Alan hadn’t wanted to spend his last free Saturday at an amusement park, but Hui Jie had insisted on it. They would be in different branches of Singapore’s army after conscription next week, after all—Hui Jie would be training for police service and Alan would be in the infantry—and he argued they needed to have one last celebration. Alan didn’t want to start a fight, so he paid for a train ticket and came along.
The amusement park they arrived at had been built by an American company. There was supposed to be Asian food there, but all Alan could see was the neon signs and loud smells of Western restaurants. Not that it mattered: Hui Jie wouldn’t stop to eat, even though Alan had skipped breakfast to catch the train. Instead, he ran straight to the nearest roller coaster, a massive one called Silver Dragon. Alan struggled to catch up with him.
They wove through the long line in front of the coaster slowly, Hui Jie cracking jokes and Alan nodding along while the sun beat down on his neck. The line reminded him of his military medical exam from a few months ago. He’d lined up with countless other teenage boys outside the local doctor’s office, filed into the examination building, then walked out in a half hour with a promise that they’d be conscripted in Singapore’s army. Alan secretly hoped that the doctors would find something wrong with him and he’d be prevented from joining the army’s ranks, but his assignment to basic training came in the mail anyway.
Eventually they made it to the front of the line and got their first glimpse of the coaster cars. Alan had hoped they would look like dragons from Alan’s childhood stories, noble creatures that flew in the sky above the small, petty humans. But they were just old pieces of metal, a dull, earthy gray instead of the silver he had been promised.
The two of them clambered into one of the cars as an employee read through the safety rules. Hui Jie was grinning as the announcer finished and the ride clambered upwards, but Alan stayed straight-faced. He wasn’t a fan of roller coasters, so instead of focusing on the ride, he let his mind get lost in the blue ocean and the buildings on the other side of it. For a moment he thought he had sailed off the rails and was flying across the island, but then he realized they had just stopped at the end of the ride. His safety restraint lifted and he clambered back onto the main platform, disappointed.
After they went on a few more rides, Hui Jie announced he was starving and ran to the food court to buy chicken rice. Alan got a cheap burger, but Hui Jie teased him for it, saying that he should be ashamed to eat food that didn’t come from his Chinese ancestors. “Just because your parents gave you a Western name doesn’t mean you should okay with Western food,” he said between big bites of rice.
“What’s wrong with burgers?” Alan asked. “And you took us to a Western amusement park today, you know.”
Hui Jie waved his hand dismissively. “That’s not what matters. It’s about representing your heritage wherever you are. That’s why want I want to enter police training and become a bureau chief. I’ll make my father and the Yang family name proud!” Hui Jie took on a soldier’s posture and made an exaggerated salute. Alan laughed but didn’t salute with him.
They got back into more lines for more roller coasters, and Alan quickly got sick of them. They were just glorified trains, really: they picked people up, drove them around in a loop, then dropped them off right back where they started. It felt uncomfortably similar to what Alan had heard the military service was like. He’d spend two years doing drills and exercises and learn to shoot a gun he’d never use, just because his country forced him to. And then what?
“And then what?” Hui Jie asked Alan, who was sitting down by a water fountain after asking for a break.
Alan watched the fountain sputter ungracefully and shrugged. “I want to go to college, but my family doesn’t have enough money for it, and I don’t know what I want to study.”
“If I’m police chief by then I can help cover some of your expenses.” Hui Jie laughed loudly, then grabbed Alan by the shoulders and grinned. “I’ll probably have a family to take care of, too, but I’ll help you out.”
As Hui Jie gripped his arm, Alan finally understood that Hui Jie was blustering. He was about to be stuck in the military for two years, so he tried to fight his fear by showing a fake enthusiasm. But at least Hui Jie was bold enough to try to look excited. Alan had stopped bothering to hide his dejection months ago.
Eventually the sky got dark and the park cleared out. Hui Jie was tired, and so was Alan, so they made their way to the train station by the park entrance. But before they left, Alan turned around to look at the first roller coaster they had gone on.
Silver Dragon was still running for its final few passengers. As the metal coaster car slowly climbed up an incline, Alan longed for it to be a real dragon, one that could carry him away from Singapore. He would clamber onto its shimmering back and let it take him to places that didn’t have security threats or conscription or roller coasters.
But that was just fantasy and nothing more. Alan turned back to the station where Hui Jie was waiting, showed the conductor his ticket, then sat down and let the train take him all the way home.
Chandler Wakefield is an undergraduate at Yale University. His nonfiction has been previously published at Forty-Eight Review. He blogs at thealbedo.wordpress.com and tweets at @WhitenedInk.