By Aysha Baqir
It was an early Saturday morning when I dropped my eleven-year old for a race in northeast Singapore. My son was excited to find his friend and I was anxious to find a coffee shop and nose-dive into the novel I had started last night. The race, I had been told, would last for over an hour. As we waited on the sidewalk for the light to change, I cheered up sighting a small mall on the left. Suddenly, the clouds cover shifted to reveal a clear blue sky. In the horizon, misty clouds shimmered and spun gold.
We entered the lush grounds and my sneakers made a squelching sound. I grimaced. It must have rained last night. How were they going to run?
“Mama,” My son tugged my hand to let me know he’d spotted his friend. And in the next instant, with a quick “Bye, will call you when it’s over,” he darted towards the long cue in front of the uniform booth. For a few moments, I stood there. My eyes followed him until he joined his friends, and I forced myself not to walk after him to demand a goodbye hug. Catching the second, “you can go away now” look from him I turned around and trudged back.
I crossed the road and headed straight for the mall already anticipating the strong aroma and the smooth taste of a cappuccino, and then stopped, stumped. The glass doors were shut. I stared through the glass doors trying to get the attention of the cleaners who mopped and vacuumed. No luck. I stepped back and caught the sign for opening and closing hours. The mall would open at 9 AM. Impossible. This was supposed to be the “me” time. I peered again into the glass doors but when it was clear I would get no attention, I turned around and debated my options. I could head back to the park and wait it out, or explore the area. Pushing away the thoughts of the page-turner in my tote, I opted for the latter. In a few minutes I had crossed a few blocks and found myself in a quaint neighbourhood. I walked along a narrow road with colourful buildings on either side. Red and gold decorations adorned many doors. Some grocery and home supplies shops were already open.
I continued to walk further, and hearing chatter, turned a corner, stopped, and stared. It was a small hawker centre with a row of stalls and a few dozen tables. All the tables were full. Grandparents, parents, and children gathered for the morning meal. Glasses and plates clinked and clanked.
Young and old and ate together. In one corner, a mother helped her son with his homework. In another corner a man helped to feed his aged mother. Some families exited, and more entered. They knew each other and stopped to talk and share news. Two young children played a game in a corner.
I moved forward drawn by the whiff of strong black sweet coffee mixed with the aroma of fried roti paratas, and creamy coconut laksa. My eyes lingered over mounds of white rice on fresh green pandan leaves, crisp leafy vegetable heaped on steamed noodles, stacks of butter toasts, bowls of soothing ayam sotto, and moist carrot cakes.
Spicy. Savory. Salty. Sweet. Flavors and colors blended and melted together. They ate different food, but they ate together.
Food brings people together.
Had I read it somewhere or heard it from someone? I didn’t remember. But in that moment, something shifted. The easy banter, the jokes, and laughs made me pause. I saw an old Chinese man offer a bowl of noodles to his friend. I saw an Indian dad urge his daughter to finish her vegetables. I saw a little Malay boy perform magic tricks to make his grandmother smile. Frowns faded. Faces beamed. From the ease with which they interacted, I sensed they knew each other and lived close by. Had they grown up together, shared life events, and supported each other through difficult and challenging times? Their differences ceased to matter when they ate together and shared food. In that one moment in a small hawker centre, I saw Singapore, a nation of approximately 5.7 million people and diverse ethnic groups become one. Warmth and love wove around them like fairy dust.
The Uncle at the coffee stand beckoned, and I ordered a black coffee. A distant memory tugged. I had seen this in my home country once upon a time, when neighbors knew each other and looked out for each other and when they ate together. Men, women, children, all together. No more. I remembered years back when my cousin had wandered outside our gate and walked to the nearby market and the fruit vendor had brought him back. The time was gone. But it existed here in this instant, where the individuals fused into families, merged into a vibrant community, and cemented into one strong nation. When people ate together, meal after meal, day after day, year after year, they became one, one nation.
I smiled at the Uncle as he handed me my coffee and decided that my son and I would have breakfast together before we headed home. I turned knowing I walked away something special, glanced back one last time and blew a prayer. Peace. Protection. Prosperity.
Happy National Day, Singapore.
Aysha Baqir grew up in Pakistan. Her time in college sparked a passion for economic development. In 1998 she founded a pioneering not for profit economic development organization, Kaarvan Crafts Foundation, with a mission to alleviate poverty by providing business and marketing training to girls and women in low-income communities. Her novel Beyond the Fields was published in January 2019 and she was invited to launch her book at the Lahore and Karachi Literary Festivals and was featured in the Singapore Writers Festival and Money FM Career 360 in Singapore. Her interviews have appeared in Ex-pat Living, Mount Holyoke Alumnae Quarterly, Kitaab, and The Tempest. She is an Ashoka Fellow. www.ayshabaqir.com
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