Too little, too late

My childhood friend passed on today. Barely 50 and married with 2 adult kids.

Right now I feel wretched with guilt, because we were very close once. Inseparable. But over the years, we drifted apart as I moved away and pursued my dream relentlessly. She, on the other hand,  chose to get married right after university and became a stay at home mum. It was a vocation I had scoffed at that time because I felt that she was throwing her life away. This drove a wedge between us.

The last I saw her was at our school reunion. I must admit she looked frail. I had promised to catch up with her, but never did. She had sent me a text message afterwards saying how glad she was to meet me again and hoped that we will stay in touch.

I never made time to call. I never replied her message.

It’s too late now.


Remembering Grandma on her 100th birthday

My mum reminded me to request Holy Mass for the soul of Gua Mah, my late maternal grandmother.  Gua Mah would have been 100 years old in a three weeks’ time.  For me, time usually freezes the moment a person dies, but my mum remembers every birthday and death anniversary of our loved ones like clockwork. 

My fondest memories of Gua Mah are of her and her friends squatting around a makeshift long charcoal stove, making kuih kapit – a popular traditional wafer snack – for the Chinese Lunar New Year.


Kuih kapit

The ladies would get me to turn the iron waffle molds constantly up and down the length of the charcoal stove. The stove was a long metal grill placed on top of several rectangular old tins containing burnt embers.  After every second flip of the mold, they would expertly lift the cooked wafer out,  fold it into quarters and smear another thin sheet of egg batter onto the decorative mold for the next round.

When they were not making nyonya desserts or prepping those laborious nyonya recipes, Gua Mah and her friends would sit at the sunny back verandah of our house, embroidering handkerchiefs. My task was to pull out their gray hairs – especially the really itchy thick short ones, for which I was paid 2 cents per gray hair pulled.

There, I eavesdropped as they gossiped incessantly.  Often, they forgot that I was standing behind plucking gray hairs, until I interrupted their juicy stories with a laugh or a comment; and in which case, one of them would turned and warned me not to be a “kepoh” – a busybody

Gua-Mah was ahead of her time. While most girls growing up in pre-independent Malaysia in 1920s were kept at home and groomed to be the perfect housewife,  Gua Mah was enrolled by her father, a herbalist migrant from China, at a Catholic girls school where she spent most of her early years learning to read and write in English, arithmetic and needlework.

Hence, it was hilarious when in the later years, guys trying to chat me up were intimidated when Gua Mah answered the phone in perfect English and corrected their grammar as they dictated their messages to her for me.

Gua Mah loved singing Latin hymns and was an active member of the Church choir until 1965 when Catholic Masses moved from Latin to vernacular language.

Church choir in 1960. Gua Mah is standing 3rd from left.

Her favourite hymn was Ave Maria and it was one of the first songs I learnt to sing, albeit imperfectly, as a child.  Being her eldest grandchild, she would nag, cajole and bribe me to sing that song in front of her friends.  

It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before their eyes misted over:

Ave Maria, gratia plena.
Maria, gratia plena
Maria, gratia plena
Ave, ave dominus,
Dominus tecum.
Benedicta tu in mulieribus,
Et benedictus
Et benedictus fructus ventris,
Ventris tui, Jesus

Ave Maria.

As I ate the kuih kapit over tea today, I hear this song from a distant past in my head. It would always begin softly. Slowly. Before my eyes misted over.


Little things that mattered

Sometimes you get lucky in life because life gives you a second chance to revisit your past and allows you to make amends in the present before it is too late.

Sometimes a chance conversation will dredge up little things. Things which you have forgotten; of images buried deep in the recesses of your mind.

When that happens, it’s like reopening a window and peering into the past. And once that window is opened, it’s like being shoved into a giddy vortex. How far down you go or how quick you resurface largely depends on how much you dare to delve.

Memories can be dark things. Murky stuff that shows up in clear light.

Ever since I started writing on this blog, I have found myself actively seeking out memory-markers – things, events, words, pictures – which could trigger some kind of recollection of my past.

The funny thing is that, regardless of the years, we tend to remember very well — the bad, the shameful, the hateful, the loathsome. We shudder at the recklessness, the what-could-have-happened-but-Thank-God-it-didn’t scenarios. We scowl at the cruel words hurled; careless, cutting, deliberate.

But it’s the little things that slip through the shutters.

Little things like, how my grandmother would help me hand-sew the fussy hems and trimmings for my Home Science assigment just so that I can have the extra time studying for my exams (which I promptly squandered reading a Mills & Boons novel instead).

Little things like, how my father would insist on assuming control of my school science projects, resulting in something that was so over-designed and over-the-top, it was embarassing.  I was the only kid in class and possibly, the whole school who handed in a 3D topographic map with an exploding volcano which was made possible by pouring vinegar onto the baking soda placed inside the volcano.

Little things like, how my grandfather would sit next to me and insist that I learn how to write in old-fashioned cursive “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog” until I get it perfect.

Little things like, how my mother would wake up at 5AM to wash the clothes, hang them to dry, rush to make breakfast, see us off to school before hurrying off to work; most days, I now recall, with breakfast in her bag. And on some days, she would come home, breakfast still in her bag, which she would hand over to me to devour greedily while she prepared lunch. It never occurred to me to ask why she came home with breakfast still in her bag.

These are the little things that now matter the most to me. Because I realized today how much they were sacrifices of love.

Today’s chance meeting with a stranger made me regret the unkind words, the impatience, the indifference. It also reminded me that I am loved very much eventhough love shown by my closest and dearest, is not overtly in a way I know how, but in a very subtle way; purely because that is the only way they knew how.


Oh! the places you will go..

“The more you read, the more places you will go,the more places you go, the more things you will learn.” 
― Dr. Seuss, Oh, The Places You’ll Go!

I sometimes wonder:  had I not stumbled into investment banking 25 years ago, what career path would I have pursued?  An English Literature teacher, a writer, or both? I love to read. I love to write and of course, I always have lots to say about everything and anything. LOL

For me, books are the most magical things. They allow me to live vicariously in another life, another place and another time at each turn of a page.  I love the excitement of opening a book and finding a great first line that leaps off the page and stabs you in the eye. I love the musky smell of paper, yellowed with age. I love the sharp crisp smell of ink. It is like comfort food. Like having a bowl of soupy ramen noodles on a winter night miles away from home.

When I was younger, there were alot of things we couldn’t have on a whim. I grew up in a small town in Malaysia. There was only one bookstore which stocked a limited choice of storybooks, novels and flashy magazines.  Most of these books especially by my favourite writer, Enid Blyton, were expensive imports from the UK.

Hence, storybooks were something my parents could not really splurged on us whenever they felt like it. To this day, books are always associated – at least in my mind – with a blessing. A gift. Something treasured. A special occasion.

For a small town girl, books flew me to places which I could only dream of, and embarked on reckless adventures which my parents frowned on.

When I was 9, my friends and I  converted a space in my dad’s garage into a secret meeting place after reading Famous Five storybooks.  Things came to head after a neighbour complained to our parents about us snooping in his backyard.  

When I was 12, a couple of my friends were sent to boarding schools in UK.  I begged and cried and nagged my parents for weeks to allow me to go too. When they finally asked me why on earth would I want to leave the comforts of home for a boarding school, I told them about how fun I thought boarding schools would be — just like Whyteleafe School from The Naughtiest Girl in School storybooks. “But it’s not real school. It’s a s-t-o-r-y,” my mother rolled her eyes and groaned.

When I was 16, I went to college and befriended Nell. Nell was from the City and she was worldly. She would change into street clothes after school and wore lipstick. We were in awe of her. More importantly, Nell introduced us to Mills and Boons. She had an endless supply of these deliciously naughty books with pictures of couples french-kissing on the covers and with their clothes way too tight, too low-cut, too scant.  I would carefully wrap these books with the dust jackets from some hardcover reference books, just in case someone came into my room (cue: nosy pesky sibling)

Regardless of school week or term holidays, my parents were a stickler for early bedtime and would demand lights off by 9PM.  I would read with a torchlight under the blanket way into the night so that my parents can’t see the light coming from under my bedroom door. 

Now nearing five decades since my first book, my love affair with books have not wane one bit. There’s always a quick skip in my heart when I have a book in hand.  I still love reading a book under the blanket with a mini reading light clipped at the top; until my better half decides to fart under the blanket.


The one with the bad perm

     Last night, my husband asked if I would like to go out for dinner for a change. “Let’s!” I said, before suggesting that we dressed down. I happened to know this “foodie hideout” place in the outskirts of town.

     I studiously avoided catching his eyes as we got out from the car and walked into the restaurant. This eating place was a couple of tables and chairs on a cement floor under a tin roof jutting out in the front yard of someone’s single-storey terrace house in the suburbs. Yup, unlicensed, unregulated, non-legit home restaurant business.

     My husband inhaled sharply as a middle-aged woman with a severe tight perm and wearing lacy leggings waved at me and led us to an inconspicuous table at the corner.

     Mrs Bad Perm who is the owner’s wife shouted our drinks order to someone at the back – it was a choice of either home-made herbal tea or boiled barley. “Free drinks,” she reminded me. 

     “Why you so long no come here?” she asked, in a singsong voice, and then, glancing pointedly at my better half, she continued “Your father?”  I sucked my cheeks in to stifle a giggle before answering “This is my husband.” Mrs Bad Perm slammed her order book against her opened mouth before shaking her head and apologizing profusely. 

     “What was that? Comedy central?” my husband scowled, watching Mrs Bad Perm hurrying to the kitchen. I squeezed his arm and said that it was part of the appeal in places like these. Unpretentious charm! LOL

     By the time our food was served, my husband was waxing lyrical about the freshness of the ingredients. I told him that the steamed fish couldn’t get any fresher than this. It had been happily swimming in the tank when we walked in!  We also had a dish which he assumed was braised venison in chinese herbs. Actually, it was not venison. It was — umm — monitor lizard, but … he needn’t need to know that for now.

Love in a second language

The daughter got engaged last week.

It had been a long time coming, she said, contemplating a long distance relationship that was rather long in the tooth. My husband and I rolled our eyes. 

“We,” my husband said, pointing his finger back and forth between us, “got engaged a year after we met. I wasn’t going to give your mum an opportunity to think about this and that.”

I laughed nervously. He is right, you know.

My husband and I grew up in totally different settings.

I grew up in a small family. I had two siblings and everyone went about quietly doing their own things.  On school days, we had to finish our homework before we can go out to play. We were allowed two hours of tv after dinner. Then, we were given a dose of cod liver emulsion (yukks!!) and bundled off to sleep by 9pm.  

On weekends, we had church activities and helped out with the household chores. My favourite chore was ironing clothes. To this day, I enjoy ironing. I love the repetitive rhythm of the iron gliding on cotton and the sharp scent of sunshine as steam hits the folds of a shirt. In short, I had a boring, sheltered and pampered upbringing in Snooze county.

In contrast, my husband grew up with seven siblings. It was a boisterous household. Everyone was loud and there was always too much of everything – cooking, eating, jostling, teasing and everyone talking over everybody in their effort to get heard. The distractions were incessant. They overwhelmed me.  

Like my husband and I, our daughter is going to marry into a family that is as diverse as ours. We are a small quiet Malaysian family of three.  Our daughter is our only child. In contrast, our prospective son-in-law comes from a large noisy British-Punjabi extended family.  For her, it will no doubt take alot of getting used to.

As my daughter prepares for her marriage and settles in her new life in a new country, all I can offer from my experience are these:

It’s hard to fathom what hard work being in a culturally diverse relationship is; until you are elbow deep in one. It is like being in love in a second language.

When the going’s good, you enjoy the novelty, the diversity and the differences.

When the going’s rough, it’s a minefield to tread. It is initially hard to understand what went wrong, what you did wrong and what you said wrong. But it is ok. You have to remember that marriage is more than love. It is a commitment. It is like a bird – you need both wings to fly.

And no one says it better than this quote from one of my favourite Asian writers:

‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved.’…Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite….In Chinese, Love…has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.
~ Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers


“So, what do you do?”

     In the company of strangers, my friend would say that he “works in a hospital” when asked that all important question – “So, what do you do?”  

     He will then proceed to nail that well-practised game face all evening. That blur look which gives the impression that he is anything but a doctor. 

     He tells me that it was the best lesson learnt from early in his career because if he were to reveal that he is a medical doctor, he would have to spend all evening listening to folks relating their long list of ailments – imagined or otherwise – in the hope of getting free specialist advice over dinner.

     “I can’t dish medical advice without proper diagnosis, you should know that,” he would complain later. I would obediently agree.  I mean, what else can I say? 

     Hence, whenever I am caught in similar situation, I frequently say “I am a broker” in a nonplussed way with my shark-like smile for added effect. Somehow, the word “broker” inevitably conjures images of hungry rent-seeking scheming agents. 

     Like my doctor friend, I have learnt the hard way that to hold oneself out as an private equity investor is like being doused with honey before entering a roomful of bees. You’ll be swarmed. Transformed instantly into the life of the party. A minor celebrity. Suddenly, everyone has a business proposal or knows a friend of a friend who has one. The more opportunistic ones will persuade you to take a we-fie, before asking for your personal phone number so that they can sent you the photo (of course!) and shortly after, their business proposals.

     Ideally, a person is not defined by his job title nor judged by it because work is just one of the subsets that makes up a whole personality.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in that ideal world. Rant all you want and philosophize till you turn blue, the bottom line is this:  your answer to that seemingly casual question -“So, what do you do?” – is like the key  the real world uses to plug you on their food chain pyramid.

     Occasionally, I would answer, “I am a retiree.”  It would certainly guarantee a quick dismissal – after all who wants to hear about a has-been.  But it is an efficient way to get rid of pushy social climbers and aggressive self-promoters.  Yup, those ones who hand out business cards like Santa before dominating the conversation for the next hour; telling you how great they are, how qualified, how awesome his business is. 

     So, what do you do?