She emails, messages from Hong Kong. Calls me from Singapore, distressed. It’s that special post-Christmas time when family tensions are high. She’s just been judged and found lacking. Sleeping in while on holiday, her work-exhausted body, in desperate need for catch-up, is suddenly a profound indication of her work ethic. She’s almost thirty. Too old for this kind of behaviour. Too old to put up with another critique from a family that will never be mollified while she stays in film, pressing her towards law, medicine.
“Can you be here, already?”
My heart aches for the time and distance between us.
We, in disparate cities, countries, hemispheres for all of the years since she turned eighteen.
My life, Melbourne, one she visited at a time when I had hit a point of happiness and comfort in my skin that I had only dreamt of when we were growing.
Me, always shy and awkward, blurting, apologising, struggling with my body and food.
She, same and opposite, a literal big -boned -laughed, permanent liquid eyeliner, sister and twin, second-guessed by her family again, again, again, always.
Sitting in Melbourne, I’m organising a research secondment with a premier academic in Singapore. His foundational texts make my jaw drop with their daring in that time and space, awed by his reach and relative acceptance.
He replies, says he’ll take me on when I take my research there. I start to plan.
I’d lost and re-found her love a billion times over.
In the little moments of madness when I sat on the bed and looked at her rage as she threw piece after piece of her clothing at me. I waited silent patient, we hugged, and she didn’t leave that time. Not for a while.
I feigned to take my love from her when she sat at a critical juncture, trying to imagine where her life might go. Her parents repeat their push towards medicine, their realm, never hers. Celluloid dreams were hers. And so I pushed, I pressured, I attempted to exert an equal and opposite force upon her to make her take her dreams in her hands and embrace them.
She wasn’t to know that the love was never conditional. But I helped find that secret place in her that knew her filmic dreams were worth everything. She took the Masters, moved to Sydney, and suddenly we shared a continent, a country, friends, and knew the same streets.
There, I sent a friend in need to her in a time of trouble. And that friend saw our love, and a tiny piece of her healed enough to take care of herself some time later, when it was crucial. And that was everything.
Living in Sydney a few years before, my eighteen years of growing up white in Singapore was mined for information, queried for authenticity, whitewashed by people who read my body and attributed specific kinds of formative experiences, knowledges of race, colonialism. Reiterative were my storytellings, trying to rewrite assumptions, attempting to find words that fit the reality of where and how and why I thought as I do, how it feels to be emblematically the colonising ‘other’ even as I learned about the world through history textbooks written for their children for the first time, by a new nation. It became my work.
She was Chinese Singaporean (British passport legacy of Hong Kong on her mother’s side, deft mahjong hands legacy of wake after wake in the Malayan archipelago with dad’s Sarawak-born family), and people asked why she was there in her British-curriculum school for expats. I, in local schools, was the emblematic white girl who knew no other place, awkward and self-conscious, asked ‘is that your mum/dad?’ every time anyone with vaguely similar skin tone, features walked into school.
She fit right. She always fit. I couldn’t work out my angles, my curves. I was word-hungry, tongue-tied, prone to blushing.
Beside each other we made sense. One without the other, we’d only wind up in conversations about the other.
“Can you be here already?”
I, disconnected, laconic. Overly busy, too focused on the next piece of work to hear where the space lay, to do anything but talk her through enough to get her to stay. We were to have a day of overlap in Singapore. One day.
I was abruptly committed to five weeks in Singapore, in my parent’s house, fearing a return to a teenagerhood I had long shed. Anxious about what it would do to me, to my focus. Nervous about how my parents and I could stay civil. Thinking about the project ahead. Filling out forms for library cards, research supervision, study ‘abroad’.
One day of us. One heady day of opposites together, of fitting together, of talking and eating and hugging it all out.
I put aside forms and unpacking and the busy I know is hovering beside me.
I tell her the story of the friend I sent to her, how her care and our connection opened up the ability to leave, to take new steps, to heal. She beams with pleasure. The warmth in that smile is enough to fire a thousand suns.
I pack her in the taxi and hug and reiterate love, still in the clothes I dressed in in Melbourne. She’s off back to Hong Kong, the flight ahead in her eyes, and I take one single extra second to wave and mouth love, as I turn back to Singapore /research / busy / focus / family tension /
Feeling the weight of it hit my body.
Author’s note: This piece is dedicated to Sarah.