Pretty Gur … GRRRRRR
“Pretty gur,” says the tiny woman who’s emerged from the kitchen of the cafe. She is pinching Miss M’s cheeks and grinning.
“Pretty gur, ah!” Miss M grins back, showing off her new teeth in a very cheeky manner.
The old auntie barely comes to my elbow. She started small, then became bent with age. She has grey hair and a growing-out perm and she’s missing one of her front teeth.
“Pretty gur,” she says again. “Half Chinee, hah? So pretty.”
I say no. “She’s half Vietnamese,” I say. I feel uncomfortable labeling her like this. She’s just my baby. She has dark hair and dark eyes but she looks like I did in my baby photos, only beautiful. She’s not half anything. She’s 100% lovely.
“Vietnamee, ha?” the old lady says.
My friend, the sophisticated Ms K, is back at our table, poking at her smart phone. We’ve had a lovely day, lunch in Kampong Glam then a walk through Bugis and now a cafe in Singapore’s former Parliament House. But after Ms M’s in-pram nap, now she just wants to explore. I was halfway through a coffee and a chat when Miss M stirred. Now I’m chasing her round the cafe, much to the annoyance of a film crew who is trying to conduct an interview in the corner of the Earshot Cafe.
“And da mudda?” the crone asks.
“I’m Australian,” I say.
“Ah, Australian.” She smiles. Pinches the baby’s cheeks again. “And da mudda?”
She’s repeating the English words but somehow not understanding. I wonder if she’s mentally disturbed. I’ve worked in hospitality. I know what kind of people work back there, behind the swing doors.
“I’m Australian,” I say.
“Ah, Australian,” she repeats. “And da mudda?”
I’m just not getting this conversation. Miss M is ripping a napkin into pieces and smiling at the girl behind the bar.
“I’m Australian,” I say again. Then add: “I’m the mother.” Perhaps the blonde hair-dark hair has confused the old lady, I think. She doesn’t know I was a dark-haired baby too.
“You da mudda?” the crone says.
“Yes,” I say, patiently. I’m obviously dealing with a loony.
“Oh, I thaw you da grandmudda,” she says. She turns to the girl behind the bar and says it louder: “I THAW SHE DA GRANDMUDDA. SHE DA MUDDA.”
Jesus. I know I’m not getting enough sleep but do I look that flipping bad?
I smile and force out a not-very-jovial “huh-huh” fake laugh.
“Come on, baby,” I say, and I hoist Miss M up and carry her back to our table.
I lean in and tell Ms K what the old lady said. But before I finish, the old lady is right next to us, booming: “I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA” and laughing.
Ms K tells me she’s paid. I am so grateful. I chug down my cold coffee and we smile fakely, put Miss M in the pram and start wheeling her towards one of the exits, the one not blocked by the rude old lady, who could be 50, or 90.
We had intended to stroll through the gallery but Ms K somehow understands my need to get as far away from this insult as possible. We blaze a trail to the back door of the cafe.
I mean, technically, I am old enough to be somebody’s grandmother. I remember attending my best friend’s mother’s 30th birthday when I was in grade 11 at school. My best friend and I were 15, the same age her mother was when she became a mother. I could have been a grandmother a few years ago, several years ago, technically. But I’m didn’t. I’m not. I’m a young mum. Miss M has only just turned one.
We wheel the pram down a wooden-floored corridor, artificially cooled. Sunlight streams in through the floor-to-ceiling windows, turning the wooden floor honey-gold.
“That’s so rude,” Ms K says, as I smile at a security guard sitting behind a desk.
“How do we get out of here?” I ask. Ms K has been here before.
“We can go through here,” she says, pointing to my right.
“I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA.” The crone is following us, pointing. She’s bellowing at the security guard, who starts to chuckle. “I THOUGHT SHE THE PRETTY GUR GRANDMUDDA.” I don’t know whether the security guard is laughing at the old lady or at me.
I manouver the pram right, the way Ms K is pointing. “Do I look like a grandmother? I ask plaintatively.
“No, wsssht.” Ms K makes some stern Korean noise and flaps her hand, indicating “ignore her”.
“I THAW SHE THE GRANDMUDDA. SHE DA MOTHER.” The old lady is still with us. She’s yelling out to another security guard now, as we traverse a room filled with sculptures and paintings.
Doesn’t she have work to do, I think, feeling more than a bit annoyed.
Ms K, Miss M and I reach the other brightly lit honey-floored corridor and charge the automatic door. Thankfully the old lady drops away. I had half a notion that I was stuck with her for life. Everywhere I went, her booming voice announcing my oldness, then cackling her gap-toothed cackle.
Instantly sweaty in the sultry slow and sticky heat, we walk away from the Arts House, which is set a little back from the Singapore River.
“Do I look like a grandmother?” I’m not plaintative anymore. Ms K knows the way to the best bus stop for us to both get home quickly. She’s has worked with Westerners long enough to know the correct answer to my vain question.
“No,” she says. “Forget her. She’s a crazy old lady.”
So much for the exciting expat life. I’m tired all the time, cranky 40% of the time and offended 20% of the time.
Miss M and I get on the bus. I’m really hot and tired by the time I get home.
“Some old lady told me I looked like Miss M’s grandmother,” I announce as we cross the threshold.
Darling Man laughs. He doesn’t understand why I’m so offended. In Vietnam, age is revered.
Sometimes Asia is hard work. As is a cross-cultural relationship.
Months later, in Malaysia, it seems every third person is asking if I’m the baby’s grandmother. I look at some Facebook photos from when I was pregnant and I look 10 years younger, not two. The strongest sign yet that I have to finish this full-time gig that is sucking the life out of me.
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10 years ago