Singapore Adventure

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

by venitha

"What were your first impressions of Singapore?" Naveen asks.

His tone makes me pause and look at him. He's dead serious and is, for once, not smiling at all. He wants the sordid truth. But I cop out.

"It's hot." My standard response.

Ranting, for that is what a more true response would quickly and easily degenerate into, will win me no friends among the Singaporeans. While Naveen is himself an expat, having moved to Singapore from India several years ago, he's not the only other person at our lunch table, and, racist as I know it sounds and probably is, he's not an expat like me.

The Singaporeans among us laugh, their standard response to my standard response, and I continue on in this my standard vein, attempting to change the subject. Just like the conversation that starts with the question "What are the bad American words for us, you know, like ang moh and ferengi?", this is not a discussion I'm comfortable having.

"But it's been much nicer lately. How long will the cooler weather last?" Cooler is, of course, a relative term, but remember my commandment, Thou shalt not rant in front of Singaporeans, and my goal, changing the subject. Everyone here likes talking about the weather, and everyone here likes educating me.

Naveen, however, is not deterred.

"For me, it was smiles."

"Smiles?" I'm perplexed.

"No one here smiles. At me. Or says hello. In India, people welcome you. They make room for you on a bench. Even in the middle of nowhere in Wyoming, Americans were friendlier toward me than anyone in Singapore. I don't feel welcome here. I'll never feel at home."

Crap. Naveen missed the commandment memo. Or, more likely, had a recent experience so crummy that today he just doesn't care. He's not angry; just sad. I smile at him ruefully, but I say nothing. This is a game I just cannot play.

"You guys are different," he reassures the silence that greets him from our table, and he really means it. I know, because it's true. They're different, because they know him. It's those other 4 million people...

"I know what you mean," I say at last and, thankfully, break the spell of silence. Now everyone talks at once, questioning, answering, pondering, reassuring. My co-workers are kind. They're good people. They want Naveen to be happy here and to be at home. I want to think that this is true of all Singaporeans, that the stony faces, the cold shoulders, the out-and-out ignoring, are just simple miscommunication. But I don't honestly believe that. And I know that Naveen doesn't either.

In lieu of being able to make all right with the world, I resolve to smile at Naveen a great deal. He's so handsome that he's beautiful, and he has the most winning of smiles. Perfect white teeth contrasting splendidly with milk chocolate skin, his smile lights up his whole face. I can't believe this is a smile that anyone could help but return, and it seems a crime that someone who offers such a smile to the world should ever be short-changed.

Names changed to protect the innocent.