December should be cold. It should be drinking warm milk while cozying up next to the fireplace; looking out the window at millions of snowflakes whose intricate patterns you imagine you can see. It should be the merry blinking of Christmas lights set up way ahead of Christmas, and taping them around the house, so that it ends up looking like some fairy godmother’s retreat straight out of children’s tales. But to someone living in Singapore, a December like this one would be exactly that – a tale.
December here is nearly indistinguishable from the rest of the months, both in terms of the weather and the Zeitgeist. It’s still hot – the heavy, dense humidity suffocates just the same and induces a thin film of stickiness on every inch of skin not within an air-conditioned room. The rains become more frequent, and heavier, as if it’s an equator-bound country’s substitute for snow. We don’t wake up to a skinning of the surface, a peeling of a moist, moldy crust for the revelation of white baby skin. No, no such metamorphosis of nature occurs in December. We wake up and don’t waste time looking out the window. We brush our teeth instead.
Our holiday spirit is, at best, a weak imitation of Western culture, a counterfeit merriness you can only feel in mega shopping malls. Employees wearing Santa Claus hats, with huge fake grins and an especially servile attitude. Shops exhibiting plastic Christmas trees, dusty from being used year after year, positioned beside 50% sale boards so that the lucrative offer is sufficiently illuminated. There’s this place called Orchard where they deck the roadside greenery with all kinds of festive flotsam, stringing Angsanas trees together with colored ribbons until a sort of fabric arch forms above the streets. Orchard is the retail hub of Singapore.
No one prances around wishing everyone else a happy new year like how (we think) the shameless Caucasians do. No. We stand silently in public transport, blank-faced as usual, each immersed in his own world of problems.
I once encountered a group of Americans on the train. They were huge, and freckled, and loud – they had to stoop to fit inside the compartment, and their hands were like five sausages stuck onto a chunk of red meat. Every word they said came ripping out of their mouths, punctuating the air with exclamations and flamboyant tones. They oozed hedonism. Every move they made was done so with bravado, every expression of theirs conspicuous and alive. I glanced at the Singaporeans glumly regarding the foreigners. Their faces were etched with ennui; all their zest for life seemed to have been sucked away by the jolly Westerners. We were the living embodiments of taedium vitae; the polar opposite of our white counterparts.
I would often speculate, after a particularly moving movie or an encounter like the one above, about the cultural chasm between the Oriental and Occident countries. What was it about them that enabled them to so stirringly manifest their inner selves? Or maintain an optimism, unfounded or not, through thick and thin? Perhaps it was their tendency to break, ruthlessly and irrevocably, all social norms standing in their way. Their tendency to, with their special blend of emancipation and antinomianism, make me squirm and blush whenever I watch a Western flick with my parents. A liberation of the spirit from conservative mindsets may be the key to achieving their unbounded devil-may-care attitudes.
But devil-may-care is the last thing on Asian minds. We are stuffy, and stiff, and conform to rules that are decades old as if it is the only way to preserve our national identity. Elders being always right is de rigueur; subordinates being always wrong is in vogue. Eccentric dreams are condemned; we have to become a lawyer, doctor, or a disgrace to the family. Unlike the Western world, our countries are full of neither debauchees nor genii.
Maybe that’s why our Decembers are so stale and stagnant compared to theirs. We are a different people. Theirs is a world of possibilities and brightness, though their amorality may not always serve them well. Ours is a practical one tainted by realism. They can believe in Santa, and leave cookies and milk on the kitchen table, and taste the coldness of the North Pole in the candies from red cotton stockings. We can do none of that. I see Christmas as a day to convince my parents to buy something for me: “We’re supposed to give one another gifts today!”
“Supposed to”, my parents reply. “Not must”.
The more fortunate among us fly overseas in December – as if December is enjoyable in anywhere but home. I open the app where people show off their perfect lives and digitally perfect faces, and see my classmates in America, Germany, Italy, Switzerland. Tasting the snow they had never tasted; breathing in the minty air of winter countries; donning mittens and scarves for the first time in their lives. They’re happy there. Experiencing what they had never experienced before.
Others I find in libraries, diligently preparing for the future. They don’t care about it being a holiday, a time for recharging and fun. When we have our eyes on a goal, nothing can stop us.
December, for us, isn’t about celebration or creating the perfect Christmas atmosphere. It isn’t about enjoying the meteorological phenomena of our country or extravagant spending on fragile red and green trinkets or euphoric public exchanges. December, for us, is the last month of the year. It is the month that precedes a new year; a new year with new problems and new challenges. It is the month to learn what we did not have a chance to learn in the previous eleven months. The month to neatly tie up the bundle of a year. Boring, but practical. Colorless, but pragmatic.
Young Jin is a high school student in Singapore. He’s a bookophile – everything about books, especially the smells, fascinates him. Dog ears and creased spines are the banes of his life.He’s quite confused, for now, about what exactly he wants to write about. “Creative non fiction” has caught his is eye, but he doesn’t want to part with science writing or opinion pieces. He’s interested in Physics and programming, and one day wishes to make a physics simulation programme so that kids can avoid solving Newton Ian questions by hand.