You can't really see them but they are there. That afternoon, I traipsed across the driveway after I was done with the toils. Normally I would go straight to the door, unlock it and walk straight up the stairs to search for little Albany for a hug.

That time instead, I walked to the end of the driveway at the fence abutting the verge where the Grava tree from the neighboring lot overhung. I closed my eyes and took a deeper breath. That scent took me back all the way to 1991, to the corner of the "Elephant Field" as we called it, at Queenstown Secondary Technical School (as it was called then). At this little corner, was overgrown shrubs and grass. No teachers or school staff would relish a venture into that territory. So it remained a secret of the pupils, the soccer players to be precise. In the midst of that overgrown, stood a short Grava tree that spawns pink grave fruits. We had no idea the exact species of this fruit that was but we knew it differed a lot from the typical Grava crops we import from Malaysia and that species was not available on sale for the mass market. Non-availability, secret corner, free food. What more could 13 year old transitioning teenagers, still with plenty of child in them, ask for? Many of us helped ourselves to the pink Grava on regular basis, didn't die from poisoning or whatsoever, and loved it.

The neighbour's tree didn't produce pink Grava but the matured fruits were about the same size. The texture of the fruit was similar. Soft, fragrant and juicy but not as sweet as its pink counterpart. I spared a few quiet seconds chewing on one while I stared mindlessly into distance, the mind filled with nothingness. Perth didn't seem to be such a strange place to me already. As one got into some sort of work routine, the differences in the new environment seemed blurred. You don't hear the harrowing croak of the crows anymore. I always waited for my Singaporean friends on holiday to exclaim how gigantic the crows here were and how much louder they crowed, as compared to those back home. I call these the sounds of life. When a city boy becomes a farmer deep into the jungle, the initial hiss of the winds and shrill of the crickets would ring out loudly in the mind at night. Survive long enough at that environment, the music of the jungle will become a symphony of lullabies to the city boy.

Though I am not a farmer, the principles work the same for a city boy learning to live in a quiet desert town. On quiet afternoons, the noise of the rare automobile passing reminded me of my visits to Malaysia, where my maternal family was based. Total silence after the odd car or motorbike passed by. I might have already decided what kind of melodies of life I preferred in early life. That might be why I didn't find it uncanny to hear a Singaporean telling me he or she had wanted to migrate out of Singapore long, long ago. It might be due to little details inception-ed into my minds all along. That may be why those who don't get it, never do.

I called mother and had a chat with her during a rainy drive. I wanted to tell her something that was bothering me in the mind for decades. My mother was a great story teller. When we were kids, she often described to us how her life was in a particular jungle somewhere in Malaysia. Life was poor, life was tough. "Hoh cham," was an adjective she used a lot to described general life back then. Perhaps she said that to coax us to appreciate what we had or it could be a simple reference to how much living had progressed ever since. 

She based progress on the material we get to enjoy in our generation. We have warm water for bath upon an effortless turn of a knob. We have mobile phones not just for calling but the functions to stalk our friends without leaving our homes. We live in modern HDB flats built with expensive materials such as stainless steel and glass because bricks and concrete are just not inspiring enough. That's progress for you. In return, many of us worry about our job security, the ever-rising prices of a standard, no frills meal and how we can properly afford to raise a child. That is because the price tag of progress is pinned to a child the moment he is born. What is really progress, if we have to pay for it?

I finally asked mum if she remembered telling me how poor they were back in her days. She could and iterated her point. My grandfather worked in a rubber plantation and my mum grew up tapping rubber trees as her first job. Every worker was provided accommodation by the company. Those with family were similarly provided for. The houses were often built with wood and roofed in zinc plates. The floor was compacted dirt in the earlier days, then plain cement later on (progress). Workers were paid a pittance but meals and living expenses were extremely low by today's standard. Mum would often educate me on the types of vegetables by telling me how abundant those were back in those days, growing like weeds around the vast amount of unused zone just outside their houses. Tropical fruit trees such as durians, papayas, mangoes, rambutan and jackfruits were aplenty but seldom harvest because according to mum, they were sick of them. There were plenty of edible fishes in the rivers that were caught, barbecued over a flame and consumed during their leisure trips. Here, we need to examine whether it makes sense to compare 2 generations of different timezone using progress as a yardstick. Just imagine if I go back in time and hand my mobile phone to my mum, what good can she do with it in that era? I measure quality of life not by material, but the amount of time we need to put in into our jobs to cope with the demands of the society in our respective eras.

My grandfather worked himself up to a mere supervisor in the plantation. He had 5 children and my grandmother took care of them as a housewife. Accommodation was provided for so there was no worries about mortgage payments or rental. Power sources were scarce but so it was for everyone else living deep in the rural regions. It wasn't about poverty but the level of infrastructure set up at that moment in time. Fruits and vegetable were aplenty so much so no one touched them much. Family hens were kept casually to supply any family adequate eggs for consumption. Eventually, my grandfather saved enough to buy his own land to start his own farming business and bought more land with his profits. He managed to raise all his children, gave them ample education to survive of their own and left behind a small legacy in his death.

In our generation, the golden era with internet connection, 3D cakes and edible underwear, some of us could barely go unemployed for 6 months. Forget about having 5 children. Some of us hate kids anyway. How about a free flow of food supplies, no loans to service and a job that gives us a chance to save enough money to set up a business in today's costs? So have we really progressed then?

I explained to mum that they were, in fact, the wealthy ones. She thought about it for a moment and she laughed.


  1. Yes, there is progress. The price paid is high too.

  2. "I explained to mum that they were, in fact, the wealthy ones." So true...

  3. Grava? Do you mean Guava?