By Brian Spencer
The Chinese girl glides through the park on rollerblades, dragging a tiny Yorkshire terrier.
You can hear her coming — you can always hear her coming — but you don’t hear the rollerblades. You hear the soft pitter-patter of plastic booties on cement, like oversized raindrops pinging your bedroom window during the last gasp of a magnificent tropical storm, and you hear the dogged jingle-jangle of bells on the end of a leash.
Fluid and determined, she skates through the park like an ice dancer doing warm-up laps around the rink; the dog somehow keeps pace just behind her, running as fast as those four little legs can take it.
Everybody at West Coast Park knows the Chinese girl on rollerblades with the Yorkshire terrier; at least, all the locals do. The locals know her because if you’re local you can’t miss her. How many times have you seen a girl rollerblading at a normal pace — that is to say, at a fairly good clip — with a purse dog in tow? Not an Alaskan malamute or a foxhound or dalmatian or Irish setter or labrador retriever: a Yorkshire terrier, little plastic booties on its paws, multi-colored barrettes keeping the fur out of its face, running like a bat out of
Singapore’s heartland hell.
Until I moved to Singapore, until I began running in West Coast Park four or five days a week, I’d never seen a toy terrier scamper like that. Now I see the rollerblading girl and her tireless terrier most nights; I’ve never seen the girl without the dog. That dog runs, and it runs some more the next day, and it keeps running the day after that. I’m not sure how that little popcorn fart does it, but it does it. If I ever start dragging towards the end of my 10K, if I start playing that mind game whereby I assure myself that walking is fine, that I’m still covering the same distance, all the motivation I need to keep going is the sound of the girl on rollerblades and her Yorkshire sprinter.
I’m not going to be shown up by a Yorkshire terrier.
Here on the cusp of Singapore’s Heartland — my neighborhood, Clementi, is like The Wall between the Seven Kingdoms and what lies beyond in wildling territory — ang mo (caucasians) are generally more of a minority than in more central areas of Singapore. It’s Western Expat Enclave Lite, but without the magnetizing presence of the National University of Singapore, it’d likely be more like The Outer Western Expat Reaches.
What I’m trying to say is that when ang mo run in West Coast Park, ang mo stand out a little; not a lot, but a little. I get curious, harmless looks with some frequency, though that may have more to do with my short running shorts than my skin color. Or maybe it’s just that the locals of Chinese and Malay and Indian and Tamil descent mistake me for a handsome Hollywood movie star. Maybe.
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I stand out, a little, but when I’m thundering through the park, I sometimes wonder whether the handful of regulars that have over time become so familiar recognize me like I recognize them.
Does the middle-aged Indian man, the one with the round head, rounder belly, and robotic walking motion, like a nutcracker soldier come to life, recognize me? I run by him almost every day. (To his credit, he’s looking slimmer than a few months ago; keep it up, my friend.)
How about the early twentysomething kid who swoops down the cement path on his longboard, cutting figure eights like Butchie Yost riding waves off Imperial Beach?
Or the wiry Chinese guy who walks a tightrope he strings between two palm trees?
Am I just another faceless ang mo who looks like every other ang mo?
Running is a solitary endeavor for me. I don’t go running with friends, or with my wife, or with a running group. I can’t even stand to run at a similar clip as other runners; if at any point my pace syncs with another’s pace, I change it. I’m on my time when I run. Some people meditate, some practice yoga, some people run; at West Coast Park, I’m a local runner who runs alone.
I heard a familiar sound during one of my runs about two weeks ago: the frantic pitter-patter of plastic booties on cement, and the jingle-jangle of a tiny bell. The Chinese girl who rollerblades through the park rounded the corner, dressed as always in black spandex pants, long-sleeved black spandex top, and black cap, dragging that Yorkshire terrier behind her. When our paths crossed, as they have so many times before, for the first time she smiled at me and nodded, and I did the same.
Since then, whenever our paths inevitably cross, it’s now a quick wave and a polite hello as she glides past and as I thunder by. I run by myself at West Coast Park, but I like knowing that I’m not a ghost.