June 7, 2009
It's time to be as one
By Lee Siew Hua
I remember the moment my sister Annie told me: 'You're going to be an aunt!'
The world spun a little bit faster, and it was the oddest sensation.
I can explain the feeling: It was the whoosh of a new generation arriving from some other realm to join my family.
Okay, I have a vivid imagination sometimes. But I'll excuse myself, for I knew at that moment that life would change radically once my little niece was born.
My mum and dad would become new grandparents in a flash. My free-spirited sister Annie would be a parent forever.
I would be an aunt for real instead of an occasional auntie to friends' kids.
In the event, I never saw my sister when she was in full pregnancy. By the time I saw Megs, she was four months old with poufy hair that I loved to touch.
Besides her birth, I'd missed countless other special moments in my family when I lived abroad.
I wondered how I could bond with Megan, and later her brother Caleb. After all, children operate by this principle: out of sight, out of mind. Since I returned only once or twice a year, I should have been a stranger to them.
But my sister kept me real in their little hearts. She would talk about me to her little girl, and later, her son. I was also present in Annie's bedtime prayers with them.
What helped too was that I'd stay with her family each time I returned.
When her children were very little, I was a curiosity to them when I visited. My niece would wake up and knock on my door first thing in the morning.
Sometimes, she was patient and played outside my door, waiting for the sleepyhead auntie to wake up. My nephew, four years younger, would soon do the same, though it was more his style to burst into the room with all his colour and energy.
I also remember the second time I saw him. I'd just flown in and spied him on the stairs. He was shy for a minute, smiling and staring with saucer eyes.
Thinking I should give him time to warm up, I went to my room. But he soon returned carrying a box of toys.
I was now his new playmate - the coolest compliment from a two-year-old.
New memories are forming all the time. I'm writing this alongside my niece, an imaginative soul who is polishing her light-hearted story titled Spaceworld and even discussing a few words I can use here.
Recently, my other sister Ping decided to return for at least a year and she will create new memories alongside us.
With her reappearance after nearly two decades away, my original nuclear family of five is in one place again.
First, Annie studied in Canada. Then Ping left for the United States and later Australia to study and work. After that, I worked in Thailand and the US.
So for a very long stretch, the three sisters were living on three continents.
This is the same story for many more families now.
More so for younger Singaporeans, there is often a season to sally forth into the world. This is enticing, with our country so tiny and the world so wondrous.
Still, our little Singapore is far bigger than its physical size suggests. Already, it is clear that our economic space is vast and global.
Also vast is our national narrative, which has more levels than we imagine. I experience that when I speak to pioneer Singaporeans or read about them.
When that happens, I am transported to a very different Singapore that should not even have existed, but for the powerful will of the immigrants and leaders.
Echoes of those mesmerising times show up in our lives, if we think about it. When my father is very happy, for instance, he still exclaims 'Merdeka!'
That means 'freedom' - our rallying cry when Singapore became self-ruling in 1959.
Even though I live in an absolutely different Singapore, that echo is a bridge across the generations.
I believe other families have their own echoes, bridges and stories that flash across three or four generations.
My family is now 'whole' for we're together again, for a season.
I think I feel another whoosh. This time, it's the extraordinary sensation of my family and others being together.