In Singapore, any lady who looks a decade older than myself — is greeted as Aunty by me. She is not a blood relation, she is not a neighbor, she is not a friend. She could be the lady at the check-out counter in the local grocery store, she could be the person serving me food or cleaning my table in an open air food court or she could be just a lady at the bus-stop whom I wanted to get around and I need to call out a name.
Most cab drivers no matter how old or young they are get called Uncle. I guess it was mostly because most of us grew up calling cab drivers that — Uncle. I sense of familiarity — perhaps too much. However Sir would seem to put a huge distance between me and my friendly service provider of half an hour or less. Uncle.
Few have taken offense even if they are actually nearer in age to me than to the title Aunty or Uncle — however that is because the inherent understanding in this country that I am doing my best to respect you when I use that title to address you. I am calling you a family member — I am trying briefly to remember that we are all in this together. Even if you never see me again or if you see me everyday and are tiring of me. This is the greeting I give you, “Uncle/Aunty!”
The provision shop or local grocery shop with limited offerings on the ground floor of the apartment block I live in has an Aunty. I have no idea what her actual name is. She has and always will be Aunty to me. Each day I walk by and greet her. As I greet all the other elderly neighbors whose names I do not know. Whose lives I have no true understanding of. For years I say Aunty and Uncle. Each Christmas I give a tin of biscuits to the neighbors on my floor and they in return gift me oranges or Chinese New Year food items. Aunty of the grocery shop is the only special one I gift a tin of biscuits to and she gives me a red packet with money each Chinese New Year. I try to refuse her cash gift for as a single person — I can be given red packets of money — like a child would receive, however as a much older adult I am rather embarrassed to be receiving money since I am no longer a child. Especially if given by my cousins who are my peers or younger who are married. However for her, I take it graciously. She wants to take care of me. Her ‘niece’. She never gets to call me that — that doesn’t work in Singapore, we younger ones have no titles but our own names. (Above is the picture of the red packet she gifted me).
Being an older adult and single and having fewer members of blood relations does make me see the world very differently. There have been a few times where I was at a loss as to whom to turn to because I needed help. I was sick at home with dengue fever and I was not aware I had it. All I knew was I could not even make myself a meal — I had to sit down every 10 minutes and the food was too hard to eat — even if it was soft porridge. I had to call my brother to bring fruits and something really easy to put by my bed because I could not stand. I was so tired. I was ‘alone’ not really was I have lovely neighbors to my left and right I could have called on for help. But you see — they were not my real family. “Real”.
Aunty in the provision shop downstairs — once I went down in a feverish state to get panadol or a medication for my fever and I asked which clinic was nearest etc. She told me she would get her husband to take me in their van to the doctor if I needed it. She kinda insisted. I was so touched. That’s was Aunty — for real.
I am writing this because I realized real connections are our own conscious attempts to build relationships when there are none. To repair the ones that have broken and to foster the ones that are weak or non-existent. Aunty downstairs has done more for me than most of my Aunties Real Life Blood ones. Yet that is not a judgment it is a realization. That the daily interactions we have with our neighbors and people we interact with are built by us. Never a given, a chosen.
Some men in Singapore when they are trying to be hip and also to again draw upon similarities across age and culture, call each other “Bro”. It’s actually quite heartening to hear. Many times they want a better deal from the seller, so the ‘Bro’ status comes into play. However again its a sign of respect and of a familiarity we want to create.
Many people have heard about Big City Singapore. They may not know about small kampong (small Malay village)living. Where all doors were left open and neighbors came and went easily to see to each others children and the pot of soup that was boiling. Where we all gathered to watch the only television in the village together. Where aunty and uncle and bro and sis, were unnecessary titles and just how we lived our daily lives in community.