August 16, 2019

We decided to put ourselves in everyday, run-of-the-mill scenarios to see how easy or hard it is to make a connection. 

It was early Tuesday morning, and I was navigating the chaos alone. Unlike the rest of my peers, who were on their way to work, I was sweating it out at the noisy, bustling wet market. I often accompanied my mother to the wet market, but it takes a certain charm and persona to glide gracefully from stall to stall, have tête-à-têtes with stall owners, including the regulars—and still remember the “special of the day.” On most occasions I would keep to myself, and try not to run over someone’s toes with the shopping trolley aunties typically manoeuvred with panache.

“No fruit today?” A gruff voice interrupted my reverie. The fruit seller, who recognised me from my previous visits asked where my mum was, followed by the dreaded question of why I wasn’t at the office. I smiled at him, wondering if our familiarity would ever amount to anything deeper, before traipsing next door to the butcher. There, the atmosphere was more welcoming: a lanky, middle-aged man with a good-natured face, worked alongside two plump and jolly women to take orders, chop and trim meat according to each customer’s specifications, before packing them into neat bundles. A good deal of banter was thrown around, and it was their way of connecting albeit at the customers’ expense.

Since my grandmother’s spicy braised pork dish was going to be replicated later that night, I asked for the most suitable cut—not expecting a full-blown discussion among the trio to take place behind the counter. Experts in their craft, I tried to keep up with their vocabulary on top of the mix of Mandarin and Hokkien vernacular. In situations like this, I relish talking to people whose love for food doesn’t stem from eating at expensive restaurants, but rather from the ability to work with their hands. I know plenty of people who consider themselves “foodies”, but wouldn’t be able to break down a rack of lamb half as skillfully and quickly, much less be able to advise on how to cook a certain cut of meat in a way that best showcases the muscle-to-fat ratio. Their passion was something I could relate to, even if words fell by the wayside. 

Buying fish wasn’t on the agenda, but I stopped by anyway as there was something grossly fascinating about seeing the vacant gaze of stockpiled fish that always drew me in. A young fishmonger, in his early twenties (a rare sighting in the market) called out to me in Mandarin, and explained the various breeds on display and how best to prepare them—steamed, fried, cooked in a soup or curry. Unsure of whether his forthcomingness was just a ploy to gain a sale, I expressed surprise at his extensive knowledge for someone so young. “I didn’t read a lot of books; I only know about fish,” he said. His father, who overheard our exchange, proceeded to chide him for becoming like him. “Your mother and I always told you not to follow in our example, but you never listened!”

Hoping that I didn’t open a can of worms, I sought refuge at the neighbouring vegetable stall. Suddenly, a voice came from behind. “How’s the daun kunyit and bunga kantan today?” If you’re someone who values your personal space, be prepared to get none of that here—aunties tend to lose any sense of awareness when they want a closer look at the ingredients. Brisk and authoritative, the tone was loud and clear through the hubbub. It belonged to a petite, older Chinese lady with jet black hair—most likely the result of a meticulous dye job—styled in a tight perm. I had a feeling nothing got past her behind those rimless glasses.

It wasn’t so much her voice that had piqued my interest, but her intriguing blend of Hokkien and Malay dialect that reminded me so much of my mother who is Peranakan. When I asked her how she planned to use those ingredients, Auntie Rosie politely introduced herself before launching into a full-blown tutorial on how to make nasi ulam, one of my favourite nonya dishes. She spoke in English and must have picked up that my Mandarin wasn’t up to scratch. At the wet market, various languages were interspersed, yet somehow everyone had a common understanding of one another—where unlikely camaraderie could be forged over the purchase of fresh produce.

I took Auntie Rosie’s willingness to share her recipe as her approach of establishing a personal connection, though I imagined some to be more protective of their trade secrets than others. “Oh, I don’t mind; you’re not my sister-in-law,” she laughed. Perhaps my Peranakan heritage gave me an easy way-in where she felt comfortable enough to reveal more about herself through her cooking. Like most mothers, she was overzealous to talk about her children. Without much prompting, Auntie Rosie regaled me with stories of her three children, all of whom had already flown the nest. Her son, a lawyer, was her pride and joy and had dutifully followed in her now-retired husband’s footsteps, while her two daughters “refused” to get married; one was based in Silicon Valley, the other in Hong Kong. “Don’t ask me what they do, I don’t understand. But it’s time they got married.” When she shook her head, I could tell that even though her daughters were successful, in her eyes, a woman’s worth was also determined by their marital status.

I wasn’t quite sure how long we had chatted till her phone rang, interrupting our conversation. After a flurry of Hokkien words, her husband was on his way to pick her up. We parted unceremoniously, without much fanfare, hopeful that the next time we see each other, we would pick up where we left off—only this time, it would be my turn to share a recipe.

How-Hard-or-Easy-to-Make-Friends Rating Scale:

Vibe: 2.5 out of 5 stars (not the most conducive environment for a deep connection)

Approachability: 4 out of 5 stars (people are generally open)

Diversity: 3 out of 5 stars (mostly aunties)

Quality of Conversations: 3 out of 5 stars (depends on whether you’re talking to a customer or stall owner)