The Devil in Our Everyday Lives
When a married couple — Justin Zhuang and Sheere Ng — watches a play about a married couple escaping.
Justin: We wondered why we were invited to respond to the play, Devil’s Cherry . I cannot help but notice that it is about a husband and wife escaping overseas, which is something we as a married couple have discussed now and again over the years.
Sheere: But we never established what exactly we wanted to escape from, and so we don’t know if a change in environment will help. Debbie and Mo seemed to have a better idea of what they were running away from. Or at least Debbie had a goal to cure Mo of sleepwalking.
Justin: Yes, an “escape” always holds a promise of something. But I always wonder about what we want to escape from and where we want to escape to. I can relate to the play’s premise of Singapore being this overbearing city versus Australia’s wide open spaces, but yet we all know it’s never that simple. This Singaporean imagination of Australia as a paradise was what we grew up hearing our relatives talk about, but I’ve always been sceptical of how it plays out in reality. How can we city dwellers survive the great outdoors? What is it like to be a minority Asian in a Western country?
Sheere: I think when it’s not clear what the source of unhappiness is, but there is discontent with the present, a quick solution is to create change. A different environment usually jolts us into rethinking our ways of life. So I think that’s why a road trip in the outback was attractive to Debbie and Mo. It was nothing like Singapore. But a drastic change can be unsettling, that is why they talked about eating dim sum and turning kangaroo into rendang. They were anchoring themselves to familiar food and flavours.
Justin: Is that truly an escape? The environment changed, but their ways remained.
Sheere: Some of their ways remained. “Kangaroo rendang” was a compromise. It shows their willingness to adapt something local but infuse it with what’s comfortable for them.
Justin: I could try kangaroo meat at home in Singapore? The idea of escapes is very much premised on change in sceneries, landscapes and environment, which is why holidaying overseas is so popular. But what if we change our perspective about the same places and things we encounter every day? The constant chase of new environments and landscapes can be tiring, and I think often overrated.
Sheere: Seeing old things in new ways is a gift. For the most of us it is hard without some kind of prompt.
Justin: Like watching the play in a disused power station?
Sheere: Yes! We were prepared to sit on the floor and it turned out that there were seats and even air-con!
Justin: Yes! It was surreal walking on the roadside, past abandoned industrial buildings and fenced-up structures before arriving at Pasir Panjang Power Station. I remember we both remarked that the journey felt so “un-Singapore”. The cathedral-like interior of the power station was also truly stunning. But when the blast of air-conditioning kicked in and we were ushered into our neatly arranged seats, it all felt familiar again. A part of me wishes there was more, but another worries if I would be comfortable if there was more.
Sheere: The air-con, or the fact that there was too much of it since we were sitting under the vent, did transport me to a mall. That feeling of needing a sweater when it’s 34°C outside was all too familiar. See, the environment creates a different state of mind in an instant, just that this had an undesirable outcome for me.
Justin: I like to think that is why Mo was so fascinated by the landscape they were in. At one point, he was going on and on about the beauty of the creek and the river. But Debbie never expressed much interest and even remarked, “a bush is a bush is a bush”. This lack of awareness or desire to understand our environment, be it nature or man-made, I think really gets in the way of escapes. Even when going overseas, we end up travelling along well-trodden routes or to places that look different but are never very different from where we came from.
Sheere: Yes. There were probably birds chirping and leaves rustling where they were, but Debbie was tuned in to the radio all the time. She rejected Mo’s invitation to go fishing and chose to stay back to bake a cake instead. How she could do that in the wild I don’t know, but I think her choice of an activity which could be done in her kitchen in Singapore signalled a rejection — of nature, their spontaneous holiday and spending yet more time with her husband. Perhaps there was resentment, for having to be his caregiver all these years. The holiday was her idea, but it was meant to solve his sleepwalking problem. A lot of what she said suggested that her life had been centred on him. She even exclaimed: “There’s so much space around us, but so little between us.” While it can be read as endearing, like saying, “There are so many other places we could be, yet we are here together”, she was clearly annoyed at him.
Justin: Resentment! Yes, I think that’s how I would describe the nature of escapes for many of us. We see the escape or the holiday as a solution but never address the problem directly. It then becomes a cyclical search for something new. Once an escape becomes familiar, we move on to something else. I fear our personal desire to escape becomes like this. We may find out after going from one place to another that our movement is futile. That the reason is we lack roots, which we never stayed still long enough to develop, or we have been rejecting a past that we can never escape from. Isn’t that what happened to Mo at the end when his devil finally caught up with him?
Sheere: But we could stay where we are and still be escaping. We are capable of burying our issues anywhere, and I suspect we have more success doing that in the comfort of familiarity. The challenge of adapting to changes, on the other hand, tends to force us to face our demons. Mo was confronted by his in the outback. His environment and way of life had changed, yet the sleepwalking returned and he even imagined seeing his deceased daughter. So we know the problem lies within him. Unfortunately, he responded foolishly. He tried to inhale the cherry cake, which I think represented the poison of grief, but ended up being consumed, or rather, smothered by it. Well, I guess grief can become familiar and comforting too, and when we get lost, in our head, we will hold on to anything we know even if it brings us pain.
Justin: That moment represented the dangers of comfort and familiarity for me, which I feel very much living in Singapore. It is the reason I dream of escaping, but also fear escaping from it. Everything here is so designed and predictable to a large extent that you know what is necessary to attain a comfortable life. It’s hard to get lost, just follow the rules. There’s little motivation to go beyond because the risk of failure outweighs the reward. So you are tempted by the idea of an adventure overseas, but you also wonder if it is worth stepping outside your comfort zone.
Sheere: Since you put it that way, isn’t escaping from Singapore to anywhere less organised and safe more likely an act of courage rather than cowardice? I’m reassessing Debbie’s and Mo’s move to Australia. On the one hand they seem to be running away from dealing with the things that are hurting them. On the other hand, they sold their house to travel in a caravan! That takes balls!
Justin: That’s the dream all property agents here sell you, isn’t it? To turn your home into a retirement asset. The house even became mobile for Debbie and Mo, but isn’t “home” something that requires one to be rooted to a place? In a sense, it is the antithesis of an escape. It is something you work on every day.
Sheere: I prefer to think that a home is fluid. It can be anywhere we fill our memories with. This gives us a chance to build a new one if the previous one falls apart. Besides, what we want from a home evolves with our lives. Staying rooted could mean being weighed down, shackled by past events and relationships, and thus having little space to react to the curve balls that will be thrown at us.
Justin: Perhaps that is what we witnessed in the interactions between Debbie and Mo. Despite seeming so loving, their dialogue was rather mundane and weighed down by the realities of living together for years. How well one slept, what to eat for lunch and where to visit next on their road trip... They only opened up about their feelings when they were talking to strangers or creatures they encountered. It’s kind of like us now, reflecting more deeply about our desires to escape only because we were invited to respond to this play.
Sheere: And we chose a format that we never tried before — conversing with each other over a shared document. It’s almost like chatting on MSN Messenger, which we did so many years ago! This way we are forced to let each other finish before we respond and spend more time thinking about what we want to say instead of just blurting things out. It’s impossible to talk over each other here.
Justin: Yes, this is different from our everyday life and conversations. It’s like we have come to a foreign land where the unfamiliarity forces us to consider how we think and behave, and possibly act differently.
Sheere: This sense of possibility and growth is why I want to escape. Not running away from anything or towards anywhere, but just knowing I’ll be somewhere else other than here.
Devil's Cherry by Kaylene Tan and Paul Rae, featuring Lim Kay Siu and Neo Swee Lin