I wrote this in January 2016 for Speakeasy, a spoken-word event run by Pooja Nansi, responding to the theme of “envy”.
Once, over cocktails and cigarettes, it was laid down to me that a young Singaporean with means should live abroad for a spell before turning 30.
I’m 29 this year.
I tell myself every year that this will be the year I knuckle down and apply for graduate school, this will be the year I get out of my slump, reach out from this tropical stew of comfort and mediocrity, grab the bacterial handlebars of the magic New York City Subway Coach that runs through your life once every year on the cusp of MOMENTOUS POTENTIAL and ride it away, pulled through grit and grime away from the NEA into Valhalla, into Paradise, into Brooklyn.
I’ve made four trips to New York City. This is the story of each one.
The first, I’m still in university, suffering from the after-effects of a bad break-up, although the guy who’s broken up with me never knew we were in a relationship to begin with. So we go on this trip together.
This is the trip to New York City in which I very quickly develop the habit of lusting after its pee-stained sidewalks; its chipped brownstone buildings frilled with spent plastic bags, single boots and gloves; its yellow taxicabs driven by hard-slanging brown people from my part of the world who compliment me on sounding so local; this is the trip to New York City in which I rush to adopt the knowing, eye-rolling superiority of someone who lives in this motherfucking city, someone who’s so over these fucking hipsters drinking Kombucha while queuing to get into Book of Mormon; this is the trip to New York City where I realize that TV is real, TV land is real, and I am in it, that there are people walking through the parks and museums and bodegas and inadequate public toilets with the drive and glamour of those who’ve cast themselves in their private serialized dramas.
I am random passerby number one in the fiery red English-made wool coat he buys from Ebay for his first ashen winter, who already on day 2 of a 17 day trip of a lifetime begins to feel the lack of context in his toes. On the subway, I stare at the SAF combat boots I’ve lugged across oceans in anticipation of harsh wintry terrain and contemplate what it means to be a calefare in a TV show that no one is shooting. Then, two gruff gentlemen compliment me on my boots—where’d you get them?—and that might be the defining highlight of this trip. All I want is for someone to tell me that there’s a place for me in this city.
My good friend Leonard who’s been studying costume design in Boston for about a year now, comes to New York to join us. He walks up the walk up the day he arrives and greets us with an accent he’s picked up that none of us can place. It takes two days of very deliberate Singlish speaking in his presence to chaff off the discomfort. Soon, more friends from Singapore arrive, all in the States for various reasons. We have Christmas dinner together. Leonard insists we make mulled wine according to a recipe his Millinery teacher gave him. I marvel at how settled he is becoming.
A little too drunk, a little too horny, a little too overfed, that night I lie next to non-boyfriend on the mattress he insists we share, and that I insist I’m okay to share. I lie up most of the night wishing he would spoon me. Part of New York will forever be for me the sound of these nights spent staring into his back.
On New Year’s Eve, non-boyfriend; another Joel who’s transferred from NUS to Brown; Leonard, and I go to a house party thrown by the friends of some friends of ours. There are some 50 people at this party, all straight, all Asian and all in knitted turtlenecks. There’s a beer pong table, Leonard makes a beeline for it; non-boyfriend and other Joel disappear. I’m left to contemplate the scene: American versions of flush-faced RJ kids trying to dance to hip hop; Leonard playing beer pong like a real American; Harvard sweaters… oh the vividness of my travel experiences.
I decide to look for non-boyfriend and other Joel and catch them slipping away into the bathroom together, as if I wouldn’t notice such a thing, so I slip in with them and see that another Joel is crying, like literally bawling next to the sink. Non-boyfriend and I spend the next twenty minutes in the bathroom consoling him, rubbing his back, secretly glad to escape the party. Other Joel hates America, he says, he hates Brown, he says, he wishes he’d never transferred. Says he can’t make meaningful friendships. Says the white men he loves don’t love him back. Says he misses home, that he can’t take another year of school. I look at him, cute even with snot running down his lips, and I wonder if I despise him in that moment, especially with non-boyfriend angling in for a pitying blowjob. I think: you have all this, heaving, steaming, drawling piles of American context, and you want to come back to this?
On New Year’s Day, hungover, I officially break up with non-boyfriend in my head. We leave for the airport a few days later, terse and exhausted in a cab on a bridge and the Manhattan lights recede in the distance but do not die.
The second trip to New York is exactly a year later. I’ve lost a massive amount of weight, shed like bags of pus and regret, I’m happy and confident, and ready for a gay renaissance. I’m there with my best friend, a bookish homosexual, who’ll over the course of this trip take his nose out of his Lonely Planet only to have illicit Grindr hook-ups with a range of attractive Asian Americans, none of whom I meet because I spend most of my time in the tiny studio apartment we’ve rented wondering why I’ve come back to this city.
The answer presents itself over slow weekends of trawling gay bars and clubs. Strobe lights, smoke machines, shirtless men, go-go boys. I learn that gay life has a numb consistency across many places, and that the boys here look through me the same way the boys back home do. The hope had been that they would see me and give me a place, no matter how transient, for a little bit. Not love, not romance, just some eye-contact. I think, if I can’t get laid in New York, I’m fucked. I don’t get laid in New York. After the gay clubs, I opt for cultural experiences. Ballet, the symphony, The Today Show with Jon Stewart on my laptop in bed, stoned out of my wits. I wake up and am glad it’s already Singapore.
The third trip to New York is exactly a year later. I’m there with my boyfriend. An actual boyfriend. We’ve been together half a year. We cuddle in bed and I cook with American groceries on a gas stove in an apartment that begins to smell of us. He can’t understand why I like to stay in so much.
There’s a video I take of him, back facing me, looking out of the window as it begins to snow, and he turns back and grins, then looks back out again. This is the beginning of an understanding between us that he is bound for other places. In New York unlike back home, he breathes clear. The strange way that he’s set himself apart from everything back home here paints itself into the scenery. He makes odd turns into odd shops; he steers me down a vision of the life he wants for himself; slinks like a city cat through the gaps between people on the street; he’s two steps, three steps ahead. New York City is the backs of the people I love.
We have been reading Geoff Dyer as a lead-up to this trip. Something about his drug-addled, macho-man fuck trysts through cool cities is inspiring. I am determined this time, without my emotional baggage, to experience the city like a rebel, like an anti-tourist, find a context, make friends, become a real New Yorker: us two fag-ass faggots in drapey silhouettes chewing up the town like Butch man-citizens of the world.
But this is the trip with the gay dinner parties.
The first is thrown by a friend who’s moved here with his husband. He makes us tagine and we play with his cats. There’s a New York based Singapore actor who’s come, and we sit around the table and talk about theatre, about the work they make here, and I feel small and foreign in the company of my countrymen. Later the actor takes the subway with us. I watch the way he moves through the city with so much grace. I wonder if he finds me embarrassing in my plodding blurness. Conversation with him is a series of aphoristic gems. Come to New York, you’ll grow as an artist. I learn that he has a side job running a chain of bubble tea shops and feel a little better about myself. Later, I add him on Facebook, and see that all he posts about is the lack of roles for Asians on Broadway. I wonder if he is at all bitter that his bizarre heritage–blue ginger and sunbaked mud and English spoken with a prawn paste saltiness– is now Asian milk tea filled with sticky corn-syrup pearls.
The second dinner party is a Christmas luncheon thrown by a Singaporean friend of a Singaporean friend. The host, two years younger than me, has married a rich gay American philanthropist. They live so high up in the Bronx that only rich white people stay there. We emerge from the lift into a sprawling apartment overlooking a river and the party is half young Singapore lawyer types, friends of the host, and half gerontic gay WASPS, friends of the host, admiring the Asian canapés. Amidst heinously strong punch, the Singaporeans amass and talk with affected Singlish for the amusement of those who don’t know any better. At some point in the conversation, someone starts bitching about Singapore. He’s a fashion student, I later learn, and the one thing about Singapore he’s glad he’s escaped, he says, is the way Singaporeans dress. There are titters of agreement.
We leave, air kissed with American accents, a bunch of Singaporean 20-somethings on a train platform in the Bronx feeling the sweaty glow of something alternately marvelous and revolting. I feel small and foreign in the company of my countrymen.
A day or two later, I have to leave New York ahead of my boyfriend because of reservist back home. I kiss him goodbye on the streets outside my cab. The taxi drives away and the last I see of him for a month is his back. On my layover in Tokyo, I learn he’s having a good time with a bunch of friends he’d made in New York doing all the Geoff Dyer things I never got to do. He texts to ask if he can hook up with guys on Grindr, and this is the beginning of an understanding between us, that he is bound for other places.
The fourth trip to New York happens two years later, last September. I’m there for work, part of a traveling show spreading the gospel of first world Singapore in cool cities. I’m not alone, there’s a huge bunch of other Singapore artists up for the season, joining the ones already there like reinforcements in war.
Because my boyfriend wants to go to the Ivy League, I’m thinking throughout this trip that it may be time to seriously talk about making a move. Come up to stay, finally make good the promises of this insane city.
This is the trip I see the city from a vantage: sitting down.
I’m sitting at Madison Square Park watching a presentation, a fringe event of the traveling showcase I’m part of. A bunch of Singaporean artists in New York have created a popular comic strip about anthropomorphic dimsum who fight world-saving battles. They’re hoping to turn it into a musical. There’s talk of kung-fu. Chinese pop. There’s a fun dimsum pop quiz. I fight a nagging feeling at the back of my head that there’s something wrong here. I wonder when dimsum became such an essential part of being Singaporean. I wonder if that is even at stake here. I wonder if Americans ever had to create anthropomorphic Baby Back Ribs to find a place for themselves in the world.
Then I think of New York’s Chinatown, the sprawling mass of desperation and optimism that always makes me swell a little bit in my heart; because seeing that familiar pattern of migration, enterprise and unapologetic Chineseness replay itself in front of my eyes always makes me think of the script that’s encoded in my blood. I think of the journeys by sea, the casting off of identity. But Chinatown becomes a running gag, a little tacky, a little corny, a little like a human zoo; and then Chinatown becomes the thing you fight to leave. Maybe the thing with the kung fu fighting dimsum is that leaving home sharpens the fuzzy contours of who you think you are, but dulls the spiky edges. I realize I am afraid that if I leave, some of my complexity will die. I realize that what New York is to me is envy of people who dare to take that risk and the sometimes sad horror of what they become.
Later that night, some writer friends of mine and I are sitting at a tiny rooftop party of a bored Japanese socialite and her art-dealer husband in a million-dollar type converted warehouse now filled with art and well-considered tabletops. Apart from us writers, there’re some Singapore socialites there, discussing the finer things in life. I think of how that stupid version of myself from three trips ago would’ve creamed himself for all this engagement, but I can’t give a fuck any more. Soon, when the conversation moves to glass art in the desert, I turn to a new friend I’ve made, a poet from Singapore working on her degree. She’s been quiet like me, except when she talks, it’s in full Singlish brass tones, un-selfconscious, code resolutely unswitched. I love her. I think in a way we both feel lonely and bored in the company of our countrymen, and so we sit there and muse over what it means to up and leave, come to New York, fit yourself into a mode of understanding that doesn’t really want to understand.
Then I tell her about the best time I’ve ever had in New York.
Earlier that afternoon. I sat alone in a bakery. I ate a pretzel salted croissant and for a good hour stared blankly into thin air. In a rare moment, I didn’t have anything to prove; no one to prove it to; nothing outside of myself to crave; nothing inside of myself to expunge. Not the grudging love of someone else; not my smallness in the ambitions of others; not my longing for a different life; not the selfish expanse of someone else’s future; not a fabricated vision; not resentment; not envy; not lack.
Just perfect, brain-dead contentment.
They say a young Singaporean with means should live abroad before he turns 30. That it’ll change his life. New York was supposed to be my big game-changer. Four trips to New York and now I know it was the in-betweens that meant everything.