In Singapore, the Malay word ‘leceh’, and its closest English equivalent ‘troublesome’, are part of day-to-day speech. This series on the theme of ‘trouble’, by writers from India, Mexico and the UK as well as Singapore, is commissioned by The Arts House in parallel with the opening of its new feature, The Troublesome Library.
The first time I felt like I was really in trouble, I was working as a waitress in a German sausage pub. Over fifteen years have passed since I saw the woman I associate with that trouble crying into her pork knuckles. Of course I cannot remember her face. But right now, on a rare, sunny afternoon in lockdown London, I wonder how she’s doing. She certainly won’t remember me. I’m just a background blip in the unknowable reel of her own memories.
Leceh: the colloquial Malay term for troublesome, is rather aptly an anagram of leech – leceh as a leech of time, a blood-sucker of effort. Leceh is also an anagram of leche, Spanish for milk, which can curdle and be both sickly and sweet. I can’t remember the last time I said leceh casually; this realisation makes me sad. Living in London far away from my family, I can’t use the word in casual conversation to my non-Singaporean friends without explaining it.
I heard leceh regularly, growing up in Singapore. Leceh – it was woven into the everyday textures of my childhood, my mother clicking her tongue at us three children at home. We were leceh personified. Three bothersome, bratty smartasses who whined about what was for dinner every day. We were easily sick, and bored, and erratic; we had rashes and eczema, dentistry and doctors’ appointments, permission slips that needed to be filled, timetables to be worked around. What part of the everyday labour of running a household isn’t leceh?
Now that I’ve lived in England for fourteen years, I’ve reached the point where my emigration has stopped becoming an automatic part of my introductory spiel. It’s now relegated to the background of my comfortably uncomfortable identity. No longer ‘Sharlene Who Just Moved from Singapore’, I am now ‘Sharlene Who Belongs Nowhere’. Not truly, not any more. I don’t want to claim a British identity, but I can no longer fully claim a Singaporean one, either. Where I’m from is such a crucial part of who I am, but my lived understanding of Singapore feels increasingly nostalgic and outdated.
Wherever I am in the world, overhearing a Singaporean or Malaysian word or phrase induces an ear-prickle, a jolt of familiarity and disjunction. A kinship and a heart pain. Language, after all, is a system of sounds and silences we use to locate where and who we are in the world. Who our people are. Phrases and jargon that distinguish home and far-from-home. Different words with their international varieties for hi, danger, stop, enter, please, thank you. Colloquialisms are borne entirely from their sociocultural context. Idiomatic expressions and lingo are how we code our intimacies, furnish our in-jokes.
Stripped of its context and cultural associations, I stare at the word leceh and what is ‘difficult, inconvenient, troublesome’. Leceh in, say, 2001 was having to go to the library to find the right book that contained a piece of information, and constantly renew it. Leceh in 2021 is someone not hyperlinking something properly. A cyclist bearing your pizza saying they can’t find your exact address, could you come out and meet them? Even a train that says it will arrive in sixteen minutes. That’s leceh. It’s leceh to explain the same anecdote to your friends over and over again. It’s leceh to explain why you have this face, this dating history, this accent. It’s leceh rehashing the expository context of some petty disagreement. In an age of convenience, social media has made us hyper-attuned to a complaint economy, with people naming and shaming racist brands, for example, or tweeting to customer service until they get their desired response. I look up the etymology of ‘troublesome’, c.1200, from Old French trubler, metathesis of turbler, torbler, ‘to trouble, disturb; make cloudy, stir up, mix’ (c.1100.), from Vulgar Latin turbulare, from Late Latin turbidare, ‘to trouble, make turbid’, from Latin turbidus.
I think of the cloudy soup of adult memory, stirred up, mixed with confusing and inaccurate observations, sedimented with complexes, an embellishment here, a sprinkling of ego there – all this coalescing like a fortune teller’s ball into the deceptive clarity of hindsight. What we call memory: the troublesome leceh stories we tell of ourselves, to ourselves. Leceh as a reflection of what we find easy to put off and difficult to digest, a circuitous way of justifying, or forgiving, or indemnifying other people but mostly ourselves.
Back to the woman crying into the pork knuckles. That’s all the anecdotal identity she’s afforded. That’s unfair. If only getting to know who other people really are wasn’t so leceh. If only we had all the time and space in the world to know and hold everything we wanted to know, especially about the people who guest-star in our memories. Who leave us with some ineffable, yet significant impression. So this woman. She’s someone’s daughter, someone’s sibling, perhaps. She has a face I won’t be able to identify, especially since fifteen years have passed. She has a name I’ll never find out, a family, a career, a personality, an ongoing present.
I wonder if that evening stands out to her at all. It certainly left a mark on me. It was the first time, since leaving school and finishing my A levels, that I found myself privy to that real-world danger of losing your job. The German pub and restaurant in Singapore still exists. Even the decor hasn’t really changed. Every year or so, when I visit home, I frequent its surrounding bars for catch-up drinks. But I never go back to the German pub. Probably out of shame. Seeing the familiar brown facade, I am reminded of what a terrible waitress I was. Dazed, sullen, mentally drafting flash fiction for my LiveJournal, not noticing the table calling me over. I was suspended in a constant state of dreamy inattention, waiting for my life to begin. I was so unaware of my privilege. I wore it like a rosette.
I was eighteen back then, the proud possessor of a middle-class, youngest-child insouciance and complacency. I had ample time to find my way around a world that didn’t seem too exacting in its demands of me, not just yet. Real working life seemed far away, muffled or cordoned off. Waitressing was just a role for the summer, to build up savings. A hat to try on. Because I knew the job was temporary, my colleagues seemed like a fascinating cast of characters to me, rather than three-dimensional people. The manager was bossy and intimidating in the way that teachers were scary. The barman was flirtatious, worldly – even though he was married, he later dated the girl who took the job after me. The chef was a laconic, reedy guy who watched drama serials on loop on the overhead television in the kitchen. He presided over the jumbo vats of ketchup and mustard, the legions of frozen sausages. My fellow waitresses – we’d work two to a shift, were around my age, we’d laugh off bad customers whilst scraping sauce off dinner plates.
The German pub and restaurant specialised in sausages and pork knuckles. When customers asked me what the difference was between the sausages on the menu, I made things up. The sausage pub was frequented by bankers in cycling gear who made leering, obvious passes at the teenaged waitresses. I told the bankers I was married and the statement often elicited a chuckle. Many lawyers, tables full of them, came for beer and fries and sausages. They were often boorishly rude and dismissive. On the cusp of beginning a law degree, I resolved never to be so horrible if I became a lawyer.
One evening a couple arrived. A woman in her thirties, and a man, presumably her boyfriend. I sat them at a table – I swear I even know which one, in my spatial memory of the square wood-panelled restaurant with its bar to the right, the row of tables along the left wall – second table along, under a whirring fan. I gave them their laminated menus and went to stand in the corner, under another fan, to be alone with my inattention.
The dreamy gormlessness I weaponised as a teenager has a different valence as a thirty-three year old woman. Nowadays I try to seem as alert as possible, I preface sentences with ‘if this makes sense’, I try to convey efficiency and hyper-attention. The woman and man ordered their food. I don’t remember him, but she ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, the pork knuckle with crispy whole potatoes and sauerkraut. I brought it to her on a wooden board where it looked all charred and imposing, like an oversized meaty fist, which I suppose it was. I served them their beers. And then I went to stand near the wall.
Around that time, just after our A-levels, a friend of mine got pregnant and decided to keep the baby. It would be facetious to assume I was thinking of her right then, but I remember what a big deal it was in our friendship group at the time and how, at eighteen, I felt a frank pity and respect for her. Respect for her decision, but pity in that I thought of all the things she’d be missing out on. As if parenthood was a sort of fast-track sentence to serious, joyless adulthood. It’s ironic how expecting a baby at eighteen can be construed as troublesome, or getting into trouble, but at twenty-eight or thirty-eight the conversation shifts to couples having trouble conceiving, and the unwanted situation suddenly becomes desirable. What’s considered trouble at one point of your life is a boon at another. And now my friend has a lovely teenage daughter and son, and she learnt all the new parent things a long time ago, and her life seems comparatively relaxed, enviable to some.
Maybe I was thinking about that friend, maybe not. All I recall is the sound of sobbing cutting through the fan blades and the din of chart music and people talking. I looked over and the woman was crying over her plate. Her shoulders moved. The man wasn’t saying anything. When she brought her face away from her hands, her eyes were wet and red. I thought that the couple looked tired and worn out and grown up. Like they had serious and complicated grown up issues and problems. The woman kept crying into her hands, maybe she wiped her eyes on a serviette. And then, at some point, she waved me over.
‘Take this away. Just take it away from me,’ she said, gesturing at the pork knuckle. I nodded and cleared the table as quickly as I could. I brought the side plates in, made one more trip for the wooden board with the mostly uneaten pork knuckle. It was heavy, greasy, pork and potatoes and all. I held the board over the bin, knife poised to scrape it.
‘You sure or not?’ the chef asked me sceptically.
I nodded gravely and dumped the knuckle into the trash.
When the man and woman called for the bill, the woman, now dry-eyed, asked me: ‘where’s my pork knuckle?’
My face fell, immediately cognisant of my misunderstanding. I’d been so preoccupied by their dramatic, mostly one-sided disagreement I’d mistaken ‘take it away’ and pack the food up, as ‘just get it away from me’. It sounds trivial, but the woman was very angry, and called my manager over. I think he knocked some money off their bill and they left in a huff, this couple. I got a stern reprimanding, but I didn’t get fired. But somehow, it stayed with me. And in the years since I have been both the woman crying in the restaurant and her silent, horrified partner. These days I’m unashamed to meet my own eyes in the mirror, no longer looking to hide from trouble nor wait for life to assume the shape of life.
When The Arts House – a literature centre running from the former parliament building at the heart of Singapore – wanted to create a different kind of library, one grouped by themes and leaps of the imagination, rather than any readily searchable order, they chose the name ‘The Troublesome Library’. Like all libraries, it is a place where you have to ‘take the trouble’ to find insights and wonder. But trouble finds people everywhere (not only in libraries), in all kinds of shapes and at all kinds of moments, and is a kind of theme of its own. This piece was commissioned by Arts House Ltd, with a project team of Rupert Thomson (Director), Joelyn Yep and Shridar Mani (Managers), in editorial collaboration with Ted Hodgkinson, Head of Literature and Spoken Word at the Southbank Centre.
Image © mk_is_here