Wah! So expensive.
At some point in time, a couple of years ago, I chanced upon sambal belacan at the exotic foods section of my local supermarket. I’m quite sure it wasn’t exactly called the exotic foods section, but that’s what they must have thought when they decided that sambal belacan, curry paste, and fish sauce should be on the same quarter-aisle as tortillas, salsa, and tabasco. I imagined that I was the only one in a four-kilometer radius that might have an idea of what that was, and feeling rather superior, I examined the bottle to see if it was ‘real’ sambal belacan (my auntie’s voice echoing in my head—sambal belacan must use the mortar pound one). I honestly couldn’t see if it was pounded in a mortar, but I bought it anyway.
When I got home, I realised my excitement got ahead of me. Not only was it not pounded (I guess), those seedy European manufacturers had used, instead of real belacan, VINEGAR. But not willing to let my new chilli-vinegar paste go to waste, I decided to make sambal kangkong. On my bike trips around town, I’d spotted a number of Thai supermarkets, and I remembered reading about how prolifically it grew and spread, weedlike and sometimes unchecked, across Asia and the rest of the world, so they must surely have kangkong in stock.
Sure enough, I found some at the Thai supermarkets. Actually, I wasn’t really sure. Kangkong was always so ubiquitous, so everyday, that I never really stopped to look at it. When in Singapore, if I asked the market auntie for kangkong and got a bag full (very fresh!) or bought a bunch at NTUC just by looking at the label, I’d just assume that what I got home was indeed kangkong. However, in a different cultural context, everything suddenly stopped making sense. There wasn’t any label on the kangkong, no auntie to tell me how fresh it was, and suddenly there I was, with mysterious green shoots in my hands, packed in plastic, wondering if kangkong, overgrown and taken for granted back home, was in fact hard to come by here.
(On hindsight, it was probably a good thing that there wasn’t an auntie on hand to boast about the freshness of the kangkong, as I’ve since heard that you can’t grow kangkong here, meaning it had been sitting on a plane for at least 2 days before getting to the supermarket)
Now I’m quite sure you just skimmed the title. Read it again and note the exclamation mark and the full stop, both strategically placed in the sentence. Now say it again, in your head (or aloud, if you’re alone, or if you happen to be reading this while bargaining at the market), and maybe you can hear what I said (not aloud), the first time I saw the price of kangkong in Copenhagen.
Let's break it down.
Wah - surprise
Exclamation mark - surprise without judgement
So expensive - my auntie
Full stop - the tone of indignation and judgemental disapproval of exorbitant prices that only aunties can so effortlessly muster.
10 straggly, wilted, and stripped stems kangkong cost about 7 SGD. It was as if there was a volume knob that got turned to 110%, and my auntie's voice boomed in my head—Wah! So expensive. 7 dollars go NTUC or Sheng Siong can buy enough give you eat one month. Go wet market even cheaper, there the market auntie always give me good price and free bro-KOHHH-lee summore.
Despite the protests of the voice in my head, I bought two packets of the straggly, wilted, and stripped kangkong. Two. Whole. Packets. I was sure the sheer disapproval and indignation of the auntie in my head would magically manifest itself right there and then, and a Generic Singaporean Auntie would appear in a swirl of NTUC, Giant, and Sheng Siong coupons and tell me off for buying such expensive kangkong.
But before she could appear, I came up with the best possible rebuttal: if I didn't buy the kangkong, I wouldn't use the vinegar sambal belacan for anything else, and the vinegar sambal belacan would go to waste. And you know what's worse than vinegar sambal belacan? Wasted sambal belacan.
Hannor hannor, she agreed, buy already don't use so wasted.
Thus, for the first time in my life, I had the smallest and most expensive plate of sambal kangkong. While I ate it, the auntie in my head made a list of tze char stores where I could get much better and cheaper sambal kangkong. But she didn't get very far, because it didn't take very long to slurp up the 10 straggly, wilted, and stripped stems kangkong doused in vinegar sambal belacan.
Ever since then, like a sadomasochistic bargain hunter, I've been looking for similar bargains. 10 Eggs (organic) for 8 SGD. Bubble tea for 10 SGD (and they didn't even have enough pearls and had to combine pearls and jelly). And don't get me started on the 6 shrivelled rambutans I managed to scavenge one weekend.
I even mustered up the courage to ask the Asian supermarket if they ever sold durian, but the response I got made me feel like I was asking for high-grade uranium.
And then there was the time I went to Norway over the weekend, and wanted to make gin and tonic, and realised that lemons in Norway cost 10 SGD. For. One. Lemon.
I knew that the auntie in my head would be talking about it at family reunions for years to come.
Truth be told, I've made peace with the auntie in my head. Or rather, the auntie in my head has made peace with the way prices are here. Every now and then, I still make sambal kangkong, buy a cup of bubble tea, or go hunting for shrivelled rambutans, price notwithstanding. I even made coconut agar agar the other day. Thank god for contactless payment, I just closed my eyes and swiped without looking at how much agar agar powder, coconut water and santan cost.
Because, when you're in another country, you can’t go on forever doing these mental calisthenics and calculating how much more something costs as compared to back home. Travellers and tourists have to constantly think about prices back home to make sure they stick to their budget, but once you start living in a new country, new rules start to apply, and at some point in time, “back home” becomes a hazy recollection, a caricature, a parody, an oversimplified voice in your head, based on some faint (probably invented) memory from long ago of someone complaining about overpriced vegetables.