A Christmas Letter: Messages from a Life in Translation

To my family in Singapore

Firstly, to my sister who celebrates her birthday on Christmas Day, because the celebrations are often conflated and lessened when they ought to be separate like it is for other people whose birthdays are far from Christmas – I wish you first a very Happy Birthday and then I wish you a very Merry Christmas – this is my feeble attempt at separating the two! But more seriously, may all the double feasting give you some temporary relief from your year of adaptations – and maladaptaions – in home and work lives, in personal reckonings and the search for meaning in everything that you do. 

To my ‘Christmas’ sister, my other sister, and my mother, the ones I share a group chat with, every so often we talk about you visiting us, and all of you have, Mother being the most regular visitor who comes for a few weeks leading up to Christmas. And less often, you ask when I am coming home. Last Christmas, I probably said ‘next year’ without commitment and sincerity. But this Christmas, I want to say ‘next year’ – still without commitment but with a lot more sincerity. This year I truly mean it – I do want to go home – next year – when the border re-opens, when I can travel with managed risks, when I can gather the financial and mental resources to arrange travel for my family of five, when I can finally say with conviction it is worth all of it to go home.

To my father, the memory of you sending us off at the airport with cold burgers and fries as we were delayed at customs, your warm wishes of asking us to ‘enjoy the good life’, and your polite promise of visiting us, taunts me now and again. But this Christmas, I will remember the neat Christmas gifts you have given me and my sisters when we were kids, the toys and quirky things you’ve given my children, and the skill of gift wrapping I learnt from you – Merry Christmas Daddy! 

To my family with me in New Zealand

Our Christmases since we have moved to this country have been low key compared to our feasting with family back home. I’ve tried to start some Christmas traditions – remember the mac n cheese for Christmas in the first couple of years? And then the agar agar with condensed milk – an adaptation of my grandma’s recipe – for another couple of years? And the Christmas tree with homemade decorations outshining the store bought ones? And of course the boxing day shopping – often for Christmas gifts! And your grandma visiting us a few weeks before Christmas was the Christmas family cheer (along with suitcases full of prezzies) that we all looked forward to. And then this Christmas – after this year of ‘Sturm und Drang’, with grandma not visiting, with the hopes of settling in Wellington with our own home dashed over and over again, I’m almost out of breath and simply too tired to get into these new traditions. But I’ll summon all my energy and try something new and get all of us into the Christmas spirit – a time when we need to be grateful – and hopeful – to be sure of why Christmas is called Christmas! We remember Jesus Christ, son of God, born of the virgin Mary, sent as a Gift of Redemption.

To my friends and colleagues in New Zealand

Friends from Hamilton – you became friends through our shared circumstances of being ‘international’ PhD students, or you emerged as part of campus life, or were two degrees of connection with my immediate circle – Merry Christmas to you and thank you for the happy memories of Hamilton life. I don’t know if our paths will cross again but if they do, I hope we will easily pick up where we left off a few years ago.

Friends in Wellington – I found you in church and our friendships are still new and growing – may our bonds through faith be strengthened slowly but surely. To friends from elsewhere, some of you may be from the distant future as parents of my children’s friends but I won’t be disappointed if it doesn’t work out (as friendships in Hamilton taught me a few lessons). And some of you may come from unexpected places that God has planned – perhaps to be reported in the next Christmas letter.

Colleagues from the various paid and volunteer work I’ve done, you probably know me the best of this category called ‘friends and colleagues’ – or more precisely, you know the ‘best of me’ since it is work where I have to present the ‘best’ version of myself, the professional persona that justifies my being in this country – it is being employed in work that utilities recognised qualifications and skills that allows me to live here. I hate to be called one but it is true, I am a ‘skilled migrant’.

Before coming to New Zealand, I thought these labels were just administrative and that once I was in the country, I would simply be part of the fabric of a wonderfully accepting and inclusive nation. But that must have been some sort of marketing gimmick that played on the naive desires of a ‘wannabe’. I’ve been living with administrative labels for the past 6 years, and often working hard to justify the label. 

But this Christmas, after several years of working as a professional alongside other professionals, and experiencing a work culture that recognises the individuals for their unique contribution, and having colleagues who value and appreciate each other as individuals, I can start to peel off these labels. No doubt I will be tagged with various descriptors as it suits those who need to, but I am thankful that my colleagues know me for who I am – and spell and say my name correctly!

After reading this Christmas letter, and after you have decided it has been too short, and too long, not enough context or too much information, I look forward to hearing from you – whether as a Christmas letter or message, or some form of communication – in the translation of your choice.

Life is a 9 layered cake

Image by Lydia Bauman from Pixabay

The cake I have in mind is steamed, not baked; made with tapioca and rice flour; and is a sweet treat that is part of the rich food tapestry of Peranakan culture in Singapore and Malaysia (see also the thorough Wikipedia entry). This is my heritage and a culture I am proudly rooted in – although relatives would deride my low level of cultural authenticity!

So it is never quite enough to say I’m Singaporean, or a Chinese Singaporean, and certainly not just ‘‘Chinese’. I am Peranakan, or as a woman, a nonya. And this 9 layered cake is not just a part of my heritage, but my childhood, and also now a precious memory and taste of home while I live in a country that can hardly appreciate the nuances of the Chinese diaspora, let alone have any idea of this uniquely Southeast Asian sub-culture.

The 9 layered cake is really gao teng kueh in the Chinese dialect called ‘Hokkien’ or  jiu cheng gao (九层糕) in Mandarin. I grew up calling it the ‘rainbow kueh’ – the picture will tell you why.

Taken from mysingaporefood.com

My earliest memory of the rainbow kueh is of my father bringing it home on Saturday morning after his weekly shopping at the wet market, and picking up breakfast from the adjoining hawker centre. Saturday breakfast was a real treat as it took a break from the routine weekday sandwiches and cereal.

The Saturday breakfast options formed a delectable range from springy noodles with thin slices of barbequed pork (kolo mee), peanut pancake (ban jian kueh), rice noodle roll (chee cheong fun), soy bean curd (tau huay) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), or mung bean soup (tau suan) and deep fried dough stick (you cha kueh), and of course, my favourite sweet treat, rainbow kueh. Apart from rainbow kueh, which was a term I coined putting the obvious word that came to mind and the type of food it was (kueh – Hokkien for ‘cake’ or ‘steamed cake’ to be precise), all the other food items I’ve listed here I’ve known them by their Hokkien names (the terms in brackets).

The rainbow kueh comes to mind today in celebration of life – the layers of varying density, the mixed flavours of coconut, pandan and tapioca, and the bright red symbolising happiness – usually the first (and thinnest) layer I peel off to enjoy what I imagine to be sweetest one of them all!.

The rainbow kueh comes to mind as I think of home and what life means to me after being through this year, the year of 9 layers, the layers of: 

Delighting in the now
Chucking out false hopes
Saying yes to opportunities
Loving unwindy sunny days
Pondering over past regrets
Keeping head barely above water
Finding no escape route for shame
Heaving sobs in silent darkness
Riding unfastened in roller coasters

And the sweetest one of them all – delighting in the now – means I am finding the present to be the only thing I have to make or break. At this moment, I am delighting in recollecting my memories, and making sense of who I was and who I am. I used to chant ‘Carpe Diem’ in my teens, after being inspired by Dead Poets Society, so why not again now, after peeling back the 9 layers of life?

Seize the day!
Yesterday is over
Something good is waiting
Wild weather keeps you humble
Disappointment has future lessons
Surviving comes before thriving
The way out of shame is forgiveness
Take time to grief and groan
Cling on tightly to the Immovable Rock

And so life, just like the 9 layered cake – the rainbow kueh – I peel layer by layer, tasting the different textures and flavours of different colours, some more pleasant than others, but savouring each layer and finally completing my quest to consume the rainbow kueh.

Mother, Storyteller – The Phoenix Kite

Mother, Storyteller - The Phoenix Kite

“Mummy, tell me a story!” comes the evening plea. What story can I spin now? I’ve done the fairy tales, the cartoons, the bible stories, even put my kids in tales, and there always has to be one more.

“How about a story about ….” I pause to think. “…. the girl and the kite?” She nods in excitement.

“Once there was a girl who loved kites. She made small kites and big kites. One day she decided to make the biggest kite she could. She gathered bamboo sticks and very thin paper to make her kite.

Her kite was a bird, not just any bird, but a phoenix. Now, a phoenix is not a real bird, just an imaginary one, like the unicorn.

After she finished the structure, she painted on the bird. Soon, it was completed. The girl finished the biggest kite she ever made – The Phoenix.

English: The Phoenix Firebird Deutsch: Der Pho...
English: The Phoenix Firebird Deutsch: Der Phoenix Feuervogel (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

When there was a strong wind, she took the kite outside. She ran and ran and ran, but the kite didn’t fly. She tried again. She ran and ran and ran, but the kite still didn’t fly. She tried once again, she ran and ran and ran, and finally the kite took off into the sky. She held on to the string so that the bird wouldn’t fly off. She moved the kite forward and backward, left and right. The Phoenix was flying high in the sky.

Then suddenly, the kite got stuck in a tree. Oh no! It was a very tall tree and she couldn’t climb the tree to get the kite. She was very sad. Then there was a strong gust of wind and shook the kite off the tree. The kite flew into the sky. The bird was free! The Phoenix was flying high!

The girl was so happy. She was so happy that she let go off the string and now the bird flew off into a distance. The girl was not sad. She knew that someone else would take care of her kite.

Much further away, there were some children playing in the field.

‘Look up! What’s that?’ cried one.

‘It’s a bird! A big bird!’ shrieked another.

‘No, it’s a kite!’ exclaimed the third.

The children were very happy that they found a kite. And they had a fun time playing with it.

The End.”

“Do you like the story?”

“Yes, you are a great storyteller!”

“Really? I’m a storyteller?

“Yes, you should go to the library and tell stories to the children.”

I smile. She starts to close her eyes. We sleep.

The End.