A rice noodle story (and other encounters)

My mother recently recounted a story to me about the passing of her grandfather. I then realized how grief can be such a beautiful yet wicked thing.

My mother speaks a mix of English, Singlish, Mandarin, and various dialects. This is likely the result of growing up in the early days of Singapore’s independence. These were heady, transitional, and transformational times, and she was one of the earliest batches of students in Singapore to be taught fully in the English language at school; both her older siblings were taught in Mandarin Chinese. She often says ‘yi han’ (Mandarin for ‘regret’) every time she mentions something she wishes turned out differently; could-have(-been)s, should-have(-been)s, why-didn’ts. This often annoys me, because when I’m the subject, I feel somewhat deficient and imprudent (how I should have found a partner in college rather than fumble around on dating apps in my 20s, how I should have chosen to study in Singapore instead of abroad, or for that matter, studied in a capital city instead of the little-known post-industrial town I eventually called my home for some 5 years), and when she refers to someone else, I feel second-hand exasperation. The fact is, more often than not, we couldn’t have known better.

Regardless, when she mentioned how, growing up, she wasn’t particularly close to her grandfather, I couldn’t help feeling a helpless melancholy and remorse. I am, too, not close to my paternal grandmother, and all too easily blame this on our personality differences and a generation gap. My paternal grandfather passed shortly before my father was born, and with the exception of a tenant who rented out a room in her 3-bedroom flat some years ago, my grandmother lives a largely solitary life. She keeps contact with her siblings, and makes acquaintance with her neighbours, but spends most of her time watching television and cooking alone; there is no internet in her flat. She grew up in Malaysia, lived through the Second World War as a child, and attended school for three years, then worked on a rubber plantation, where she stubbed her toe – she has the scar to prove it – before moving to Singapore. This all seems a far cry from my life and world; the only wars I endure are against my inner demons.

The chasm between my grandmother and I seems to only grow with time. My mother constantly reminds me how my grandmother is an over-worrier, a hypervigilant guardian angel. She doesn’t just give – she gives out. As such, my brother and I are told to do our utmost to shield her from our dark and messy lives; depression, addiction, failure, bullies, abusive exes, and present only a curated version of our lives: mundane weekend activities, career milestones, academic achievements. Yet sharing good news isn’t easy either. First of all, we have to translate English to Mandarin, and even then, she is more fluent in Hakka, which none of us bar our father is conversant in. After a round of Chinese whispers (literally) she finally understands, and would show an unfettered delight, gushing, lost for words, grinning uncontrollably for minutes. And then I would feel abashed and guilty for even hesitating to break the good news to her in the first place, and to have even thought about depriving her of such joy.

Like such, my grandmother and I sustain a lovingly awkward relationship. I only recall several instances of interacting with her one-on-one, and even then, these interactions are heavily dosed with the same kind of long, awkward silences I frantically avoid on dates with people I’ve known for barely a week.

I remember once teaching her to use Microsoft Paint some ten years ago. I had called in sick at school, and she had suffered a fall and came to live with us for a week until she got better. An uncle on my mother’s side suggested I take the opportunity to get to know her better. We drew a fish on the computer screen, and coloured it in. Somehow we ended up talking about how she met my grandfather through an arranged marriage, something I hadn’t known up until then. This was perhaps the only time a computer, my grandmother, and I co-existed in the same space, and the only time we exchanged more than a sentence or two at a time; indeed, technology can be both an alienating force (caricatures of ‘smartphone addicts’ come to mind) and a uniting one. During her week’s stay with us, I walked into my mother assisting her in the shower, and this was also the only time I saw her in a vulnerable position, unclad, drenched, hunched.

I recall a time when I was a child of perhaps 4 or 5, and my brother – 3 years older – wondered out loud what the dying process is like…the skin becoming cold to the touch, the proverbial last breath, the setting in of rigor mortis (a child’s curiosity often takes morbid turns). I then thought about our grandmother and how she would die in such a way, and began to cry. (Again, my brother and I were once close, but just as our paths in life diverged, so did our common ground dwindle.)

I also remember a moment while our family was on holiday, and my father and grandmother had walked ahead of me. As they strolled down the pier, I realized that this was the only time I ever saw them holding hands, and that this was how I would imagine she held his hand as a child. Such was a closeness I found difficult to have with her.

But back to my mother’s story.

Her grandfather passed on a rainy day (all her grandparents died of natural causes, and she attributes this to the clemency of a higher being). He had been gravely ill for the months leading up to his death, and spent his last days in a hospital being cared for by ‘missies’ (a colloquialism for nurses in Singapore back in the day). My mother was 14 at the time, and walked from her home a mile or so away to visit him every week. On the day he died, she had brought his favourite snack, chee cheong fun, to the ward, and placed it on the over-bed table. Just as she swiftly turned to leave, he called for her. She had left her wet umbrella behind (I came to know my mother as a rather forgetful person), and he reminded her to take it with her for the trip. Poignantly, that was the last thing he said to her; he departed later that day. As nurses cleared out his belongings, they inadvertently noticed the cold, untouched rice noodles, and my mother learnt that he never got to enjoy it before he left simply because she had forgotten the simple gesture of opening the packet for him.

I researched the hospital he died in on the internet. Information on it is incredibly sparse, but as I discovered that it had closed down permanently exactly a month before I was born, I felt an uncanny but decided closeness to it.

I see this rice noodle story mirrored in recent events. Two months ago, my grandmother fell ill with a lung infection and was admitted to hospital. COVID restrictions prevent our family from visiting her, and this compounds my exasperation; one’s physical presence can be comforting even if one stands in silence, but video calls are tense when one is lost for words. Through the camera I saw how ill she had become – pale as rice noodles, with a nasal cannula up her nose, slightly delirious but nonetheless smiling. After the call, I broke down, frustrated and guilty, as I felt overwhelmed with the pressures in my life – work deadlines, persistent mental health difficulties, impostor syndrome, the growing distance with my parents as I grew up and they grew old – and simply excused myself as ‘not having the bandwidth’ to cope with the additional stressor of an ailing grandparent. But I am also deeply touched that just seeing me alive and fighting, even if not quite yet thriving, is enough for her.

My mother tried making sense of this. ‘When you were little, she never really interacted with you, and instead busied herself in the kitchen making meals for you. That might explain why you aren’t close to her now,’ she shared.

‘Perhaps we simply have different love languages,’ I suggested. ‘And she did her best.’

The experience of estrangement is a universal one; I’m certainly not alone in seeking meaning in alienation, and the remorse that often accompanies it. A friend suggested that crises of passion inspire many a hit single and literary magnum opus, which is an astute insight, and an amusing one no less. At that point, I had survived two heartbreaks, and indeed reflecting upon them provided some closure, if not comfort.

One was with G, who would often bring up P (a quick aside: guard your own heart if your date constantly mentions someone who broke theirs), who had been taking days to respond to his messages after she had asked to be just friends.

‘We all have busy lives, don’t we,’ I responded. Of course, texting lulls are indeed deeply unsettling, since they can be an insidious harbinger for estrangement in the tech age (a.k.a. ghosting).

I noticed his face turning sour in disagreement, so I elaborated.

‘But you’ll never be too busy for things that matter to you. Sometimes, I’m not a priority in people’s lives, and sometimes, they are not in mine. And that’s okay.’

At that moment I realized I was offering advice I should be taking myself. I was very fond of G, and found myself rather troubled by how distant he often was. I gradually realized how his estrangement with P had cast a shadow over him (and we all do shoulder baggage). Perhaps his bigger priority at the time was coming to terms with his heartbreak, and soon after, so was mine in coming to terms with mine.

But sometimes, we can be blindsided by intimacy itself. Some months prior, I met M. When we first met, we talked from dusk till dawn. It is fascinating how intense intimacy is often forged between lost souls – he was recovering from the end of an 8 year-long relationship, and I, having endured a particularly trying time abroad in an abusive one, was now struggling with moving back in with my family while carrying the newfound weight of trauma. ‘We’ve only met a few days ago,’ he once said, ‘but it feels like we’ve known each other for months.’ It later transpired that he wasn’t romantically interested, and while we’ve since grown apart, I still find it cathartic to contemplate how ships pass in the night, and how lucky I must be to be one of them.

An anecdote shared by a friend of mine perfectly encapsulates the beauty of chance. We caught up recently after not having met for some 3 years; we had dinner in town, then wound up at a coffee shop near my home at midnight. It was during this late-night, caffeine-fuelled conversation that he described his friend’s digital art project, in which a user would enter a random series of numbers into a code, which would generate fractal art. He described his friend’s frustration when he was mesmerized by one particular output image but realized he had forgotten the input parameters and was thus unable to recreate the said image. The specific, intimate choreography of his fingers on the keyboard was never to happen again.

But perhaps therein lies the sublimity of an unopened packet of noodles, a fleeting 2-week relationship, a 3-month long read receipt, an infinity of algorithm outputs. Stories of intimacy and estrangement are fortuitous, and remind us that we often occupy but a liminal space in others’ lives. Yet, they teach us plenty about how bonds, however fragile, and distance, however painful, are both deeply precious.

Chian Ying Xuan is a budding urban designer based in Singapore with an interest in participatory practice, designing for wellbeing, and sustainable development. She seeks to incorporate smart technology, play studies, and inclusion in her research and design work. When not drawing, thinking, or talking about cities, she also revels in exploring them on her roller skates, playing the piano, and swing dancing. She enjoys both journaling and writing fiction, and is currently exploring spatial storytelling through experiential, multimedia novels.