compressed time (on aunts and gifts)


I am at the airport again. Incheon International is a far cry from the KL airport I was at two weeks ago, which my relatives quite accurately described as, "an airport within a mall"; it is pretty bleak once you get past security. Incheon – only Terminal 1, Terminal 2 is just okay – is ginormous, all glass and chrome and marble with the Bottega Veneta and Ferragamo stores just a step away from the gates. I skipped those because I am not A Rich TM; I went straight to the Tobacco Duty Free and bought Korean coffee- and yogurt-flavored cigs for my friends. Where time felt wide and expansive on the first legs of my trip (States to Emirates to Malaysia to Korea), time feels much shorter, squished, as I hop my way home (Korea to Singapore to Emirates to States). 10 days in Malaysia felt vast. 10 days in Korea felt too short. Part of this is that I know Seoul very well, and I know all the things that I am missing and that I should have done and could not do and wish I had done. Part of it is that I simply want to go home and crash on my bed in Brooklyn, and regret having the long layover in SG. Part of it is that the Korean trip was insanely busy, since B was here for 7/10 days with me so I was going around with him, and there was a wedding the night before I left. I barely even got to see my mom. It is a bit of whiplash, going from Malaysia to Korea to SG, because my modes of interacting with each side of the family are very different, and the constant code switching is wearing me down. The endless planning for luggage space for bringing gifts to relatives for each leg of the trip is also killing me; this morning I had to switch from my modest carry-on that I brought from the States to taking my mom's ginormous check-in bag from Seoul just to accommodate all the boxes of 한과 that I bought for everyone in Singapore. Still, all that said, it'll be worth it. It's nice to give gifts, and my mom is especially big on this – particularly the visuals/Asian shame of it all. The cash envelopes that my sister and I gave to my cousin for his wedding were already fairly large, and then she went and stuffed them with even more cash. "People remember," she always repeats, "and you want to be known as generous or you'll regret it." This morning before my flight, my mom tried to make me go buy angpow red envelopes as soon as I land in Singapore so I can give some money to my cousin's kids on dad's side, and I finally snapped and said I'd gotten two hours of sleep and goddamnit I'll give them cash but I'm not going to go buy fucking red envelopes just to put it in when I land are you crazy?? Anyway, the point is, I'm somewhere down the middle, and even though the luggage space thing is annoying, I'm glad that I can bring the Singaporeans some gifts. -- I just called my aunt. She was still in Seoul after the wedding last night, and had taken our other cousin's kids to the playground. I got to see her only briefly last night at the wedding, and earlier in the week during my road trip, when we drove down to see her for lunch (ssalbap restaurant in Icheon, with all the works that entails), a random bell museum that I went to last winter with her as well, and dinner at her place in the evening. "Your time here was too short," she complained over the phone, while my other cousin's kids screamed "I LOVE YOUUU" (in English) to me in the background. "We didn't even get to go on a trip." Last winter, when I was living in Seoul, I spent a few weeks with my aunt at her home in the countryside. After running out of my own nicotine a week into staying with her, I had cracked and finally asked her for a cig. After getting over the shock of me smoking ("why didn't you say anything?? You could have had some earlier!"), she promised not to tell my mom. We took a road trip to the ocean, chain smoking cigs out of her car down the highway. She ran 100kh/h through all the speed bumps and speed cameras and we visited lots of temples. "It's because I had spend more time in Malaysia," I said in Korean, "I split my time half-half. My dad's sister there is quite sick. But I will come again in the winter." -- When I was in Malaysia, my aunt over there gave me her old kebayas. She had told me in advance that she wanted me to have them, so when I arrived at her apartment, she had already prepared and laid out two kebayas, a kerongsang to go with it, a camisole to wear under, and a sarong. All shades of purple, or featuring purple flowers and such; all with intricate lace work. I asked her if she liked purple, as I’d often seen her wearing that color throughout this trip; I had expected a pretty strong yes but instead she gave a pretty lukewarm one-syllable “mm,” like“so-so,” which made me crack up. I tried on the kebayas, and she showed me where to pin the kerongsang but couldn’t actually do it for me because her hands are no longer mobile enough to do such finicky work. My cousin, one of her sons, KS, suggested I look it up later on YouTube instead. I asked her if she was sure she wanted to give these to me. But KB does not fit in them, KG has no interest in any clothes that aren’t jeans and a polo shirt, and Audrey is too young, so to me it goes. I asked her if she wanted to save one for Audrey but she shook her head, said to share with my sister. “KB says you can wear the kebayah with tight jeans like the girls do these days,” she said, not exactly disapprovingly, as she is very gentle, but with some disappointment in 'girls these days'. (I told her I’d wear the sarong.) She also wanted to give me some things from Aunty G in London, who stopped by Malaysia 4 years ago and asked my aunt to pass on some things to me and my sister, namely some angpow. (I should message her and thank her.) My aunt had been talking about it the entire ten days I was in Malaysia; I think it’s one of the loose ends she’d been anxious to tie up because she is fully preparing to pass on. “Okay,” my aunt said cheerfully, all wobbly and slow in the way that old people talk, “I have now done my duty.” After that she moved onto her own jewelry, and things she wanted to give me and my sister. All of her jewelry is stored in little plastic baggies in a bigger box, each with a little index card labeling who it is for when she passes away (“From Mummy to KS” was one). We talked in quiet voices; her hearing is not as good anymore, so you have to speak up a bit, but she’s still sharp and giggles softly when she does catch the whole clan’s bantering and arguing back and forth in (variously) Hokkien, English, or Malay, or some combo of the three. She and KS started wrapping up and putting away the boxes. “Is there anything else you want to give me and my sister or my dad and mom?” The Malaysian aunty equivalent of “oh shit” was uttered and they started unwrapping everything all over again to find some earrings she wanted to pass onto my mom. When the passing of objects and heirlooms was over, we talked and sat quietly for the rest of the afternoon. At that point, KS had quietly slipped away and Audrey got bored, so it was just the two of us in the dwindling light. Small talk: do you have a steady boyfriend; aiya, why did KB let Audrey get her ears pierced at such a young age; did you know your mom forgot shoes for her own wedding, etc. She expressed how happy she was to see me. “I came to Malaysia for you,” I said, and it was true. “You know that, don’t you?” “Yes.”