I’m starting to adjust to local time. Last night I crashed pretty hard and managed to get six hours of sleep. My friend Raghu is still asleep, because one advantage he has from racing around the world by boat is that his circadian rhythm is always acclimatized to local time.
So after waking up I spent an hour making vacation plans, and by 6:30AM could no longer ignore my grumbling stomach. Having had two successful trips to the Maxwell Hawker Center I thought I’d get an early breakfast to hold me over until Raghu awoke.
One piece of advice about Singaporean food is that the stalls with the best food have the longest lines, which typically means they’re worth the wait. I could only spot one long line, at a stall labeled as Zhen Zhen Porridge (they have their own Facebook page). Prices and operating hours were in English, but menu descriptions were entirely in Chinese. This was a good time for food bravery so I got on line. A few minutes later a man got on line behind me but eventually left. Not long after that, an older woman replaced him, and the line grew behind her.
All the while I thought over a plan for decrypting the menu, and the only strategy I could come up with was asking for help. As far as I could tell my choices were to bother the busy hawker, which would slow the line, irritating everyone behind me, or ask the woman on line behind me. Speaking with the woman behind me seemed like the lowest risk option, so I turned and asked.
“Number one is fish. Number two is raw fish. Number three chicken. Number four chicken, fish and century egg. Number five just century egg.” I don’t remember six and seven, because I had already settled on 4: chicken fish and century egg: a mix of comfort and bravery. I’d never had century egg before but it looked as though the opportunity had presented itself. So I told my new friend that I’d get number four. “You know century egg?” she asked. Yes, I assured her, I did. The truth was I didn’t. I used to know, but after all these years I only remember its reputation. Incidentally, the man who shared my row on the flight from Hong Kong to Singapore shared a story with me about his American friend who wanted to authentic Singaporean food but did not want to be told what it was. He enjoyed it, and only found out what he ate years later. If he liked it, then so could I.
My new friend on line tried explaining Century Egg to me. “You know horse?”
I still don’t know what she was trying to say, but I sure hope it wasn’t “horse.” But heard “salt”, and that the eggs were black, which I did know.
She then offered to buy the congee for me. “Oh, no,” I replied, meaning that I wouldn’t want her to pay for me, but she meant something different. The stall also offers raw fish, which my new friend likes, but they won’t sell just raw fish without porridge. Could we order together so she could get raw fish? That was fine with me, ignoring being taken far out of my comfort zone.
Next we discussed sizes. Did I want small, medium or large? I settled after some discussion on small.
We finally got personal, and she asked all kinds of questions: where was I from? Why was my accent so easy to understand? (Because I speak the same as everyone in the movies.) What hotel was I staying at? Was I going to KL (Kuala Lumpur?) Although I am planning to to go KL, I felt I was giving away too much information. “Maybe,” I said. “Don’t go,” she said. “It’s not safe there. Some times people will try to steal your money. Woman walking with a purse and a man with a motorcycle will drive by and try to take her purse. She either lets it go or falls on the ground.” She continued: “Do you want to go to Bangkok?” “No,” I replied.” “Good. It’s dirty.”
We were almost at the front of the line. My new friend took out some money. My dish, number four small, was S$3.50. I told her I didn’t have exact change, and I pulled out an S$10 bill which she plucked out of my hands. How odd! Should I be concerned? If it’s a scam, I thought, it’s only ten dollars – not a real problem, and yet still, somehow, a problem.
We got to the front of the line and my friend ordered for us both. She and the hawker spoke back in forth for a few seconds in calm Chinese. My friend gave the hawker my S$10 bill, collected the change and handed it to me: S$7.50. Shouldn’t it have been S$6.50? She also didn’t seem to pay for her fish. What happened?
What seems to have happened is this: in the discussion of century egg, she thought that was all I wanted. Dish number five, century egg porridge small, only costs S$2.50. And now I suspect that it came with the raw fish which, unless I missed it, she did not pay for. In retrospect, she must have paid for it separately because other people ordered porridge and as far as I could tell it didn’t come with raw fish.
She asked me where I wanted to sit. I pointed at a large bank of empty tables, far enough for personal space, but close enough to the large group to feel safe. We sat quietly for a minute, and without notice she stood up and walked straight out of the center. She was gone! This became too strange, and I started composing an escape. I couldn’t just get up and leave since I fully planned to return to the center many times over the next several days. So I devised an excuse to leave, and made a fake name, in case she asked for one when she returned, if she returned, which she did a couple of minutes later. I sat quietly for a short period so as to not tip my hand too soon.
“What time is it?” I asked.
She told me.
I pretended to do time zone math and anxiously said that I was supposed to call my wife thirty minutes ago, that I had to go. The nice benefit of this excuse was that I could surfacing some of my real anxiety.
“Do you want your food to go?”
I didn’t expect that question. I couldn’t say no for the sake of a hastier retreat so I nodded, yes. She want up to the hawker and asked for the food to go. “She (the hawker) wants another twenty cents for the box,” my friend said. I gave her a fifty cent coin and she walked away.
I noticed a thin old man staring at me from the next table. He had beady black eyes, like the kind you ascribe to Eli Wallach in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly. He said nothing. I assumed he was staring at me to warn me about the bad situation I’ve put myself in, so I smiled to acknowledge him which I’m sure made me look like a gullible dumb tourist.
She returned with my thirty cents.
Desperate to divert attention away from me, I asked my new friend about her and her family. She drives a taxi. She has children. All four of her children are grown up. Her youngest son, she said, is twenty years old.
And then she said something strange: “Can I tell you about you?”
That was a confusing question. Did she want to tell me something about herself? Or ask me about me? Or tell me about her 20-year-old son?
“Yes,” I said.
“You’re very angry.”
My face was impassive but my brain exploded.
“You’re angry and you change your mind all the time. You have pain in your body.”
She was telling my fortune. I tried to be coy and divert attention. “I don’t change my mind. When I decide, it’s done, but getting there is is the hard part.” What a horrible answer, but I was was willing to do just about anything to avoid giving an affirmative response, inviting further humiliation. Why couldn’t she just say that I had a hard time trusting strangers when I allowed myself far outside my comfort zone? I looked back to Eli Wallach, who made immediate eye contact. He was waiting for me to look at him. I looked away, ashamed that I had no calm facade after all.
Our food was ready. The hawker prepared in two bags. My porridge was put in to a red plastic bag. My friend took the other bag. We walked out together. For the second time she asked me the name of my hotel. I answered without answering, saying I was going to the 7-11. Then I thanked her, and walked away. She got into her taxi and drove off.
Here I am back at the hotel. The porridge is still sitting in its bag and it is still hot. The anxiety over what might have been a completely innocent symbiotic exchange has left a knot in my stomach, and I can’t decide whether eat my breakfast or toss it and snack on the hazelnut wafers I bought at the 7-11.