By Rebecca Tan Hui Shan
I drink Kopi Siu Dai, which is coffee, less sugar. I drink it because my dad drinks it he started drinking it in 2005 after he ballooned to 97 kg and got diagnosed with diabetes. My mum drinks Kopi O Kosong, which is black coffee, no sugar, no milk. My brother takes Kopi Bing, which is iced coffee (with the regular excess of milk and sugar), while my sister sleepy Maria with the heavy, hooded eyelids only ever gets a Teh Bing, or iced tea.
I know these drinks well, not just because I rattle them off to a kopi-man at least thrice a week, but because they establish what I know of the people I love.
Take for example, my brother. Under his pale, translucent skin and sharp Teochew nose, my brother has always held one central difference from the rest of my family: he believes, quite straightforwardly, in the nobility of pleasure, not suffering.
Both my parents pride themselves on being made of peasant stock. They like to use metaphors of themselves as tough weeds, as guppy fish images of self-made, hardy survivor types. Yet, my parents share a son who has, in his mouth, a palate for indulgence. My brother started smoking, drinking and gallivanting in his teens, always fuelled to rally another reckless decision by a voice inside him yelling, "YOUTH IS TRANSIENT, NOTHING MATTERS EXCEPT NOW." Two years in the army (including a darker two weeks in its detention barracks) mellowed him down significantly, but on a fundamental level, he still believes that one should always treat oneself.
Two weeks ago, I wondered out loud if I should go out with friends and forgo dinner at home. In my household, every child is burdened to operate on a system of trust an unsaid but strict understanding that family comes first and family meals (dinners daily, plus lunches on weekends) are a rule, not an option.
That night, listening to my whining, my brother said, "Aiyah, you know my philosophy: do first, apologise later." He sat up just as the words left his mouth, seeming almost surprised at the catchiness of his own mantra. He smiled slowly as he repeated, "Yes do first, apologise later."
Surely you can see why a boy like him is not going to stave off the sugar in his coffee. He'll get a Kopi Bing and, you know what, maybe even Ga Dai (add sugar), if he's going to school that day.
A Kopi Siu Dai from the hawker centre costs 80 cents a dollar if you're in a wealthier neighbourhood. It's made with two metal tins and a long, white filter cloth that takes on the structure of a sock. A kopi-man mixes his beans into black coffee before pouring it through the sock from one tin to the other. He raises one of the tins as high as his arm can stretch so that the black liquid comes cascading down like a waterfall. My mum says this is to let the liquid aerate, but I see the way our kopi-man does it and I know he means this as performance.
By now, it must be clear that I hold a fascination for kopi. I feel obliged, however, to note that there are in fact other names for coffee in Singapore. There are lattes, mochas, espressos, macchiatos, flat-whites and more. Of course, these drinks cost 10 times more than a kopi does, because someone, somewhere, in our history figured out that Singaporeans are willing to pay five more dollars to enunciate the ornate syllables of an A-me-ri-ca-no.
I sound bitter which I am, but only because I have bought one too many macchiatos knowing full well that I hate them, and because I once ordered an affogato without knowing what it is. My fierce attachment to kopi is more than memories; it's politics.
I take the drink as a reminder for me to unlearn the euro-centrism that pervaded my education and my experiences. I keep this kopi close so that I remember to work against the lie that everything Western is better that the West is progressive, chic, graceful, desirable. I drink this kopi because it lets me imagine myself as part of a history, as having the words to speak to my grandparents beyond an awkward dance of broken Mandarin and sign language. I drink because the familiarity and comfort of a kopi is proof ("Empirical proof!" I say to the jury) that I am Singaporean.
My kopi, along with the rest of the food that I eat at home, is a mechanism for me to manage my own hypocrisy. I may think and feel like I am a jiak gan tang (literally, potato-eater, or a Chinese person who speaks English far better than Chinese), but and this is where I afford myself some dignity at least my senses are tuned to home.
We have two mamas, both Teochew, both of a fair-skinned, stoic breed. We call our grandmothers the exact same thing, differentiated, when we need to, with a prefix. Serangoon Mama versus Tiong Bahru Mama. Visits to the former are dinner affairs so I haven't figured out how she likes her kopi. Visits to the latter, however, are scheduled on Sunday mornings, which is why I know that Tiong Bahru Mama's coffee order is most specific: one Kopi O Siu Dai and an additional cup of steaming hot water.
At first, she would drink the Kopi O as anyone would, albeit with shakier hands. She would take each sip into the back of her mouth as if she was sucking on the dentures sitting on her greying gums. About halfway through her drink, Mama would stop to pour half a cup of hot water into her coffee. She would do this again and again whenever she was about an inch away from finishing, adding just enough water to stretch her kopi deep into the morning.
At first, I thought that my Mama simply liked her coffee thin. I reasoned that old people prefer things to be somewhat faded, that lighter tastes might appeal better to what I would imagine are slowing functions. I held on to this belief until recently, when I developed a hunch that I was not only wrong but also possibly ageist.
When I finally asked Mama, she said one cup of coffee never felt like enough. My mum translated this from Teochew to English for me, just as Mama pulled down the long lines at the corners of her mouth, miming just how "not enough" a single cup of coffee was. I was about to ask "Why not buy two?" when suddenly the answer seemed obvious.
In the same way that I stuff three-in-one coffee packets into my suitcase whenever I fly to the United States to continue my undergraduate studies, so too does my Mama have rituals that reflect her own history. In the same way that I hold tightly onto my cup of kopi, so too does my Mama need the drink to hold onto versions of herself and her world that were once real and lived out but are now barely visible.
My Mama spent most of her life with much less than what she can afford to enjoy now. She adapted, as women do, extending the lifespan of what she had. They ate starchy things, stretching each bite for what it was worth. She poured hot water into her coffee so that it lasted through the morning from 4am, when she woke up to go marketing, to 7am, when the drink turned cold and translucent, and she knew it was time to wake the children. For this woman, my mother's mother, such rituals were her becoming.
Now, of course, Mama has more than enough. Yet, in ways that aren't too taxing, she continues to stretch what she has, to remember the place that she came from and often misses.
Before I began this essay, I thought that kopi was profound because it helped me to navigate a perilously confusing cultural landscape. I lamented to anyone who would listen: I am a millennial in Singapore. That means, I proclaimed to a collection of bored faces, that I straddle every awful dichotomy out there: East and West, tradition and modernity, et cetera, et cetera I imagined that if I could just articulate how complicated this reality was, someone would come by with a gentle voice and say, "Oh, you poor thing!"
So I held onto the imagery of kopi in my mind and waited for it to reveal the exceptionalism of my experiences. I swirled kopi around my mouth, taking careful little sips like I was drinking wine on a velvet sofa. I behaved as though I was the first one to have ever looked into my cup for answers as though the people before me had not, in their own youth, studied their palates in the way I did.
I drank my kopi as if my Mama, at 87 years old, didn't also find some deep, emotional comfort from the strong taste of her Kopi O, as if she didn't turn towards her cup when her children and grandchildren chattered away in a language she didn't know, using technological terms she didn't understand or namedropping countries she hadn't heard of.
I only realise now that the taste and smell of kopi are profound not because of what they signify to me, but because of their capacity to mean something, to provide comfort and continuity for different people. Kopi helped to carry my Mama through the years she spent supporting her family and, then again, through the years when this support was made redundant.
This drink is a witness of, and often a respite from, what has always been a perilously confusing society.
On the last Sunday of my summer break, during my last breakfast with Tiong Bahru Mama, it started to rain. Rain in the tropics is an emotional experience it comes down in sheets, hushing and shrouding everything it touches. Mama and I sat quietly with our respective kopis. More than ever before, I wished I knew the words in Teochew to say to her: I will be alright, and thank you.QLRS Vol. 15 No. 4 Oct 2016