Highlights from Sumiko Tan's new book Sundays With Sumiko

Sundays With Sumiko compiles 72 articles written by Sumiko Tan for her personal column in The Sunday Times.
Sundays With Sumiko compiles 72 articles written by Sumiko Tan for her personal column in The Sunday Times.PHOTO: STRAITS TIME PRESS
Sumiko Tan's parents on holiday in Cameron Highlands, sometime in 1962.
Sumiko Tan's parents on holiday in Cameron Highlands, sometime in 1962.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN
Sumiko Tan met her husband H at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in 1980. They went back there for their wedding photos.
Sumiko Tan met her husband H at Anglo-Chinese Junior College in 1980. They went back there for their wedding photos.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN
Sumiko and H's wedding in July 2010.
Sumiko and H's wedding in July 2010.PHOTO: COURTESY OF SUMIKO TAN

SINGLEHOOD

1. Singlehood was one of the themes I found myself returning to over the years. This was one of the early ones:

SO, HAVE YOU FOUND YOUR IT YET? (AUG 2, 1998)

Driving along Grange Road towards Ngee Ann City one day, my heart hiccupped.

On the other side of the road was a car which bore the licence plate of a former boyfriend. But the vehicle whizzed by too fast for me to see if it was indeed him inside.

Although that relationship ended on a bad note (he jilted me) many, many moons ago when I was barely 21, leaving me tear-soaked and seeped with sadness for a long, long time, the sighting brought back a rush of memories, which were mostly bitter. Luckily, I soon reached the shopping mall. It’s wonderful how bright lights and the prospect of spending money can cheer one up.

What a low-life that guy was and what a lucky escape I had had, I told myself, zapping him from my mind as I entered the On Pedder shop where an enticing array of open-toed sandals awaited me.

Love. Can it really be eternal?

The poet Robert Graves describes love as “a universal migraine”, “a bright stain on the vision/blotting out reason”.

If that were so, I must by now be quite blind and without reason, for I have been in love not a few times.

It is, after all, a thrilling sensation, with all the cliches about it ringing true.

When you’re in love, you see the world with new eyes.

Everything feels almost unbearably light, and life can never be more right. Everyday concerns – the mortgage, job insecurities, family problems – seem so irrelevant.

What matters is being with the object of your affection – that hot rush of anticipation as you wait for him, the warmth that engulfs you when you are finally together, the smugness in knowing you are loved.

Can there be a nicer feeling than that?

 
 

2. Another column on singlehood

I’M ALREADY 35 – AND STILL SINGLE (JAN 24, 1999)

Thirty-five is the age single women start becoming preoccupied – well, those with time on their hands, anyway – with their impending old-maid status.

After all, the period between 35 and 40 must surely be their last window for marriage. Once you hit the Big Four O, chances of finding a mate are well-nigh zero and you had better accept that as your fate and make the best of it.

Is being single really that bad? Stereotypes would certainly imply so, and there are two common myths about “old maids”.

The first is the Pathetic Spinster, so brilliantly captured in Anita Brookner’s books.

The Pathetic Spinster is bony, pale, delicate and neat. She has scrupulous ways and an old-fashioned, virginal air. She toils away in a boring job, returning home to tend to ageing parents or to an empty nest. She is to be pitied.

The Bitter Spinster, on the other hand, doesn’t wear her singlehood on her sleeve. She bristles at suggestions that she would be better off married (who needs men?) and makes a big show of how full her single life is. But we all know that in her heart, she’s as bitter as a lemon. She is to be avoided.

Spinsters, these stereotypes go, are unhappy because they are unmarried and hence unloved. But how accurate are these portraits?...

There are many pros to being single, and I have not reached the stage when I would exchange them wholeheartedly for a ring on my finger.

When it comes to the crunch, I’m afraid I have not dared to take the plunge.

The chief advantage is freedom. Even if you are committed to someone, you aren’t legally bound to him until you are married.

You are still a unit unto yourself, beholden to no one else. You don’t have to share your possessions if you don’t want to; you don’t have to consult another person on how to spend your time; you don’t have to compromise if you are not so inclined; you don’t have to put up with in-laws or family gatherings. You can mind your own business.

Put differently, being single allows you to be selfish. But if this is a selfishness that is not mean or harmful to others, then it is a delicious sensation.

But it is this precise lack of commitment to someone else that brings on an occasional twitch of dissatisfaction.

Being single, there is a lack of a centre in my life, an absence of a solid goal to work towards.

Just as you don’t allow yourself to be accountable to anyone, no one is answerable to you. There is a sense that you don’t really matter, and that were you to disappear, no one would mourn for you because you had not been generous enough to give yourself to him.

MY DAD

3. I had a conflicted relationship with my dad. I loved him but was also often angry and exasperated with him and I felt guilty about that. But his last few years with us were good, even though he was ill. Writing the columns and then re-reading them for this book helped me resolve those issues.

GOODNIGHT DAD, REST IN PEACE (MAY 7, 2000)

My father is dead.

It happened on April 25 at 10.25pm. He was 70 and had been ill for six years.

It’s been 12 days and I’m all right, mostly. But sometimes, the loss hits me and I am awash with what I call my Sunday dusk feeling.

I used to get it only on Sundays, during the 10 minutes or so before daylight fades and households turn on their lights, when the world is at peace and quite beautiful, really.

The sky is streaked with yellow and pink, a slight breeze blows, birds are flying home and silhouettes are forming around me. The neighbourhood settles down, kids are hauled inside and the smell of dinner wafts through the air.

I’ve always hated this period. It never fails to bring on an ache, to make me feel anxious. Even when I’m not alone, I’ve to fight the dread that dusks on Sundays bring. I’ll exercise or watch TV, any activity that generates noise. But I can’t escape the cloak of loneliness that comes looking for me.

It’s strange how I never got this sensation on other days.

Perhaps, for me, Sundays signify not the start of a new week but the end of one, and with that, the unsettling sense of so many tasks left undone.

Now that my father is gone, I get this feeling so often. Mostly, it is filled with regrets. Regrets for him, for the moments of sadness in his life, and regrets for myself, for not having been a better daughter.

I try to shake out of this gloom by rationalising that we all must die and, being older, my father would naturally die first. Everyone’s father will one day die, so why make such a fuss about mine? Why inflict his death on others by writing a column about it?

But his last years did teach me some lessons about life – and death – and so I thought it appropriate to dwell on them, if you could bear with me.

SINGAPORE WOMEN

4. This became known as my prawn-peeling column and one of the columns that got me a lot of mail. Women liked it – men, not so much.

SINGAPORE WOMEN FIERCE? SO WHAT? (APRIL 14, 2002 )

“I’m so tired of Singapore women,” a male friend lamented the other day.

“Why can’t they stop arguing? And must they always ask so many questions?”

The way he sees it, Singapore women – especially those who are well educated – have become “hard”.

They should learn to be more feminine, more accommodating and, yes, less career-driven, he said. If they are career-minded, they should choose mates who are not, so that the men can play house-husbands. But then, career women obviously don’t want losers.

“Two highly stressed spouses can’t add up to a peaceful home, with children well brought up,” he said.

My friend is a Singaporean in his early 50s. Although he has had his fair share of girlfriends – mostly Singaporean – he has never married.

Recently, he began dating women from China. Clearly, they have made a big, and positive, impression on him.

One, in particular, is not only young, but also “stunning”, gentle-mannered and plays a mean guzheng.

She can not only read the Chinese calligraphy scrolls in his apartment, but also provide the context and stories behind the poems, whereas we Singapore girls burst into giggles trying to decipher the scrawls. And she’s not a university graduate.

Women from Malaysia, especially those from Sabah and Sarawak, my friend observed, also out-score Singapore women in the feminine/gentleness stakes.

They are also content to be housewives, tending to the kids while their Singaporean husbands work. And when the men come home, these women will not bombard them with 101 questions about their day.

He is not the only Singapore male to make this observation.

Recently, Xiewen, who writes the fortnightly He*Mail column in Life!, spoke of “very attractive Malaysian girls” who would “hold their partners’ arms over dinner and feed them. And look so totally contented”.

He also related how a friend had this to say of Singapore and Chinese women: “Singapore women are no match for their Chinese counterparts because the latter know how to be feminine without being fawningly subservient, do take care of their male friends’ feelings and are not out to put them down as if they need to prove something.

“A Chinese girlfriend will, without asking, peel prawns for you at dinner without even being self-conscious about it. She will not regard it as lowering herself, or pandering to the male chauvinist ego.”

And, these men insist, these foreign women are not putting on an act to entrap Singapore men for their money.

The columnist spoke of attractive, financially independent, professional Malaysian, Filipino and Japanese women who know how to pamper their Singaporean male friends.

The column triggered a response from a Singapore male reader who wrote in to Life! complaining about how “local women don’t cut it”.

He even gave his rating of women in Asia: “Malaysian gals are friendly and down-to-earth. Thai gals have grace and are charming and caring. Filipino gals have talent and are devoted. Indonesian gals are also charming and musically talented. Japanese gals have grace and spunk. Vietnamese gals are also graceful and devoted.

“And Singapore gals? Only look good on the outside because they’d use a tonne of makeup which gets washed off in the rain.”
Well, well, well.

LOVE, UNEXPECTEDLY

5. By the time I was 46, I was reconciled to being single for life – and then I unexpectedly got married. This piece wasn’t actually in The Sunday Times but appeared in Life on a Friday. 

LOVE @ 130KMH (JUNE 25, 2010)

He started the engine and we got going.

I didn’t dare look up. It was hard to, anyway. The helmet was clamped tight on my face. My cheeks were bunched up like a chipmunk’s. I didn’t feel particularly attractive.

He went a bit faster.

I squeezed my eyes shut and kept my head low. I could feel the cold eating into my legs. I should have worn thicker tights, I thought.

It was early spring in Wales and still very chilly. The wind forced its way into the sliver of space I’d left open in my helmet. I couldn’t breathe otherwise. I’d never realised how claustrophobic it’d feel under a helmet.

I wrapped my arms more tightly around his waist but my fingers – clumsy in thick gloves – couldn’t grab him properly.

The minutes passed.

I opened first one eye, then the other, and lifted my head a bit. I peeped to my left and right.

A quarter of an hour went by. I was now sitting straight up on the motorbike and turning my head coolly.

Cars were whizzing past us on the right. Hedges and stone walls loomed dangerously close on the left. But I wasn’t scared, not really.

When we reached a bend, our bodies swayed with the machine and dipped low near the tarmac.

I looked at the speedometer. It was inching past 100kmh to 110, 120. I pressed my body closer to his and wrapped my thighs more tightly around him.

Then I noticed something happening. Whenever we went downhill, he would have to adjust himself and would slide down the seat. I could feel the gap between his body and mine – an emptiness, almost, a sort of loss – and I’d make a desperate grab for his waist.

Then when the road levelled up, he would inch himself back up the seat and I could feel his body again. I felt safe once more.

And it was at that point that I realised that, yes, if I could trust my life to him as we zipped up and down the motorways and country roads of Wales on his scary-looking 1,000cc bike, I could trust my life to him.

And so, dear reader, I am doing it at last. Getting, er, married. At the grand old age of 46. Next month. To Hurricane, my crush from junior college with whom I reconnected after 29 years.

There is a meet-the-author session with Ms Sumiko Tan on Sunday (July 9) at 4pm at Popular Bookstore in Nex mall, Serangoon Central.