It startles me.
“Who are you drawing?” an old lady on a bright train in Singapore asks. I haven’t been drawing for even twenty seconds. Already someone asks a question. Um…I’m drawing that lady over there. I sort of point to the woman I’m drawing, but she hasn’t noticed I’m drawing her, so I speak quietly. “And will you give it to her when you’re done,” she asks loudly, “or will you keep it for yourself? I don’t think she knows you’re drawing her. Hello over there!” She waves her hand. She gets the attention, instead, of the older woman’s husband. He taps his wife, “see, look at this! This guy’s drawing your face!” It’s awkward. I’m not used to this much open attention. This woman is not shy. I’m learning that Singapore is opposite Japan, and opposite Germany, in that people are not afraid of me; in that they always open contact on their own. “How long does it take you to draw someone?” Um…about three minutes. “Oh! That’s so fast. And with two hands. I’ve never seen that before. Have you ever seen that before?” she asks a third older lady on the train. “Say…what happens if you’re not finished with a portrait yet, but the person has to alight? Or what happens if you need to get off?...” The questions come rapidly, one after the other. Before I’ve finished answering one, the next comes. All the pressure makes this picture take longer. I can’t get some shapes right. I can’t do a perfect job on the picture, and everyone’s expectations are so high, but I hand off what I have to the lady I drew. She likes it. Her husband gives a thumbs up.
I’ve drawn quite some people in this train car now. “Can you draw me too?” I’m surprised to look up and suddenly see an excited university student in front of me. “And do you mind if I film you?” her sister asks, holding up a smartphone and a smile. She’s wearing a yellow pullover dress. They’re a family, with parents in tow. They saw me from a different train car and came over to be drawn.
Sure, I say. No problem. “Oh! But you’ll have to hurry! We’re getting off at Outram Park. That’s the next station!” the student realizes. “Can you draw someone that fast?” No, I can’t. But we work out a plan. When the stop arrives, I get off the train with them. There’s a bench by the tracks. We take a seat, and I can take my time. Because I want to do a good job for this student and her family. Because they look like they really appreciate it. The whole family—mom, dad, daughter, sister—ask me questions:
“Why do you do this for free?”
“How long have you been drawing for?”
“Do you like Singapore? Will you miss it here?”
“What should I do to make an impact on the world?”
…How am I supposed to know that? What am I supposed to answer to that? I don’t know this family, I don’t know the secret to making the world a better place, but this student and her sister ask me life advice anyway. They listen in rapt attention to everything I say. And it is so heartwarming, to see the faith they have in me. Their earnestness, their curiosity, their deep respect in me feel so…good.
We talk for ten minutes. I draw the one university student, then the other. They say a million Thank You’s. They ask for a selfie, all five of us together, grinning wide as the Pacific Ocean.
I told them I wasn’t sure I’d miss Singapore. It’s just a city. But nearly one year later, I find I was wrong. Yes, I do miss Singapore. I miss its commuters, and I miss that beautiful ride in February.
Someone posted video of me on one of the Singapore trains. See the photos and videos on Instagram.