Andy alighted from the cable car and began his familiar progress toward Siloso Beach. Looming in front of him was the back of the gigantic Merlion, symbol of Singapore. It occurred to him he’d never taken a photo of that imposing structure before and wondered where the best vantage point would be to get full effect. He was in regular contact with cousins in the US and England and gained pleasure from jealousy expressed because he lived in such an exotic place. His cousin Ann had paid them a brief visit but there was so much to see on the mainland they’d not had a chance to make it to Sentosa before she had to return to London. He’d take a few pictures on his cell phone and send her while he sat by the beach.
Making his way down the path he checked his back pocket again to make sure he’d not forgotten to bring his wallet. Mom would probably never let him forget that trip downtown to rescue him he thought ruefully. He removed the cell phone from his belt pouch and readied it for pictures. It was still amazing to him he could send a photo instantly around the world but it took hours to fly from Singapore to London or New York.
Arriving at the beach he looked hopefully at a group playing beach ball. He loved sports, perhaps they’d invite him to play along with them if he hung around and looked interested? He shouted a greeting to them in Mandarin hoping he had those tones right. The last thing he wanted to do was say something foolish, or for that matter something to promote a fight.
The game paused as the group studied him. Singapore was a melting pot of different Chinese racial groups whose families had been in the Malay peninsula for generations along with a native Malay population. Indians had migrated to the tea plantations of Malaya during British times and some had found their way onto the island city Singapore before independence. The government had used compulsory study of Mandarin from early school years to unite them all into one national group. However, older generation citizens continued to use their own dialects at home and Singlish for every day interaction.
One of them spoke at last.
“We speak English here la,” he said and the game resumed.
Andy had been through this before. It would take many more years before memories of colonialism were totally erased from minds of the older generation and this group had grown up with those memories passed on to them by elders. Singapore was full of foreigners and they worked together with Singaporeans harmoniously and were treated courteously, but getting close to citizens was something to be earned through sincere friendship shown over time with no hint of colonial tendencies. Andy was an unknown quantity and each one of the group was conscious of a common saying among Chinese, any one of them showing deference to a Caucasian was a banana yellow on the outside but white on the inside. None of the group wanted that insult to their manhood. Andy was aware of this reserve and its background.
The game came to an end with a well-placed hit and much shouting. The leader of the group came over to where Andy stood silently watching.
“How come a foreigner speaks Mandarin la?”
Andy introduced himself using his best Singlish and told he’d been in Singapore most of his growing up years. His mother was a teacher and his father a banker.
‘Can you play ball?” The Singaporean looked him over carefully while the remaining group looked on with interest.
Andy knew this was the classic test. He replied modestly.
“I’ve been watching you and can see you are very professional players. Perhaps you can teach me?”
The leader who said to call him Su motioned to the opposite side of the court and glanced at the watching group who smiled knowingly.
With quick motion, he punched a powerful serve over the net and to the surprise of everyone Andy gave an equally powerful return completely taking Su off guard.
“Wa,” the group shouted in unison.
Su smiled, “You’ve played before, very good!”
He motioned to the group and they eagerly leaped back onto the sand court. They were a couple short now but Andy was permitted to play on the opposite side. Su pointed to a muscular Malay on the same side as Andy.
“Mamat is your leader, listen to him!”
Andy was careful to listen to instructions and as Mamat became more confident in him gave opportunities for Andy to show his skill. By the end of the game they were friends and contact details were shared around so they could get together in future.
Andy was moving toward the bench where the group had deposited their belongings to retrieve his shirt when he noted the flap on his belt pouch was open and cell phone missing. Rushing back to the court he checked to see if there was any evidence of it in the sand. Then he rushed back to the bench to check whether it had fallen out when he removed his shirt.
Out of the corner of his eye he noted a young woman holding something toward him. His phone!
“I called to tell you you’d dropped your phone but you were to interested in getting into that game to hear, so I picked it up so no one would be tempted to take this smart phone home with them.”
Andy was so elated to learn his phone was not lost he gushed thanks. The young woman smiled and turned to return to her seat.
As she turned Andy realized he’d seen this young woman before. She attended Mandarin lessons with him nights. It was a large class and a very formal setting so no attempt was made to establish rapport at class as this would have irritated the teacher who demanded total attention. Interactions were formal as they practiced sentences. Afterward everyone was in a hurry to return home.
Andy quickly looked at his watch.
“I know you, you attend night class with me.”
The young woman nodded, “yes you were the one who made that huge mistake with your Mandarin tones that had our teacher and class laughing!”
This was said without any trace of laughter and Andy blushed as he remembered how foolish he’d felt at the time when teacher explained in English what he’d just said. Of course, no Chinese would want to cause loss of face so it was quite unusual for teacher to show this emotion, and now this woman was protecting his ego by not laughing.
“I’m very grateful, can I buy you lunch in one of the restaurants?”
The young woman removed her dark glasses and looked at him thoughtfully. “No thank you, I don’t know anything about you!” She turned to return to her bench but Andy was not going to be put off that easily.
“Please let me buy you lunch, I really appreciate you taking the trouble to keep my phone safe and I hope it’s not because I’m a foreigner you won’t let me extend this courtesy in return.
The young woman turned toward him and laughed. It was a bitter laugh.
To be continued.
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