At thirty-three, Andrea Tang is living the dream: She has a successful career as a lawyer, a posh condo, and a clutch of fun-loving friends who are always in the know about Singapore's hottest clubs. All she has to do is make law partner, and her life will be perfect. And if she's about to become the lone unmarried member of her generation in the Tang clana disappointment her meddling Chinese-Malaysian family won't let her forgetwell, she doesn't need a man to complete her.
Yet when a chance encounter with charming, wealthy entrepreneur Eric Deng offers her a glimpse of an exciting, limitless future, Andrea decides to give Mr. Right-for-her-family a chance. Too bad Suresh Aditparan, her office rival and the last man her family would approve of, keeps throwing a wrench in her plans. Now Andrea can't help but wonder: In the endless tug-of-war between pleasing others and pleasing herself, is there room for everyone to win?
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||8.20(w) x 5.40(h) x 1.00(d)|
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Tuesday 9 February
Hope. That's what the Spring Festival, the most important celebration in the traditional Chinese calendar, is supposed to commemorate, aside from signalling, well, the coming of spring. Renewal. A time for new beginnings, fresh starts. Green stuff grows out of the ground. Politicians fulfill their campaign promises, concert tickets for A-list pop stars never get scalped, babies get born and nobody gets urinary incontinence after. And Chinese families all over the world come together in honor of love, peace, and togetherness.
But this is not that kind of story. This is a story where bad things happen to good people. Especially single people. Because hereÕs the deal: for folks like me who find themselves single by February, Spring Festival is not a joyous occasion. It's a time for conjuring up imaginary boyfriends with names like Pete Yang or Anderson Lin, hiring male escorts who look smart instead of hot, marrying the next warm body you find, and if all else fails, having plastic surgery and changing your name so your family can never find you. For desperate times call for desperate measures, and there is no period of time more desperate for single Chinese females over the age of thirty everywhere than the Annual -SpinsterShaming Festival, a.k.a. Chinese New Year.
God help us persecuted singletons; God help us allÑspring is coming.
It was noon. Linda Mei Reyes and I were sitting in a car in front of our auntÕs house in matching updos, smoking kreteks and hunched over our smartphones as we crammed for the toughest interview that we would face this year, the ÒWhy Are You Still Single in Your Thirties, You Disappointment to Your AncestorsÓ inquisition. Our interrogators lay in wait, and they were legion. The Tangs, our family, were very prolific breeders.
Each year, as was customary on the second day of Chinese New Year, Auntie Wei Wei would host a lavish luncheon for all the -Singaporebased Tangs. These luncheons were mandatory Family Time: everyone had to show their faces if they were in town; the only acceptable escape clauses being death, disability, a -jobrelated trip, or the loss of one's job (in which case you might as well be dead). If you're wondering why Auntie Wei Wei commanded such power, aside from the fact that she was housing our clanÕs living deity (Grandma Tang), it's because she was our clanÕs Godfather, minus the snazzy horse head deliveries. Many of the older Tangs were in her debt: not only did she act as the familyÕs unofficial private bank for the favored few, she'd basically raised the lot of them after my grandfather passed away in the 1950s and left my grandmother destitute. As the eldest of a brood of nine siblings, Auntie Wei Wei had dropped out of secondary school and worked two jobs to help defray household expenses. That's how her siblings all managed to finish their secondary schooling, and for some of the higher achievers, university, even as it came at her own expense.
At least karma had rewarded her sacrifice. After migrating to Singapore in her late twenties, she had married well, against the odds, to a successful businessman; when he died soon after (of entirely natural causes), she'd inherited several tracts of land, the sale of which had made her, and her only daughter, Helen, -eyewateringly wealthy. Hence her unassailable position as de facto matriarch of the Tang clan, since there is nothing that the Chinese respect more than wealth, especially the kind that might potentially trickle downstream. Posthumously.
Ever since I moved to Singapore from London about six years ago, as the sole representative of my father's side of the family in Singapore I'd been obliged by my very persuasive mother to attend Auntie Wei WeiÕs gatherings. Since my father was her favorite sibling, Auntie Wei Wei had paid off a lot of his debts when he passed and now she basically owns us, emotionally, which is how real power works. I used to enjoy these gatherings, but since Ivan, my -longterm partner, and I broke up nine months and -twentythree days ago, way too late for me to find another schmuck to tote to this horror show, there was ample reason to dread today's festivities. Why, you ask? Because Chinese New Year is the worst time to be unattached, bar none. Forget ValentineÕs Day. I mean, whatÕs the worst that can happen then? Some -manchild you've been obsessing over doesn't send you chocolates? -Boohoo. A frenemy humblebrags about the size of her ugly, overpriced bouquet (that she probably sent herself)? Please. Your fun blind date turns out to be the Zodiac Killer? Tough. Just wait till you have to deal with Older Chinese Relatives. These people understand mental and emotional torture. They will corner you and ask you questions designed to make you want to chug a bottle of antifreeze right after. Popular ones include: ÒWhy are you still single?Ó; ÒHow old are you again?Ó; ÒWhat's more important than marriage?Ó; ÒDo you know you can't wait forever to have babies, otherwise you are pretty much playing Russian roulette with whatever makes it out of your collapsing birth canal?Ó; ÒHow much money do you make, after taxes?Ó
As we've been programmed since birth to kowtow to our elders, we force ourselves to Show (our Best) Face at these events, no matter how damaging they can be to our ego and psyche. So that is why, dear Diary, two successful women in their thirties, dressed in orange floral cheongsams they -panicbought the night before, were trying so hard to get their stories about each other's imaginary boyfriend straight to placate an audience that they will not see again for another year.
ÒIt's easy for mine,Ó Linda was saying. My cousin and best friend, Linda is only -halfChinese (the other half being -SpanishFilipino), so she had some wiggle room with the family, but even the normally -coldblooded litigator was sweating in the -airconditioned car. ÒJust remember that Alvin Chan, whom you've met before by the way, is not just my boss but my boyfriend, and just, you know, extrapolate from there. Make up the details.Ó
ÒWhat do you think I am, an amateur?Ó I snapped, holding up my iPhone to show her a photo of her and her ÒboyfriendÓ at a recent gala. I pulled up a screenshot of Korean actor and national treasure Won -BinÑ-unlike Linda, I did not have a hot boss. ÒNow you remember that my boyfriend's name is Henry Chong, he's a Singaporean Chinese in his late thirties, he's the only child of a real estate mogul and a brilliant brain surgeon, and he looks like this.Ó I held the phone in front of her face so she could be inspired by the perfection that is Won Bin.
ÒToo many details,Ó Linda said, not even looking at the screen. ÒIt's always the details that trip liars up. Keep it simple.Ó
ÒNot if you're prepared, like I am. You, however, look wasted.Ó
ÒI'm prepared. And I'm dead sober,Ó she said emphatically before burping gin fumes in my face. Yet somehow her -softly braided updo looked fresh while mine was already unspooling, like my life.
I muttered the LordÕs Prayer, or what I could recall of it, under my breath. It was going to be a long day. ÒRemember, HenryÕs a partner in a midsize Singaporean law firm. He is currently meeting with a client in Dubai, and that's why he can't be here with us today. Oh, and he's tall. And hot.Ó
ÒGot it,Ó Linda said, rolling her eyes. She took a deep drag from her third ÒcigaretteÓ of the morning. ÒAnything else I should casually drop during the convo? Maybe the fact that he has a massive cock?Ó
ÒIf you're speaking to one of the older aunties, then yes. Go for it, with my blessings.Ó
Linda sighed, stubbing out her ÒcigaretteÓ in an ashtray. ÒGot it. And if anyone asks, AlvinÕs skiing in Val-dÕIsre.Ó
ÒValdeeZehr. It's in the French Alps, you peasant.Ó She grinned. ÒHereÕs another tip: peppering a convo with unpronounceable place names usually deters further lines of questioning. Most people don't like looking unsophisticated.Ó
ÒGood point,Ó I said. ÒOK, in that case nix Dubai, make it Ashgabat.Ó
She flashed a thumbs-up. ÒAshgabat it is. Anyway, there's a chance that none of the relatives will remember who I am since I've not been back in Asia for over a decade, so I might be safe from attack.Ó LindaÕs family was somewhat estranged from the clan, one of the reasons being that her mother had married an Òoutsider,Ó i.e., a -nonChinese; plus, having spent most of her formative years attending boarding school in England meant she was less involved, and less inclined to be so, in clan affairs. That was why she kept a low profile with the Tangs since her move to Singapore last Feb-urary as part of her firmÕs new market expansion plan. ÒI could have skipped this whole do and just stayed home, so remind me why I'm putting myself through this shitshow again?Ó
ÒBecause you love me?Ó I said brightly.
I narrowed my eyes. ÒYou owe me, woman. Without the help of my excellent notes and -lastminute tutorials you would have failed your final year of law school, since you hardly attended any of the lectures.Ó
ÒKeep telling yourself that. Anyway, I seem to recall being promised a champagne brunch at the St. Regis if I did well today.Ó
ÒYes,Ó I grumbled. ÒI just hope you put as much effort into HenryÕs history and character development as I did for AlvinÕs.Ó
ÒDon't worry. I didn't graduate top of the -classÑ-Ó
ÒSecond. I was first.Ó
ÒÑ-top of the class for nothing. I've got the whole story down pat. Relax.Ó She punched me in the back. ÒStraighten your shoulders and try not to look so browbeaten. It's no wonder you havenÕt been made partner.Ó
It took all my -selfcontrol not to stab her in the eye with my cigarette.
Perhaps sensing she was in mortal danger if she didn't change the subject, Linda took out a bottle of Febreze and proceeded to baptize us with it. ÒAnyway, I have one last piece of advice before we go in.Ó
ÒWhat?Ó I said, between coughs.
She pinched my arm, hard. ÒWhatever happens in there, do not cry in front of them. Don't give those jerks the satisfaction.Ó
ÒYou are hurting me,Ó I yelped, eyes welling with tears.
ÒI really hope no one gives us ang paos,Ó Linda said darkly, oblivious to the suffering of others as usual. ÒThey get extra bitchy when they do. I'd rather they just insult us without feeling like they earned it.Ó She was referring to the red envelopes containing cash that married people traditionally give out to children and other unmarried kin regardless of age or sex during Chinese New Year. For kids it's a great way to get extra pocket money, but getting ang paos as an adult in your thirties was a special kind of festive embarrassment, akin to getting caught making out with your first cousin by your grandmother. At least the adult recipient can comfort himself imagining the internal weeping and gnashing of teeth the married ang pao giver must undergo as he is forced to hand over his -hardearned cash to another -ablebodied adult. In our experience, the intrusive questions and snide -putdowns were definitely the giverÕs way of alleviating the mental agony of this reluctant act.
ÒLet's not be too hasty,Ó I said, crossing myself in case she had jinxed us. ÒLast year I made almost six hundred bucks easy, three hundred from Auntie Wei Wei alone.Ó
Two breath mints and liberal spritzes of Annick Goutal later, we were -redeyed and ready to face all the orcs that our family tree could throw at us. Auntie Wei Wei lived in an imposing -doublestoried bungalow in a quiet, leafy neighborhood in Bukit Timah. The gate and double doors of her home were thrown wide open with no security guards stationed at the gate, no salivating rabid dogs on patrol, and no military booby traps set up on the grounds. You could literally just stroll in. Which we did.
In all honesty, the casual indifference of wealthy Singaporeans to what I would deem basic precautionary measures and, quite frankly, the sheer lack of initiative shown by local burglars never failed to amaze me as a Malaysian. Even I could have picked this place clean with no trouble or special training whatsoever. All I would need is a couple of duffel bags, maybe a sexy black leotard, a pair of sunglasses, Chanel -thighhigh boots, a French -accentÊ.Ê.Ê.
ÒAre you daydreaming again?Ó LindaÕs voice broke my reverie, in which I was -backflipping over a field of laser beams ˆ la Catwoman (circa Michelle Pfeiffer).
ÒYou're just standing there, drooling. Get in.Ó She pushed open the front door, which had been left ajar.
I stifled a sigh of envy as we made our way to the reception room. Despite it being the umpteenth time I'd stepped into her home over the years, I was impressed. The mansion, with its black marble floors, high ceilings, and bespoke wallpaper, whispered of entitlement and the power to buy politicians. Auntie Wei Wei had had the place decorated in chinoiserie of the highest order. It was hard not to gawk at the fine detailing on the antique porcelain vases and lacquerware, the elegant scrolls of Chinese calligraphy and ink paintings, or to refrain from touching the dancerÐshaped blooms of the rare slipper orchids flowering in their china bowls and the stuffed white peacock, with its diamond white train of tail feathers, perched on its ivory base in one corner of the room. All that was missing were some casually scattered gold bars.
It was apparent that every (official) member of our clan had made the effort to Show Face: man, woman, legitimate children, and domestic help; although it was almost 1:00 p.m., three hours after the gathering had officially begun, the place was still packed with close to fifty people. As per usual with such gatherings, everyone was dressed to the nines with their most impressive bling. You could hardly look around without a Rolex, Omega, or Panerai, real or fake, nearly putting your eye out. Key fobs of luxury cars -fauxcasually dangled or peeked out from pockets. Most donned red, an auspicious color for the Lunar New Year. Many Tangs were also red in the face from the premium wine and whiskey they were knocking back like there was no tomorrow, courtesy of their host. A -freeflow bar can bring out the reluctant alcoholic in any Chinese, Asian flush and stomach ulcers be damned. But for me and Linda, boozing Tangs are not usually the problem: it's the sober ones we had to be wary of, the ones drinking tea as black as their stony hearts, their beady eyes looking for fresh prey. I had vivid memories of being forced to recite the times table or some classical Chinese poem in front of these raptors, their breath bated as they waited for me to make a mistake so they could run and get my -parentsÑ-that way, we could all be shamed together. That's how they get off.