He was back from Xi’An, China for the weekend to attend a friend’s wedding, but he missed it because of the flight delay. So I hitched a ride in his rented car — which cost only sixty dollars a day, as he proudly reiterated every time he drove down in a car that didn’t belong to him — and it was almost as if I’d gone back in time to when my uncle was still based in Singapore. If not for the conspicuous Ford logo on the steering wheel, I’d have imagined myself back to when we were in his Toyota and I was sixteen, complete with half rimmed glasses and a ponytail.
I would sit myself right at the front, and during our car rides, which was never very long because he would mostly drive me from my house in the East to the church in Commonwealth, and we’d talk about anything and everything. He was my go-to advisor on a lot of subjects, from friendship to school girl crushes, and over the years of doing bible study with him, he’d tell me his secrets too. I knew they were secrets because they weren’t topics you would discuss with a teenager. Yet there I was, inducted into the secret circle, almost as if I was an adult myself.
It’s strange, because now that I’m officially an adult, I’ve lost these car rides — my secret sessions — to a job offering in China, and our conversations are now confined in the tiny spaces of our iPhones, and Whatsapp messages I never check.
Somehow texting my uncle made it more difficult for me to really say what I want to say. Nuances are lost in translation from text to screen, across borders and seas. I wonder what he would tell me when I’m in the car next to him, rather than 3,704 kilometres away – according to Google anyway. Even the cackling sound of the phone receiver doesn’t compare to when he’s right here next to me on the steering wheel, when 987 or Power 98 would blast through the car radio depending on which songs the deejays decided to play.
These car rides are different now, not only because we’re in a rented car with no toy figurines making their mark on the dashboard, but because there’s a ticking clock every time I’m in the passenger seat. I know I won’t be seeing him for more than half a year every time he leaves, that there wouldn’t be a “next week” because he’d be a five hour flight away from home.
It’s always a rush to give him the latest update on what’s been going on with my life, especially because university life seems to never stop moving forward. There will always be new events going on, new people to meet, new classes to try my best to enjoy going for.
A week flies by when you have Mid-Autumn Festival to celebrate down at the carpark under the orange glow of streetlights in Hall, and after midnight sessions jamming with people at the music room. My sense of time gets a little distorted when it’s the school term. There’s always something to worry about or to look forward to in university, and this builds up my repertoire of stories to tell. I’m always bursting with new things to say.
So I waited till the last day he was still here, and I tagged along on the road trip around Singapore. We ran errands at the CBD area in my t-shirt and shorts — no point dressing up for someone who had seen me in my awkward teenage years — pretending to be rich because apparently only truly wealthy people don’t bother dressing up to go to town.
We watched a movie at the GV theatre in Katong, something he wanted to do before his 6pm flight, and we had the best hokkien mee with freshly fried pork lard after. He joked that he’d be “fat and unhealthy” if he bought an apartment there like he had planned to years ago. The day was simple, packed with weekend activities on a languid Tuesday afternoon.
Then the time came for me to send him off yet again. I watched with interest as he returned the car keys to the personnel at the airport, puffed up from my decision to send him off rather than hanker for a last ride home. The service was quick and so efficient that within fifteen minutes, the car I had spent the whole day sitting in had disappeared, probably to pick up its next driver.
We had chicken nuggets at McDonald’s where I asked for more curry sauce for him to stow away. They charged more if you asked for more than one packet of sauce but it didn’t matter. When I hugged him goodbye as he told me to be good and walked through those glass doors, it was comforting to know that he had those McDonald’s curry sauces in his backpack.
They helped weigh him down to home.
Every time my uncle comes back, he tells me how he sees Xi’An as his home now, and how he misses the freezing cold air when it’s winter, and the hot sun when it’s summer. This time was no exception. I don’t know how I can keep him here, so I ask him silly questions like whether there’s hokkien mee at the place he stays (the answer is a resounding no), and sing along to the English songs that play on the radio because I remember he said once that he’d missed listening to the song selection here.
I ask him questions about boys (mostly because I never understand what’s going on) and about friends, just like I did back in secondary school. In turn, he tells me about his colleagues and staff in Xi’An, about the people he meets in their Christian group meets, about the bible study sessions he now has with expats there instead of his niece back home.
Somehow, even though I know there is no way to keep my uncle in Singapore, I try to stick as many memories of home as possible in his head before he makes the trip back to Xi’An again. Maybe I’d hoped that those memories would jolt something in him, and maybe I’m being selfish, because I want those car rides to church and to go makan again… I don’t really know. I guess a part of me wonders how it is that he can call a place he’d lived in for barely two years home, whereas a place where he’d grown up in, where his family is, takes less root in his heart.
It’s a strange notion for somewhere new to be something familiar. I’d always believed that familiarity comes with history, and history comes from years and years of time. Before my uncle flew off into the world and left his history in the dust, I always thought I would have these car rides until he’s so old that I’d have learnt to be the designated driver, but now I find that change is the only constant, and familiarity can be built from the smallest of details. For now, my seat is still beside his.
But who knows? Maybe years later, I’d be the one sitting in the driver’s seat, listening to a little girl or boy telling stories of love, of friendship, and of home, and telling them the same.
To Fridays is a weekly column that hopes to be able to give you all the encouragement and love in the world. #tofridaysvp