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Foreign Bodies

About The Book

Trouble often comes with a late-night phone call. So it comes to Mei, a twenty-something Singaporean lawyer about to face the greatest trial of her life. Her English boyfriend Andy, working in Singapore as a teacher, has been arrested, accused of masterminding an international betting ring. Under Singapore's draconian system of justice, he has but nine short days to prove his innocence or face life in prison. With time running out, Singapore native Eugene, Andys best friend and Mei's childhood playmate, flies in from Holland to help uncover the truth, a search that will unearth long-hidden secrets and forever challenge the moral, ethical, and spiritual framework of their lives.
Exploring the chasm between Singapore's pop culture and traditional values, the friends' Gen-X cynicism and their gnawing hunger for direction and meaning, Hwee Hwee Tan delivers a powerful novel of clashing cultures and swirling spiritual quests, in which the wit is as sharp and unafraid as the insight it offers.


Chapter I



'Are you a Singaporean citizen, over twenty-one, and a lawyer?' he said.

I recognized that voice at once, the English accent, the voice roughened by too much tar and endless lager sagas. It could only be Andy. Now the above question might seem fairly innocuous to the casual eavesdropper, but in this instance it caused me a great deal of aggravation. Believe me, if Mother Teresa was in my place, if she was asked the same question under the same controlled circumstances, it would be enough to make her chuck her role as the saint of the century and send her screaming down the streets, going apeshit, looking for babies to kick. Why was Andy's question so provocative? I'll tell you why. Firstly, not only because it was one in the morning (and looking at my glow-in-the-dark Casio clock, I saw that it was 1:16 a.m. to be exact), but secondly, and more importantly, Andy knew, that I knew, that he knew, the answer to all three questions, because five hours earlier he was supposed to meet me outside Tung Lok Shark's Fin Restaurant to celebrate my getting the licence to practise law. Of course, Andy didn't turn up. I hate eating alone, so I went home early, and woe to me -- I returned to the flat only to find my mother having a karaoke night with her mah-jong playmates. So instead of feasting on Abalone Delight and Peking Duck, I spent my evening trying to block out the sound of fifty-something housewives wailing songs from the Karaoke Hit List From Hell, songs like 'Sealed With A Kiss', 'Singapura, Oh Singapura (Sunny Island Set In The Sea)', 'Tie A Yellow Ribbon Round the Old Oak Tree', 'Que Será Será', and 'Ne Xin Li Ken Ben Mei Yao Wo' (or 'Your Heart Never Had Me'). Trust me, you haven't seen something truly Satanic until you've seen your mother belting out 'Chain Reaction' complete with Diana Ross hand actions and bum wiggles. So, as you can imagine, when Andy phoned, I was in less than a good mood. What would you do -- after the pain in your ears has subsided, when you've finally managed to fall asleep -- what would you do, if you were woken at one in the morning by someone who had stood you up five hours earlier, and asked three completely inane questions?

I pondered my options, rolled over the choices that came to mind, and finally decided upon the calmest, the most apposite, indeed, the most mature response. I slammed down the phone. It rang again, and I picked it up and said, 'I'm very pissed off now, and you have about five seconds to make me un-pissed-off, preferably using a technique which involves three words or less, or else this phone is going down again.'

Silence on the other end as Andy paused to think of those all-important three words. As our Andrew ponders upon those crucial phrases, perhaps now would be a good time to introduce him. This is a tricky process because of the Eugene Connection. Andy wasn't really a friend, he was more like a friend-in-law -- I knew him through Eugene. Eugene was my neighbour-cum-childhood playmate. When we were kids, we had great adventures together, like investigating 'The Case of Mrs Lam's (Possibly) Murdered Maid', but that's another story. Now pay attention, here's where it gets complicated, because Eugene is one of those people with those intricate, exotic backgrounds that most normal people like me would kill for. During his teens, Eugene and his parents emigrated to Holland to open a Chinese restaurant. He returned to Singapore for a few years to complete his National Service, then he went to university in England, where he met Andy. They became best friends, and spent their undergraduate years cultivating their passion for soccer, kebabs, and Cocoa Bombs. Anyway, post-graduation, when Andy (unsurprisingly) couldn't get a job in England., he decided to go East to seek his fortune.

Andy finally thought of those three magic words -- 'I'm in jail.'

Now it was my turn to be speechless.

So Andy said, 'Have I used up my words quota yet or can I say more?'

I graciously granted him permission to speak.

'They think I'm the head of a soccer gambling syndicate. I'm supposed to be like some octopus, with tentacles all over the place, in Asia, Europe, everywhere. Imagine that -- little ol' me. Head of a multi-million betting empire. I don't know whether to be flattered or outraged.'

'Have you been charged?'

'I've been arrested under -- what was that phrase again? -- the Common Betting Act. They said it was a "bookable offence". What's that in normal English?'

'It's legalese for "You're in big trouble."'

'So, as you see, I need someone to bail me out. And the police said that that someone had to be Singaporean, and over twenty-one. And I thought, hey, I've got a friend -- not just an acquaintance, but a good friend, who fits that description perfectly. Plus she's just got her law licence.'

'I'm impervious to flattery at one in the morning.' But once again, I knew I had to do it. I had to rescue Andy again.

Andy was always stumbling into trouble. I don't think he ever had a plan in fife, but if he did, it was probably to live a life of complete cluelessness. He would do something outrageous, after which he would flash his trademark stricken-yet-ingenuous look: he would widen his doe-like eyes, scrunch his mouth and flap his hands as if trying to fend off any accusations of misconduct. 'It's not my fault,' he would invariably say, 'I don't know how that broke*/I don't know how the snot got sprayed all over your CDs*/I didn't know you weren't supposed to smoke that in this country* (*delete as applicable) -- it just happened.' I was used to getting him out of trouble. In the past few months, he had depended on me to bail him out, in the metaphorical sense. I didn't mind that. It's just that I never expected to have to bail him out literally.

Ah well. Some were born to guardian angelhoods; others have guardian angelhoods thrust upon them. I fall into the latter category. Eugene came to Singapore for a few months, to help Andy settle in, but last week I had to take over from Eugene after he got a phone call from his parents, demanding that he return to Holland to help them run their Chinese restaurants.

'My father wants to open two new branches in Leiden and Utrecht', Eugene said, 'called Triple Pagoda, or Moon Dragon Flying Round Lotus Umbrella, or something stupid like that. I better go to Holland and stop him before he does any more pei-say things like that. Can you imagine, he even wants to put bami balls on the menu?' Eugene stuck a finger down his throat, and pretended to gag.

So Eugene entrusted Andy to my care. 'You got to take care of him for me. We're like brothers. Like Frank and Joe Hardy. Like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.'

'Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid weren't brothers,' I said.

'Ai-ya, you lawyer types are so pedantic,' Eugene said. 'But hey, seriously, Andy needs help. You know what he's like. I need someone to look after him for me.'

That someone had to be me. I didn't really have a choice. I remember when I first saw Andy. He stood out from all the other passengers at the arrival lounge, surveying his surroundings with innocent awe. His face looked so fragile -- skin white as fine china, as if one touch would shatter it into a powder of dust. Pale like marble, with wisps of red hair, and fine, fragile features, he would have looked terribly Pre-Raphaelite, but for the freckles and glasses. With those plump cheeks, curly red hair and brilliant blue eyes, he looked like a baby angel, empty of guile, filled with pure, naive joy. One look at him and I knew that I had to dedicate my life to protect that innocence, preserve that purity, shelter him from an evil and cunning world. Even though his red head towered a foot above me, I felt a deep need to go up and pat him on the head.

Andy had this helpless boy charm, the kind that brought out all the maternal instincts that I never knew I had. When I first saw him I suddenly had all these unnatural urges -- I wanted to bring him home, sit him down on the sofa, place the remote control in his hand, and say, 'You just stay here watching the highlights from the Premier League while I go into the kitchen and happily spend three hours brewing a bowl of red date soup for you.' Once, while watching Four Weddings and A Funeral, I had a vision of myself smiling up at him, barefoot and pregnant, like some model out of a Ministry of Community Development poster. And I was like -- Holy Jesus, what's happening to me? Why am I thinking these evil thoughts? Why have ten years of feminist education suddenly evaporated?

That's why I have spent the past few months cleaning up after Andy. Recently, there have been many of Andy's 'It just Happened' incidents. Like the time we were at Newton Circus, when Andy ordered a cup of Ovaltine. He poured the Ovaltine into a saucer, blew on it to cool it, then added some vodka. 'It's called Cocoa Bomb,' he said.

Afterwards, we made our way to my new car. Now I know that Andy loves my car, because when he first saw it, he knew a lot more about it than I did -- 'Unbelievable! You've got the best model in the range. As Jeremy Clarkson says -- not only does this car combine the smooth ride and responsiveness of a gasoline engine with the fuel economy of a diesel, it also has three-channel anti-skid brakes, and a computer-controlled traction control system. Cool.' However, I didn't buy the car for any of those reasons. I bought the car because I fell in love with its one genuinely distinctive feature -- its green-tinted glass roof, which Andy proceeded to make even more distinctive by being sick all over it. That night at Newton Circus, I learnt another dubiously useful lesson, which I shall pass on for your instruction and edification: if someone pukes on your car roof, it will set off the alarm.

'Sorry, I didn't mean to do that. It just happened. It must have been the curry.' Footnote: even if he's drunk three gallons of beer, it's never the alcohol that causes Andy's awesome feats of regurgitation -- it's always something else -- like the kebab, or the crisps, or the Wagon Wheels. When I point that out, he says, 'Don't you tell me what to eat Miss Slim-Fast, Miss Ryvita-With-Jam. You're just jealous because I don't have to worry about my thighs.' That's another thing that drives me nuts, the way Andy mainlines Mars bars and liquorice without gaining a pound. I think he's signed a pact with the Devil -- how else can you explain how Andy manages to maintain the body of an Adonis while subsisting on the fantasy diet of a nine-year-old?

Another time when there was a lot of cleaning up to do was during Andy's first MRT trip. There were these big signs plastered all over the train station, these drawings of a cup and a plate of steaming food, with a huge red cross stamped across them. For those lacking the ability to interpret visual symbols, a caption underneath that warned us that the possessors of food and drink in an MRT station would be subjected to a five-hundred dollar fine. I told Andy to hide his bottle of Cocoa Bomb in his bag, but he said, 'I'm not going to let any foreign government dictate my eating habits.' So we were standing on the platform, waiting for the train, and Andy starts recounting Fallensham United's latest victory, jiggling his hands as he tried to reconstruct Varney's lastminute winning piledriver. Of course he spilled his drink all over the floor. He took off his T-shirt, got down on his knees, and went -- 'Shit shit shit shit shit' as he tried to mop up the brown mess. Then this huge mother of a voice booms out from some hidden PA system. The cameras had been watching us all this time, that panoptic system that governs the public transport system. 'The voice said, 'Will the topless man please make his way to the Central Control Station.' As usual, it was down to me to deal with the grim grey-uniformed MRT wardens, grovelling on Andy's behalf, soothing things over in the Singlish lingo that only the natives could do -- 'Ai-ya, sorry about my friend lah. He's ang mo, you know what they're like. He just got off the plane, he came from this small ulu ulu town in England, very sau-ku, he doesn't know anything. You give him chance, okay or not?'

'Okay, this time we give him chance,' the station manager said, 'but next time he do this again, we ou kong him a lot of money.'

It was Andy's first encounter with Singlish, so after we left the control station, he asked me, 'What were you talking about?'

'I told them you were this stupid white foreign country bumpkin,' I said, 'and they said they would let you off this time, but if you litter again, they'll fine you five hundred dollars.' I explained to Andy that though people like me and Eugene could speak perfect English, we reserved our 'proper' English for foreigners, job interviews and English oral exams. With friends or family, we always used Singlish, that is, Singapore slang. Singlish is a type of pidgin English, where English words are arranged according to the rules of Chinese grammar, and sentences are sprinkled with the occasional Chinese, Malay and Indian words. Singlish sounds like 'broken' English -- to foreign ears it can sound unintelligible, uneducated, even crude. However, we didn't speak 'broken' English because we lacked the ability to speak the Queen's English; we spoke Singlish, because with all its contortions of grammar and pronunciation, its new and localized vocabulary, Singlish expressed our thoughts in a way that the formal, perfectly enunciated, anal BBC World Service English never could. Besides, who wants to talk like some 0 level textbook, instead of using our own language, our home language, the language of our souls?

I don't speak either standard English or Singlish consistently. When I'm with friends like Eugene, I enjoy switching between the Queen's English and the Ah Ma's English, randomly, arbitrarily and often in mid-sentence. It's just the Singaporean way, this totally jumbled, multi-lingual lingo -- just part of our melting pot, rojak way of speech, thought and life.

I didn't know how Andy managed to get arrested, but based upon previous experiences, I could probably guess correctly. Every Saturday over the past few months, Andy would get together with Eugene and their other punter friends to bet on soccer results. I told Andy he would get arrested if the police caught him, but he wouldn't listen. He's obsessed with soccer. A month ago, I was yabbering away for about five minutes before I realized that I was talking at Andy, rather than to him. I hit the back of his head, and he jerked to attention.

'Sorry -- just thinking about class tomorrow. I'm thinking of giving the kids Defoe. He can be, really, uh, deep.' Andy shook his head and blinked a couple of times to clear his head. 'Right, I'm with you now. "Justice is always violent to the party offending, for every man is innocent in his own eyes." Marvellous quote from "The Shortest Way With The Dissenters".'

'You weren't thinking about Defoe or justice,' I said. 'Don't think you can smokescreen me with all that literary crap.'

'I was thinking about Defoe!'

'No you weren't. It's the same every Saturday night. You sit there, practically catatonic. When I jerk you to attention you always insist that you were thinking about Updike's latest novel, or the Bosnian peace process, or the Tory party conference at Blackpool, but I know you're lying. I've seen that glazed look before. You're replaying the winning volley by Mikhailichenko, against Man United. You can disappear into your own little fantasy world for hours. Your mind's like a VCR on perpetual rewind.'

Andy raised his palms in surrender. 'You know me too well. I started off thinking about Defoe, about justice, then I thought about how unfair it is that Man U win all the time, and before I knew it I saw the ball dropping over Mik's left shoulder, his right foot pivoting, smashing the ball in mid-air.'

'Mentally, you've never developed beyond puberty. You're twenty-two going on twelve.'

Andy stuck an imaginary knife in his back, twisted and turned his body, his face contorting in mock agony. 'That was a completely unprovoked attack, but I know you love me anyway.'

'I never could resist little boys,' I said. 'I know I keep nagging you about this, but one day your obsession with soccer is going to get you into trouble.'

'I'm not obsessed.'

'Yes you are. What's the name of the wife of the coach of the goalkeeper of the England team?'


'And you say you're not obsessed. Which brings me back to what I was scolding you about before you went into your dream world. You know who Meg is but you can't remember the name of my niece.'

'Zhen Chou, Zhen Cai -- it's not that big a difference. It was an easy enough mistake to make.'

'There is a big difference. Zhen Cai means "genuine fortune". Zhen Chou means "really smelly". I don't think my niece appreciated being called "stinko" at her birthday party.'


'Oops indeed.'

'I can't help it if you've got such a big family,' Andy said. 'Fourteen aunts, twenty uncles and millions more nephews and nieces. It's difficult to keep track of names.'

'I can remember the names of all your relatives.'

'Considering that just includes my mother and father, that's hardly a serious mnemonic challenge.'

Only last week, Andy promised me that he would stop gambling, but tonight I knew that he must have lied. I guessed that despite his claims to be a reformed man, tonight, he must have backslid and run the betting house again, only to be raided by the police. I decided that it was probably good for him to rot in jail for at least a night.

'Where are you?' I asked.

'I'm in the lock-up at the Central Police Station. Come and bail me out now. Please.'

'Forget it,' I said, 'I'll bail you out tomorrow.'

'Why can't you come now?'

'It seems to have slipped your notice that it's half-past one in the morning. You might be surprised to learn this, but the courts aren't open at this ungodly hour, so I can't apply for bail now anyway. I'll see you in the morning.'

'I'm sorry I couldn't choose a more convenient time to be arrested. So you're just going to let me rot in jail then?'

'Don't worry, you won't rot. This is Singapore. Parliament outlawed bacteria in nineteen seventy-eight.'

'Oh go ahead, make fun of me. It's fine by me. Never mind, you can come tomorrow. I'll just have to sleep in this dark, small, stinking cell for an entire night, with only a chamber pot for companionship. I hope you enjoy your air-conditioned room. I don't mind. I hope you're not feeling guilty. I hope you'll be able to sleep in peace.'

'Don't worry, I will.' I put down the phone.

'Ai-yoh, so late already who call?' My mother came into the living room.

'Andy,' I said. 'He got arrested for running a soccer gambling syndicate.'

My mother slumped into the sofa. 'I knew this was going to happen. I keep telling you, it's the tree.'

'Oh Mummy, not the tree again.'

'It is!'

Andy lived in a flat above us, and my mother blamed everything bad that happened on the big Flame of the Forest outside our apartment block. 'Bad feng shui. It's true what Master Chou said. When he looked at our block, he said if got big tree planted outside your main door, very bad luck. If money wants to flow into your house, it cannot come in, because the tree is blocking the money. Also, this type of tree, so big, no good -- demons like to come and live in it,' my mother said. 'I was talking to Mrs Lam tonight, and we both agreed that it's all the government's fault. You know the last few months we keep writing, write to everyone -- the HDB board, the MP, keep asking them to cut down the tree but they don't want. You see, now this sort of thing happen. So bad luck. Your friend get arrested in our block, it'll be all over the newspapers. Like that, everyone will think our block got curse. Our property price sure to drop, next time we want to sell the flat, it's going to be very difficult. I tell you, next time election come, I won't vote for this government. Ask them to do a simple thing -- cut down tree -- they also don't want.'

'So you're saying that the demons in the tree made the police arrest Andy. I knew there was a logical explanation for all this.'

'Hah, you always think so funny to make fun of me. I never go university like you, but I'm not stupid. Feng shui is true. What did Master Chou tell us at the community centre?' She shut her eyes and frowned. ' not a random occurrence of chance, but has a vitality of its own, that moves, that can be attracted...enhanced...manipulated.' She smiled proudly at being able to remember Master Chou verbatim. 'You wait here, I show you something.'

She ran to her room and returned with a leaflet.


Master Chou

Geomancer & Metaphysician

A.C.S. (American Chirological Society, National School of Palmistry, University of France)

Advised the USA Embassy (Singapore) on their ground-breaking ceremony (1994)

Consulted by the Government for the work site at Marina Bay MRT Station (1988)

Interviewed by SBC in the 'Tuesday Report'

Prediction of China Tiananmen Event & Gulf War (Features in Asia Magazine)

Specially been invited to provide Chinese Name for one ASEAN regional Airline

In life who can help you out of dark corners?

Call 234 7888 or Mobile-Phone 267 8897

or pager 889 7771 or Fax 678 9098

'You see, even the big businessmen in Singapore and Hong Kong, even the US embassy believes in feng shui. University people,' my mother said. 'This Master Chou, he's very famous. He can do feng shui for our flat, only one thousand and seven hundred dollars. Offer ends next Wednesday.'

'Forget it.' I didn't want anything to do with these so-called feng shui experts. I knew how they operated. Master Chou would come into the flat with his trigram, which looked suspiciously like a spider's web and walk around the room shaking his head. Then he would stroke his long white beard, jiggle his fingers as he calculated our fortune, tell us to move our hibiscus plant from the living room to the kitchen, and then charge us two thousand dollars for his advice.

'And I don't want you to do any feng shui arrangements yourself either,' I told my mother. Last month she bought a DIY feng shui book. I returned one night to find my room filled with purple cushions, and a lamp radiating red light. My mother insisted that the red light gave my bed a prosperous aura. I told her that it made my room look like a Turkish brothel.

'Are you going to be Andy's lawyer?' my mother said.

'Yes. Why do you ask?'

'Don't think about the case while you're in bed. If you want to think about your work, think about it at your desk. Master Chou say if you mix home and office, your energy will clash. I keep telling you not to read your files in bed, but you never listen to me, that's why you can't get married. I don't want to say things like what I'm going to say now -- very bad luck -- but I think you should know.' My mother took a deep breath. 'If you don't get married soon, afterwards you become an old maid, you'll be all alone. You're nearly thirty. Your expiry date coming up. You wait too long, you'll get left on the shelf.'

'Mother, getting married isn't like going to NTUC.'

'Getting married is exactly like going to NTUC. Shopping for a husband is the same as shopping in the supermarket. I warn you, once you're over thirty, very difficult to get fresh men. You wait too long, you can only get divorcees. Recycled material. Second-hand goods. So if you see got good bargain, remember -- grab first, worry later.'

'Was Daddy a good bargain then?'

That shut her up. For five seconds. Then she said, 'All I'm saying is that you're at the right age to get married. I got married when I was your age.'

'And we both know what a mistake that was.' In her desperation to get off the shelf, my mother married a businessman fifteen years her senior. My father died from a heart attack a few years ago. I do not miss him.

'Your generation different now,' my mother said. 'Last time, divorce very difficult. But now, after you're married, you don't like it, can always refund or exchange. That's what divorce is for.'

'The reason why I'm not married,' I said, 'is because I don't want to get married.'

'How can you say that? I tell you, Mummy's not going to live for ever. After I die, you all alone, how?'

'Life without you might actually be pretty pleasant,' and as soon as I said that, I regretted it immediately. I knew what her next words would be.

'Why do you hate me so much?' my mother said.

I could have told her why, but I figured that she probably knew the reasons already. So I just said, 'I don't hate you,' and went to my room.

The reasons had nothing to do with anything that was happening now. The seeds of trouble and deceit were sown ten, twenty years ago, and now, we reaped the results.

Nearly twenty years ago, my grandfather accidentally swallowed a fish bone. He was rushed to General Hospital, where they x-rayed and ECG-ed him, but they couldn't find anything wrong. The surgeon announced, 'We've examined his oesophagus, but when we introduced the scope into the gullet, he suffered an intense reflex spasm. We were unable to examine the oesophagus as far down as we would have liked.'

I nodded.

'We're going to give him some barium. Hopefully that will reveal any obstructions in the body when we take an x-ray.'

I nodded again. I didn't understand anything he said, but it sounded like a good idea.

They fed him the white liquid, but my grandfather caught a fever. Panadol relieved this, but two days later, a stroke struck him down. All I remember about my grandfather in his final days, is his fingers gripping the rails of the bed. At that age, I wasn't tall enough to see any further.

'What's wrong with gong gong's fingers?' I asked.

'Gangrene,' my mother said.

The doctor came in and said, 'We've carried out some tests and detected an abscess behind his pharynx. We'll have to drain it to prevent infection.'

My grandfather was in a terrible condition, so the doctors performed the operation quickly, and didn't look for a foreign body. He died from septic poisoning a few days later. He suffered for an entire month, and nobody knew what caused it. We only discovered what killed him after the autopsy.

'There was a fish bone stuck in his oesophagus,' the coroner told us. 'Four cm long. It pierced his oesophagus, cut into his heart, the upper left chamber.' The coroner tapped his chest. 'The bone caused all the infection, formed small blood clots. The clots travelled in the blood to his fingers and toes, that was what caused the gangrene. The clots killed him.'

All the problems that came up on this present Sunday, they all arose because of the foreign bodies within us -- things that happened in our childhood, some big, some small, but all significant; things that happened ten years ago, but still control our lives today; things from our yesterdays that will decide what we drink, dream and doubt, till the day we die. But you can't see those things, because they're not on the outside.

The press got it all wrong, of course, surprise, surprise. You wouldn't believe the articles they printed about us. For them, it was all so simple: Andy was the foreigner, the evil outside influence, the ang mo; Eugene was the Singaporean kid led astray by corrupt Western expatriates; and me, I was the local, naive, sauku mountain tortoise of a girl who should have listened to her mother and not fallen for a criminal like Andy. All the experts in the world could never figure out what was wrong with us, because our wounds were lodged deep, hidden from the sharpest eyes, the most advanced machinery. But now, we're all going to have to have our turn -- first me, then Andy and then finally, Eugene. We're each going to tell you tales from our youth, tales of how we got our wounds. So forget first impressions, ignore what you see on the outside: these are our real stories, the stories only we know, the stories of our foreign bodies.

Copyright © 1997 by Hwee Hwee Tan

Reading Group Guide

Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Hwee Hwee Tan
Q: To what degree is Foreign Bodies -- a novel about Singaporean culture, what it is to be an expatriate, and the intersection of Eastern and Western cultures-based upon your own life?
A: I grew up in Singapore. I left when I was 15, spent three years in Holland (Den Haag) and then went to college (University of Oxford) in England for 5 years. I now live in New York City. I've been an expatriate for half my life, so the idea of being a "Foreign Body" resonates greatly with myself.
Q. Do you ever go back to Singapore? Do you still have close family there?
A: I've been back to Singapore every year. I usually stay with my parents during that time, which can be difficult. I am very close to my sister but still struggle when dealing with my parents.
Q. Have your parents and family read this novel? How do they feel about it?
A: When the book first came out, my mother wouldn't speak to me for 2 weeks. She was convinced that I needed to see a psychologist. My father, oddly enough, had no response to the book. I don't think he even read it (but then, I don't think he's ever read a novel in his life).
Q: Why did you decide to tell your story through three rent voices? What challenges arose once you made this choice?
A: I was inspired by Faulkner's As I Lay Dying to use different first person narrators. I think the book's strength lies in the voices and it was a method to vary the range of the book by allowing different characters to speak and also making the book more interesting via unreliable narrators.
Q: While Andy is a wonderfully recognizable "type" -- the seemingly irredeemable, perpetually laddish slacker -- he's also full of surprises and charming idiosyncracies. Did his voice come easily to you?
A: I spent 5 years in England surrounded by Andys. Andy really encapsulates the twentysomething lad, so the voice came easily.
Q: You've discussed in interviews your own experiences with sexual abuse. How much do Mei's traumas -- and her way of coping with them -- resemble your own?
A: I was never raped by my father. I did have about four friends who had been raped or abused as children, but who never confronted their abusers. Hopefully, the novel will be able to give a voice to the voiceless.
Q: If you had to put up with being assigned one media-friendly, all-purpose label for yourself, which of these descriptions would you find the least reductive?: A. transcultural writer; B. Christian writer; C. the mouthpiece for twentysomething stasis. Do you object to any of these labels in particular?
A: I've always seen myself more as a retractable can-opener.
Q: Maybe not since Graham Greene has a novelist so boldly employed Christianity as her story's moral frameworkand as the engine for her characters' potential redemption. Why do you think Christianity and struggles with faith have become such unusual subjects in novels today?
A: Someone once wrote that the gospels recount a history while relating a mystery. If one sees Christianity as presenting a magic fusion between faith and fact, a presentation of truth in spirituality, rather than mere dogma, then, one can consider any piece of truthful fiction as "Christian" fiction even though it might be populated by ungodly characters.
Q: One of the things that is most striking about Foreign Bodies is your complex, highly ambivalent rendering of the mother-daughter relationship. Tell us how you set about writing Mei's relationship with her mom, what your intentions were, and how you feel about the result.
A: There was a time when I felt very close to my mother, but at some stage that feeling stopped. Writing Foreign Bodies was an attempt to explore the events that led to this shift in our relationship. Like Mel, as I was writing the book, I came to realize that my mother did not protect me from my father -- not because she didn't want to but because she couldn't.
Q: How do you explain the significance of your novel's tide?
A: The novel is structured like a metaphysical poem inspired by John Donne's Batter My Heart which is about God and spiritual rape. Just as a metaphysical poem is structured around puns and word play, Foreign Bodies is structured around the double meaning in the title.
Q: When Eugene mentions the infamous Michael Fay caning case, he says he "couldn't understand what the big deal was." Was this a common reaction among people you know?
A: It's a common reaction from expatriate kids (who tend to be over-spoilt and over-protected.) Most people in Singapore considered Fay's crime to be serious.
Q: You delightfully and invaluably skewer cultural and generational stereotypes in this novel, and many reviewers have commented upon how refreshing it is for a younger writer to abandon altogether the familiar conventions of cynical "Gen-X" writing and multicultural literature. How do you feel about these kinds of reactions to your work?
A: Characters, if truly drawn become fully fleshed people rather than cardboard cliches, so it was gratifying that the reviewers felt that the characters weren't flat.
Q: Growing up, what novels affected you the most?
A: Like Mel and Eugene, I read a lot of crime fiction, for example, the Hardy Boys and Three Investigation.
Q: And whom, among contemporary novelists, do you admire most today?
A: Foreign Bodies was probably most influenced by Amy Tan, Douglas Coupland, Michael Ondaatje (Running in the Family), and Robert Olen Butler (A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain).
Reading Group Questions and Topics for Discussion
1. Describe the different "foreign bodies" With which each of the novel's principle characters must contend, and explore the individual journeys each character takes. Does Loong have a foreign body? Explain.
2. In the midst of her grandfather's marathon of a funeral, eleven-year-old Mei experiences a religious epiphany in the form of an "unutterable kiss" from God. "This phrase suddenly popped into my head-Christ took my sins and cleansed every stain. Of course I always knew this ... but before today, it was nothing but a dry, empty slogan .... Under the table that day, I suddenly realized what it really meant." What does the phrase mean to Mel? How do her understandings of faith and Christianity shape the choices she makes in the course of Foreign Bodies?
3. "The good suffer and the bad go on to live happy lives." How does the outcome of Tan's novel serve to support, challenge, or complicate this statement?
4. When Mel first meets Andy in the airport, she sees him as "a baby angel, empty of guile." She instantly senses that she will end up devoting her "life to protect that innocence, preserve that purity, shelter him from an evil and cunning world." What is the author already beginning to establish only a dozen or so paragraphs into the novel? How does Mel's first impression of Andy foreshadow the major themes and events in Foreign Bodies?
5. Compare Mei's faith with Andy's. What happens to Andy the day he runs off, leaving his parents standing in the ladies' changing room at Debenham's? Consider the parallels that exist between Andy's otherworldly experience with the bright, round light and the legend of Ahmad the fisherman, which Mei tells Andy late in the novel. How might the moral of Mel's story be applied to Andy's situation?
6. What is the story of the Fisher King? Are we meant to believe that Andy is literally the keeper of the Holy Grail? What is Tan suggesting here?
7. What happens in "the story of Red Hill," which Mei's father tells Mel as a deterrent to keep her from running away? What bearing does the story have on the rest of Mel's narrative?
8. What is the significance of the caved-in sidewalk? How might the sidewalk function as a metaphor for faith? In what do Loong's parents place their faith? Loong? Eugene?
9. Mei's father accuses her of being a "banana": "Yellow outside, white inside." What does he mean?
10. Discuss the various religious allusions Tan injects into her narrative. For example, you might discuss links between the Bible's stories about various prophets and their divine visions with the epiphanies of Andy and Mel. Or you might identify the ways in which Andy's plight echoes or is informed by the Biblical story of Job.
11. In Mel's account of her rape on Red Hill, she tells us that her father "nailed me to the tree." What makes this particular description of the event so evocative and effective?
12. What are the elements and ingredients that make up Foreign Bodies? Is it a mystery thriller? A contemporary comedy of manners? A parable of faith redemption? A cautionary tale? Discuss all of the genres and literary traditions Tan is riffing on, alluding to, or updating in her novel.
13. Explain Loong's personal philosophy: he fancies himself a Nietzschean superman; he doesn't believe in God; and he totally rejects the possibility that the concepts of "right" and "wrong" possess any universal, objective meaning. Loong is wholly corrupt, but he also embodies the highest ideals of Singaporean society. What do you suppose Tan is suggesting by investing the character of Loong with so much irony and contradiction?
14. Why do you think Tan tells the story through the eyes of three different characters? How would the novel be different if it were told only from the perspective of Mel? Andy? Eugene?
15. Which character would you say is the most "reliable" narrator? Why?
16. "Going abroad was the core motivating principle of my life," Mel tells us. What motivates Eugene and Andy? What sorts of escape did they dream about when they were children?
17."The monks robe fell open, revealing -- Levi 501's." What is the effect of Tan's pointed, pitchperfect descriptions of the dual nature of contemporary Singaporean society -- where references to Robert Ludlum and REM stand beside references to the Chinese tei yuk?
18. Most Singaporeans, Mel tells us, speak "Singlish," a pidgin English that also features "Chinese, Malay and Indian words." How might Singlish act as a metaphor for Singapore as a whole?
19. By the end of Foreign Bodies, do you believe any of the characters have been/will be redeemed? Considering the fates of each of her characters, what does Tan seem to be saying about conventional notions of justice and conscience, good and evil, and morality and corruption?

About The Author

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (January 1, 2000)
  • Length: 304 pages
  • ISBN13: 9780671041700

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Raves and Reviews

The New York Times Book Review A gripping story...

Kirkus Reviews Witty, hip, engrossing -- and utterly astonishing both in breadth of feeling and depth of intelligence: one of the strongest and most original works of the year.

Boston Globe Audacious.

The Wall Street Journal A milestone.

Larry Beinhart author of American Hero (filmed as Wag the Dog) Hwee Hwee Tan is a child-genius and Nobel laureate embryo.

Los Angeles Times Book Review Tan digs through the irony to get at her characters' buried secrets -- their "foreign bodies" -- making us care about these precocious, clueless border-crossers.

Chuck Wachtel author ofJoe the Engineer and The Gates The world the narrators of this extraordinary novel inhabit -- ours, now -- tries to deny them the knowledge of how much it injures them just to live in it. In voices that are lightning fast and sharply observant, that are as uncertain as they are wise, that dare to be funny even when they should not be, they struggle to take back the meaning of their lives. This -- in our particular moment in human history -- makes them heroes, and makes their story a great pleasure to read.

Publishers Weekly Tan's lucid and wide-ranging first novel is a memorable portrait of disenchanted and feckless youth, a narrative that gains indelible resonance as the plot unfolds....This seductive novel moves with furious grace to a transcendent conclusion.

The New York Times Book Review Tan's prose resembles that of British writers like Helen Fielding and Nick Hornby....A promising, original debut.

The Economist A novel of distinction almost indecently accomplished for a twenty-three-year-old.

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