Even with the guidance of a local poet Singapore seems to me less like a city than an architectural rendering, an idea stripped of a soul. The poet, who is a patriot, tells me of two separate cities, interlocking: that of “sophisticated men,” of which he is one, and that of the “great unwashed,” who vote for “sophistication.” The quotes are part of the quotes; the poet uses such terms ironically and in earnest. “The noble lie?” I ask. “Yes,” he says, smiling. “‘We’”—more irony—“believe the great unwashed cannot handle the truth of Singapore. Our ‘vulnerability.’” More earnestness. We stroll in silence. The poet considers. He loves Singapore, but what is Singapore? Its water is imported. Its land is imported, sand poured into the ocean to make room for more skyscrapers atop which the gardens of this green city are grown. And those who build the skyscrapers and tend the gardens, they’re imported, too. They are not part of the “great unwashed.” They are not part of anything. They do not vote, they serve. They do not have bodies. If they insist that they do—if they report being beaten or if they become pregnant—they are sent away from the island. The island remains clean.
Tuesday, September 16, 2014
“Do you know what we do with troublemakers here?” the poet asked. “We export them!” He laughed. The AC was cool, we were drinking prosecco with rhubarb. “Seriously,” he said. He explained that there are always study-abroad scholarships for the best students so that they can work out any radical ideas elsewhere. Under the watchful eyes of each other, that is. “When I was ready to go for my scholarship,” the poet said, “they called me. ‘What do you need, P__?’ they asked.” “They” were one of Singapore’s myriad state security branches. “They” just wanted to help. Anything the poet needed. Anything the poet wanted. “In return,” they told him, “perhaps you could write home.” By “home” they meant to them. “With news of your thoughts, your ideas. And your peers -- let us know how they are. Their thoughts, their ideas.” “Did you?” I asked. The poet chuckled.
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Monday, September 15, 2014
“I love God,” she said shortly after we met. Su-lynn was my student minder for the American Writers Festival in Singapore. I’d read a story about a church, so she told me about her church. She told me about spiritual war, about being slain in the spirit, about demons and deliverance ministries -- aka exorcism -- and about everyday miracles, the gifts of the spirit.
“Tongues?” I asked.
“Serpents?” A stupid joke; that’s an American thing.
She thought it puzzling. “No snakes,” she said. “Gold dust.”
“Gold dust?” I asked.
She showed me her hands. They looked like hands. “God’s manifestation,” she said. “Can you see the sparkles?” I couldn’t, but I lack faith. “Gold dust,” she said again. “It’s on me all the time, God is all around me. Some people get gold teeth. Some receive gems. I’ve never seen one.”
It’s not the prosperity gospel, it’s not about getting rich. She loves shopping, the national pastime, but to her the material promise of the “air-conditioned nation” is not enough. She believes in the kingdom, greater than any nation. She studies miracle videos from American churches. She searches for grace.
“I did get an angel feather once. I brushed it off! I thought, ‘just a bird.’ But my friend told me it was an angel. They are worshipping among us all the time.”
Over two days she tried to find light in which I could photograph the gold dust on her hands, but although I did see a few shiny specks -- she swears it’s not glitter -- I couldn’t get it to show up in a picture. So she suggested I photograph her tattoo. It’s a laminin cell, a crucial binding protein, shaped like a cross. Gold dust outside, the cross within.
Su-lynn slipped her strap off her shoulder, her classmates at Singapore Management University milling around her. “Can you see?” she asked.
I felt awkward, but she did not; she was showing me God, scientific and divine.
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