HOW FAR FROM ONE DEGREE
by Sharon Y. Sim
On that sweltering island nation one degree above the equator, we bawled our first breaths.
Decades later, at that temperate city named after a redwoodtree thirty-seven degrees north of the equator, we met for the first time.
We were part of a panel – I, a moderator; you, a speaker – sharing stories of immigrant lives.
Someone showed slides of a life filled with ski trips, graduation parties and tourist landmarks.
You spoke, no slides, sharing career and culinary tales of triumph and missteps, of love and heartache.
I knew then we’d become friends.
The crowd cheered. They related to your stories, yes, and I suspected, also because they had their fill of foods from one degree, of chicken satay and peanut sauce, of char kway teoh noodles with cockles and shrimps.
Our next big gathering revolved around food, of course.
We were part of a potluck team – I, the apprentice; you the chef – preparing onde onde dessert in your downtown high rise. I couldn’t resist biting into one after another of those soft light green glutinous rice balls coated with grated coconut, oozing warm melted brown sugar onto my tongue.
That was way before we packed up for that party. We lingered. We talked freely about the pains of marriage, about entrepreneurial and immigrant dreams, all the while, quietly slipping just another innocent little onde onde down our throats…
We eventually showed up at the big potluck at that big suburban home, just in time to serve dessert.
You finally signed the papers and said goodbye to the man who brought you here (who became your husband, then your ex).
You packed your bags. You also said goodbye (for now) to your adopted home and your new friends for your trip around the world.
Right before you left, I asked if you had read that memoir about another traveling gal. You shook your head.
I managed to squeeze it into your bloated backpack before you boarded that plane.
You called, sometime between skydiving in Switzerland and chomping on stuffed quail in Egypt, and said, “This woman has written my life.”
When you got back, we of course had to lunch and munch.
You said we should celebrate. Instead, as we strolled along the tree-lined street, I blurted a bulletin about my breast.
You stopped in your tracks, hugged me and said “I’ll cook!”
You then rattled off a plethora of foods from one degree – Hainanese chicken rice, nasi lemak, bah kut teh, Bobo Chacha – squeezed my hand and asked for my chemotherapy dates.
Talking on virtual meetings and texting on the phone while propped by hospital pillows, I awaited the start of my second infusion.
I caught the whiffs before you walked in. Face flushed and resting two bulging plastic bags on the over-bed tray table, you beamed, “Hainanese chicken rice and papayas!”
We were part of a get-well team – I, the patient; you, the caregiver – along with the chemo nurse and genetic counselors gathered around my bed – imparting gifts that hurt and soothed.
When they poked my veins in vain, you shrank and grimaced. When they succeeded on the fifth try, we both let out hefty sighs. After they flushed saline and began dripping the “red devil,” they finally left us alone, and let me eat.
I joked that you had found a way to teleport my favorite dish. But I knew you had slaved for hours – bringing me boiled chicken massaged in sesame oil, and smooth rice cooked in chicken stock, butter, ginger and garlic – so I could feel the wholesome warmth in my stomach even as poison pounded the rest of me.
As the day arrived when I bade farewell to chemo and radiation, you along with our girlfriends, threw me a “Kiss Cancer Goodbye” party.
I didn’t remember smiling so widely, or dancing so wildly, since I was a girl of five.
You made another hometown dessert that day – pulut hitam – black rice porridge sweetened by a drizzle of coconut milk. As we relished the dish, you whispered your idea in my ear.
You said you could now be geek and chef rolled into one, and went forth and kneaded your techie and foodie dreams into a scrumptious new company.
When I read from your site that cooking for me during those chemo days was the inspiration, I teared, just a little.
As I gained strength and found opportunities to help, I fed you with platefuls of strategies, advice and contacts.
When the funding came that would catapult your startup, we cheered, a tad too loudly.
How far and long have we traveled from one degree? Who knew?
*The country of Singapore is one degree above the equator.
*The city of Palo Alto in the San Francisco Bay Area is named after a redwood tree.
About the Author:
Sharon Y. Sim runs a California-based marketing/PR firm. When she isn’t donning her business hat, Sharon cooks Singapore-inspired foods, writes short stories, creative nonfiction and is currently working on a novel titled “The Tiger Baby.” She has a masters of professional writing degree from University of Southern California and has been published in Eastlit, Ethos International, The Straits Times (Singapore’s leading daily), Thousand & One Stories, Reed Magazine, AsianWeek, Silicon Valley Business Ink, PR Week, Daily Texan, Lone Star Events, Justice, Tribes and others.