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.