Vince, son of Murugadanan, 26 years old, woke up one Tuesday morning for work to find that he was suddenly Chinese. He was not prepared to wake up Chinese, if that is something one can prepare for. He had no qipaos, or angpaos, or big baos to prepare for the occasion. Because an occasion it was. Vince had finally gotten what he wanted.
Vince remembered the first day he wanted to be Chinese. He was walking beside two friends on the way to the canteen, when he smelt something odd. He asked his friends, what is that smell? And they jabbed their fingers at Dev, only a few steps ahead. All the coconut oil Dev rubs in his hair. If you light a match, Dev’s head will go aflame.
Vince thought of Dev’s burning head, of a fiery Dev ordering briyani from the only stall in the canteen with a C grade rating. A burning Dev headbutting a soccer ball, singeing it only slightly as it soars into the goal. A burning Dev playing catching with a blazing Dovinder, as they wait for their classmates to come back from Mandarin.
Vince did not want that scorching life. Vince was quite happy living a life without flame or fury, without any heat of any sort. I would much prefer, decided Vince, for my head to never be on fire.
Dev played soccer, Vince switched to hockey. Dev learnt guitar, Vince hid his away. Even though Dev and Vince lived only a few minutes apart, Vince began to wait for the next bus, to avoid any chance of them being seen together.
It was the last week of secondary school, no more classes, no more exams, only character-building exercises while teachers burnt time to school closure. Vince and his cohort were shuffled into an unlit air-conditioned room, a luxury for sweaty secondary schoolboys. Dev did not know why they were there in the dark, but was enjoying the cool, fiddling with the loose strings of the room’s carpet. A screen at the front of the room lit up, and a DVD menu appeared for 3 Idiots. Dev’s form teacher, Mr. Venka, explained that today, they were going to watch a Bollywood movie that would help them navigate their evolving friendships as they moved to different JCs. For the next three hours, the room was gasps, guffaws, and quietly, a few tears.
Credits rolled and the boys applauded, while some began whistling the movie’s theme. Mr. Venka quietened the boys and told them Ms. Lim would give them instructions for after lunch. Mr. Venka switched on the lights and Vince quickly wiped his eyes so the other boys wouldn’t see. He noticed the boy beside him was doing the same, and when Vince turned to see, he saw the boy’s flaming head. A pyre he had done his best to avoid was now beside him.
Vince tried to get up quickly before anyone noticed, tripping over Dovinder, falling flat. The room burst into laughter again, louder than the laughs during the movie. A hand reached out to Vince. Before he could take it, he heard someone shout from the back of the room.
“It’s the three idiots!”
And the room exploded again.
Vince slapped Dev’s hand away from him and sprinted to the bus stop. Ms Lim never called to find out why Vince skipped, nor did Vince ever see Mr. Venka again.
Vince flitted from crush to crush to crush, scarcely a day between. Vince was constantly searching, imagining new futures, after O Levels, after A levels, daydreaming out his office window, thinking of the futures he would live with these girls, who would become women, his women. He imagined going with them for Chinese New Year visiting and impressing all their aunts and uncles. Nǐ hǎo’er, nǐ de fángzi hěn piàoliang, he would say. He practiced it in the mirror, often. They would be floored by his intonation, his diction, and they would be curious about the er, the little Beijing lilt Vince had added of his own accord, so they would know he is authentic. Perhaps more authentic than them.
Then his women would giggle and say, Vince has better Chinese than me, he orders the dimsum without even looking at the menu. And the uncles and aunts would coo, impressed by his versatility. Why did you learn Chinese, Vince? And Vince would say, it was merely a question of logic, there are so many Chinese people in the world and so many Chinese people in this country. And they would nod in agreement with his acumen, his pragmatism.
Vince would take the broiled fatty pork and the bitter gourd and the aunties would be so impressed that he knows how to eat it. And they would comment on his chopstick technique, saying it was better than their sons, who could scarcely pick up a peanut. And when the last cousin has arrived, together they would gather around the yusheng. While the oldest uncle prepares the dish, his soon-to-be father-in-law would notice Vince murmuring under his breath as the sauces are drizzled over the great black plastic plate. And he nudges Vince forward, and says, Vince would like to deliver some of the incantations. Vince plays coy, shakes his head, and says no, no, he is happy to watch. But they would insist, and he would take the golden crackers, and pour them over the plate. Piàn dì huángjīn. May you find gold on your streets.
Vince got Peixuan’s number from her cousin after they met at a birthday party. He followed her on Instagram after she texted him her handle, and he would look at her story every day, glasses of bubble tea, yoga with her mum, her puffy dog running laps around her feet. After five months of reacting to her stories, Vince asked her to the newest Marvel movie. She never replied, and a week later, she posted a picture of her ticket stub. Before she blocked him, he saw her 4th monthersary with her new boyfriend, Ben, who she met at a K-pop dance class.
Gabby was in floorball, and Vince would go to watch all her games. She was tanned after hours in the sun and would drink milo with Vince after her evening trainings. One evening, a teammate passed by in the canteen and asked if they got along because they were the same shade. Later that week, Gabby said her mother wanted her to go home straight to study so she wouldn’t be able to stay for milo anymore. After a few matches, Vince stopped going, no longer interested in a game he barely understood. He started studying in the library in the evenings instead. After finishing a particularly gruelling math paper, Vince decided to get a milo peng to sip on his way home. He saw Gabby, in her FBTs and fluorescent polyester top, laughing with the boy’s team’s goalkeeper who was holding the floorball stick up like a tree and poking his head out from behind it. Under her laughter, he could hear the boy whistling. Whistling a tune Vince hadn’t heard since he felt a carpet beneath his feet, twiddling its fabric while he cried at a face that looked like his.
Jasmine would text with a lot of smileys, more smileys than Vince knew what to do with. Anything Vince had to say would lead to instant elation, an exuberance that Vince had trouble matching. When Vince told her he was thinking of performing at their hall’s open mic, she squealed in delight. When he went up to take the mic, ready to play his favourite Jay Chou song, she cheered, jiayou Vince, jiayou, and when he finished his final chord, she stood and applauded. After the open mic, they went to get ice cream and Vince tried to kiss her. She left without her mango sorbet, dripping down the cardboard cup, pooling onto the table. While Vince slowly finished his, he leaned over. He tried to catch his reflection in that thick glaze.
Almost once a month, Vince would see Jasmine in the CBD, waiting at the crosswalk opposite his office. She always had air-pods in her ears, and in yoga clothes, squeezing in a workout on her lunch break. She would lean on the traffic light button and stretch out her quads, bringing her foot up behind her. Vince would watch in his stiff white shirt and tight black pants. Then the light would go green and she would dash off, perpetually late for that same class.
Whenever Vince saw her, he would imagine what it would have been if she kissed back, if she had finished her ice cream. If she had cheered when he graduated, had been the first person he told about his job interview. He would dream about Chinese New Year with her parents, about the crisp golden wheat crackers he would serve on her plate because she always like that bit of the yusheng best. And as his daydream drifted, she would lean back on her haunches before jogging lightly towards her class.
That Tuesday morning, Vince admired the slight stubble on his normally clean-shaven chin. He wondered if he could grow a beard now, something he had always stopped himself from doing. He decided he would let it grow out and see how it would look. He brushed his teeth, grinning at the whites of his teeth, the pale of his skin, and head out the door.
He waited outside the lobby to his office, winking at women on their way to work. He did it for five hours, until his lunch break should have been ending and crossed the street. Almost on cue, Jasmine jogged up to the traffic light opposite him, and began her stretching. Vince smiled.
Vince didn’t wait for the traffic light to change. He stepped onto the road, advancing slowly as cars swerved around him. Drivers screamed and honked, some putting down their windows to curse at him. Vince didn’t notice. Only one thought on his mind. Piàn dì huángjīn. Horns blared around him, but Vince heard nothing. Piàn dì huángjīn. One car jerked around him, only to collide with another. All other cars came to a screeching halt. Piàn dì huángjīn. And still, Vince walked.
Jasmine, it’s me. It’s Vince. Do you want to go get ice cream? I know a place with a great mango sorbet.
Only after the car crashed did Jasmine take out her air-pods to look for the cause of the commotion. And there, she saw him. A slim man, white shirt, black pants, neat leather shoes, walking across the road, ignoring yells all around him. He was looking directly at her.
Jasmine thought he looked familiar but she could not place him. He was a shadow of a person, a sliver of a memory that she could not figure out. In his smile, she thought of a boy she once liked but wasn’t ready to date.
A bus skid in front of him, its side-view mirror almost clipping the man’s nose. It stopped as abruptly as it had interrupted. The driver was gesturing wildly through the window at the man, who began to shout back.
Jasmine watched as the two men argued through the glass. She could only see the back of the bus driver’s head, but she could see the shadow’s face fully. A 9 o’clock shadow, white teeth striking against his dark skin.
The light changed, and Jasmine continued onto her class.
The bus pulled away.
Vince stood there in the intersection, in his white shirt, black pants, and neat leather shoes. Burning.
This is an old piece I wrote several years ago, in response to a prompt about being brown in Singapore. It's one of many stories I've written over the years that I am not keen on lingering on, but I don't want to keep private. Planning on sharing more soon.