Spend enough time in Singapore and you'll quickly come to recognize the sound of shuffling feet that signals the presence of a Singaporean Aunty.
In Singapore, the term 'Aunty' is often used when referring to an older woman (say, 55 and above), easily identifiable by their dour expressions, frumpy bodies, flip-flops, broken English, and of course, the unmistakable 'Aunty shuffle.' This refers to the act of walking without actually lifting one's feet, which are spaced apart at 45 degree angles, and of course, causes the loud scraping of rubber soles on concrete that is so unique to this segment of society. They're slow-moving and their movements are hard to predict, making them prime perpetrators for stopping suddenly at the top of an escalator or blocking pedestrian traffic in crowded places.
I am also convinced that they're closet sex fiends, but more on that later.
Obviously my closest contact with a proper Singaporean Aunty has been the woman who, for the past three years, has cleaned my classroom. Now, I use the term 'clean' loosely, as this really only involves sweeping the carpet with a broom (a similarly useless approach is used to clean the washrooms, which are simply hosed down with water and left to dry). I've yet to figure exactly what effect either of these methods actually has.
My association with my classroom Aunty began three years ago, when she first approached me with a request to teach her the alphabet. Of course, it probably took about ten minutes for me to figure out what she was asking me to do, but next thing I knew she was rummaging through the paper recycling bin, ripped several sheets into quarters, stapled them together and thrust the makeshift booklet into my face. From that point on, each day I would write a new letter, both upper and lower case, on a new page in the booklet, accompanied by a cartoon drawing of something that started with that day's letter. I'd hoped at the time that she might be able to reciprocate and teach me some Chinese, but I got the impression that her Mandarin was worse off than her English, so I let it drop.
With the ice broken, I quickly began to realize that Aunty was not only illiterate and painfully underpaid, she was also outright insane. This has made our working relationship all the better, as she is a constant source of entertainment. Most Chinese are quite reserved in their interactions with others, especially foreigners. But not Aunty. Whenever the classroom was free during one of my prep period, it wasn't uncommon for me to find Aunty asleep in a chair in the corner. Or one time I saw her on the bus, and seeing me, winked, and tapped her fare card two or three stops before she actually got off. Since day one, I've never known her to hold back - especially when it comes to inquiring about my sex life.
One of our first encounters went something like this:
Aunty: 110 have no boyfriend (Aunty usually refers to us by our classroom numbers, so 110 was one of my female colleagues).
Me: Well, that's too bad. I already have a girlfriend.
Aunty: (Shuffles out of the room giggling to herself).
Of course, over the ensuing months and years, it just got better. For awhile, every time Laura and I went on a vacation, she'd stop by to ask me where I was going.
Aunty: You take you wife where? (I long gave up trying to explain that Laura and I weren't married, so I just left it at that).
Me: To Malaysia.
Aunty: Oooh. Two people go. Three people come back!
Aunty: You and you wife. Two go. Three come back! (This was then followed by a sly grin, laughter and a wink).
It took me a few moments to realize that she was implying that regardless of where we were going, Laura and I would be busy attempting to procreate. I assured her that we weren't planning on having kids anytime soon, to which she scoffed and asked why not. Of course, no answer is ever good enough.
Upon returning from the trip, Aunty would pop in and ask the same question, as if it had been on her mind the whole week we'd been away. The question would then be followed by her pretending to cradle an infant in her arms, swinging them back and forth and imitating a baby's cry at the top of her lungs. It actually got to the point where she wouldn't even ask the question. She'd just come into the classroom and give me a certain knowing look and after I explained once more that we weren't going to have a kid, she'd burst into laughter and leave the room.
Apart from this one concern, Aunty would regularly inquire about our relationship. After overhearing me speak to Laura on the phone, we had this exchange:
Aunty: You call you wife 'sweetie.' She call you what?
Me: Uh, I'm not really sure.
Aunty: She call you 'honey?'
Me: Yeah, I guess. Sometimes.
Aunty: (Explodes into laughter and leaves the room).
Our how about this one:
Aunty: I see you go get coffee this morning. You get coffee for your wife?
Me: No, she already had coffee at home this morning.
Aunty: Bad husband! (Explodes into laughter and leaves the room).
Needless to say, Aunty has been a constant source of comic relief over the past three years, and as a result, a saving grace at times. There's no denying that she's an original, and to quote the Singapore tourism board, 'uniquely Singaporean.'
Photo Gallery: Colonial District and CBD.