Singapore in Book Form

Janine Peterson

© Copyright 2005 by Janine Peterson

I didn't feel I knew Singapore until after I left it.

Sure, I saw the trees arching over the quiet highways, the orgerly but busy streets, the strange vending machines (in the USA we have soda and candy machines...that's about it).  I saw the glorious orchid farm.  I saw the beautiful people on the streets, the Muslim women with designer scarves covering their hair, the suits , the headware, the proliferate cell phones.  I recognized the neon signs of a hundred American stores and a hundred exotic ones.

We stayed two nights before leaving for Malaysia, Thailand, and Cambodia.  I was traveling with my family, on a hurried summer vacation dedicated to spending as much time together as possible in as many exotic countries as possible.  The vacation was less about scenery than seeing each other in intense, stressful, and sometimes silly vacation scenarios.  It was about running to make trains, sharing hotel rooms, sleeping on floors, and bouncing down dirt roads while pretending to all get along.

I spent an hour in a Borders with my father the night before we left Singapore.  Just a bookstore, just like one he and I spent time in back home.

Many of the books were the same as in Borders where I was from, or Borders in other American cities I had visited. I wandered the aisles that looked the same, made of the same wood, built to the same height.

I found a table labeled "Local Authors," and I knew I had found what I was, unknowlingly, seeking.

Singapore has many languages, English, Chinese, and Malaysian being only some.  These books were in English, the only language I knew to a reading level (my two years of Chinese were neglidgabile).  I looked at a few, the stacks of titles and names unrecognizeable to my American eyes.  I bought a book of short stories.  I rarely read short stories.

This one book by Alfain Sa'at taught me more about Singapore than my two days walking the streets, admiring the orchids, going to museum, and getting on the Orient Express.  I read it once I was home.  The stories involved Muslim school girls and their decisions to wear or not to wear a veil, discussions of wealth, and lots of references to difference languages characters spoke.

The stories revealed to me, like a shimmering beads, the beautiful color and variance of Singapore.  I could see now beneath the colorful headscarves and orchids and neon signs and clean streets to the real Singapore.  I could imagine the complexity of the city.

And I miss it.

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