When I open up about my past to friends, I feel that I cannot skip talking about my aunts and the influence they had on me and my sister’s lives. They were the reason why my working-class parents were able to ensure, quite worry-free, that there was someone reliable to look after us while growing up while they went to work to pay the bills.
My sister and I were primarily raised by my mother’s older sister. We call her 大姨, and she was the equivalent of the Tiger Mom to us. She ran the household like a tight ship. She allocated specific hours for my sister and I to use the computer and watch the TV after finishing our homework. It was 30 minutes to an hour each on the computer, as my sister and I observed what each other were doing on Matmice or Neopets or some other game; and then watching Archie’s Weird Mysteries or Hi-5. We also barely snacked… we didn’t liberally eat sweets or chocolate nor fast food. In hindsight that was such a great way to raise the both of us not to be dependent on junk food, and to view them as a rare treat instead. Up to now I don’t snack much.
大姨 was also the one who caned us for being naughty. A particular memory was, after being caned by her, I was furiously crying and tearing up the tissue paper that I used to wipe my tears. When she saw the mess that I created, she caned me again. Twice in the same day! Oh, the ignominy that you face as a young kid!
When you are young, everything in the house just seems big. I remember this colourful box of curiosities near the tv which housed random toys which we didn’t want. And the transparent cabinet near the TV showing off different mementoes obtained from overseas trips, like a glass decoration or a toy. That area smelled of the Straits Times and Lianhezaobao newspapers which my aunts dutifully collected to sell to the karung-guni man whenever he came around. Around the dining area was where a gas cylinder was kept. On top of the gas cylinder was a wondrous pop-up book that we had, showing the magical German towns in fairytales. It got dusty quite easily. Behind it was the storeroom which could be accessed by pulling up the blinds. Everything there seemed so out of reach, except for the place behind the ancestral alter where my second aunt kept her stamp collection. Then it was the kitchen, with its magnificent 青花瓷 tiles and a collection of McDonalds Happy Meal toys in the cabinet (I think they have now been thrown away… remember the Hello Kitty mania?).
So my memories of my 大姨 are of her being a rock, a caregiver, who took us to the library and occasionally during the school holidays all the way to Orchard Road (!!) where we would go to Kinokuniya, or walk around Ngee Ann City, and have KFC or McDonalds for lunch as a rare treat. She dutifully cooked meals for the family every day, turning on the radio and initiating my sister and I to Fei Yu-Ching, and sometimes it’s like I can almost hear the oil sizzling in the pan as she prepared to fry some vegetables.
My favourite dishes were the watercress soup, the pork in dark sauce, and a particular type of fish. Or when she had time to make a stew with the taupak and pork and some boiled egg. To now, her dishes remain very nutritious and I always have no issues with digesting the food afterwards. It’s a shame I never learnt how to cook from her. My attempts to learn cooking were always very half hearted and created more trouble than it was worth, and she would chase me out of the kitchen so she could do her thing.
My second aunt, 二姨, is meek and born in the year of the Rat like my sister (so being a full 36 years older than her!). Apart from my mom, she was the only other Christian in the family, and attended church near the house. She worked long hours in accounting (?) in a boring job where she was no doubt pushed over by her manager. One of her contributions to the household was bringing scrap paper from her office that we could use over dinner time to put the bones and other unwanted stuff on. On it would be the address of some insignificant person or an incorrectly printed email. My 大姨 liked to grumble that my 二姨 was a picky eater. She was always one of the last to eat in the family and my sister and I was always instructed what things to leave ‘more’ for her and what things could be finished. The nutrition was reflected in my aunt’s physique — more bones than flesh.
One thing I am so grateful to my second aunt for is the American media she exposed to my sis and I while growing up. While she was unwilling to splurge on herself, she was willing to splurge on us, bringing back VCDs of The Fox and the Hound or The Thief of Baghdad or the Wizard of Oz, and even buying me a Bratz ski doll for my 11th birthday. She showed us the world of Archie comics, introduced me to Agatha Christie, and I think that shaped a certain sensibility that my sister and I had to the world. I think it’s all these little influences in childhood that shape and build you over time.
One memory in recent history stood out to me, one I am embarrassed about. We were talking about the salary I was getting paid in Shanghai, and my aunt was talking about how someone she knew was getting paid $1.7k a month. My first retort was, “So little?” (as a university graduate tends to earn upwards of $3.5k), and my aunt immediately bit back, “That’s not little, that’s what I’m earning.” I was immediately ashamed of myself and I walked home mournfully feeling very upset about my entitlement. I sent her a message to apologise, to which she replied the next day:
“En, don’t worry, no feelings were hurt. It’s healthy discussion. Education can be an equalizer. Having said that, there are still others who are worse off than our family”
It just felt like my aunt and I were embedded into two very different social classes and lives, and her gentle reply brought tears to my eyes.
My youngest aunt, my 小姨, is the genius in the family. Pictures of her childhood showcased her as a tomboy, running around and winning school races. When I was in primary school, she was the person I looked up to the most, even more than my mother. She received the highest education in the family, a university degree, and she worked in a good-enough company that allowed her to travel on all-expenses paid family trips (which my sister and I joined in 2006 to Australia, and I in 2007 to South Korea). When I was 10, I also remember sending her off in the airport for a 6-month assignment to China. We had Burger King for breakfast and as we waved goodbye to her, she did something with her fingers, a twist sign that was popularised in the Channel 8 dramas to mean, “I love you”.
To me, my 小姨’s overall capabilities and competence revealed itself in unexpected ways. One day, when I was 10, it was the school holidays, I saw a picture of Sailor Moon and wanting to emulate it. My aunt, just by looking at the picture, was able to replicate it in perfect proportion and detail on a blank piece of paper. I was so impressed at her illustration skills and remember it to this day. And in 2017, when I went to Cambodia by myself and had breakfast with her at McDonalds, one of the tassels in my shirt completely dropped off. And somehow… she just fashioned a safety pin into some sort of needle, strung the string through it, and fixed the tassel for me. On the spot. There was just this mechanical and artistic way her brain worked that you cannot teach in school.
These days, I see my 小姨 spending her retirement exploring Singapore. She’s either up early for morning walks in the park, or walking around the civic district reminiscing about her childhood days which have disappeared. I think my aunt is a walking encyclopedia of what Singapore was, and what my family history (on my maternal side) is. And sometimes I just want to extract all of her experiences and write it down somewhere as a form of living memory.
The downsides of genius is the need to be recognised and validated, which manifests itself in different ways. Sometimes my aunt and I quibble over whether something had really happened, or if this was this way or that way. One is also less easy-going (in my opinion) and less pliant, and it becomes the battle of the wits.
I could dedicate a post alone to my uncles, all on my maternal side. To be continued.