The world seemed to have come to a halt when I sat on the long, concrete bench one Thursday afternoon in one of Singapore’s heartlands. The sun was out, but it wasn’t beating down my back; it smiled like Elmo’s sun. A gentle breeze dipped and flew in the air in rhythmic synchronicity with the swaying of the trees. A lone cyclist lazily pedalled up the pathway, a chill vibe punctuating each push on the pedal.
“Ah, yes, this is how peace and quiet feel like,” I quietly said to myself. I had forgotten how the muted sounds, their palpability as thick as caramel sauce, are sweet and relaxing. That feeling banished, eclipsed by the heartaches I went through which I blunted with cacophonous chatter, discordant din, and otiose sounds. It was the same for the inane and prejudiced remarks casually thrown my way by colleagues and alleged friends.
Bishan – Ang Mo Kio Park was a peaceful haven that I stumbled upon on the second day of the Youth Environmental Summit 2019. It was the venue for the Water Experiential Journey with Grace S.Y. Lim, a biologist and owner of CreativeKids Pte Ltd. Alighting at parking lot A, as my students ran to look for their groups, I headed the other way. The path I took led me to an almost empty space except for the two people taking photos near the water. The stillness in the park reminded me of the days when, steeped in papers to finish at university, the sweet placidity in the library soothed my frazzled nerves and calmed the agitations. For a fleeting moment, pain and idiocy vanished, and the world was copacetic again.
It glowed from afar as the school car trundled along the long entrance pathway. It was enormous and it glowed. A section within Gate 1 was dimmed but, like a dimmer switch slowly turned, the corridor was well lit at the centre. Gate 3 seemed to be the primary entry point at 4 in the morning. Porters, leaning lazily on the bag trolleys neatly lined up, were oblivious to the passengers alighting from the vehicles in front of them. Traffic was surprisingly smooth, which was a serendipitous occurrence in the traffic-laden streets of Jakarta en route to anywhere hence she was deposited at such an ungodly hour by a blue Avanza near Gate 1. She was too early for the 530 meeting time. But one can never really accurately predict one’s arrival anywhere with certainty in Indonesia. The rule of thumb: leave as early as you can and entertain yourself if you arrive early. What are smartphones for anyway? Millennials and my students swear survival by their snazzy hand phones in times of a long wait for flights.
Inside the cavernous polished cave that was reminiscent of Singapore’s Changi Airport with the huge, clear directional signs, touch of local decor, and expansive spaces in between check in counters, the new Terminal 3 (T3) of Soekarno-Hatta International airport was slowly pushing away the embrace of sleep. Cleaning ladies were already mopping the toilet floor, their nearly catatonic faces waking up from the night’s interrupted rest. The Food Terminal was alive with the chatter of the service crew of OldTown White Coffee serving teh tarik (tea with milk), toast slathered with kaya jam and butter, and soft boiled egg. Their neighbour Burger King was similarly busy.
An hour later the shuttered restaurants have flicked on their switches. The open kitchen of Paradise Dynasty, maker of xiao long pao dumplings, is lit and its toque-wearing chef is swinging into action. Auntie Anne’s was now bathed in its lights like Maragame Udon which is just next door.
It was peaceful as she walked around T3 familiarizing herself with the lay of the land. There was no jostling with fellow passengers or the loud din of well-wishers and travellers. There was this mellifluous silence everywhere gently brushing passed by the few people walking around. An early breakfast while waiting for the rest of her students to arrive – they were attending the Youth Environmental Summit in Singapore – in the quiet of the airport was a good way to start the day.
OldTown White Coffee, its neon sign standing proud in the airport sky, beckoned with its Classic Combo. It was an apt breakfast, she thought, thinking of the numerous Singapore breakfasts she had had at either Killiney or Ya Kun Kaya, plus she was traveling to Singapore. It was somewhat of an homage to her old favourite breakfast. The Classic Combo didn’t entirely live up previous ones but it was an acceptable substitute. The four pieces of square kaya toast had the right crisp after-toast bite; the kaya toast – butter spread was sweetly balanced, neither sweet nor buttery which was complimented by the sips of the smooth, bitter-sweet-milky iced tehtarik. It was the soft boiled egg that was a let-down in terms of portion – it was one instead of the usual two – and overall appearance. It lacked the boiled egg white fluffiness surrounding the pinkish-white egg yolk which was orange in this case.
T3 was clearly stirring from its sleep: the humming of the arrival of more travellers by 5am was more palpable and distinct. A new day was emerging – a new day filled with possibilities, heartaches big and small, smiles bright and wan, and traffic smooth or gnarled.
Ignore the view in front of the window – that was what I told myself at 4pm after rushing to the window and looking at the view slightly below my hotel room. It was such a disappointment with the laundered shirt and brassiere of the occupant of condo opposite Hangout @ Mount Emily hanging to dry. I quickly pulled the blinds down. The hotel didn’t actually promise a view but still.
Morning was a different case. Looking up and fixing my gaze to the right, at the buildings dotting the landscape from beyond,I was greeted with a beautiful, colorful Singapore morning at 703. There is something about my mornings that I find truly fascinating ineffable as they may seem.
(view from Hangout @ Mount Emily, 10A Upper Wilkie Road)
It was the line of Hermes, played by actor Nathan Fillion in the movie Percy Jackson: The Sea of Monsters, which resonated when the idea of family zipped through my mind. It seemed like Hermes was talking to himself, remembering how he shouldn’t give up on his wayward son, Luke. He told Percy, “One never gives up on family.” Given my naturally sarcastic disposition, I rephrased that into “One never gives up on select family.” Some are, as I conversed with myself, just meant to be at best acknowledged and at worse ignored.
It is quite easy to pontificate about family and how it is the very reason for one’s existence, but the ideal vis-à-vis reality is a different story. More often than not, it is family that is the very first to betray you in the face of adversity, choosing money over kin. Propinquity is automatically expected because of the same blood that runs through the veins, but reality is farther from the truth. Friends act more like family, bonding with you through your joy or empathizing with you in your tribulations, while the Tito, Tita, and pinsan (Tagalog for uncle, auntie, and cousin respectively) are nothing but perfect strangers. Complete strangers, in fact, are easier to deal with because there won’t be any love lost if verbal jousting had to be resorted to. The familial strangers are too outré, complicated even, to lock horns with because of the underlying belief that they would never be spiteful and all that jazz. Again, reality says otherwise. Family members can, in fact, be more acerbic, pointing out bluntly your inadequacies – never mind theirs – such as being single, fat, aged, old fashioned, having a nondescript job, technologically challenged, and penurious.
Fortunately, Lady Serendipity was feeling benevolent and the ideal and reality coalesced. I began hanging out with Tito Ric, my mum’s older brother, who was in and out of my life when I was wee child, but in the recent years have hung out with like a kabarkada (colloquial Tagalog for ‘part of the gang’) whenever I’d be home for a holiday. The meet up would be for lunch at Makati, choosing a restaurant we both liked, and then spend the next few hours chatting away. Tito Ric and I had eaten at Museum Cafe and Razon’s before so Via Mare Oyster Bar in Glorietta was it this time. We ignored the oysters zooming straight for the pancit luglug as our main course and sotong goreng (a hint of Indonesian flavour for the Filipino-Western restaurant) for appetizer. Given that squid is a tad difficult to cook – it becomes tough when overcooked – the sotong goreng was a fantastic choice. The deep-fried battered squid tentacles dipped in chili sauce were crunchy and flavourful even to the last hour of our lunch. The pancit luglug – thick vermicelli noodles in shrimp paste sauce topped with squid rings, boiled egg, and crushed chitsaron (Filipino for pork crackling) – and the sotong goreng danced a mean samba on the palate.
Our chat fest – anything under the sun as one of my former high school Maths teacher always used to say – continued, moving from Via Mare to Coffeebean and Tea Leaf. He had his Americano poured, as he requested, in his Starbucks tumbler while I had a pure double chocolate ice blended. As we sipped our drinks, I saw how the family jigsaw puzzle was getting formed with the pieces coming together with our sides of the “stories” – personal or otherwise – with the personal aspect particularly the blurry episodes in the past now making sense, familial connections and disconnections confirmed, and the family tree clearer.
Lunch with Tito proved how good company and good food will always make for a wonderful experience, and how, giving it time, family ties can only get better. Now, we are deciding where the next lunch is going to be.
It was given to my mum as Christmas present together with other homemade local products. She thinks I am a bit obsessed with it because I wouldn’t stop talking or giggling about it. I was giggling because the name was so unexpected and I kept talking about it because of the image the name projected which was both humorous and slightly off-putting. The label read Oya and a search on Google led to a Facebook page Oya bakes filled with photos of the numerous bazaars she has attended to sell her products – selling for PhilP100 a piece – that came from a “tiny kitchen and made with local ingredients and love”. She has a wide array of preservative-free jams such as pineapple vanilla, piña colada, guava vanilla, and a banana-rum jam called Drunk Monkey. Oya also sells jars of savory products such as bagoong (fermented fish or krill), chili garlic oil, and boneless tuyo (dried, salted fish) in oil.
What had me in a fit of giggles was the new jam – Butt Monkey. I had to re-read the label twice – it truly said Butt Monkey, a spread composed of banana, lemon juice, butter, brown sugar, and love. Interesting spread! The analogy that came to mind is kopi luwak (or Indonesian civet) which is truly fantastic coffee once you have come to grips with its origin. Both the name, image, and true origin of kopi luwak are far more jaw-dropping than Butt Monkey given the circumstances, so I ventured to try the jam. Butt Monkey is as humorous as it is tasty. Spreading it on toasted bread, the butterscotch jam had this sweet – but not cloying – strong banana taste that did a wonderful dance with the citrusy lemon juice. The balance between sweet and citrusy didn’t leave a heavy feel on the palate that other jams are wont to leave after a few bites. In fact, everything was light yet filling. I still giggled after the last bite.
There is always a traditional dish that graces the table to mark the occasion, say, a birthday or Christmas. Some have lechon or pork barbecue while others have turkey. In my family Christmas means having chicken molo soup. The Yuletide season isn’t complete without my mum’s molo soup despite the plethora of goodies and the all- time favorite pasta and roasted chicken. As my mum put it, “There is something soothing about having chicken soup.”
The dish is typically known as pansit molo or molo soup with the wontons made of ground pork. Being non- pork eaters, my mum uses ground chicken. Buying ground chicken is generally easy despite the fact that it isn’t a favorite choice to make wonton. Hi-Top, a supermarket along Quezon Avenue, usually has it as well as the square molo wrappers you wrap the chicken wonton in. But this year was a shocker – the ground chicken and molo wrappers were out of stock! Fortunately, we were able to buy ground chicken and molo wrappers at the supermarket at Robinsons Magnolia in New Manila.
My part in cooking is making the wonton. I scoop just enough of the mixed ground chicken (it has egg, salt, and pepper) onto the wrapper and press the sides together. The amount of ground chicken should be just right so the wrapper doesn’t rip. Then mum does the rest – boiling the broth, balancing the flavors, adding the spring onions, and dropping the wontons gently into the boiling broth, including the ladling into the bowls reserved for the molo soup. Her ladling is to prevent one family member having more than one to many wontons than the others. The wontons, after all, must be equally divided.
What dish makes Christmas the way Christmas should be in your family?
How do you get bullied? Let me count the ways. One, you get bullied because you speak English. Two, you get bullied because you are not part of a major religion. Three, you get bullied because you are not reed thin.
In high school, three classmates of mine took it upon themselves to ‘chastise’ me for speaking in English. One of them was this boy who was not academically astute that I accidentally bumped into in an empty classroom. I was hoping to sit inside an empty classroom to get away from the din of the school. I entered one unaware he was inside. Out of nowhere, he walked towards me unsteadily – he seemed to have had a tipple somewhere – and remarked, “Why do you speak in English?! What is wrong with you, huh?!” Although he slurred throughout his utterance, his menacing visage and the fact that he towered over me sent my heart pounding loudly that it almost drowned out his voice. Bully number two was a pair of popular and pretty girls in my batch. Yes, pretty, but dumber than a box of rocks. Similarly, they cornered me but in the lockers area and ridiculed me for speaking in English.
Religion was another reason for me to be bullied. This time it was by my elementary teacher who was prejudiced towards a child whose parents gave her the choice of faith. She gave off a vibe to the entire class that I was an oddity which my classmates internalized by ostracizing me. It got to a point that none of my classmates would even look at me and would blatantly shield their eyes whenever they saw me. I was alone most of the time, sitting by myself during recess or avoided like a plague in class. The library was my refuge – I lost myself in the books and momentarily forgot about the bullies in my midst.
Last, being fat. We are not talking about being obese, but I wasn’t predisposed to the thin look and certainly no thigh gap. Body shaming was not considered inappropriate – people teased me to my face or behind my back. At gatherings, family members never talked about my scholastic achievements like being a constant dean’s lister or the fact that I made it to the university soccer varsity team. The first line uttered would always be, “Uy, ang taba mo!” (“You’re fat!”) and then the endless comparisons to the thinner cousins.
How does one deal with such bullies? Admittedly, I was and am still scarred, but I became more tenacious in not being affected by them through the years. I weathered the bullies by parrying their snide remarks. For example, with the language bullies, I had witty retorts along the lines of, say, “It is not my problem if you can’t speak English” and then walking away with a Jedi’s placidity. Alternatively, I simply ignored them. The social stigma of being an agnostic in a secular school has stayed with me to this day, putting me on the defensive mode every time talk centers on religion. Back then, I had wanted to transfer school but my father dissuaded me, saying that it could be worst outside of JASMS. In high school, religion didn’t figure much in the syllabus so I lowered my defenses. There were still the occasional wide-eyed looks thrown my way whenever classmates, teachers, or colleagues would hear about my case, but I remained composed. Like a mantra, I repeated to myself, “Walk away. Faith is a personal issue.” If they dared proselytize, I would cheekily remark, “I am still developing my own religion.” This is still my modus operandi for sanctimonious colleagues and acquaintances who feel the need to preach to me.
For the body shamers, I have learnt to channel their taunts into my workout sessions, using them as the reasons not to miss a session especially when I am feeling lazy to head to the gym. In my youth, I worked out to stop the barbs but not anymore. My workout sessions are for myself to be healthier mentally, emotionally, and physically.
Bullies will never vanish and will always be relentless in their insults. Stooping to their level shouldn’t be an option. One should rise above their derisions because that is the only way to deal with bullies and to stop being a victim.
I am a big fan of birthday cakes. No matter what my personal trainer says about avoiding cakes because of the empty calories, I indulge during my birthday. After all, birthday cake calories don’t count. Second, a birthday isn’t completely a birthday if there is no birthday cake in sight. The number of lit candles on the cake doesn’t bother me all – so what if I am older than most of my colleagues?
The cake from Estrel’s (formerly Estrella’s) was the traditional birthday cake bought to celebrate anyone’s birthday in the family. It was sacrilegious to buy anything other than the rectangular caramel chiffon cake topped with butter icing flowers. It still is a favorite for birthdays – and weddings – although I only get to have a slice on non-birthday occasions.
My birthday this year had me blowing out candles three times, each cake with bearing greetings written in three different languages viz. Indonesian, English, and Filipino. I was prepared to quietly celebrate my birthday with a slice of cake and coffee at Starbucks, but some of my students caught wind of my birthday and surprised me in class with a birthday cake. The first one was given after a class with my grade 10 IGCSE students; I was fixing my stuff when they, like a swarm of bees in flight, came towards me. I thought they were going to ask for an extension of the deadline of the research paper. Experience has taught me that they want to talk about the research paper when they approach me collectively – they’re a firm believer in “strength in numbers”. This time I was mistaken. They came bearing a chocolate birthday cake.
The second and third cakes came after my birthday and before the start of class so we all had a bit of cake during the lesson. Cake number two – white chocolate cake – was given by my grade 9 students. Meanwhile, cake number three – fruity white chocolate cake – was from my grade 11 Writing Class students.
I might not have had my slice of Estrel’s cake, but the surprise birthday cakes certainly completed my birthday. Who would have thought that the students you had been berating for being indolent and careless be so sweet and endearing?
She said it was jalan-jalan cantik for me in her e-mail. Learning that I was off to Singapore over the weekend, there was this assumption that it would be a jalan-jalan cantik in the land of food and shopping. I discovered the meaning of that phrase some weeks ago when I met up with friends earlier on. The Indonesian phrase literally translates to ‘pretty walk about’; the not-so literal translation is a good weekend. She was right to a certain degree: my past jaunts to Singapore were indeed jalan-jalan cantik. In February, it was a Chinese New Year weekend holiday with a gal-pal, who had a wonderful time being a first-time tourist to the Garden city while I played her tour guide. The next one was just to get away from it all and chill with another gal-pal who resided in the country. The last one was when we – my Singaporean gal-pal – watched the musical “Wicked” at Marina Bay Sands (I missed it five years ago when it opened in the city).
This brief sojourn didn’t bode well because the ghosts were back. Returning to Singapore got easier through the years or so I thought. I have long accepted the fact that my life in Singapore is a closed chapter, having lived through the pain of seeing my life crumble and later on gaining the strength to rebuild it elsewhere. But these pesky ghosts that I have never bothered (read: reached out to), mostly left alone, seem to have a knack of coming back at, in my perception, inopportune time. (Aside: Has there ever been an opportune time to meet up with people you don’t want to see?)
Some of the ghosts formed an indistinguishable collage of faces shifting from one identity to another until it settled into distinct faces I, obviously, had not forgotten. E was a friend, at least that’s what I thought until I received an e-mail from her – this was 10+ years ago – saying she was ending our friendship because we had different family backgrounds. To this day, I am still haunted by that reason and it guts me inside out particularly whenever I find myself at the nadir of my life. It hurls me back to my elementary days when I was shunned by my grade school teacher and classmates because my parents gave me the right to choose my religion or during my high school days when I was ridiculed and bullied twice in the same day because I spoke English all the time. In fact, my clique and I were summoned to the principal’s office after being reported by the cooking teacher for speaking English all the time! Anyway, E, the e-mail sender, oddly enough, kept sending birthday cards and acted amicable through the years until she finally stopped because she probably cottoned on to the fact that I wasn’t responding.
The other annoying ghosts were Z and C. Both these men betrayed my trust and broke my heart into smithereens, prompting me to question what I did in my before-life to warrant such agonizing, soul-ripping relationships. Z, a mustached Malay version of Philippine crooner Rico J Puno according to some friends of mine, was a smooth player, pledging his heart like Baronet Thomas Sharpe (think of Guillermo del Toro’s Crimson Peak) and conveniently forgetting he couldn’t and shouldn’t. Meanwhile, C was this young, glib and charming man who swept me off my feet. The problem was he couldn’t accept my nationality and the age gap. He kept coming back into my life until I decided to severe ties completely.
These triumvirate of ghouls were my unwanted welcoming committee that descended in full force the moment I deplaned and walked towards arrival. They insisted on accompanying me to the train like a rain cloud that pursues those who just cleaned their cars much to my chagrin, too. My feelings towards them were more of annoyance than nostalgia or despondence. They made it clear they didn’t want to be in my life and I wasn’t about to let them back in. I was naive, vacuous, gullible, and fatuous then, but not anymore. I simply refocused – I want it to be jalan-jalan cantik.
When you’re a single woman and on holiday, two things figure prominently in your holiday: men and food. With the first aspect, it’s not like you’re on the prowl for pulchritudinous males (unless you are), but it’s more like the scenery is all of a sudden beautifully peppered with gorgeous eye-candies that make you light up like a Christmas ornament. The drabness of your former surroundings has magically transformed into a veritable backdrop of vibrant colours, all sparkly and spectacular. And since you’re feeling good and tingly inside, your attention deviates towards exquisite food, the other striking facet of the holiday. I was very fortunate to have experienced both facets in and out of Los Angeles.
Let’s start with Disneyland Anaheim where I stumbled upon Death by Vader, a cup of chocolate upon chocolate – chiffon, syrup, chocolate bar, and ganache – from Galactic Grill in Tomorrow land. The play on words piqued my interest –no one really escapes Darth Vader! The chocolate sensation – killer of hips most certainly cranked up the happy level to another notch while I watched with amusement the young Jedi trainees (children who signed up for Jedi training earlier on) test their mettle against the crème de la crème of Jedis.
Meanwhile, at the western side of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, lunch was a most pleasant surprise on a Fourth of July weekend. After walking around Eagle’s Point, Jeanné and I went to the opposite side of the Grand Canyon for some much needed repast. The place was packed to the rafters with hungry canyon trekker-tourists. Served up canteen style, each guest, who paid extra US$15 to our tour guide Angeline, got a plate of corn on the cob, grilled chicken, salad, corn bread, mashed potato with gravy, and a bottle of cold water. Walking around the Grand Canyon in the dry heat of Arizona does really work up an appetite, but the lunch plate was truly flavourful. The corn was sweet and buttery, and the tender chicken was savoury, be it white or red meat. Adding to the superb dining experience was the breath-taking scenery of the majestic canyon and a tree looming where Jeanné and I sat. It became the watering-hole of the gargantuan crows that zipped and dipped through the clear blue skies of Arizona. Gawking at the crows while nibbling on the corn, I half- expected Maleficent to come swooping down and acquiring newcomers to her crow entourage.
Back in LA, it was one huge dessert festival. Being passionate about cupcake, it was mandatory to pay homage to Georgetown Cupcakes and its friendly rival, Sprinkles. It had been five years since I last sank my teeth into Georgetown’s iconic cupcake, Red Velvet, so it was like a homecoming for me as I savoured the moist cupcake hugged by smooth cream cheese frosting on my tongue. The lightness of the velvet chiffon cake and non-cloying frosting helped ease my guilt feeling of missing my workout sessions. With Sprinkles, Red Velvet and Black and White cupcakes aside, I tried their cupcake ice cream, or a junior cupcake sandwiching a vanilla ice cream. Delectable!
The sweet fest continued with a mad dash to Pop Champagne & Dessert Bar on E Union Street in Pasadena one Wednesday night. We were running late but with Mayeth’s adroit driving, we made it before it closed for the night. Seated to the right of the entrance, perusing the menu was one luscious affair as my eyes scanned the page replete with myriad choices. Our palates were eventually treated to a tango of sweetness, zest, and creaminess, as the flute of champagne with a twist of orange fused with the vanilla crème brûleé. Impressive!
Speaking of Pasadena, Urth Café, located on the corner of Madison and Colorado, is a fantastic café for pastries, organic drinks and light-to-heavy meals. My instant favourite was the green tea latte that was smooth on the throat, which, shockingly, made a great pair with the café’s chicken soup. Splendid!
In terms of breakfast, cheese roll from the famed Cuban pastry store, Porto’s, partnered with Starbucks cappuccino made a great morning meal. Each bite of the flaky croissant-like pastry enveloping the sweetish cream cheese was a bite of heavenly goodness washed down by coffee. It was a perfect balance between butter, sugar, and cheese. Magnificent!
There was another breakfast place I managed to visit in North Hollywood except I can’t remember the name of the place. However, I do undoubtedly remember the wonderful man I was with whose choice of breakfast place was right up my alley. Vaguely recalling details, the décor of the place is contemporary: silver commingling with a black and white colour scheme that sort of blended together but not completely, a wide counter where you go to place your order plus a collage of high tables paired with “high chairs” and regular tables. He ordered the salmon benedict lying on a bed of shredded potatoes while I had buttermilk pancakes. My pancakes were good – thin pancakes dusted with powdered sugar and topped with strawberry was a flawless harmony of sweetness and fruity flavour. His salmon benedict? It exploded in my mouth – the flavours were intense and oh-so good. But on hindsight, I wonder if the explosion was solely due to the food or how I was feeling about the man sitting in front of me. One thing is certain though – the man across the table from me was undeniably breath-taking.
Food and a man – singular or both – definitely add pizzazz to your holiday turning the pedestrian into the exceptional and the dull into the exciting. They certainly made my holiday more than memorable.