note to self: always listen to maomao

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Maomao tells me that she’s glad her husband’s dead because she’s had thirteen years of freedom. You know, I liked him. I didn’t want him to die, but it’s as if the gods heard me. I’m 69 now. Can you imagine coming home to a man? It’s a second job. I would have to eat with him, pay attention to only him. My whole life would be him. Pointing to her license (all tour guides have to wear their badge prominently), I wonder aloud about the fact that she knows English and Italian. Why Italian? The dead husband, she says. I nod. The dead husband. We continue our half-day food tour around the Chinese wet market in the Chinatown Complex, weaving our way through hawker stores as she explains the difference between Haiwanese and Cantonese cuisine. Wrinkling her nose she says, Cantonese, all fried, very spicy, too much chili. Very yang. Gesturing to the cool blues of the Haiwanese placard she says, Steamed, boiled, healthy. Yin.

I offer Maomao back the pastry she purchased for me at the start of our tour. I tell her I have to chill with the gluten, that I spent a year with a nutritionist and doctor trying to repair my insides, and while I can occasionally indulge in wheat-based products, I got to take it easy. After an Odyssean of polite refusals, she accepts the croissant-like dough. Tearing into the flaky, hot sweet, she remarks that she’s no self control. I lost 30kg last year because I stopped eating and started walking. I tell her that’s a little extreme–a life sustained on salads and fruit. Maomao shrugs, pulls a bottle of water out of her bag, taps it proudly and says, It’s filtered. Then she proceeds to share her recipe for tortellini and meat sauce, a dish she’s making for her family this evening. Normally, they would never have pasta at night because there’s no time to expend the energy, but she’s mindful of a food’s expiration and tells me that she finds it strange that Americans store food for so long. How we allow time to steal all the nutritional value from what we eat. She only purchased the fresh pasta over the weekend and she’s concerned that time for her tortellini is running out.

Some might think this odd but I get it. I too am forever thinking about a ticking clock; I understand what it’s like to fear the one thing for which one has no control: time.

It occurs to me now, as I write this, that my tour guide’s name translates to cat in the English. The fact that the other person who was supposed to accompany us on the guided food tour of Chinatown dropped out at the last moment. Clearly Maomao and I were meant to meet.

One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.
One of many traditional breakfasts in Singapore: kaya butter bread which is made with butter and coconut custard, steamed rice (chwee) topped with salted vegetable preserves (chai poa). It may not be pretty, but it was delicious.

We’ve only know one another for a few hours but I love Maomao’s candor, how she calls me a “new-style” woman because I’m unmarried, childless, and traveling on my own. At first she regards me with caution, curiosity. You’re very brave. And quiet. I laugh and say, I’ve only just met you. We start our tour and I do that thing I do when I’m around much older women–I become deferential, calm. My curiosity takes the form of quiet study while she’s inquisitive. Maomao has all the questions. How old are you? What do you do for work? If you are not owned by a company why do you pay taxes? Are you lonely when you travel on your own?

I think of a line Robert DeNiro said in Heat: I’m alone; I’m not lonely.

Over dessert at Tong Heng, where she presents me with a cool, syrupy-sweet bowl of cheng tng, Maomao tells me that shse has six children whom she loves but she says, emphatically and often during the tour, how much she hates frogs, pork, and turtles. You’re so lucky to live in New York, she marvels over the cakes, cookies, and pastries she devoured in the city while I pause over her non-sequitur. Maomao says she envies the fact that I have choices.

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Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I've never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel--you name it, it's been dehydrated).
Basically a towering mountain of dried anchovies. I’ve never seen so much dried fish in one place (mollusk, crab, eel–you name it, it’s been dehydrated).

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We talk a lot about alternative medicine. Maomao confides that when her son was six and he had asthma, she stepped a dried gekko in hot water, and he hasn’t had a problem with asthmas since. Shaking her head she says in a small voice that she could never tell her son this because he’d never forgive her. He’s a vegetarian. We talk about using lemongrass as a natural mosquito repellent and Maomao points to all of my blistering bites and tells me that toxins are desperate to leave my system. She tells me to drink frog or turtle broth (not the meat! never the meat!) as those are natural detoxifiers. We pass by a spa where we see a photograph of a woman’s feet seemingly steeped in sewage. The photograph suggests that bathing our feet in this way will expel all of the toxins from our body. I shake my head and laugh at the clever marketing and Maomao agrees. While she believes in the power of old medicine and natural herbs and the healing power of animals and plants–technology she doesn’t buy.

We agree that the marketing is clever and the people who buy into this are desperate, possibly stupid. I become fond of Maomao.

After, she takes me to a famous shop for mooncakes, Chop Tai Chong Kok, and by habit I purchase a bag of buttery savory cookies knowing that I can’t eat them so I instead attempt to pawn them off on Maomao and she reminds me of her willpower. Give her an hour and they’ll only be crumbs left in her bag. I procure bags of dried herbs from Anthony the Spice Maker after getting a whiff of his famous curry blend and Maomao’s assurance that if I spread the powder on a piece of chicken, your family will lick their fingers.

Maomao reminds me that she loathes frogs, pork and turtles and I confess my hatred of fish and the mushroom. There is a moment when Maomao looks at me as if I were insane. I’m not going to regale you with the details, but let’s just say we had a long discussion in a dining hall where Maomao tried to make me a mushroom convert and I adamantly refused.

Before we part ways, before I take another terrific lunch at The Noodle Man (the fried dumpings and tofu are REAL, people. REAL), Maomao embraces me. She tells me that it’s so hard to be a woman, we’ve so much to manage and bear that I should focus on making time.

Make the time for your life, she says. Before you are old and there is no more time.

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