My American Dream

Written by Vania Octaviani

2018

It’s 10 pm and I can feel the cold air from the occasional winds that breeze through the rooftop area. It’s always colder in Hillview. I sincerely wish that Sofia had held the pre-drinking sessions in her house instead. From the rooftop, there is a panorama of forests and newly built condominium buildings with modern Scandinavian design. Sometimes if I look hard enough through the night mist, I can almost spot the set of skyscrapers that is Johor Bahru on the horizon. On the right side is an empty field under the shade of a hill, where monkeys roam around and sometimes jump onto someone’s balcony. In the night, there’s only bleak darkness—the only brightness comes from the residents’ illuminated windows. 

Hillview is a neighbourhood on the west side of Singapore that overlooks Bukit Timah Hill and houses some of the oldest condominium estates.

Much like the Hollywood sign that stands as a grand promise to a great life, Hillview bears a name that intends to show you the hills and all the greeneries embedded around. 

Having lived for more than a decade in the area, my boyfriend Ryan often laments the demise of the rainforest in Hillview, just across from Sofia’s place. When Ryan was younger, he tried to explore the forest with a group of friends, only to find themselves kissing a large orb of spiderweb just five steps into the woods. The developers had planned another deforestation in the area to build an international school, which resulted in an incident where an angry wild boar attacked a man near Hillview station. 

Yet the H in Hollywood became a symbol of sorrow that took away the life and dream of the young, and I wonder if Hillview is carrying the same curse. 

Half of the group is already wasted from the absinthe that someone has brought as Sofia’s birthday present. My surroundings feel blurry. My lips curl into a mischievous smile as my hand reaches for the cigarette pack that someone had put in my handbag earlier.

‘Nicole! You got a lighter or not?’ I yell at a Chinese-Singaporean girl sitting next to me. Nicole is talking to a tall white boy who I’ve never seen before. I’ve always wondered how Sofia would randomly conjure up guests for her parties. 

‘No!’ Nicole answers sternly, almost in a motherly tone. ‘You better smoke properly or not smoke it at all!’

***

Back in Jakarta, especially in the Chinese Indonesian communities, the idea of smoking for women is a revolting proposition. I tried my first cigarette when I was hanging out with my friend from drama school, Judy, after a shopping trip at Orchard Road. We were sitting down on a bench outside a shopping centre as she was smoking her cigarette. I’d always been curious about the sensation. I asked Judy if I could try a puff that day. 

If Judy were a cigarette, she would be a Sobranie Cocktail; the beautiful pastel-coloured paper is merely a cover for the despair underneath. 

The glamourisation of smoking females first became popular during the golden age of Hollywood. Stars like Bette Davis were paid up to $75,000 a year by tobacco companies to promote cigarettes. Smoking cigarettes was advocated as a quick weight-loss method. 

Just like Ms Garland herself, my Judy is like a Pandora’s Box. But when you take off the lid, you’re not unleashing the horror that you expected. Just a beautiful soul that has seen too much of the world. 

I took a long drag while Judy gave some instructions next to me. 

‘Inhale,’ she said. ‘And just swallow it, really suck it into your lungs.’ I waited for a miraculous change in myself, but obviously, I had to cough and spit unglamorously. Judy shook her head.

***

Nicole gives in and hands me her lighter. I carefully light my cigarette up, trying not to burn the tip too much. Ryan’s voice rings in my head, ‘Every time you light up your cigarette, the tip looks so burned like char kway teow!’ I’m quite glad he’s not around to see my poor attempt at smoking. 

Half an hour later, someone yells at the group, telling everyone to go downstairs as the taxi van has arrived. I don’t remember how I walked myself into the lift, or who am I sharing it with except for Sofia’s mum. Sofia’s mum and dad had come up with trays of tapas and ice buckets before the other guests arrived. As we ascend from the fiftieth floor, Sofia’s mum, fully aware that I am intoxicated, starts to stroke my arm gently. Vulnerable from the alcohol, I pull her into an embrace. 

***

When I first came to Singapore in 2015, I thought I was ready for three years of drama school. I initially wanted to pursue acting in the US or UK, so I knew well that I would have to change fractions of myself to fit into the Western frame. I taught myself how to speak English with the ‘white people’ accent. I used Gleeas my gate to popular culture, where I familiarised myself with the tunes of Britney, Madonna, and Streisand. How entitled of me to think that I deserved to stand amongst the best artists out there when all I did was belt loudly to Don’t Rain on My Parade on my bed while my parents laughed and called me crazy. What have I earned? Sure, I speak good English, but so does everybody in America, England, and many other countries in the world, and it’s not like all of them are movie stars. 

When I found myself standing in front of my new classmates, suddenly everything I’d learned left my body. The culture that I learned from media was only the tip of the iceberg and just knowing it certainly didn’t make me a Westerner. In everyone’s eyes, I was just a meek Indonesian girl who barely spoke up. So where was the me who could speak so well, sing so confidently, and dream so ferociously? Had I left her back home, or did she even exist?

Acting is vulnerable work—an actor needs to understand their role to embody a persona and to commit as a believable vessel they need to accept themselves first. Without acceptance, you will always put-up false images of yourself. How can you expect to deliver truthful work if you can’t practise truthfulness? I certainly didn’t acknowledge my truth.

I am a Chinese Indonesian girl. When I was growing up, I would go with my mother to the Catholic Church every Sunday morning and afterwards my father would pick us up so we could go to a noodle stall by the park and eat breakfast together. The bowl would be full of thin egg noodles glistening with oil, covered by minced pork so fragrant you could smell it five feet away. I eat quinoa salad, pasta, and avocado on a toast these days, but there are so many times where I wish that I was back at that outdoor table and eating my noodle instead, with the occasional intrusions from stray cats nearby. I have a friend who also studied overseas and after graduating, he told me that he would be returning to Jakarta. 

‘I like a country that is a little chaotic,’ he said to my surprised face. ‘Developed countries are too well-structured for me. I kind of like the mess in Jakarta. Where else in the world are you able to smoke in a taxi during a bad traffic jam with the driver joining you?’ I reluctantly agreed with him. No matter where I end up in the future, Jakarta would always be my home. My home and my truth, an irreversible part of myself. 

So, in addition to the dance studios, the counselling room became a practising place for me too—except the only muscle that I was exercising was my memory as I recalled the events leading up to my father’s death in 2014. 

‘Your anxiety stems from the pain of losing your father,’ the counsellor said. ‘Let’s practice some grief work on you first.’

We found out about his cancer in January 2012 when I was only fifteen. The adults scrambled around looking for treatments and solutions while my sister and I were mainly kept in the dark about his illness. When my family was tending my father at his worst, I was hiding in my room, hoping that God would finally pick up our prayers and heal him. But the tumour grew on his lungs as it sucked the life out of his organs.

I thought that his legacy would at least keep me afloat, but I ended up drowning and gasping for air too. I always wondered if it was a punishment for my unwillingness to face him during his last days. Perhaps I knew that the answer to my prayers was written there all along, that to win a fight, sometimes one needed to surrender and let go. And I wasn’t ready to let go yet. Within the four walls of the counselling room, I grieved and grappled with the concept of death. And out of the room, both Judy and Sofia would breathe life back into me. As fellow international students in our class we had become close and out of school they were compensating for all the delayed experiences that I should have had when I was sixteen. 

I had my first clubbing experience with Sofia and Judy, and I flinched whenever I felt a hand hanging around my ass. Sofia had laughed and told me that she would like to take me to a carnival in Spain and see me react to guys dancing behind me. She also taught me to put on makeup and we bought my first bottle of foundation together. One evening, we all sat down at Sofia’s dining table to eat roast chicken—Sofia, her boyfriend, Judy, and me—and pretended that it was snowing in September. Afterwards, when Judy was smoking on the balcony, Sofia played a Christmas song on the stereo. I was moving by myself and watching Sofia and her boyfriend hold each other before they pulled me in for a dance.

Sofia and Judy also held me when I was bawling and roaring into the night about how much I missed my father.

‘I just want a dad,’ I’d howled.

‘Vania, we can share my dad!’ Sofia had insisted, tears trickling down her face too. ‘We can share my parents.’

***

‘I love you, Theresa,’ I say as my arms tighten around Sofia’s mother in the lift.


Vania is a final year Creative Writing & Public Relations student at Deakin University. Vania found her love for writing when she was studying theatre performance in Singapore and decided to fly down to Melbourne in 2019. Vania’s experiences of being an international art student in foreign countries have always inspired her and she always explores the theme of culture, identity, and self-expression in her writings. She also dedicates her free time to create fashion and beauty related content for @potatoeeees. 

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