By YONG Shu Hoong
I’m thinking that a pizza parlour might be an appropriate place to start. It is, to me, a way of breaking the ice (well, the temperature was settling just below freezing point that day) and getting into what I want to write.
After arriving in Boston on the morning of February 17, 2016 – and skipping the extreme cold of minus 20 degrees that had broken national records the weekend before – this was where I found myself: Otto, a cosy pizzeria that originated in Portland, Maine. According to its Facebook page, it serves “gourmet, specialty pizza by the slice or whole pie”. I got a little thrown off by the menu’s usage of the term “pie”, which I had envisaged to be more like the cow pies eaten by Desperate Dan in The Dandy children’s comic.
When in an unfamiliar place, I guessed I should just go with native ways. Moreover, my hunger would make little distinction between crust-covered pies and thin-crust pizzas. A mistake on the part of this restaurant – located in Coolidge Corner, a neighbourhood of Brookline, Massachusetts – meant that the “Mashed Potato, Bacon & Scallion” pizza that I ordered turned out to be “Roasted Chicken, Caramelized Pears & Fontina Cheese” instead. Fortunately, the mistake was an absolutely delicious one!
So this first meal upon landing on American soil began my stint as Presidential International Visiting Scholar, a rather haughty title, at Wheelock College in Boston. A private liberal arts college with around a thousand students and academic staff, it was founded in 1888 as a school to train teachers in early childhood education.
Campus Center at Wheelock College, Boston
Incidentally, the College bears no connection to Wheelock Place, a shopping mall and office tower in the heart of Singapore’s shopping street, Orchard Road, owned by the publicly-listed Wheelock Properties (Singapore) Limited. It does have relation to Wheelock College Singapore. Operating out of the Singapore Institute of Technology building on the grounds of Ngee Ann Polytechnic, the Singapore branch currently offers Bachelor of Science and Master of Science in Early Childhood Education.
David FEDO worked for five years as the Executive Director at Wheelock College Singapore. Sometime in 2007 or 2008, I had met him at a literary reading that I had organised in Singapore, and we became friends. He subsequently published his first collection of poetry, Carrots and Other Poems (Ethos Books, 2009), in Singapore. Even after he retired and returned to the US, we remain in regular contact via email. He writes the “Letter from America” series of essays for Quarterly Literary Review Singapore and sends them to me for editing. I remember the last time I saw him was in early 2013, when I went on a media junket to New York City and then extended my stay to visit him and his wife Susan in Medford, Massachusetts.
In October 2014, Wheelock College had begun considering the possibility of inviting a Singapore writer to Boston, and when David was asked for his opinion on this matter, my name was floated. In March 2015, David wrote to Jenne POWERS, Assistant Professor of Humanities and Writing, a very warm recommendation: “I believe that Shu Hoong would be a wonderful presence among all constituencies of the Wheelock community; students would love him.” I was roped into the email conversation and, after carving out a free period in my schedule, I gladly accepted the offer – which was made official by a letter from the College’s President Jackie JENKINS-SCOTT in August 2015.
According to Wheelock’s website, the “Presidential International Visiting Scholars series is a cross-cultural initiative designed to promote global understanding and literacy and an international educational experience for faculty, learners, and administrators at Wheelock and beyond.” I would be paid an honorarium, complete with economy class roundtrip ticket to Boston, and accommodation in Colchester House, within walking distance of Wheelock’s Brookline Campus. Colchester House was once a family mansion; now it is a college residence for graduate and upper-class students. I was put up in a one-bedroom apartment on the second floor.
When I received my schedule of commitments, I realised that there was a total of eight events that I had to prepare for – from a public talk, to workshops and class engagements. In addition, I was invited to meetings and courtesy meals with staff.
The first workshop I had to conduct was on Friday, two days after I’d arrived in Boston, and it was for Jenne’s class, “ENG 225: Personal Voice in Professional Writing”. In a classroom that reminded me of the amphitheatre style of those I had visited in the Singapore Management University, I did a journalistic writing workshop on film criticism. After the first exercise, where I got the students to think and write about films they either love or hate, they could at least be proud in the knowledge that they had all written their first-ever movie reviews. I then proceeded to discuss the essential info that needs to be captured in a typical film review – like classification, genre, director and running time – as well as different review styles popular in the media today.
The workshop went well, though I did run out of time. This stirred up memories of a career talk that I once did, many years ago, at the Singapore American School. I think it was a couple of minutes after the bell had gone off, and a boy raised his hand, not to ask a very important question as I had initially believed, but to inform me that they needed to go off – like, immediately. I had forgotten about the lesson I’d acquired that day, about how American students should never be kept beyond the scheduled end-times of their classes. (The following Friday, conducting my follow-up session on interview techniques for the same class, I made sure I had better control of time.)
My public lecture, entitled “Poetry and Cinematics”, took place on the evening of Monday, February 22, at the Larsen Alumni Room on campus. A modest crowd of 20 to 30 people showed up, and I thought I fared better than I did during my Friday’s engagement, having rested sufficiently over the weekend. Aside from reading poems and discussing the inspirations and themes that gave life to my fifth book, The Viewing Party (Ethos Books, 2013), I also touched on my love for films and how my experiences as a former film critic for Singapore newspapers had informed some of the poems in the book. My sharing of the poem “Queenstown, 3.45pm”, accompanied by the “before” and “after” photos of a Singapore housing estate’s playground and exercise area, where residents emerged at 3.45pm to “perform” tai chi and other exercises in sweltering afternoon heat for the viewing pleasure of the visiting Prince William and his wife, provoked much chuckling from the audience as intended.
My other sessions at Wheelock included a “Theatre” class in which students put up staged readings of poems from my America-inspired collection, Isaac (1997) – like “Seeing Snow for the First Time” and “A Brief Encounter” – and an “Introduction to Music” class where I spoke about musicality and rhythm in poetry, and shared about Singapore’s music scene – complete with a sampling of songs by three Singapore indie bands, The Observatory, Hanging Up The Moon and Cheating Sons. In the “Latino Literature and Culture” class, I helped different groups of students analyse their assigned poems by queer Chicana poet, activist and feminist theorist, Gloria Evangelina ANZALDUA. Other workshops that I conducted touched on travel poetry, and creativity through the use of constraints.
Although the American students that I came into contact with during my time in Boston were attentive and polite, I rather missed my students in Republic Polytechnic, where I have been an adjunct lecturer since 2007. Perhaps it wasn’t fair to compare the situations at Wheelock with the bond I shared with Singapore students. After all, not only did I have the luxury of time to build rapport with my Polytechnic students, but we shared a common understanding, including the kind of English we conversed in.
With a foreign audience (just as how I would be seen as “foreign” by the American students), there would usually be this cautious assessment of each party at the onset, followed by perhaps a moderation of expectations, and an awareness of cultural boundaries. For example, when introducing Singapore to the American students, I had to decide on what to assume in terms of their prior knowledge of the country and whether I need to slip in some kind of South-east Asian exotica to impress the audience. At one point, I hesitated to use the word “faggot” in a poem by another Singapore poet that I was reading out, in case it was deemed offensive by any of the students (the professor in charge of the class said to go ahead, without asking what that word was). And at all times, I was just a little more conscious of my spoken English – including my “British accent” as one student had pointed out during a private conversation – and careful not to slip in some phrases not commonly used in the US.
On a more positive note, exchanges between different cultures often involve some surprise of similitude or the reward of learning something new. I noted that a mention of the film adaptation of Stephenie MEYER’s Twilight would evoke groans and cringes from most men and some women – both at Wheelock and in Singapore schools. In another instance, a Wheelock staff that I was chatting with nodded knowingly, when I explained how my worry about my aged parents has kept me from doing prolonged writing residencies outside of Singapore.
So this visit to Wheelock, at just over two weeks, was just right for me in terms of duration. And because I was housed in an apartment instead of hopping from one hotel to the next, this Boston trip felt the closest to my past experience of living in America when I was pursuing my MBA at Texas A&M University at College Station, Texas, from 1992 to 1993. The difference was that, in Texas – well, at least in the small university town I was in – strangers you met on the streets would say “hi or “howdy” to you all the time, while in Boston, just like in Singapore, strangers remained strangers. An academic staff, over breakfast, lamented to me about the difficulty of making new friends in Boston. So is this typically how it is, I wondered, in New England, amid the scholarly atmosphere and frigid weather?
Another Wheelock staff asked if I was used to the food in Boston. “It’s pretty bad, right?” he asked. But my culinary adventure was reasonably good. A few Singapore friends had given me tips on Boston eateries – from an upscale New American bistro on Newbury Street and a pho place in Chinatown, to the Legal Sea Foods chain – on top of recommendations I had gleaned from travel guides.
As a temporary resident, I wasn’t too bothered by such concerns over food or friends. What was more important to me was the issue of getting around – whether Boston is walkable as a city (it is), and if the public transportation is affordable and convenient (the seven-day pass for the T subway system costs only US$19).
Colchester House, in a safe residential neighbourhood, is located within easy walking distance of several T stations, the nearest being Kent Street and Longwood. The only thing I had to figure out was that “inbound” trains are going into Boston’s city centre, while “outbound” means getting out. I could walk to Wheelock’s main campus in 10 minutes. I was even able to walk – albeit for half an hour each way – to catch a concert by American singer-songwriter Josh RITTER at the live music venue House of Blues, located next to Fenway Park, home of the Boston Red Sox.
House of Blues in Boston
I have visited Boston three times before, but this was the first visit when I had sufficient time to properly discover the city as a tourist. So, in between work commitments at Wheelock, I got to stroll along Boston’s waterfront and across Boston Common, stop by historical graveyards and old buildings on the Freedom Trail, and also explore different neighbourhoods from Back Bay to North End. I had already visited the Museum of Fine Arts in 2013, so I made sure to pop into Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum this time around. But if I had to list my favourite Boston experiences, I would mention the beautiful houses on Beacon Hill, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, where the life and work of the 35th US President were retold within a gleaming building of white concrete and glass designed by the famed architect I. M. PEI.
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum
But even more memorable was meeting up with the Fedos in their Medford home, where after dinner, we sat in the living room to share poems. It was a treat for me, especially, to hear Moira LINEHAN (whom I’d met through the Fedos in 2013) read from her latest poetry collection, Incarnate Grace (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015): “I remain / transfixed. A pair of swans and their young contain me and a pond” (“Wild Swans at Winter Pond”). This was a much-welcomed change of scenery after gaining new insights from my American friends about their complicated voting system (and the curious case of Donald TRUMP) before and during dinner.
A restaurant meal with David and Susan Fedo
Then there was the added bonus of meeting with poets whom I’d known or previously met in Singapore.
Ravi SHANKAR, a poet living in Rhode Island, drove over to meet me and David near Porter Square in Cambridge. I had last met him in November at the Singapore Writers Festival 2015. And before that, he had visited Singapore and did a workshop for a mentorship programme that I was then managing for the National Arts Council. The co-editor of Language for a New Century: Contemporary Poetry from the Middle East, Asia, and Beyond (W.W. Norton, 2008), he included one of my poems in the anthology. The first time we met was at the London launch.
The former US Poet Laureate Robert PINSKY, whom I had introduced at his “PoemJazz” session in the Singapore Writers Festival 2014, was another person I had the pleasure to see on his home turf. I trudged through the rain on the evening of February 24 to attend a “Favorite Poem Project Reading” that he was introducing at Florence & Chafetz Hillel House. This was on the campus of Boston University, where he leads a poetry workshop every semester with students in the graduate writing programme. I think Robert was glad that I had a chance to learn more about his Favorite Poem Project – he even remarked that it would be great if one day a similar reading of favourite poems could be organised in Singapore.
During one of the weekends, I visited New York City to meet with a former course-mate from my MBA programme, Susan PETERS, and her husband Eric. Coincidentally, fellow Singaporean poet Alvin PANG was in town – he was here for a few days after attending a poetry festival in Granada, Nicaragua. So we met for breakfast in a Cuban diner in Chelsea and caught up with one another. I also met with another Singaporean poet KOH Jee Leong, whom I last saw in Singapore when he was launching his book, Steep Tea (Carcanet Press, 2015) and attending the Singapore Writers Festival. This was my first time seeing him in his adopted city, since he had relocated here. On a Sunday evening, I sat down to dinner with Jee Leong in a Korean restaurant in Midtown Manhattan, together with two new friends he had invited along: Kimberley LIM, who works as an editor at a New York publishing house, and Cheryl KOH, an up-and-coming Singaporean writer living in New York. It was a pity that Alvin had, by then, left the US.
As my days in Boston became numbered, I was ready to embrace the equatorial warmth that I was sorely missing. By the time I finally met President Jackie (everyone is on a first-name basis at Wheelock) in a brasserie called Eastern Standard on Commonwealth Avenue, it was only a couple of days before my departure. What I had heard about her was true: the African American woman in her mid-60s appeared approachable, maternal, and down to earth, showing none of the anxiety she must have felt dealing with recent controversies at Wheelock (two Jewish professors had alleged anti-Semitic discrimination, which the College denied, and it was all over the news). I wondered, over the cheese platter shared by our party of five, if my visit to Wheelock was at a bad time or if I had brought some needed distraction to the chill.
On my last day in the US – March 3 – I must have felt enough of a Boston resident to cancel my taxi booking, on Jenne’s advice, and use the Silver Line to get to the airport for my return flight to Singapore. The commute, despite two pieces of check-in luggage and a backpack, was accomplished without a hitch.
Not counting a quick bite in the airport’s departure lounge, my final meal in Boston was in Otto in Coolidge Corner. At last, I tried the “Mashed Potato, Bacon & Scallion” pizza that I didn’t get to savour on my first visit. It was good, though it didn’t blow me away. Is it because, by then, I was no longer chomping it down with the curiosity of a tourist hungry for new experience?
I was getting used to Boston as a place to live, I realised in the pizza parlour. With all traces of jetlag finally losing their grip on me, I was, however, all packed and ready to go.
Author at Otto
YONG Shu Hoong is the author of a poetry chapbook, Right of the Soil (2016), and five poetry collections – including Frottage (2005) and The Viewing Party (2013), both winners of the Singapore Literature Prize. He is the editor of the short-story anthology, Passages: Stories of Unspoken Journeys (2013), and one of the four co-authors of The Adopted: Stories from Angkor (2015). He lives in Singapore, where he works as a freelance writer and teaches part-time at Republic Polytechnic and Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He was writer-in-residence at NTU from August 2013 to February 2014.