My Two-and-a-Half Foot Long Bridge
Raqeeb Grant Chang, 2nd Place
Looking at the coffee table, the first thing that would catch your attention is the patchwork of nicks, dents, and scratches on its surface. If you run your hands over it, you would come across a shallow indent in the surface and a couple of elevated paint globs that had never fully washed off. Despite its many imperfections, I love the table. It has no arches, beams, or cables, but it is a strong, durable bridge that connects events, experiences, and emotions that have taken place throughout my life in Asia and America.
The table was the first piece of furniture that my parents owned that did not come from Ikea. My parents purchased it in mint condition from a Mexican furniture store in Berkeley eleven years ago, right before I was born. The coffee table looks like any other; it might not seem so special at first glance. It is of rustic design and is constructed from solid wood and wooden nails. The table has a square top measuring two and a half feet on each side and sits on four foot-long legs. On one side of it is a small drawer with a knobbed handle that always seems to stick. In short, it is humble looking. Even so, my mom had treasured the table so much that she gave coasters to every guest who came over for coffee. However, once I was born, my mom gave up protecting her precious table when she realized that damage to it was inevitable.
My parents moved to Singapore, my mom’s native country, when I was a baby. My mom was homesick, which was why we temporarily settled there for around three years. I used to eat a multitude of Southeast Asian snacks on the coffee table, which followed us to Asia. I remember eating “Monster Noodle,” Maggi Instant Noodle, “roti prata,”or a fried round Indian flatbread, Milo drink, and other local treats on the table. In fact, more than a couple of stains on the table came from bowls of hot curry, which toppled over when I was hopping on the table. I also used to create small masterpieces every day on the table, but by the end of the art sessions the table top was definitely more colorful than the infantile squiggles on my paintings. As the table resembles an open landscape, I have always felt that I can express myself on or at the table. In the end, the table helps link the different aspects of my multicultural heritage and experiences.
When I was around two or three years old, I started playing with Thomas the Tank Engine trains. My dad and I would spend hours creating wooden worlds on the coffee table for my trains to roll around in. I was a moody and stubborn toddler, which made me prone to tantrums. Unavoidably, dents were made by airborne trains during some of my many meltdowns.
By the time I was three, I had absolutely tortured the poor table. I now realize that I was very grateful that it never yelled back at me or retaliated when I drew, kicked or jumped on it.
I lived in Singapore from the age of 18 months to 4 1/2 years. I grew very close to both my Malay grandparents and my uncle and aunt. Everybody doted on me because I was the family baby. By the time I was four, I was pretty attached to Singapore, so when I caught word that we were moving back to California, where my dad was from, I threw one of my famous tantrums. I “dropped” my mom’s pestle on the table, which left a really big bowl-shaped dent. It was sort of splinter-y on one side, and mom had to sandpaper it smooth. Eventually, it got even smoother and my brothers and I even used it as a bowl on some occasions. We wanted to return to California because it was apparently my dad’s turn to get homesick. For the first few weeks, I remember feeling confused and wondered why it was too cold to walk around at home in my underwear, which I used to be able to do in the tropics. I also wondered where in the world my grandparents were.
During this turbulent period, the table, with its many flaws, somehow comforted me because it had been a constant in my life. Each mark on the table signified a memory. When I looked at one particular burn, I remembered my Atok, or Malay grandfather, who used to perch me on the table, put a bowl of rice on my lap, then feed me. I have grown to realize that it is very Asian to feed a kid instead of just leaving a child to feed himself. Maybe this is also part of the reason why I remember the scene so vividly. Looking back, I realize that although the table left Singapore, Singapore did not leave it.
The table has been with me everywhere I have lived. It was bought in America, spent several years in Singapore, and now it has returned to the U.S.A. Even though the table is only two-and-a-half feet long, it bridges the 9,000 or so miles that separate San Francisco from Singapore. Along the way, it has collected thousands of memory-filled dents, burns, blots, stains and the like.
By the time my middle brother turned five years old, the table looked so sadly hideous that we decided to wash, sand, and stain it. I felt happy then because it was like a new beginning, but a little sad to see some of the marks and doodles go.
The table will always remind me that I have to be who I am – a fusion of Malay, Chinese, Caucasian, and everything Californian. Like the table, I am resilient, nonconforming, different, unusual, and unique.
These days, my youngest brother, who was born a decade after me, is making the table his own memory bridge by doodling all over it, playing with the same Thomas the Tank Engine trains, and eating snacks on it similar to the ones as I did.