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PERSONAL ESSAY

Ulric Vincenzo B. de Guzman 

My Mee Siam Years

I was 11 years old when I took my first overseas flight. We were moving to Singapore, and having only travelled to Iloilo and Bulacan—my parents’ provinces in the Philippines—the trip was momentous for me. The minute I stepped through the chilly, carpeted halls of Changi Airport, I knew that there was a different world and a brand-new culture waiting out there, and more. The clean and organised streets were an eye-opening surprise and a far cry from the gritty, chaotic streets back in the Philippines. The language, although spoken in English, was an interesting challenge, thanks to a distinct accent the locals had in their daily conversations. There was a richness in their culture and it showed in the local dishes, which, as a picky eater with a weakness to spice, I was hesitant to try at first. I eventually grew to love the food, to adapt and establish myself on new grounds.


I was excited for my first day in class, curious yet eager to attend school in a different country. I was an introverted boy but school was school, and I thought I was safe. Turned out, everything was completely new to me: commuting by myself, conversing with people other than my family, lunching on unfamiliar food—simple things I knew about but also never knew I would do so soon. I will never forget that one lunch break at school when I naively ordered mee siam for the first time, not knowing of the spiciness the dish entailed. As my eyes watered and my tongue suffered from the spicy noodles, I realised I had to open up and embrace my new environment.


Making friends has always been a hit-or-miss for me; connecting with people was something I found difficulty in. And yet, I have made the best of my friends in Singapore. It was here that I met and mingled with people of different countries and ethnicities. And it was here where I found it easy to connect, as people were equally curious about my background. I loved Singapore for this and for being a cultural hotbed. To this day, I am part of a tight-knit group of friends from school, whom I am most comfortable with. I don’t even remember the first time I became friends with each of them; I just seemed to have slowly assimilated myself with the groups in my homeroom as the school days went by. I found myself doing things any normal Singaporean teenager would do, like going to Cineleisure or SCAPE with my friends to lepak. Lepak means “to loiter” in Malay, Singapore’s national language. My friends and I would make our way to Somerset after class to lepak or watch a film in the local cinema, and if we felt like it, a meal afterwards. The vibe and energy around my friends just became something I was very comfortable with, and I felt very much myself. 


Aside from friends, I found comfort in my family. I will always think that my years in Singapore were made easier with my parents around, who urged me to be as independent as I can, and emphasized the need to be respectful. Back then, we didn’t have the luxury of a housekeeper or kasambahay, as we would say in Filipino. At 11 years old, I learned how to do the dishes, clean the rooms, collect the trash, and various other house chores. I even learned how to sew! Washing dishes and cooking rice became part of my life at home, although at first, we would seldom cook our meals, thanks to the convenience of having several hawker centers in our neighbourhood.


Food is now an important part of my life, and moving to Singapore opened a door for me with my discovery of the outdoor food courts, the hawker centers. As a kid, I remember being constantly overwhelmed by the number of food choices available. Being a picky eater, I usually stuck to western food, which had a charm in itself since I would have never imagined having a medium-rare steak with fries and coleslaw in an outdoor food court. As time went by, I came to love the varied, colorful cuisine offered in these unique establishments, from the spicy mee siam to the dish that has become my favorite, nasi padang. Food has certainly become an aspect I miss about living in Singapore, and these days, I can only laugh at my mee siam memory and enjoy nasi padang’s steamed rice piled with tasty toppings and homemade curry sauce—through my friends’ photos on Instagram or Facebook. 


I’m back in the Philippines, and I find peace in reminiscing my youthful days of living in Singapore. I will always admire the country’s convenience and cleanliness, the harmonious coexistence of its multiple cultures and ethnicities. I will always remember how I grew and learned things not just through interaction and living with the locals, but also through something so unique, so unexpected and so delicious—hawker centers.   

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