I wish to write about a place of which I know everything yet nothing, where everything is familiar yet strange, a place where I feel I go too often, but never quite enough. This place is the same for everyone, only different.
It is called, of course, Home — not the Home where you now live, but the Home where you were born and in which all things must start.
I used to live in Kuala Lumpur. That is, until I was 15 and my mother rode the Ekspres Rakyat with me to Singapore, where I was to continue my studies. ‘Be careful,’ were her last words to me as she got ready to hop on the next train back to Malaysia. My mother asks you to be careful about everything. You could be sitting, quietly reading a book, and she would say: Be careful.
Nowadays, I fly. The KL-Singapore shuttle, as it is called, takes no longer than an hour. You leave an airport that touts itself as the Best in the World, to land in an airport that touts itself as the Best in the World. I can tell you this — the KLIA is bigger, but Changi International has the better coffee.
It is far more expensive to fly than to take the train or the bus, of course. Even I feel the pinch sometimes. I, with my swanky job that takes the pulse of the heart of the financial world, a job that no one really understands when I try to explain it to them. A job that in no way approaches what some of my friends earn, but still pays me more in a month than my mother ever earned in a year. I reel from that know-ledge sometimes. It makes me feel both guilty and triumphant.
My mother has cancer. They detected it four months ago. She bent down to pick up something, and couldn’t get up again for the pain. My sister drove her to the hospital in the middle of the night — in fact, she drove her to many hospitals, as not all were equally hospitable — and the final diagnosis came after several weeks and a major operation: cancer in the colon, Stage 3. Cancer comes in phases, like a modern housing development.
So these days I fly home. It is faster, more convenient, more comfortable. I can make trips to Kuala Lumpur over the weekend, and be back at work in Singapore on Monday morning.
I know I must sound heartless. I am prepared to sound heartless, for if not I would sound heart-full, and what would be the point of that?
My niece picks me up at the airport. It is Christmas, so there is tinsel hanging here and there at Arrivals, and a Body Shop has wrapped all its soaps and scrubs in different-coloured packaging so that hurried and guilt-ridden travellers can pick up a gift right after Customs and just before Limousine Taxi.
‘Auntie Weng is at your home,’ my niece tells me, as we get into her SUV. ‘She has come with Fiona and Litta and little John-John and Grace.’ I raise my eyebrows, then shrug in reply.
The SUV guzzles the miles between the airport and the sprawling suburb of Puchong, where my parents live. Puchong is one of those satellite towns, as the property agents like to call them, that are supposed to contain all amenities and attractions, so their inhabitants don’t have to commute to central KL for everything, further clogging the capital’s arteries. In Malaysia, all amenities and attractions must necessarily include: at least one cineplex, at least two hypermarkets, at least four shopping malls, a Fitness First, three Coffee Beans and three Kenny Rogers Roasters.
Sure enough, my parents’ house is full of guests. It is Christmas, after all, and my Aunt Weng has come to pay her eldest sister a visit.
‘Well, hello!’ they all say, beaming at me. ‘Isn’t that nice, she’s back.’
And then: ‘So when are you leaving?’
And then: ‘What, so soon?’
I heave my little overnight bag upstairs and feel everyone scrutinising me when I come back down. ‘Those are nice shoes that you have out there,’ my cousin Litta says, giving me a sidelong glance. ‘Are they Bonia?’
‘No,’ I reply curtly. Then, inexplicably and untruthfully: ‘They are Yves Saint Laurent.’
I don’t even know if YSL makes shoes.
There are raised eyebrows across the room. How can I, with an ailing mother, afford to spend so much on shoes?
‘Don’t worry,’ I hear myself say. ‘I’ve been saving money from all those tips I used to get as a karaoke hostess.’
Nervous giggles. Some foot-shuffling. My mother, sitting at the corner of the room, looks embarrassed.
‘Have you bought property?’ was Litta’s way of filling the subsequent silence.
The fact that, at 34, I have yet to buy a house must prove a source of consternation to my mother. Through the years, she has seen cousin after cousin of mine upgrade from terrace house to semi-detached double-storey to triple-decker bungalow with super-sensory lighting and imported crazy paving in the garden. ‘Betty has an antique railway track running by an artificial lake, you know,’ she told me on one of my trips home.
Perhaps I wasn’t the type to marry and settle down. Perhaps I would never have children. But a house? Surely even I could get a house. ‘I’m not interested in buying property,’ I say, this time truthfully. ‘Even if I was, I wouldn’t buy in Singapore or Malaysia. I just had a friend who bought one in New Zealand, and another one who’s just sold his house in Portugal.’
Why, oh why, do I say such things? Vulgar and vengeful, the words come out before I can stop them.
‘Oh,’ says Litta, lowering her eyes. ‘I have joined this club on the internet and I will be going to Italy and America to meet the other members.’
When my relatives finally get up to go, they leave behind a trail of paper plates and best wishes for the season. Also, Christmas presents for my mum, my dad, my two sisters and me. I hadn’t bought them any.
My mother was brought up a Buddhist but in her mid-50s she became a Christian. In Malaysia, the ethnic Malays are predominantly Muslim, while those of Chinese origin, like my family, are either Buddhist, Taoist or, in growing numbers, Catholic and Protestant.
I used to go to church but I don’t anymore. At least, not to the ‘charismatic’, fundamentalist strain my mother and many of my aunts go to. I can no longer do that hand-raising, happy-clappy stuff.
More than wanting me to possess a husband and a house, my mother would love to see me go back to the church.
‘How are you, Ma?’
‘I am feeling fine. I am finishing the second cycle now of my chemotherapy tablets. The other day, I was combing my hair and a lot of it fell out. But the doctor said, you are not supposed to lose hair with this medication. I am very upset. I was supposed to do six cycles but now the doctor tells me there’s been a change and now everyone must do eight cycles. Sad, lah. I thought it would be over very soon. Eh. You cannot touch the chemo tablets, you know. The doctor said for people who do not have cancer, even touching the tablets will affect them in a very bad way. Funny, eh?’
My mother’s hands are shaking even more than usual. The plastic cup that she’s carrying clatters noisily as she holds it to her lips, the spoon inside jangling nervously. She offers me biscuits with her other tremulous hand.
If we travel even further back in time, to when Malaysia was not even a country yet, you will be able to see my mother, not as she is now, but as a girl. The oldest child of a family of 12, and a daughter, she had all the responsibilities and none of the rewards.
From the age of seven, whenever there was no food or money in the house, she was sent to beg for rice in the streets. When the Japanese came, she and the family had to run into the jungle and hide there for many years. They grew sweet potatoes and some people fell sick with beri-beri for lack of vitamins. When they came out again after the war, my mother quit school and became a secretary. The British were leaving. At that time, a flavoured ice-ball cost only one cent.
We have heard this, and other stories like it, many times. They have taken an air of familiarity and yet strangeness, as though the more you listen to them, the more of a foreigner you feel. And the stories become so faraway, so unlike your own, privileged, everyday experiences that listening to them starts to feel like an invasion. Only it hurts you, the invader, as much as the invaded.
The story of my sister is even stranger and more remote. My sister lives in a world of her own. Prone to epileptic fits as a child, she was struck by an intense seizure coupled with high fever when she was eight. After that, she was never the same again. At school, she was much slower than the others and finally dropped out when she failed every subject.
‘Red eggs,’ my mother used to say, describing this episode to me. ‘All she brought home was red eggs.’
In Chinese families, when a baby is 100 days old, we celebrate by handing out goodies including hard-boiled eggs that are dyed red. But children who bring back report cards full of zeroes marked in scarlet ink, like my sister, are also said to be presenting red eggs.
I speak of my Second Sister; my First, who lives three streets away from my parents, was the one who sent her daughter to pick me up at the airport.
I was born 14 years after Second Sister was born, six years after she started living in her new world. When I myself turned six and learnt to read, I tried to teach Second Sister all that I knew. I made her do maths and spelling; and everything my teacher taught me, I tried to transmit to her in turn. But the process was slow. It seemed as though Second Sister just didn’t want to catch up. One day, I threw a book at her.
Today, she is sitting on the sofa, singing a hymn to herself. She, at least, follows my mother to church.
‘How is your job?’ my father, sitting in the corner, suddenly asks.
‘It’s good, Pa, good.’
‘How many people work for your company?’
‘I dunno. A few hundred, I guess.’
‘Wah. Very big. Did you bring your business card?’
‘No, Pa. I forgot. But you won’t find my title or anything like that on it anyway, Pa. My company doesn’t believe in putting designations on business cards.’
‘Why? WHY?’ shrieked my dad.
Second Sister starts cackling with laughter, whether at or with my father, I cannot say.
‘So do they have a canteen for you in the office?’
‘Uh. Kind of, Pa.’
‘And what kind of food?’
‘All kinds of food, Pa.’
‘Wah, very good. And the building how many floors?’
‘Twenty floors. But my office only takes up one floor, Pa.’
‘Wah. Still very big.’
‘It’s time for dinner,’ my mother announces, getting up shakily from her chair. ‘I have made curry and sambal fish, I know you like. Tomorrow we will have big prawns, three ringgit each. Nowadays everything so expensive. Very hard to find.’
‘Yes, Ma,’ I say.
In my bedroom, on the dresser, there is a Christmas card waiting for me, written by Second Sister.
mErrY ChRIStmAs, it says. Hapy NeW yEARR to U. xXxx.
Yesterday, when you were young, you thought that everyone came from your country, understood your language and sung your music. But then, as you grew up and met more and more people from more and more places, you realised that everyone comes from a different land, where they do things in a different way.
You have to explain to them, sometimes very slowly, ‘My mother is this-and-this, my sister is that-and-that.’ And they, in their turn, will say in their tongue, ‘My father is such-and-such, and my brother does so-and-so.’ And you will say, ‘That’s funny, in my family, we do things like THIS, and when we are trying to achieve THIS, we will do THAT.’ And they in their turn will go, ‘No, no, no. In my family, when we say THIS, we mean THIS, and when we do THAT, we are trying to say THAT. And when we are angry, we do THIS. And when we are sad, we do THIS.’
And sometimes, when you are very lucky, you find people who understand what you are trying to say, without much effort. But at other times, both you and they are at a loss.
The day of my leaving is bright and clear. After several days of rain, a benign sun has come out to light the sky. Outside in the little square plot of garden, my parents’ clothes hang to dry, twisting in the wind.
In my bag, besides my clothes, I have my presents from all the family. My mother, as usual, has given me another carry-all, which she has filled with various-sized Tupperwares of cooked food — more big prawns, fried kangkong, achar, another curry. She has also stuffed the bag with oranges and large apples from China, ‘in case Singapore don’t have’.
The four of us stand awkwardly in the living-room, where there are still some unopened gifts from Auntie Weng and Litta. We wait for the sound of a car-horn, which would signal that First Sister, or one of her children, has arrived to take me to the airport.
Before I leave there is the cheque-signing ceremony. This is when I open my chequebook and ask my parents how much they need. I also write cheques for the coming few months, all dated for the beginning of the month so that they can withdraw the money at regular intervals and because I, too, receive my pay on a monthly basis.
My father, who used to be a cashier at the Chartered Bank, now Standard Chartered, scrutinises every cheque. He checks the date, the amount and the signature. He checks if I have crossed it correctly and if I have addressed it to the right person.
‘If you make any mistake, all you have to do is sign again next to your correction,’ he tells me, not for the first time.
How many families perform this ritual? Only all families who hail from the same land, I suppose. Or is each cheque-signing ceremony unique and therefore particular to each family? Do they all have their own weird little mannerisms and customs surrounding each signing?
Is this an increasingly foreign language that is dying?
The greedy roar of an SUV signals that First Sister has arrived. We say our goodbyes. I tell my mother that I will call her as soon as I land in Singapore, and that she must call me often and tell me how she is doing.
She says: ‘Remember, you must heat the food immediately when you get home or put it in the fridge.’
I count slowly in my head. My mother has six more chemotherapy cycles to go.
My farewells to my father and Second Sister are brief. It is not that we are distant or uncaring, you understand. In my family, this is how we do things.
I get in the car, and as it speeds off, I turn around to gaze at my father, mother and Second Sister, huddled against the gate, a little triangle waving at the disappearing vehicle. They look small and weak, and they get smaller and smaller and weaker.
I clutch at the handle of the window. I smile, I wave. My hand is shaking and I find I can no longer be still. My heart whispers the same thing again and again, familiarly and frantically. It is a mantra or a prayer, depending on where you come from.
‘Be careful, be careful. Oh god, please be careful.’
Clarissa Tan can be contacted at email@example.com.
The Shiva Naipaul memorial prize, which is in its final year, is awarded annually to the contestant best able, like the late Shiva Naipaul, to describe a visit to a foreign place or people. It is not for travel writing in the conventional sense, but for the most acute and profound observation of a culture evidently alien to the writer. This year the prize is worth £3,000.
The judges were the writers William Boyd and James Knox, Matthew d’Ancona (editor of The Spectator), Mark Amory (literary editor of The Spectator) and Mary Wakefield (assistant editor of The Spectator).
Six were shortlisted out of a total of 90 entries. The runners-up were Grainne Hayes, Daniel Belsky, Simon Akam and Minoo Dinshaw. The judges particularly admired Kapka Kassabova’s piece about Belogradchik in Bulgaria, but Clarissa Tan emerged as the winner by a clear margin.