Friday, November 14, 2008

Now You Konfrontasi Me, Now You Don’t (It’s Freezing in This Future – Ch. 4)

Singapore’s past is practically being zoned out of existence. Happy memories are disappearing everywhere you look: the traditional corner coffee shops, with their sugar-butter, soy sauce and half-boiled egg on toast, have been sterilized into franchises, and the birdsong competitions, which once filled Sunday squares with tame birds, have gotten replaced by a plaque. Lord knows what’s become of the young Chinese women you see in old photos, sipping Fantas in go-go boots and bobbed hair, but there’s no point in looking for them either. The flip side is that Singapore loses all trace of its bad memories, too. It doesn’t get much worse than what happened after the British surrendered in WWII: the Japanese seized 25,000 to 50,000 local Chinese, loaded them onto trucks and slaughtered them by the sea. Dhany and I saw one of the killing fields on Sentosa the day we were there. It had been landscaped into the 18-hole golf course on our way up to the fort.

Toward the end of my summer there, a man from a family of Singapore billionaires took me to see one of the places where he’d grown up. A highway plows right through it now, and barriers have been put up on either of side of the road to hide a tawdry, impossible secret: the shuttered buildings of an abandoned colonial estate, doing nothing, allowed to age forgotten in the heat. A bauble in the empire of a Chinese immigrant who’d married into rubber and pineapple wealth during the high-rolling 1920s. The gate pushed in with a metal sigh, revealing an empty drive. The rubber baron’s grandson glanced at me as we realized nothing was locked.

He showed me into a building that the family had converted into a hotel after the war. By 1985, what had once been part of a palace called Karikal Mahal was charging 50 Singapore dollars for a four-hour room. The floor plan unfolded along a series of two-story courtyards, each looking down on a garden of rocks and withered plants. They’d installed bathrooms with drab green toilets in the suites. Plywood sat piled up on the single mattresses. My host shrugged at the mess: “What would you do with this property if you could, Nathan?”

I’ve got no business sense. The only reason I knew this man was because Mel’s mother had grown up in a similar mansion—now long gone except for the fading patios in her photo albums—and she’d gone to grade school with him. During the whispered, late-night phone calls that Mel and I had shared when I was still in Canada, I’d promised to help her find a Singapore that wasn’t all climate-controlled glass towers. We’d discover the lost places together. In a city of 4 million people, there had to be one or two. And now that I was here, this man was asking what I’d do with the place? A scheme to bring this property into the amnesiac present was the last thing on my mind. Embarrassed, I stammered a stupid non-reply: “I—I have no idea.”

Beyond the last courtyard, the building opened out onto a shaded concrete balcony. The balustrade was patched with lichen, and dry leaves covered the dirt of the yard below. My guide rested his hands on the railing and took in the view. Mel impatiently called the man “Uncle Chin”: as one of the middle-aged heirs to his family’s fortune, he drove a Land Rover and wore polo shorts that showed off the muscles in his bandy, hairless legs. After his business column in the national paper got him in hot water with the Government, he’d founded a magazine of his own (look it up under Asia!, with the exclamation mark), where Mel had gotten me some writing gigs when I first arrived on the island. I’d asked Uncle Chin for this tour after handing in my first few articles.

“When I was little,” Uncle Chin said as he looked out, “this hotel used to be right on the beach. None of the land in front of us was here before, you know. It used to be nothing but ocean.” His parents brought him out here in the 60s, during the years of the country’s independence and the Indonesian attacks that followed. Jakarta trained covert operatives on Batam and set off bombs all over Singapore, as part of a larger confrontation with its formerly British neighbours that came to be called Konfrontasi. “The Indonesians put mines in the Strait of Singapore, and these things used to wash right up on the beach here. I wasn’t allowed to go down there—it was too dangerous. But I could see my uncle walking along the shore to look for them.”

At the end of a Hollywood movie, the ancient temple caves in on itself, or the Grail is sacrificed. It’s as if the really important things can’t survive in the sunlight, and all we’re left with are tall tales, pleas for belief, or (in the Singaporean version) ghost stories: the restless spirits of the paved-over past, perfectly unverifiable, but perfectly true. Uncle Chin’s mansion is already filling with ghost stories, just like the rest of Singapore. In 2006, all I could see from its balcony were ranks of new condos, rising up on lot after lot of reclaimed land. The sea was gone from that place too.

* * *

On August 8, 2007, soon after my mad expedition to Barbados, I went to see a psychiatrist about my future. It was time to figure out which grad schools I hoped to get into in 2008: of all the places in the world where I could study psychology, I wanted one that felt like more of a home than a Hell Cocoon. That day, I’d made an appointment at McGill’s Division for Social and Transcultural Psychiatry. It was right in town, and I’d wanted to meet a certain doctor there since the spring, when I’d seen her give a talk on Western bias in trauma counselling. I perched on an ottoman in her office while she read over my CV. She had a long, thin build and a long, thin face, offset by hippie trimmings: forest-green vest, shock of frizzy greying hair, sympathetic eyes. Guatemalan folk art on her walls. She put her glasses down and smiled at me.

“It looks like you have a serious choice to make,” she said. “You’ve done so many things this year: working with children, helping in labs, researching policy … and you were a translator and an artist before this, also? To do well in school, you’ll either have to choose one thing to specialize in, or else keep doing different things and accept that you’ll always be marginal in your career.”

Two minutes in, and she’d cut me to the quick. This was what I’d been afraid of: she was telling me I had to decide between school and having what I thought of as an inspiring life. One way or the other, I’d have to lobotomize a part of myself. As I retraced my steps back to the elevator, I felt amazed at how immediately she’d understood me, shaken that the world might be as black and white as she’d said, and sure only that the Division for Social and Transcultural Psychiatry wouldn’t be a home for me after all.

I knew there was such a thing as a respected iconoclast. I had the impression they came mostly from Harvard. When I was a 19-year-old with heat rash in Haiti, I’d billeted at the home of a trim-moustached medical anthropologist whose shelves had been full of Antillean poetry, West African singers and Creole prayers. His Harvard degree had opened doors with the local humanitarian regime: he spent his days climbing on the backs of motorcycles and trying to convince rural principals to stop whipping their kids, coming home after nightfall and collapsing into a thin, sunburnt heap on his bed. I wanted to see the Harvard that produced men like that. In fact, it was the first school I’d visited that year, back in February, when I went down to see Mel.

Melanie met me at the Boston bus station. She was bundled in a black scarf and white beret, the beauty mark unchanged on her rosy cheek. I’d gotten a haircut. We were looking forward to spending the weekend together, but we were still unclear on some of the fine points. I leaned in to her smiling face. She leaned aside.

“Oh man, I’m—I’m sorry. I kept thinking what to do when we saw each other. Were we supposed to shake hands?”

“I know! Should we hug instead? Aggh, messed up already!” We self-consciously arranged our arms around each other, then turned to catch the T to her home.

Bright and early the next morning she dropped me off by Harvard Square, near her work. With my hands stuffed in my pockets and my breath hanging in the air, I jogged across the intersection and entered the grounds of the most well-heeled centre of learning on earth. Block after block of tidy gingerbread architecture—red brick, snowy gates, curlicued eaves—and, suddenly, the psychology building towering above it all: a 15-story slab of white marble that sloped out, just so, toward the fairytale village around me. The spitting image of a transplanted tropical hotel.

None of the professors in there had returned my e-mails. Their website warned they did nothing but theory and labs, so I knew this wasn’t a home that would bring me closer to people’s lives. Still: a guy can dream he belongs. As long as I was in the neighbourhood, I figured I’d get a sense of the place, and hopefully track down a particular professor who was shaking up some received wisdom on racism.

The hallways inside were all but deserted. From each silent floor, I could look through plate glass windows onto the milling university town below. The professor’s door was locked, and gave no indication of when he might return. I was feeling the oppressive elation of being in a place I shouldn’t be—until I finally ran into a group of people arranging chairs on the topmost floor.

“It’s a NIMH conference. Power, culture and mental health. We need to bring in more seats—you’re welcome to sit in if you want.” NIMH. National Institute of Mental Health. Right, like the Rats of NIMH. Funny thing was, they were all physicians or anthropologists or sociologists. Not a psychologist in sight.

“Maybe I will stick around for a bit. Thanks.”

I helped haul chairs into the lobby and settled in to hear a French former vice-president of Médecins Sans Frontières. Young idealists, he said, used to react to foreign crises by going and fighting alongside the revolutionaries. Now they want to analyze and cure them instead. When Palestinian boys throw stones, mental health workers go in and try to help by revealing that the boys are so traumatized, they wet their beds. I liked this man. He knew people needed help, and he knew psychologists needed their heads checked too if they wanted to be the ones helping. I liked it less when a counsellor got up to discuss spousal abuse, and the crowd responded with knowing laughter at the lies that the abusive husbands told about themselves. High up in the sky, at the intellectual summit of the world, this was how the ivory tower looks upon its subjects: earnestly, cynically, condescendingly, in pain, take your pick.

Halfway through the talks, the audience rippled and abruptly went quiet. A huge eagle had landed on the sill outside the picture window. It paced, it reopened its wings, and it swung out of sight. Everyone started talking at once.

“What was that?”

“A peregrine falcon!”

“They roost under the roof here.”

Leaning back in his seat, the Médecins Sans Frontières man said to no one in particular: “No, I think it was a golden eagle.” He was right. The American PhDs didn’t know the eagles outside their own window.

On my last evening in Boston, Mel took me to a student hangout called Café Algiers. A dimly lit haven for people who like Moroccan tea services on tiny, knee-knocking tables, and washroom walls covered in egghead graffiti about Wittgenstein.

“It’s been so good having you here,” Mel told me. “I’m happy with what I’m doing here”—she was raising funds toward a new university for poor Asian women, and before long she’d be a shoo-in at high-profile NGOs around the world—“but I still haven’t found friends like the ones I made in Montreal.”

“Oh Mel, I know you’re doing this for your future—you’re doing something we both wanted so bad. It’s going to be better the next place you go. It has to be, after all this.” The mint tea scalded my tongue. “You know, I’ve been back in Montreal with all my old friends, but it’s my turn next. Who knows what’s waiting for me at grad school, either.”

Mel said something that surprised me, then: “I’m glad you’re doing it, Nathan. It means I don’t have to worry about you anymore.”

As a parting gift, she gave me a biography of Paul Farmer: another Harvard graduate, who lives in a godforsaken Haitian valley next to the revolutionary AIDS hospital he founded. The brilliant rebel hero of a discipline known as “public health.” I might have had a different impression of Harvard if I’d visited its School of Public Health instead of the psychology building. It’s a field that makes room for outward-looking doctors, social scientists and social workers, and one more young man with psychology training could probably fit under its umbrella. I hadn’t chosen the most obvious path for myself, insisting on asking why it’s so hard to help Brazilian crack alleys and Indonesian red-light districts from within the rigid confines of psychology proper.

After I dragged my spent body home from Barbados, I was truly happy exactly twice that year. The first time happened while surfing the web at the McGill library (at the broad, sunny worktables behind the Vomitorium reference stacks). My wire-thin, TNT-laughing teacher had recommended I check out the Institute of Social Psychology at the London School of Economics, and their site softened my face into the beginnings of a genuine smile. Oh my God: they offered a Master of Science on the role of community in international development. They had a professor from Brazil, who went to the slums of Rio de Janeiro to involve kids with an arts group called Afroreggae. They had a British prof whose homepage described how growing up in Africa and the Pacific had helped convince her that psychology can “challenge the social inequalities we are part of.” And it was a good school. A really good school. A possible home. On the way back to my apartment, I wondered at how completely I’d forgotten what it felt like to be in good spirits.

The second time I was happy was the afternoon of January 10, 2008, in an upstairs room in a wood-frame house at Dalhousie University, Halifax. This one was less of a morale booster, and more of a speechless sense of recognition. I’d come just a few days before Dalhousie’s applications had to be turned in, to cross my t’s about their Master of Arts in health promotion (a multidisciplinary public health degree). Halifax was a laid-back fishing town where I felt like myself, and I thought a solid education from a Canadian university like this would get my foot in the door wherever I ended up. What really blew me away, though, was a last-minute meeting with a human sexuality prof.

“Take a seat,” she said. “What can I do for you?” The students who came to her office sat on the couch with the afghan throw. A shelf along the far wall was full of teaching awards. I apologetically ran through all the things I’d done to try and decide what to do with myself since 2006, and ended by saying I just wanted to help figure out how academics could serve their communities better.

“Have you ever worked with First Nations communities?”

I tried to dredge up some experience worth mentioning. “No. I haven’t. But I’d do my best if—if I had the opportunity.” She looked Native, or half Native. The daughter in her office photos looked half black. She’d had an interesting life.

“I do quite a bit of field work with Mi’kmaq women in Nova Scotia. You seem like a good man. You’d do a good job. You could work with me if you wanted.”

It was the strangest thing. She’d sized me up, and she believed in me. Just like that. And lord did this woman have things to teach me. As I rose to shake her hand, I didn’t feel the need to break down in her lap—just a calmness in the spot where I’d built up two winters of shrilling self-doubt, and where I’d inexpertly tried to wall it away.

Two schools that inspired me: the London School of Economics, where an impossibly independent-minded group was tucked away at a world-class institution; and Dalhousie, less ambitious but more human, with a better chance at connection than I’d felt with any other professor in years. I’d apply to both, and wait and see.

* * *

When Charles and Jeremiah set out the second time, a two-decker warship had been assigned to escort them into the open sea. From there, the Seahorse sailed over the horizon once again alone.

Their first letter home was dated May 6, 1761, three months after their departure. Charles was pleased to report “exceeding good passage” south from the Spanish Canaries, and he had just completed tests of an observatory that he had hammered together at the Dutch Cape Town colony.

Years later, after Charles and Jeremiah had completed illustrious careers with the Crown, astronomers would confirm the quality of their early observations at the Cape. Their work contributed to the first estimate of the distance between Sun and Earth, now established at 149 million kilometres—give or take.

This was the closest that the two men ever came to the East Indies. In his tactful postscript, Charles explained why they’d stopped at the Cape of Good Hope: “Pondicherry is taken by the English, and Bencoolen by the French.”


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