I once lived in a three-bedroom unit in an elegant condominium in Simei, in Singapore. My two flatmates were fellow Filipinos: Antonio was an engineer, while Roberto was a chef. I was here to write a book about Southeast Asian rivers.
On our left lived a Chinese family, the Cheongs, who sometimes had relatives visiting them. They would play mahjong until the wee hours of the morning. But the clackety-clack of the tiles did not bother me. In fact, they reminded me of my aunts who also played this game.
On my right lived an Indian family, and the smell of their cooking—curries, especially kuruma—also wafted into my bedroom. But that didn’t bother me either, for I devoured the Indian food in the restaurants near the Mass Rapid Transit train station.
In front of me lived a Malay couple, and they were very quiet indeed. When I first saw the husband, he asked me whether I was a Filipino. When I said ‘yes’, he said that they have Filipino carpenters in Sabah. ‘But in the Philippines,’ he sniffed, ‘they claim to be engineers.’ I just gave him my fake Filipino smile.
Mrs Cheong often talked to me. I first met her the day after I moved in. I was leaving the flat at 9 a.m. to go to the National University of Singapore to do research when I saw her entering their flat. I gave her my genuine Filipino smile and she smiled back.
‘Ah-yah, sorry-lah. We were noisy last night with mahjong.’ I told her why I was not bothered, and she just smiled back. The next week, I met her when I was going to the pool to swim. She had just finished swimming, her short hair like a grey cap over her head. ‘Nice day for swimming,’ she said.
I smiled back at her, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ ‘Ah-yah. Just call me auntie-lah. You remind me of my son in Boston. Tall and thin, with glasses,’ she smiled sadly. ‘How many children, Auntie?’ ‘Only two. Alvin in Boston, Christine in Sydney. Both studying. I hope they come back.’
‘I’m sure they will,’ I said, thinking who wouldn’t want to come back to Singapore? It had clean and tree-lined streets, and the new trains were cool and arrived on time. Everything is green here, I thought, everything is measured.
‘You never know with the young ones. They think differently from me and your uncle.’ Uncle I rarely saw, for he worked long hours at a bank near Clarke Quay.