Starting Over

Discovering myself, my family and friends in a foreign land, second time around

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Making sense of living in “misery city”


The city I live in has been in the news for the last two weeks. First came the survey that pegged Singapore as the most expensive city to live in, more expensive than Paris! This week it has been tagged “misery city” by BBC freelance writer Charlotte Ashton for her experience on the Singapore metro where she wasn’t offered a seat or asked about her wellbeing as she struggled with pregnancy-related nausea. Both times, there has been public debate, several inches of newspaper columns devoted to discussions about reasons for and actions against such incidents respectively.

My reaction on both occasions began with a roll of the eyes and “What kind of a place have I come to?” I am still figuring out bus routes and the business district. Hawker centers and hang baos are terms I have newly added to my vocabulary. My Singlish stinks, so does durian. Such news doesn’t help quell my settling-down jitters. Its tough enough to plan for an impending college education while living in the most expensive city without feeling that we are inhabiting a society that suffers from a massive “compassion deficit” as the BBC article says.

The first time I left my home in urban India to move to the USA, I remember feeling forlorn. For one, I could hardly see people in suburban Washington DC, when compared to the millions I had grown up with Mumbai. The sheer vastness of the country made me feel trivial even though the density of the Mumbai population should have made me feel insignificant. But I was the outsider, looking in. My eyes were accustomed to the dust and haze of city life in a developing country. The expressways and cleanliness didn’t bring comfort; they only highlighted the differences. I worried about safety in deserted train compartments during the day and taking a cab alone at night. In Mumbai I roamed free, safe in the anonymity and presence of many strangers who milled around at all times of the day and night.

The few I encountered in America seemed pleasant, mouthing a “hello” as they walked past. A kind lady once dropped me home from the train station when my ride did not show up. The train conductor consoled me another evening when I woke up right after the train left my station. A young woman offered to pay for me at Taco Bell when I ordered a meal only to find out that I had left my wallet at home. But there was also the grumpy old man who loudly proclaimed, “we walk on the right side of the path in this country” to my mother and me as we pushed the stroller with DQ around the park in California. And the attendant at the gas station who saw me every week but spoke to me only once, the week after Sep 11, 2001, to ask where I was from.

Growing up in Mumbai, taking the public transport everywhere, I experienced fear when pushed into and out of crowded trains, shame when groped by strangers and anger when people boarded buses without standing in line. A benevolent man once brought my 11-year-old brother home after taking him to a doctor for first aid when he fell from a public bus. He refused to take money either for the medical treatment or taxi fare for returning him home safely. I have taken shelter under the umbrellas of strangers when caught in an unexpected downpour during the monsoons.  I have relied on fellow travelers to guide me to the correct bus routes when traveling to unfamiliar parts of the metropolis.

I didn’t think poorly of Indians when I lived there because that was my milieu. I didn’t jump to conclusions about Americans just because I was in an unfamiliar environment. The sum total of my experiences was merely a collective recollection of individual episodes, governed by random situations with a distinctive set of people in each instance. Perhaps if the people involved were different, I would have different stories to tell. No matter how accepting  we consider ourselves, how open we think we are to new people and places, we hold biases which may ride on the surface like a leaf on water or lurk beneath like a stingray. And depending on the stimulus, our belief surfaces, clouding our reading of a one-off situation, making us paint the rest of our stay with the same brush.

The value of an immersive experience in another country depends on our ability and the ease with which we see the people around us, not as representatives of preconceived stereotypes or statistical data to be verified but for what they are, fellow humans. We may not share the same skin color and racial characteristics but we are all united in humanness. And that includes the errors in judgment that we make, whether it is in not offering a seat to a fellow passenger on a train or in labeling every person in the country as lacking compassion for doing so. To set this right, someone has to take the higher moral ground. Who will rise first?


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Family ties

“Have you made any friends in Singapore? Do you feel settled yet?” asked a well-meaning friend.

The short answer was “no, yes”. But the simple answer was far from the true one.

Now that we have crossed six month milestone as a family, life seems to have taken on a different hue, and its not due to the haze that has begun to descend, thanks in part to the longest dry spell within Singapore and brush fires in the neighboring countries. 

My initial days in Singapore were action-packed, full of jobs that HAD to be done in order to

  •   Make the home livable and functioning
  •   Sort out visa issues – multiple trips, paper work, waiting
  •   Get kids ready for school – books, uniforms, bus routes

Then I had to get the family organized which required me to

  •    Figure out food preferences
  •    Lay down some house rules
  •    Look into hobbies and activities

The third phase was to come together as a unit in spite of our

  •    Personalities (irrespective of age or gender)
  •    Sleep cycles (teenager and others)
  •    Mood swings (irrespective of age or gender)

HH feels like a deer caught in the headlights in a full-fledged household. He has to work at the office and work at home. Was there such a time when he could prioritize a game of golf on a carefree weekend?

I feel swamped with homework, exams, activities, miscellaneous errands, PMS (mine included) and the general chaos of a home buzzing with constant activity. Am I the same person who spent one whole month at an ashram last year, away from “real life”?

Princess feels there are too many rules in this house. Why can’t clothes be stored in a pile on the floor and why aren’t French fries considered acceptable breakfast, lunch AND dinner food

DQ thinks there are too many people in this house. Why can’t she be allowed to study, text and Facetime simultaneously without people looking over her shoulder? 

HH feels there are too many women. Why are we always late everywhere?

I think there are too many demands. Do we have enough milk, a healthy after-school snack each day, clean and ironed clothes?

Some of these questions can be answered and some will linger eternally, each generation seeking answers that are acceptable at that age and maturity level. Till then, we can only focus on our actions, not knowing whether they are permanent solutions or interim management measures. So we set a few expectations.

  •    To eat dinner together, even if the meal does not have the preferred food of each member
  •    To go out for a walk at night, sometimes all of us, sometimes I go alone
  •    To allow each other the space to do what they like, whether it is silence for me to read, or Saturday mornings for HH to play squash
  •   To listen, to speak, to cry if needed, without interruption or judgment
  •   To laugh heartily as we bake cakes and muffins each week and consume whole-heartedly

At dinner we hear that Princess is making new friends since her overnight picnic organized by the school. While walking, I learn that DQ likes the Leadership Series of lectures at her school specially when the speakers are spiritual people who offer insight. I read to HH from a book that lies besides our bed. He tells me how is trying to workout in the gym in the office.

I still pick up towels from the floor. DQ and I argue about the hours she spends online. HH tells friends we are late because he can never herd three women out the door in time. I try to fit some writing into each day.

These have become our bonding rituals. With these we underline our philosophy for our family. These are our family ties.

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Take the bus

Water bottle? Check.

Jacket? Check.

Smart phone? Check.

Umbrella? Check.

I am ready to step out into the Singapore sunshine. With my pretty pink umbrella, I walk the 300 meters to the nearest bus stop. I confer with my phone to figure out the arrival time of the bus I need to take. 3 minutes, it says. And it does. I squint into the cloudless sky as I take a sip of water, allowing the others to board. I am heading to the Arts House for a writing workshop. Bus number 961 will take me there in 1 hour and 5 minutes, as per Mytransport, the bus app that I use. I find a window seat at the rear. The cool blast of air that at first feels refreshing and then freezing, makes me pull out my jacket from my bag. I get comfortable and look around.

Tiny kids in uniforms, carrying bulging backpacks; teenagers with weird haircuts; young men and women with flashy phones; many age groups, races and nationalities ride side by side, focused on getting to their destination. They all enter from the front, tapping their EZ link cards and move politely to the rear. The auntie with grocery bags sit next to the young man who dozes off but miraculously stops short of putting his drooping head into her lap. A young woman gets down with her foldable bicycle. The baby in his mother’s arms looks around observantly, as if preparing for his own turn to ride the bus independently. There is a low hum of conversation, people whispering into their mobile phones in Mandarin, Tamil, Malay, sometimes Hindi too. Those infatuated with their phones watch movies or play Candy Crush. The ones with scarlet headphones marked with “b” have their eyes closed, music meditation I presume. Outside, the lanes are filled with cars, inching along in the rush hour, unlike the bus that zips across secure in its own lane.

I was 13 when I started taking the public bus to school. A bright red bus with “BEST” painted in white, route 333 that covered the distance between Sahar Village and Holy Spirit Hospital in Mumbai. “How much is your bus ticket?” my grandfather would ask. “Why don’t you buy a half ticket?” he would persist. “I am more than 12 years old. Half-ticket is for little kids” I would reply seriously. In my home, being allowed to take the public bus to school was a coming of age milestone. My brothers had been given the go ahead when they turned 11, a fact they never failed to mention, to emphasize the special treatment I was given ‘because you are a GIRL”.  I didn’t mind. I was happy waiting in the line to board the bus, chatting with classmates, looking out for boys from the neighboring boys school. The buses ran frequently and I usually got a seat. The conductor moved through the aisle issuing tickets. I liked sit by the window, watching other kids get into their respective school buses, in yellow raincoats and gumboots.

Riding a bus in Mumbai meant arriving at your destination either drenched in sweat or monsoon rains. And with each season, I graduated from pimply teenager to diffident college girl. I took route 312 to Santa Cruz, a bus that went into the airport, in an era free of terrorist threats. A quick stop at Vakola church, a swing around the army cantonment and I would be at my college. Sometimes a group of students would venture out further, to “town”, to watch an English movie at Eros theatre. Or take another bus to Juhu beach to eat pani puris at sunset. The bus was always full of people. We asked for directions. We felt safe. And surprisingly, so did our parents, even though they couldn’t track us once we left home because phones were a luxury in those days.

My girls take the public bus to school in Singapore now. “Hats off to you guys for allowing your children to take public transport. And you just got here!” says the mother of Princess’ friend at school. HH and I decided early on that we would encourage the girls to be independent and travel alone. I agreed because I had done the same at that age. HH was reassured by the reputed safety of this city-state. We both were glad we didn’t have to drive them around as we were doing in India. Did I mention we don’t own a car here? That made the choice pretty easy for us. We send them out with water bottles for hydration and phones for connectivity. They always have enough money to take a cab in an emergency.

As parents we tell them to be careful, look before they cross the road and call us if they need help. But they will learn more from their own travels on these buses. Like the time Princess slept off on her way back from school and found herself far away from home. It was a day she had chosen to not take her phone to school. She panicked but found her way back fairly easily. She is the one who tells this story proudly now; a huge leap in self-confidence for a child who had been cared for extremely protectively till recently.

Or the time when DQ took her eyes off her Samsung S4 long enough to notice the pregnant woman who didn’t have a seat and got up for her; a kind gesture by a self-obsessed teenager.

One day they reached late. It helped them plan their morning routine better. Another day they got drenched in a sudden downpour. Now they take umbrellas. Everyday they carry their heavy backpacks but still have not learnt the art of taking only the minimum books!

I know that traveling alone but together with strangers on a bus will shape future experiences for them, like it has done for me. I feel at home in Rome when I try to figure out my way to the Vatican. I am alert in Paris as I take the metro. I love riding on the upper deck of the double decker red buses in London which remind me of my childhood. What better way to allow the personality of the city to rub off on you as you share the joint journey on a public bus? An immersive experience which grounds them while building a foundation for future travels in strange places.

Today they travel to school without us; tomorrow the world.

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Blending in


HH brought some office colleagues over for lunch yesterday. Six people sat at my dining table enjoying the assorted items I had made – Chinese-style fried rice, sautéed baby potatoes, Indian chole served with middle eastern pita bread, a falafel-like starter with coriander-yoghurt sauce, mini idlis and banana nut muffins for dessert. Why not a purely Indian spread, colorful and spicy? The reason is that Singapore is amazing in the versatility of the people who live here. Whether it is the people who attended a writing class with me last week, or patients waiting at the doctors’ office, group of kids signing up for tennis coaching or just the people riding on the bus with you, they represent multiple countries and continents. My lunch guests included a tall, reclusive South African, a talkative Vietnamese Australian, a bubbly Singaporean Chinese lady, a bright-eyed, almost Indian looking gentleman from Egypt along with two garden variety Indians, including my husband. My challenge was to assemble a vegetarian meal that had adequate protein along with a balance of flavors that would appeal to an international audience.

Singapore is perhaps one of the few countries where the diversity of its population is not just visible but prominently highlighted. I take the bus everywhere and it helps me notice things that I wouldn’t if I was driving. Every Friday I observe large groups of men wearing the traditional white caps on their heads as they walk to the neighborhood mosque for the afternoon prayer. The churches dot the skyline as do the colorful facades of the Hindu temples, located not just in Little India but all over the island. The Buddhist temples with red pillars and fluttering prayer flags, the perfume of joss sticks burning, provide stark contrast to the monotony of the high-rise buildings next door.  In the few months that I have been here, the large banner at the nearby park has conveyed wishes from the town council members to the residents for Deepavali, Christmas and Chinese New Year.

The obituary section in the newspaper is always interesting at first glance – large color pictures of the recently deceased, faces of loved ones of all ages and many races. The announcements at the underground stations carry instructions in various languages in addition to English. Official forms are available in Malay, Tamil and Chinese where you are asked to identify your race as a matter of routine.

I smile at the cashier at my local grocery store who may be a dark haired woman with a bindi or a young woman wearing a pretty hijab. The hawker center food courts offer Indonesian, Thai, Korean, Muslim Indian and Chinese food choices at budget prices. Saris and cheongsams, noodles and rotis, Siam coconut and Singha beer – everything defines the unique confluence that is Singapore. Not yet 50 years old, Singapore is a work in progress, a flowing fusion of cultures as it updates its national identity.

When a new immigrant group enters a reasonably homogeneous society, they have to make changes in order to blend in. My father told me the story of the Parsi community in Bombay who originally came to India as immigrant centuries ago.

When the Parsis came from Persia, they landed on the shores of the western state of Gujarat. The priestly leaders were brought before the local ruler, Jadi or Jadhav Rana, who presented them with a vessel “brimful” of milk to signify that the surrounding lands could not possibly accommodate any more people. The Parsi head priest responded by slipping some sugar into the milk to signify how the strangers would enrich the local community without displacing them. They would dissolve into life like sugar dissolves in the milk, sweetening the society but not unsettling it.

What wonderful way to visualize the mixing of cultures which could add flavor to the existing mix? Living in Singapore serves a daily reminder of that sentiment. Not because it is written in the constitution but because it is on display everywhere; not just outside my home but also within where I join the laughter of the group that has been invited to lunch.