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The Durian and Me

By Angela Hogan

December 15, 2010


My husband at work and my kids at school, I was left at home, alone, with the air- conditioner on full power to fend off the brutal Singaporean heat and humidity. The life of an expat wife can be rather monotonous. Fluffing the pillows on the couch for the third time that morning, I was plucked out of my boredom by a phone call from a friend, inviting me to her house for tea. After I hung up the phone, my mind started to buzz as to what gift I should give to a hostess who is native Singaporean. I had never been to her house before, so frantically brainstorming, I hopped in a taxi and went to Orchard Road, the heart of Singapore’s bustling shopping district.

Walking through the midday rush and dodging crowds of tourists with cameras, I was struck by an odor most foul. I had to know what this stench was as this was not our first encounter. I steeled myself and bravely strolled into the store. Trying to appear nonchalant, and feeling like a CSI investigator, I wandered around for about 30 seconds until I identified the source. What I saw was a large, spiky greenish brown, football-sized object that looked like it might have come from another planet. Next to me, there was an elderly Chinese man who looked rather entertained as he watched me examine my find. In his best Singlish—English with a generous side of Singaporean slang—he asked me, “Do you want some help la?” “Oh, yes please.” I quickly replied. “ Can you tell me what this thing is?” My new informant made no effort to hide his amusement. “This is a durian,” he chuckled. OK, so this thing finally had a name. Not quite satisfied with just a name, I pushed on, “Well, what do you do with it?”
His answer was both mind blowing and nauseating at the same time. “It’s a fruit la! You eat it.”
What? To eat something that smelled so close to a corpse seemed like a really, really bad idea. I had to wonder, if this stuff smells so bad, then why do people have such a love for it? Sensing my disbelief, he went on to tell me that durian is “The King of Fruit” and Singaporeans are mad for it. He urged me to buy one and “give it a try la”.

I suddenly remembered what I was supposed to be doing which was buy a little gift to take to my friend. Ah ha! I’ll take her a durian and won’t she be impressed at my knowledge of local culture. My head spinning at the prospect of finding the perfect gift, I thanked my newly found friend and grabbed the biggest durian I could find. I could hear him saying something about a bus and cannot as I was all but pushing other shoppers out of my way to get to the till. I happily hand over the 15 Singaporean dollars (about 11 US) to the clerk and I was off.

Gift in hand, nose plugged with the other, I grabbed the nearest taxi just outside the shop. What good fortune I’m having today, I thought. As I tried to get into the taxi, the driver was yelling at me to get out! “You cannot! You have durian, you walk la.”
Startled by this unusually rude behavior, I managed to get out of the taxi with my dignity and my durian intact. Fabulous, I think. I am most certainly not walking eight blocks in this sweltering heat to get to my friend’s place. Then I remembered that I had my trusty bus pass in my wallet. Problem solved. I fumbled around for my pass, and found it just as my bus was pulling to a stop. As I made to swipe my card, the bus driver insisted, “You cannot! Look at the sign la, no durian!”
Oh, no, not this again! Sure enough, the sign says, “No durian on public transport.”
Some gift genius I am, I ponder as I start off on my arduous journey. Still with head held high, and clutching my putrid companion, remain undeterred. It wasn’t until block 6 that delirium started to set in. I no longer wanted tea with my friend, or to ever go outside again. Makeup melting, hair frizzed, and sweat stains in place, I wanted to jump into a fountain and literally drown in my misery. I’m not entirely sure how it happened but I did actually arrive at my destination.

“You look like a drown cat la. And what’s that smell?” Containing my sudden urge to choke her, I quickly handed over the sweat soaked bag to my not so witty friend. As I was trying to tell her my woeful tale, I could tell she wanted to laugh as the tears streamed down her face and her shoulders shook violently. It reminded me of being in church and knowing you’re not supposed to laugh, made it all the more funny. I ended my story; she very quickly excused herself to the kitchen. I could hear peels of laughter and I can’t be sure but I believe to this day she was regaling her mother with my story.

When she returned from the kitchen she held a tray with a bottle of water, some tea and biscuits and…you guessed it. Not the durian, please! I thought I was just showing my advanced knowledge of local culture by bringing it, not expecting to be served the gift. Where did I go wrong? My mind started spinning. I think I may have blacked out for a second. When I regained consciousness, I realized I was stuck. I was going to have to eat a fruit that may very well kill all or most of my taste buds. My friend, sensing my umm, hesitation urged me on by telling me that it was delicious and that despite it being quite malodorous, it tasted like ice cream and cheese. This wasn’t terribly reassuring since the thought of ice cream and cheese together made me gag. After much teasing, I was determined to show her that I was no wimp so I took a gulp of water and after a few deep breaths, I gingerly placed a piece into my mouth. My plan was to chew and swallow as quickly as possible before getting sick. The durian piece kind of rolled around in my mouth, killing me with its chewieness. It was nearly impossible to swallow quickly, therein thwarting my plan. After several failed attempts and a couple of gags, I finally managed to swallow it, without it making an unwelcome reappearance. I can tell you that durian tastes nothing like ice cream nor did it taste like cheese. It was more like stringy, aged, chewy garlic. I have come to learn that most Asians are not big sweet fans. It reminds me of the old adage, albeit slightly altered: “One man’s chocolate cake is another man’s durian.”

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