What the Modern Woman Wants

This came in my inbox today and I found it very suitable for posting here as it talks about two co-sojourner of sorts and the story was described largely on the highway. Powerful read indeed.

Singapore girl wins Commonwealth essay prize!
A 15-YEAR-OLD Singaporean, competing against 16- to 18-year-olds, has won the top prize in a writing contest that drew 5,300 entries from 52 countries.

In the annual Commonwealth Essay Competition, Amanda Chong of Raffles Girls’ School (Secondary) chose to compete in the older category and won with a piece on the restlessness of modern life.

Her short story, titled What The Modern Woman Wants, focused on the conflict in values between an old lady and her independent-minded daughter.

‘Through my story, I attempted to convey the unique East-versus-West
struggles and generation gaps that I felt were characteristic of young
people in my country,’ said Amanda, who likes drama, history and
literature and wants to become a lawyer and a politician.

Chief examiner Charles Kemp called her piece a ‘powerfully moving and ironical critique of modern restlessness and its potentially cruel consequences’.
The writing is fluent and assured, with excellent use of dialogue.

Amanda gets (S$1,590). A Singaporean last won the top prize in 2000, said Britain’s Royal Commonwealth Society, which has been organising the competition since 1883. Singaporeans also came in second in the 14- to 15-year-old category, and fourth in the under-12s. Other winners included students from Australia, Canada and South Africa.

*What the Modern Woman Wants*
By Amanda Chong Wei-ZhenThe old woman sat in the backseat of the magenta
convertible as it careened down the highway, clutching
tightly to the plastic bag on her lap, afraid it may
be kidnapped by the wind. She was not used to such
speed, with trembling hands she pulled the seatbelt
tighter but was careful not to touch the patent
leather seats with her callused fingers, her daughter
had warned her not to dirty it, ‘Fingerprints show
very clearly on white, Ma.’

Her daughter, Bee Choo, was driving and talking on her
sleek silver mobile phone using big words the old
woman could barely understand. ‘Finance’ ‘Liquidation’
‘Assets’ ‘Investments’… Her voice was crisp and
important and had an unfamiliar lilt to it. Her Bee
Choo sounded like one of those foreign girls on
television. She was speaking in an American accent.

The old lady clucked her tongue in disapproval.
‘I absolutely cannot have this. We have to sell!’ Her
daughter exclaimed agitatedly as she stepped on the accelerator; her
perfectly manicured fingernails gripping onto the steering wheel in
irritation.

‘I can’t DEAL with this anymore!’ she yelled as she
clicked the phone shut and hurled it angrily toward
the backseat.
The mobile phone hit the old woman on the forehead and
nestled soundlessly into her lap. She calmly picked it
up and handed it to her daughter.

‘Sorry, Ma,’ she said, losing the American pretence
and switching to Mandarin. ‘I have a big client in
America. There have been a lot of problems.’
The old lady nodded knowingly. Her daughter was big
and important.

Bee Choo stared at her mother from the rear view
window, wondering what she was thinking. Her mother’s
wrinkled countenance always carried the same cryptic
look.

The phone began to ring again, an artificially
cheerful digital tune, which broke the awkward
silence.
‘Hello, Beatrice! Yes, this is Elaine.’ Elaine. The
old woman cringed. I didn’t name her Elaine. She
remembered her daughter telling her, how an English
name was very important for ‘networking’, Chinese ones
being easily forgotten.

‘Oh no, I can’t see you for lunch today. I have to
take the ancient relic to the temple for her weird
daily prayer ritual.’

Ancient Relic. The old woman understood perfectly it
was referring to her. Her daughter always assumed that
her mother’s silence meant she did not comprehend.

‘Yes, I know! My car seats will be reeking of joss
sticks!’
The old woman pursed her lips tightly, her hands
gripping her plastic bag in defence.
The car curved smoothly into the temple courtyard. It
looked almost garish next to the dull sheen of the
ageing temple’s roof. The old woman got out of the
back seat, and made her unhurried way to the main
hall.

Her daughter stepped out of the car in her business
suit and stilettos and reapplied her lipstick as she
made her brisk way to her mother’s side.

‘Ma, I’ll wait outside. I have an important phone call
to make,’ she said, not bothering to hide her disgust
at the pungent fumes of incense.

The old lady hobbled into the temple hall and lit a
joss stick, she knelt down solemnly and whispered her
now familiar daily prayer to the Gods.

Thank you God of the Sky, you have given my daughter
luck all these years. Everything I prayed for, you
have given her. She has everything a young woman in
this world could possibly want. She has a big house
with a swimming pool, a maid to help her, as she is
too clumsy to sew or cook.

Her love life has been blessed; she is engaged to a
rich and handsome angmoh man. Her company is now the
top financial firm and even men listen to what she
says. She lives the perfect life. You have given her
everything except happiness. I ask that the gods be
merciful to her even if she has lost her roots while
reaping the harvest of success.

What you see is not true, she is a filial daughter to
me. She gives me a room in her big house and provides
well for me. She is rude to me only because I affect
her happiness. A young woman does not want to be
hindered by her old mother. It is my fault.

The old lady prayed so hard that tears welled up in
her eyes. Finally, with her head bowed in reverence
she planted the half-burnt joss stick into an urn of smouldering
ashes.

She bowed once more.
The old woman had been praying for her daughter for
thirty-two years. When her stomach was round like a
melon, she came to the temple and prayed that it was a
son.

Then the time was ripe and the baby slipped out of her
womb, bawling and adorable with fat thighs and pink
cheeks, but unmistakably, a girl. Her husband had
kicked and punched her for producing a useless baby
who could not work or carry the family name.

Still, the woman returned to the temple with her
new-born girl tied to her waist in a sarong and prayed
that her daughter would grow up and have everything
she ever wanted. Her husband left her and she prayed
that her daughter would never have to depend on a man.

She prayed every day that her daughter would be a
great woman, the woman that she, meek and uneducated,
could never become. A woman with nengkan; the ability
to do anything she set her mind to. A woman who
commanded respect in the hearts of men. When she
opened her mouth to speak, precious pearls would fall
out and men would listen.

She will not be like me, the woman prayed as she
watched her daughter grow up and drift away from her,
speaking a language she scarcely understood. She
watched her daughter transform from a quiet girl, to
one who openly defied her, calling her laotu;
old-fashioned. She wanted her mother to be ‘modern’, a
word so new there was no Chinese word for it.

Now her daughter was too clever for her and the old
woman wondered why she had prayed like that. The gods
had been faithful to her persistent prayer, but the
wealth and success that poured forth so richly had
buried the girl’s roots and now she stood, faceless,
with no identity, bound to the soil of her ancestors
by only a string of origami banknotes.

Her daughter had forgotten her mother’s values. Her
wants were so ephemeral; that of a modern woman.
Power, Wealth, access to the best fashion boutiques,
and yet her daughter had not found true happiness. The
old woman knew that you could find happiness with much
less. When her daughter left the earth everything she
had would count for nothing. People would look to her
legacy and say that she was a great woman, but she
would be forgotten once the wind blows over, like the
ashes of burnt paper convertibles and mansions.

The old woman wished she could go back and erase all
her big hopes and prayers for her daughter; now she
had only one want: That her daughter be happy. She
looked out of the temple gate. She saw her daughter
speaking on the phone, her brow furrowed with anger
and worry. Being at the top is not good, the woman
thought, there is only one way to go from there –
down.

The old woman carefully unfolded the plastic bag and
spread out a packet of beehoon in front of the altar.
Her daughter often mocked her for worshipping
porcelain Gods. How could she pray to them so
faithfully and expect pieces of ceramic to fly to her
aid? But her daughter had her own gods too, idols of
wealth, success and power that she was enslaved to and worshipped
every day of her life.

Every day was a quest for the idols, and the idols she worshipped
counted for nothing in eternity. All the wants her daughter had would
slowly suck the life out of her and leave her, an empty soulless shell
at the altar.

The old lady watched her joss tick. The dull heat had
left a teetering grey stem that was on the danger of collapsing.
Modern woman nowadays, the old lady sighed in
resignation, as she bowed to the east one final time
to end her ritual. Modern woman nowadays want so much
that they lose their souls and wonder why they cannot
find it.

Her joss stick disintegrated into a soft grey powder.
She met her daughter outside the temple, the same look
of worry and frustration was etched on her daughter’s
face. An empty expression, as if she was ploughing
through the soil of her wants looking for the one
thing that would sow the seeds of happiness.

They climbed into the convertible in silence and her
daughter drove along the highway, this time not as
fast as she had done before.

‘Ma,’ Bee Choo finally said. ‘I don’t know how to put
this. Mark and I have been talking about it and we
plan to move out of the big house. The property market
is good now, and we managed to get a buyer willing to
pay seven million for it. We decided we’d prefer a
cosier penthouse apartment instead. We found a perfect
one in Orchard Road. Once we move in to our apartment
we plan to get rid of the maid, so we can have more
space to ourselves…’

The old woman nodded knowingly.
Bee Choo swallowed hard. ‘We’d get someone to come in
to do the housework and we can eat out – but once the
maid is gone, there won’t be anyone to look after you.
You will be awfully lonely at home and, besides that,
the apartment is rather small. There won’t be space.
We thought about it for a long time, and we decided
the best thing for you is if you moved to a Home.
There’s one near Hougang – it’s a Christian home, a very
nice one.’

The old woman did not raise an eyebrow. ‘I’ve been
there, the matron is willing to take you in. It’s
beautiful with gardens and lots of old people to keep
you company! I hardly have time for you, you’d be
happier there.’

‘You’d be happier there, really.’ Her daughter
repeated as if to affirm herself.
This time the old woman had no plastic bag of food
offerings to cling tightly to; she bit her lip and
fastened her seat belt, as if it would protect her
from a daughter who did not want her anymore. She sunk
deep into the leather seat, letting her shoulders sag,
and her fingers trace the white seat.

‘Ma?’ her daughter asked, searching the rear view
window for her mother. ‘Is everything okay?’
What had to be done, had to be done. ‘Yes,’ she said
firmly, louder than she intended, ‘if it will make you
happy,’ she added more quietly.

‘It’s for you, Ma! You’ll be happier there. You can
move there tomorrow, I already got the maid to pack
your things.’ Elaine said triumphantly, mentally
ticking yet another item off her agenda.

‘I knew everything would be fine.’

Elaine smiled widely; she felt liberated. Perhaps
getting rid of her mother would make her happier. She
had thought about it. It seemed the only hindrance in
her pursuit of happiness. She was happy now. She had
everything a modern woman ever wanted; Money, Status,
Career, Love,Power and now, Freedom, without her
mother and her old-fashioned ways to weigh her down…

Yes, she was free. Her phone buzzed urgently, she
picked it up and read the message, still beaming from
ear to ear. ‘Stocks 10% increase!’

Yes, things were definitely beginning to look up for
her…
And while searching for the meaning of life in the
luminance of her hand phone screen, the old woman in
the backseat became invisible, and she did not see the tears.

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5 Comments

Filed under Family, Life, Personal, Stories, Work, Writing

5 responses to “What the Modern Woman Wants

  1. Sicarii

    Very well-written, yet I do detect a little Catherine Lim in her style. 🙂

    haha… the last time I read Catherine Lim was like… 15 years ago? So I won’t really know!

  2. Somehow Lim’s style stuck in my subconscious I guess.

    I take it that she must be a good writer!

  3. Syazana

    This is a very good story. Two thumbs up !

  4. Wow… This is a very good story. It’s strange how people don’t appreciate those who have done so much for you.

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