t use this shorthand. I know I will never be able to stand on the shoulders of others who’ve told similar tales if I am to tell the story of my life to my son.
I came to America in 2010, appropriately urbane (one hopes), to represent Singapore at the Singapore Embassy.
As a diplomat, I told narratives of Singapore, my Singapore, dispelling misconceptions and encouraging people to see beyond the surface.
Mostly, the narrative I wanted to get across was that Singapore was more than just the cutting edge of efficiency and modernity, that behind the glass exteriors and skyscrapers was the true, throbbing heart of the country.
But how much did the Americans I spoke to assume I was just putting the best face of my country forward? Was I seen as an unreliable narrator?
I hope my son can discover S'pore through me
I try to be as reliable as possible when telling the narrative of my life to my son. But everyone’s narrative is a mess when you lay it all out. Tangled, complex skeins going every which way.
In my mind, I am a seven-year-old boy waiting in the Oriental Emporium in Bedok, playing with the toys inside while my parents went shopping or ran errands.
I am a 16-year-old waiting for his JC classmates at the MRT station to go to the annual class chalet together, calling home numbers on a card phone to check on those who hadn’t yet shown up.
I am in my 20s, meeting the woman who would become my wife and my son’s mother for a date at Fort Canning. There’s no plot. There are no story arcs. Just waypoints of my life.
I tell my stories, like Scheherazade, in the hope that these 1,001 stories of my life form a palimpsest from which my son can glean the place where his father comes from.
For him, the Singapore part of my life is terra incognita, a strip of undiscovered land. My telling of these stories is how I pass on the compass: a way to lead him to my Singapore narrative.
But I also tell my stories in the hopes that I can make that narrative cohere, that I can (re)discover my own psychogeography of Singapore.
Because I know where I started from and where I am now.
Back and forth, between Singapore & America
But like my country itself, the time and space I have crossed seems both unimaginable and very real. We both have become inextricably global — yet the beating heart of our stories remains rooted in Singapore.
People talk about “chapters” of lives as though we were all works of fiction experiencing our lives linearly. But our lives are more like a wiki: in telling our tales, we click on the hypertext of our life stories and revisit the past.
Click. It is 1997, and I’m a gawky NSF on the cusp of being an adult, hoping to use a rare Wednesday night off to get into Zouk.
Click. It is 1985, and I am in primary one playing Pepsi-Cola 1-2-3.
Click. It is 2017 in America, and I am sending my son off to first grade to start his public-school education. Back and forth I go, between Singapore and America.
How I grew up in Singapore isn’t just the opening chapter of my life; these are the pages I reference almost every day.
And so, I continue to tell my stories to my son, in the hope that he will click through all these bookmarks and breadcrumbs — and, in clicking, one day discover this land I have left him.
Top photo via Sng's Instagram
If you happen to be in the education space and think this essay may be suitable as a resource (e.g. for English Language, General Paper or Social Studies lessons), The Birthday Collective has an initiative, "The Birthday Workbook", that includes discussion questions and learning activities based on The Birthday Book essays. You can sign up for its newsletter at bit.ly/TBBeduresource.