I am in my thirties, away on an overseas trip, when my mom tells me she brought the kids and my helper to fly kites at Marina Barrage. The wide grass fields at Marina Bay are no longer; skyscrapers have taken root as the soil settled. Singapore is continually trying to bend nature to its will, and the Barrage is an engineering feat that dams the Singapore river, creating the country’s largest freshwater reservoir. Every weekend, hundreds gather on the grassy field atop Marina Barrage to picnic, watch planes, and fly kites.
“They tried for an hour to fly the kite,” she says, “but failed. It was too difficult.”
Grandchildren have given my mom new life, or perhaps she and my father have accepted the impossibility of bending each to the other’s will. In adulthood I have come to see my parents in a new light, especially after marriage and even more so after having kids. My father still spends almost every weekend at home, but my mother has learnt to leave him alone. Ma is like a kite, searching for her new identity as a woman in her sixties whose kids have flown the nest. But she always returns home before long—because what would my father do without her?
* * *
I am eight or nine years old the first time I try to fly a kite. I must be older than seven because we are already living at our new house in Bukit Timah. Unlike our old flat, it has two storeys, a broad wooden staircase, and a sunny garden where I earn pocket money plucking weeds. Ma tells us it’s called a maisonette. I repeat the word over and over in my head thinking how pretty it sounds; ‘mai’ is pronounced ‘may’ and infuses the word with possibilities.
There are many good schools near our maisonette and the estate is full of kids our age. Every weekend, they leave home with their parents, piling into large family vans as they drive north to Malaysia, east to the beaches, or to the kelongs in Punggol for fishing. Pa and Ma will learn in no time, I tell myself, but every weekend Pa is either in his room sleeping or downstairs reading the paper. Don’t disturb Pa, Ma always says. He’s very busy at the office. All I know is Pa always comes home late looking very tired.
One weekend Ma announces, “We’re going to fly kites at Marina Bay!” My older sister and I jump for joy, happy to spend the weekend somewhere other than home. Marina Bay in the late eighties is Singapore’s new frontier. Vast fields of grass cover the freshly filled sea; in the distance we see the shapes of faraway islands. “Indonesia,” Jie says. My older sister always knows everything. I wonder if she knows why our parents fight. Ma tells us all parents fight. But what if that isn’t true? Behind that question lies a door I don’t want to open.
We stand stiffly at the edge of the field for a moment, intimidated by the vastness of the open expanse. Then, like fish released back into the sea, we run. Lalang stalks brush against our legs; when we return home my socks are covered with hairy burrs. We leave the adults far behind, losing sight of Ma. Pa stands some twenty or thirty metres away at the edge of the field, shielding his eyes with one hand as he stares at the sea. Pa carries a chunky black telephone that looks like a brick. When he raises it to talk, lines break out across his already stern face.
Jie and I argue about who should throw the kite and who should run. “There needs to be a height difference,” Jie says with authority. The kite can’t take off because we are almost the same height. All around us kites take flight; there must be dozens in the sky. In the dazzling afternoon sun they appear as pinpoint shadows, tails swaying with the wind. What happens if the wind pushes them higher, beyond the cloud cover? Will the kites come crashing down? Another question I cannot answer.
Jie holds the kite while I run with the spool. One, two, three! She launches the kite in the air. It nosedives into the ground. “You need to run faster,” Jie says. We switch, but when it is my turn the kite crashes again, possibly even earlier. Kite-flying, we conclude, is not for little people like us. Perhaps if one of us were taller, or if Pa helped us, we could get the kite in the sky.
Before long Pa turns back to us, his face telling us it is time to go home. Carrying the kite that never flew between us, we head for the car, the day tarred by our disappointment. It is the last time I remember trying to fly a kite. For some reason, we never go back to Marina Bay.
* * *
Determined to parent differently, I let my kids run and explore outdoors as much as they want. “I don’t understand you young people,” my mom says, often with a shake of her head. Sometimes I send her photos of my kids at the beach; her reply is inevitably some variation of ‘too much sun is bad for your skin’ or ‘do you want your kids to become chao ta’, Cantonese for charred meat and a derisory term for dark skin tones. I remember my parents bringing me to the beach only once. One day I say it to my mother. It comes out more vindictive than I intend.
“Do you know how hard it was to raise all three of you? And your father…” her voice trails off, her eyes wet.
Perhaps one day my children will complain: Ma, why did you bring us to the beach so often when we were young? We just wanted to stay at home.
* * *
One afternoon, not long after my twins turn four, we are at the beach again when we see an elderly man with a massive kite. The kite, an orange and purple octopus, larger than the man trying to fly it, has a broad fan of fluttering tentacles. The spool is the size of his arm, with two large wheels to control the speed. He gets the kite up easily, but it falls after a few minutes. Over the next fifteen minutes, the kite flies then falls as though it is too heavy, its ambition too great.
“Come and eat,” I call out to my daughter, but she remains standing, watching the man and his kite. I have learnt to leave her alone; she will eventually eat, just at her own pace. Halfway through my burger, my daughter shouts.
‘The octopus is flying!’ She shields her eyes, pointing at the sky. ‘The octopus is flying!’
The kite dances with the wind, cartwheeling in the air. It is a magnificent sight. The next time we go to the beach, I bring the kite my mother bought. A free gift from the toy store, the kite is cheap and plasticky, its face printed with a Paw Patrol cartoon. The string isn’t waxed, just dollar-shop twine, attached to a tiny red plastic spool. I already feel pessimistic about my chances of getting it into the sky.
At the beach the children grab their spades and start digging, imitating their favourite video How to Build a Swimming Pool, while I assemble the kite. A gentle breeze picks up. Holding the kite with my right hand, the spool with my left, I run, hoping by some miracle the kite will take off in the sky.
It falls flat.
I try again, running downhill in the direction the wind is coming from, hoping that gives the kite an extra boost. It takes off, if only for a short while, before crashing in the sand.
On what feels like my hundredth try, the kite launches. I am momentarily stunned. The wind pushes it up so high I can’t unwind the twine fast enough. And then it dips with the wind and I scramble to pull back the slack. Kite-flying, I quickly come to realize, is about feeling the wind. With my hand, I feel the kite soar, dip, then soar again, controlling the twine so that it holds just the right amount of tension. I am in command of the wind.
“Mommy! Ryder and Chase and Marshall are flying!” My daughter points at the dogs on the kite. She clamours for the spool. I pass it to her but continue controlling the slack in the line. As the kite soars, something in me takes flight. In that moment I forget myself, and I think my daughter does too. At the age of thirty-six, I am flying a kite for the first time in my life. I wonder what has been holding me back—and then I let go of the line.
“Keep your eyes on the kite,” I tell my daughter. I step back, watching her—all hundred and five centimeters of her—clutching the spool as she flies the kite. But the wind picks up speed. It lifts the kite, yanking the spool from her hands. She freezes, and I run towards her. Before I can reach her she gathers herself, chasing the spool as it bounces on the sand like a dog running away with a toy. My heart fills with relief as she catches the spool, steadying the kite. Fifty feet in the sky, the kite smiles back at us. I let out the breath I didn’t know I was holding, and let her feel the wind.