Tuesday, February 09, 2016

All Quiet on the Western Front

What I will probably remember is the conspicuous absence of red.

No, that's not what I mea- um, it's not like the colour red has washed out of reality or something; there are still red things in the world, right? I can still see red; I mean, I'm not colourblind or anything - I mean, I am, but it's not that kind of colourblindness, and- look, can I just start over?

This is the first Chinese New Year I have spent in a place which doesn't celebrate Chinese New Year by default. There are no countdown shows, no controlled detonation of firecrackers in strictly demarcated zones, no lion dance troupes on the backs of trucks dopplering as they speed by in the street.

It is much, much quieter on this western front.

I was walking around Chinatown on Saturday, which I have never done before because my parents don't like crowds. I expected revelry spilling out into the street, the din of gongs and the clatter of cymbals, hawkers hawking at the top of their lungs, and the muffled, immutable roar of a thousand people steadily gearing up for the biggest festival of the year.

Instead, it was almost business as usual. Chinese people trudged up and down the busy street, silently picking out nice ornamental flowers or the fattest, freshest prawns from the vendor's icebox. On my left, a lady speaks a string of Mandarin; on my right, a smattering of Cantonese. A very Chinese-looking woman suddenly says something in a sharp American accent and it sounds harsh and alien.

There were two shops bedecked in the traditional bright vermillion, two splashes of colour in the entire neighbourhood. My friend went up to one and asked if they sold firecrackers; the shopkeeper said that they didn't have that kind of atmosphere in America.

I don't think there is anything I miss more than the food. It is a strange feeling to walk into a bakery and not see the boxes of kueh lapis, the bottles of almond cookies and prawn rolls, or the packets of bak kwa or kueh bangkek or kueh bahulu; delicacies that only Southeast Asia can bring to the table. These are once-a-year foods, man! Nobody cares about fruitcake or Easter eggs or bazhang (I tell a lie; I care greatly about bazhang) - give me pineapple tarts or give me death!

It's not all bad, though. The Columbia Singapore Students Association had a dinner with char kway teow, curry chicken, and the obligatory lo hei; although somebody must have posted on the free food Facebook page and more than a hundred people turned up, likely half of which have never heard of Singapore. Sam, Tim and I, thinking that it was going to be a small, intimate gathering, foolishly came bearing gifts - the three wise men, with a bottle of jelly and a small jar of pork floss. I think the Association people appreciated the gesture though, which is nice.

Classes until 8pm today dashed my hopes of venturing out for a Chinese dinner, or any kind of celebratory feast. I swept my floor and did my laundry, although I didn't wash my blanket because it is wool. I go to bed without ang paos under my pillow, and a hole in my stomach where love letters are supposed to be.

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