On my last trip back to Singapore in February, in the thick of the first-wave of the COVID-19 outbreak, we were greeted by groups of people decked in disposable face masks and gloves. Our body temperatures were detected by heat-sensing machines that would catch a fever before any of us could get too close. Singapore’s sense of urgency to curb any crisis with the utmost effort and efficiency made me strangely proud. Despite the muffled conversations beneath their paper masks, I could pick out an accent that was noticeably Singaporean, as if letting me know that I’m home.
“Eh Sally, customer ask if this one got 20 percent off.”
“Later you want go supper?”
“Wah, damn shag sia.”
Living in Perth had trained my ears to pick up the distinct rhythm of words, a sense of home among a sea of accents. I had grown accustomed to hearing it in short bursts, a random Auntie at the Asian grocery store. A group of international students walking past me at uni. Home.
I had always been aware of Singapore’s unique lingua franca, with attempts to adopt the accent of the person I was speaking to. This awareness only sharpened when I came to Perth and code-switching was an art I learned to master. Taking on my own interpretation of an Australian accent, I carried it around like a shield to the shops, to church, to uni. Only taking it off once when I’m back home, like a hermit crab shedding off its shell, naked and vulnerable before finding a new one.
But here, back home, I was the naked hermit crab without the need for her shell. No more code-switching. For one whole week, I was free to let my tongue reign. To allow whatever comes to mind be spat out without a quick two-second mental translation so as to make my words more palatable.
I was visiting my previous church where I had spent the majority of my teenage years up until I left for Perth. It was time for us to share on a topic, our day, our lives. But as I spoke, two of my closest friends started laughing. Confused, I stopped. And so did they, urging me to continue. But when I started speaking, they started laughing again. I turned to them and shot them a look.
“We tell you later,” one of them whispered to me.
They later told me that I was sporting an “angmoh” accent, hence the laughter.
“Really meh?” I said. My natural Singlish letting loose. Or perhaps, it was an unconscious effort to prove my Singaporeanness.
“Aiya, you in Australia so long already. Sure have one lah.”
I’ve replayed that moment multiple times since. It wasn’t the first time that I’ve been told I sometimes have an “angmoh” or caucasian accent. Though it used to give me a sense of pride. After all, in westernised Singapore, to sound caucasian is to sound educated or associated with the upper class. But that was before I left for Perth. Before holding on to my Singaporean accent was the only way I could still see myself as Singaporean.
“Uncle, kway chap. One person. No intestines.”
Tiong Bahru Market was a place that held for me memories of my previous life here. Before my family followed my aunty to Perth, we would head to Tiong Bahru Market whenever they were visiting. My parents, aunties and my uncle would scatter off after collecting our orders. My cousins and I sat at the table waiting for the food to come. Bowls of kway chap accompanied by plates of pig innards and duck eggs. Sticks of chicken, pork and mutton satay, and cubed ketupat with cups of frothy sugar cane juice. Occasionally, we would stay for dessert in the form of tao huey (tau fu fah in Cantonese) and ice kacang.
The hawker was now emptied of people. Most of the stores were closed. My friend explained that it might be because of COVID, or maybe it’s still too early. But most stores opened at night time anyway. Perhaps Singapore had changed more than I thought. The old couple that owned the kway chap store prepared the order. The man went off to boil the noodles while the woman chopped the meat and eggs into slices, placing them swiftly on the plate prepared in front of her. Seeing the opportunity, I lifted my camera to grab a quick shot.
“你不是本地人啊? (You’re not local?)” asked the man.
The question stung. Was my accent that different? But I wasn’t even speaking English! My lips parted to say “yes, I am” but I stopped myself. Can I truly call myself a local even though I no longer live here? But neither can I call myself a Perthian. So what am I?
“I used to be,” I replied in Chinese. “Before we moved to Perth.”
In one of my trips back, I went to our old apartment to pick up some letters that were sent to us before we officially changed our address. It was the home I had grown up in for eighteen years of my life. The only home I knew before moving to Perth. The building was no longer red-bricked and white as it was in my childhood. Nor was it mint green with pale yellow like when we left. It was now painted white with deep grey ascents. There was a new train station at the bus stop. A grey construct that housed the shiny new underground train station beneath. Where it used to be empty, now rows of bicycles lined along the sheltered pathway that led to the overhead bridge. As I took in the scene before me, a wave of emptiness swept over me. I felt the shedding of a shell, falling off my shoulders in a heap at my feet. A cacophony of conversations in Singlish buzzed around my head.
I clutched the camera in my hands and took a quick snap.
Simeon Neo is a writer-photographer with a focus on topics of identity, family, culture and loneliness. Her work has appeared in Centre For Stories’ Wave After Wave Anthology and the SCxS exhibition by Paper Mountain. She has recently had a series of photography work exhibited at the Ugnayan Exhibition. She currently lives in Boorloo (Perth).
Copyright © 2020 Simeon Neo.