The Absurd and Amazing Adventures of Cafe Girl: The Soundtrack of A Foreign Land

December 29, 2006

The Soundtrack of A Foreign Land

I loaded my MP3 player with my favorite songs before I left for Singapore. I thought I'd be homesick for Chicago in my time away and music would be a comfort.
The MP3 player has Chris Isaak (of course), Bare Naked Ladies, John Mayer, Howie Day, Harry Connick Jr., an assortment of Christmas carols, and, I'm ashamed to admit, country music.

But, plugged into my MP3 player, wandering the streets of Singapore, the songs sound somehow wrong. The music doesn't match the images I see. This I believe is called, in musical terms, "dissonance."

For example, it seems highly uncomfortable to think of chestnuts roasting by an open fire when it's ninety-degrees outside, humid, and I'm sweating this morning's coffee.

Chris Isaak's haunting tones about love-lost seem trivial against that lines on the face of an elderly woman as she sits by the elevator, her mind filled with memories and regrets only she knows.

The wordplay of Bare Naked Ladies is lost in the sea of Singlish, a brand of Singaporean English that mixes English with the local dialects. With its own vocabulary, isims, and terminology, it is a language that confounds anyone who wasn't brought up in this country.

I've listened to my MP3 player rarely since I've been back. Instead, I'm listening for the soundtrack of this land, and so far, I've come up with this:

It's the sizzle of the wok and the clatter of plastic bowls and plates at a local hawker center, a collection of food stalls that are peppered across the island, each with varying levels of hygiene. It's the shapeless buzz of too many people in a place too small, all trying to get somewhere, all at once. It's the pre-recorded semi-British female voice on the Mass Rapid Transit train, informing me that I've arrived at my stop and to "please watch the gap" on the train platform.

It's also a cacophony of languages: English, Mandarin, Cantonese, Hokkien, Hakka, Teochew, Malay, Tamil, Hindi. It's the fluid mix of perfect English with a Chinese term, or Malay exclamation. It's the words that have no translation. Like the word "shiok
" for example, a local term of Malay origins used to describe great pleasure, sometimes about food, sometimes about shopping, and sometimes about sex. Is there an English equivalent? Hardly.

It's the telling of family stories, sometimes highly amusing, sometimes greatly tragic (Amy Tan has nothing on my dramatic family). It's the pointed sigh of my mother, wordless yet instantly guilt inducing. It's the awkward laugh of my father when he doesn't know what to say or what to do. It's the lyrical tones of my brother-in-law as he calls to the fussy baby, assuring her that he's her dad and that he loves her. It's the cry of the two-month-old when she wants to be held. It's the giggle of the three-year-old because he thinks you're silly. It's the cackle of the seven year-old when he cheats at Risk. It's the quiet of the afternoon as my sister and I reflect on what God has done for our family, in spite of ourselves.

Like the music on my MP3 player, I carry this soundtrack with me wherever I go. These are the sounds of Singapore. In this land, I am dissonance--never fully foreign, yet never fully local.

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