- Where Asian writers get unpeeled -
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Two Days in a Foreign Land
By:Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong
t was a forsakenly hot day, the morning sun seethed with unmet madness in the sky. The sun was burning his eyes as Zheng Nian took in the unremarkable sight below him – hundreds of men in yellow helmets packed in the cavernous construction site like an upturned beehive let loose. When the nauseous feeling passed over him, Zheng Nian could not resist leaning forward again from where he squatted surveying the foreign world below him.
Assigned to pave cement on the roof, Zheng Nian wondered if the ground forty-storey below him was as stubbornly hot as where he was. Where he was, up there, the ground surprised his feet with the heaviness of heat burning through his safety boots. At the thought of his body hurtling accidentally down the point of no return, cold sweat broke his skin. He retreated a little from the unfinished edge of the roof, the sun raining angrily down hard on his back.
Since he arrived here in Singapore two days ago, the dank, dead weight of unforgiving heat and humidity dogged him by surprise. There was little clarity to feel up there in the head when baked in the heat. Zheng Nian suddenly thought about his hometown in Hubei – walking in the creeping cold, wisps of winter in the air – when he could think so clearly, so effortlessly. As if nature heard his thoughts, a slight warm breeze nudged the air, startling the beads of perspiration gathering earnestly on his temple.
Just before he arrived in Singapore, he was huddled in layers of wool, scrunching across the snow-swept ground he could barely feel, the milk-colour of whiteness in the air blinding him, the harsh cold of winter biting into his heart. Where he was now perched on the roof, it was the other way around. Zheng Nian was all ready to ditch the white singlet on him, surrendering it like a white flag to the onslaught of the punishing heat.
The heat rising up from the concrete was too much to take it all in as his body leaked under the weight. Before he lost consciousness, before his parched body hit the free flight to the ground, his mind set adrift by the sun out in full force, he could only watch as each drop downward – whittling past each storey of the unfinished HDB block – took out the dead weight of life on him. He couldn’t ignore the irony, the prospect of being truly alive when dead.
Singapore is a safe place. He was told that much by those who had come before him. From his village alone, a handful had worked in the city-state. For those who didn’t land a job there, they had left the village for the bigger, richer cities in the country – the jewels of Pearl River Delta – Shenzhen, Guangzhou and the other coastal cities. Like others before him, he wanted to take in the world before it was lost to him. He felt compelled to leave like what others had done to build a better world for themselves and their families.
In the short thirty-minute journey from the airport to the workers’ dormitory, Zheng Nian drank in the gleaming prospect of a future that would have been out of reach if he had stayed behind in his hometown. Yet, he felt dehydrated of hope.
As he took in the neat cityscape of buildings interspersed with trees that lined the smooth roads everywhere, Zheng Nian caught the parallel paradox of his situation – he was there to build the buildings as he tried to build a life for himself and his family while unbuilding his very presence back home. He wondered, how many of these inanimate structures would he have to build to truly set himself free? Despite the air-conditioning in the van, the sun creeping into his eyes was too much for Zheng Nian to bear. There was little clarity in his head to think about those thoughts that emerged onto the shoreline of his consciousness. He was exhausted. Exhausted at both the prospect of what he had left behind, and of what was to come before him.
In those last moments when he suddenly lost consciousness in the fierceness of the heat, when he fought to keep himself from tipping over the edge of no return, he wondered where his son would be when he’s all grown up? Surely, he would be happy, in a meaningful job, blissfully married in an affluent China? Would he look more like him, or his mother – a face crumbled with unfounded worry when he broke the news to her on his plan to work in Singapore? Don’t go, she begged. I’m still young, 35, strong enough to do the work, he replied. I want a better life for you and our son. Two years, I’ll be back. Our son will only be almost 3 years old then, just in time for him to learn to talk and call me papa. Don’t worry, nothing will happen. Singapore is a safe place.
Taking in the last breath of dust chalked up by the cement and concrete around him, it wasn’t lost on Zheng Nian that he hadn’t seen much of the garden city that he had come to see. Neither had he built the buildings he had come to build, nor the promises of the future that was his to keep. He had a future then. BW
Jonathan Tan writes to live multiple lives he can't otherwise live in the stories he conceived. His prose has appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review Singapore, Mascara Literary Review Australia, New Asian Writing, and other print and online literary journals.
Jonathan Tan Ghee Tiong is a talented Banana Writer whose touching story Shoot the rain from the sky… was first published with BW in December 2013. He is currently looking for a publisher for his debut collection of short stories.