As a traveling photographer – always the obvious foreigner – sitting in the backseat of the cab on the way to Changi Airport, Lin – the driver – asks me where I’m from.
“Are you from Australia?” He starts
“No, the United States. Are you from Singapore?”
“Oh yes. I have Chinese heritage, but Singaporean. We just had our 53rd Independence Day from the British. Our country is amazing! Our GDP is better than the United States now!” He laughs hysterically while driving at about 20 km/hour on the highway, keeping the car directly over the lane separation lines, monopolizing two lanes. Honking cars whizz pass, their drivers shouting combinations of Malay, English, and Mandarin. Lin is older and oblivious to his unique style of driving.
I feel like I’m going to throw the fuck up.
“How did you like Singapore?” He wonders – he so very much wants me to love his country the way he does.
“Lin, I can tell you, in my experience so far, you cannot walk down one block in the United States and pass a Catholic Church, a Buddhist temple, a Hindu temple, and a mosque and have nobody hate each other for it.”
He laughs loudly.
“Yes. We are a melting pot of harmony.” He manages to get into a single lane properly, but keeps the 20 km/hour steady. There is an acceleration-release-acceleration-release jerking motion happening, and I realize, as sweet as Lin is, I’m willing to walk the last 13 kilometers to the airport.
“This country was so poor sixty years ago. Nothing but jungle and small villages with starving people and no food. Sixty years ago, you would have porridge with some soy sauce as your meal. Chicken was a luxury to eat. Now? Now! We all eat chicken!” He laughs, I laugh, he swerves to avoid nothing, I feel like I’m going to vomit my organs on the backseat.
“There is a story of a Chinese priest visiting about sixty years ago.” His face relaxes to a more serious calm. “This priest came to one of the villages around here, and when he visited a family, he found the man of the house sitting in bed wrapped in a blanket.
“He asked the man, ‘Why are you wrapped in this blanket? Why aren’t you getting up to greet me?’ The man told the priest he didn’t have any pants! He had to wait for the brother to get home and then the brother would take off the pants, and the man would put them on! That’s how poor – families and people in villages would share clothes. Now? Now! We all have pants. We all eat chicken! And we are so full we barely fit our pants and buy new, bigger pants!” His face wrinkles with smiles and he laughs so hard he almost collides with the car next to us, and while he laughs, I can see my face of fear reflected in the eyes of the passenger in the next car because we’re that close.
“Are there any foods that are considered a luxury these days?” I ask attempting to distract myself from the motion sickness. I also think about how he’s proud to buy bigger pants and I would kill to be in a smaller size.
“No. United States GDP is $55,000 and Singapore GDP is $255,000.” He cackles a strange high pitch of joy and spits on the windshield.
It’s a curious thing where he’s getting these numbers from…
“We waste so much food now. This generation is always full, they’re always full. No one is ever hungry.” His face settles with a subtle disappointment, and I think I’m going to cry as we finally pull up to the airport entrance because it means I can get onto dry land.
He helps me with my suitcase and wishes me well.
“You come back to Singapore and call me as your driver! Maybe I will be wearing bigger pants!” His laugh is so joyful, it pings some jealousy – I want to feel like that – happy in the present and looking forward to a bigger pair of pants.
In reality: I’m looking forward to being happy in the future in a smaller pair of pants.
It hits me walking through the airport doors, this is the problem I’ve been facing. The funk I’ve been trying to work around but didn’t have a name for it, so it was hard to move forward.
It’s contentedness at its finest. A strange plague that can easily fog surroundings enough it’s hard to notice. I’m happy enough with myself that it masks the unhappiness – those littles things that are upsetting in their own valid ways have been, not necessarily ignored, but unacknowledged. Unattended. Not forgiven or worked through.
I arrived in Singapore off-kilter, and left a little more balanced with myself.
Most definitely, I’ll go back to Singapore, I’ll be wearing smaller pants, and have Lin meet me at the airport in his bigger pants.
Photo taken with Canon 5D Mark IV