High time to celebrate the S'pore Auntie

A couple of years ago, I experienced a defining moment in my identity.

Let me set the scene for you: Tuesday morning, FairPrice Xtra supermarket in Nex mall. Your comely columnist, moi, is in a polka- dotted dress with a full flared skirt, wearing a long strand of pearls, channelling 1950s Betty Draper from TV's Mad Men for a casual trip out to buy groceries.

I am about to pick up a green shopping basket, when - out of nowhere - a not-so-young man yells at me across two aisles: "EH, AUNTIE, THAT ONE CANNOT TAKE!"

He rushes over and wrenches the green basket out of my grasp, leaving me stunned. For a few seconds, I am not sure which I find more of an affront.

The fact that he has not allowed me to take the basket? Or that he has just very publicly called me an auntie, a title I'd thought reserved for women 50 years and up; certainly not a (then) 35-year-old woman like me?

Especially galling is that I am, contrary to stereotype, not dressed in a baggy samfoo or an orchid-print muumuu. What is it about my silhouette that suggests a middle-aged, not-your-relative auntie to this man who looks about my age? Is this the verbal equivalent of a drive-by shooting?

Upset, I pay for my chicken breasts and minced pork, and mosey over to Isetan department store. There, I seek solace for my wounded ego by browsing in the homeware section.

As I check out the different strainers and carafes, finding great comfort in an activity I once sniggered at, it strikes me that here is proof, indeed, that I have morphed into a middle-aged, not-your-relative auntie.

So, yes, now 37, I have embraced my inner-auntie wholeheartedly. And this, dear reader, is a manifesto. For all of us to strip the stigma from the word, and elevate it to an honorific that celebrates hard-won wisdom and resilience.

You don't even have to be female to know what I'm talking about; a former classmate recently lamented on Facebook that he, too, had been called "Uncle" at FairPrice.

The Singaporean Auntie is notoriously hard to define. True, you can look out for the superficial external markers.

She is seldom found without her trusty umbrella, which does double duty in both searing sunshine and pouring rain.

Her wallet holds the Passion Card and/or assorted credit cards that offer rebates at major supermarkets and department stores. And she's the one who makes it her business to know everybody's business, in and out of the office.

But for all the poking fun at auntie foibles, society is strangely blind to or muted about her strengths. Aunties are your analogue Twitterati.

They have discovered myriad life hacks and are not shy about telling you about them. That makes them members of the sharing economy before the sharing economy was even a thing.

Plus, Facebook has nothing on the Auntie Grapevine. Aunties have rapidly discovered technology and are using it to widen their reach and build their brand. Just think of your auntie Sharon, who loves to Instagram her cooking and post her recipes.

The term "auntie" is often deployed to refer to pushy female behaviour.

"How to deal with aunties who don't queue up?" "Aiyoh, auntie talk so loud." "This auntie plonked her butt down on the MRT seat, just as I was sitting down." "That auntie yanked the last T-shirt in the bargain bin from my hands."

Yet, the male equivalent - uncle - seems to have a less negative connotation. In Japan, there is ossan rental, which is essentially paying a middle-aged guy to hang out with you.

One such ossan or uncle - 47-year-old Takanobu Nishimoto, interviewed last month by RocketNews24.com - said he gets booked by young women to dispense relationship advice over tea or, in the case of one woman, to announce a marriage to relatives.

When I mentioned starting a similar Rent-An-Auntie business, friends told me bluntly that it wouldn't have the same cachet, because hunkles have an allure that aunties do not. (What is the female equivalent of "hunkle", anyway? "Sextie", for "sexy auntie"?)

I question if this is not sexism rearing its ugly head when confronted with a strong female figure - the same way the word "b****" functions as a put-down for assertive women in professional and social spheres.

Are aunties' domestic acumen and concerns trivialised because it's still an uncle's world, where the unpaid task of running a household on a tight budget is not seen as work?

There is an element of class snobbery, too - middle-aged, middle-class aunties are many rungs down the ladder from wealthy tai tais and, hence, ridiculous.

Most importantly: Do we become labelled aunties simply because we have grown up and are no longer demure girls who dare not fight for our rights?

Was there something in my basket-grabbing eyes that signalled to the cashier that I needed to be pigeonholed, petrified with a magic word and stopped in my tracks before I took over the world?

After all, this is something I love about being an auntie. I no longer need to play nice and hope everyone likes me.

Being an auntie takes me out of the sexual running, as an anti-sweet-young-thing, and leaves me to get on efficiently with my day. While I won't cut your queue or steal your seat, I won't take you overcharging or being rude to me lying down.

I have accepted that it is not age that makes one an auntie, but a certain confidence that comes with accrued wisdom. In formulating this manifesto, I decided to eschew the nouns "auntie-dom" or "auntie-hood", with their etymological links to "boredom" and "victimhood".

Instead, I use "auntie-ship", which reminds me of "craftsmanship", "sportsmanship" and "worship".

It is high time we reclaim the fabulous nature of all these cutlery-coupon-collecting/redeeming impulses within us. Time to turn a potential insult into a badge of pride.

myp@sph.com.sg

This is a new fortnightly column.

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