Keeping in touch

It's the summer in the northern hemisphere, which means that educational institutions in North America are on vacation, and friends and former students are trickling into town on their annual pilgrimage home. This translates into this being the most expensive time of the year for me after Xmas and Chinese New Year, what with all the we-only-see-each-other-once-a-year festivities and you're-not-working-so-I'll-buy-you-dinner gestures and but-you-have-to-try-this-place-there's-nothing-like-it endeavours.

(The conventional wisdom about Chinese people is that we quibble over who gets to pick up the tab because people allegedly want to be seen as magnanimous, even though they would rather not pay the bill. My own experience, albeit among friends, suggests the reverse: people genuinely want to pay because they feel empowered by affluence and, perhaps more importantly, don't want to be seen as mooching off others. All of which yields some very lively attempts to snatch up the bill or play Quick Draw McGraw with the credit card.)

The thing about entertaining all these out-of-towners is that after we've arranged when to meet, the where part of the conversation goes something like this:
Them: So what shall we eat?
Me: I dunno. Why don't you decide, since you're only in town for a few days/weeks?
Them: Nah, I don't know where the good places are anymore. You decide.
Me: Uh, ok, but what kind of food do you want to eat?
Them: Oh, anything local is fine.
Me: You want prata, curry, any particular ...
Them: Anything lah.
As you can imagine, this can go on for quite some time, especially if we don't have an eating list to guide us. And because these out-of-towners are so modest about their preferences, we usually end up eating at a place I already know (and often know well).

Last night, then, it was a pleasant surprise to be introduced by a former student to Akashi, a Japanese restaurant so neatly tucked into the basement of Tanglin Shopping Centre, it perfectly mimicks the compact intimacy of restaurants in Japan. Every guest who enters through slitted curtains is greeted with a rousing "Irasshaimase!" that echoes all the more fervently due to the restaurant's low ceiling, and regulars jostle to get courtside seats at the heart of the action: the sushi counter. Our humble twosome opted for less conspicuous seating among the restaurant tables and proceeded to have a very nice meal indeed.

But of course, it wasn't just the food. It was the talk of Singapore, London, Ithaca, Kathmandu, Vietnam. It was the way the term "NGO" rolled off our tongues so matter-of-factly, as did words like "liberal", "help", "politics", "frustration" and "do something". It was the sweet tang of youthful hope, tempered with an honest dose of calculated compromise.

At one point during the conversation, I declared, "If I ever get to vote in Singapore, I will throw a party, buy 4-D, announce it to everyone. But you know, that'll probably never happen." Then we both hunched over our cups of green tea.

Meeting former students is always an unsettling business. On the one hand, they've moved on, as well they should, beyond the time and limits of when I knew them. On the other hand, there's the temptation always to rein them in, to warn them about the potholes that lurk around the corner, the same ones that tripped me up when I was their age. Their questions and quandaries impel a revisiting of my own demons and doubts. I want to nudge them down the other path --- the path I overlooked, forgot, avoided.

But sometimes --- surprise! --- I don't have to. And it's just lovely to be able to sit there and hear their plans and know that for this kid, it's working out all right.

I try to be a cynical bastard, but really, I'm all about the warm fuzzies.

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