She woke up to the sound of the winter wind knocking gently on her windowpane. “Snow day,” she muttered to herself as she swung out of bed. Grateful for the fact that it was a Sunday, she wrapped a shawl around herself as she stumbled to the kitchen for the obligatory morning cuppa.
It was her first winter back in London since she graduated some years ago. After luxuriating in Malaysia’s tropical heat, this was taking some getting used to. Her feet were chilled as she padded across the tiled kitchen floor. (Mental note, get a pair of bedroom slippers.)
As always, the phantom memories of her mother’s kitchen started wafting through the room, the smell of chicken curry, frying garlic, belacan and the clacking of a spatula against a cast iron kuali. A mug, still moist, was withdrawn from the dishwasher, and so commenced the daily ritual of spooning copious amounts of Nescafe into said mug. Wishing that she had remembered to bring a couple of tins of condensed milk along, she opened the fridge. The milk was expired, as expected. Fuck it, I’ll drink it black then.
Setting the steaming mug down on her desk and powering up her laptop, she curled up on her chair and started to reminisce about the tradeoff she made when she decided to return to Albion’s shores. It wasn’t just the fact that she was now earning a five figure salary in Pounds Sterling. It was also that she had exchanged the call of the muezzin for Big Ben chiming the hour, sunny (if polluted) skies for interminable drizzle, as well as nasi lemak for fish and chips. As if in response, her stomach growled. (Oh hush, I’ll feed you later. When I can be arsed to cook, that is.)
Waiting for the laptop to boot up, she opened a drawer and withdrew a sheet of scented notepaper. A half-finished letter to her boyfriend in Australia. This is not to say that they were Luddites when it came to correspondence; Skype and emails were part of their daily routine. However, they had been writing letters to each other since childhood, even though they lived next door back then, and somehow the markings of ink on paper seemed so much more personal and intimate than a stream of ones and zeros translated into something legible on a computer screen.
She grimaced as she remembered the hue and cry her parents kicked up when she announced that they were now an item, her gaze drifting towards the framed family photo sitting next to her laptop. Dear old mom and dad, always there for her. It was their intervention that ended her vacillation about coming back.
“Haiyah, young girl like you should go somewhere and make a name for yourself. This country is not a good place for you anymore. You know how they hate us and make life so difficult for us, you should go somewhere where they appreciate you. We are old already, we don’t mind, but you cannot stunt your growth this way. Not like him. He’s one of them, the Government will take care of him, he will make it here.”
Ironically enough, he moved to Melbourne six months before she herself left. “I cannot take it anymore lah sayang. It’s not just enough to be Malay to succeed here. You have to be that certain sort, you know, the closed-minded, one leg in the kampong, bigoted, hypocritical scumbag who will happily bodek his way to the top and get there irrespective of how good he actually is at doing the work. Plus, the societal pressure is really killing me here. OK, so I like the occasional beer…”
“Occasional? Don’t make me laugh, dear.”
“You know what I mean lah sayang. The point is that I would like the freedom to be myself without having the bloody kaypohchee relatives and the religious police breathing down my neck. Plus, what with prices and everything going up and us earning peanuts, it’s not a good country for us anymore. Anyway, I miss Melbourne and I would like to spend at least a couple of years there to see if I can make it. I’ll keep writing you, I promise.”
And yet, was it that much better here? Apart from the vitriol constantly spewed by the BNP, racism also made its presence felt in more subtle yet more insidious ways. People speaking patronisingly to her without knowing or bothering to find out that English was and remained her first language since childhood and that the only Chinese she knew had to do with ordering food as well as the swear words. The glances from some white Britishers that stabbed her with their messages of “You don’t belong here”. Having to endure a ton of shit at the office with both her and her employers knowing that her continued presence here was solely dependent on their goodwill and whether they would keep submitting her work permit renewals. She sighed, uncapped her Mont Blanc and finished off her letter.
I don’t know anymore that distance makes the heart grow fonder. It just makes it, well, distant.
Checking her mail. “Work, work, work, penis enhancement, cheap Viagra, work, Nigerian guy with cash in a trunk, more work, ah… Dad.” She opened the message.
Mummy and Daddy are doing fine here. We had a good weekend. Last night we had some friends over for dinner. Uncle Suresh and Aunty Lillian send their regards. Mummy cooked her chicken curry and everybody loved it. Good to hear that you are doing well over there, Mummy and Daddy are proud of you and we wish you all the best. Remember to tell us what you are craving from home so that we can send it to you in this month’s package. Don’t send us so much money next time, we are fine here and we know you need it because London is so expensive.
Be a good girl and don’t forget to go to church ya…”
“Mummy and Daddy love you very much.”
Tears welled up in her eyes as she closed the message, as they always did. Lighting up a cigarette, one of the last of her duty-frees, she watched the tendrils of smoke twist and curl their way up to the ceiling. The homesickness remained a dull ache within…it was always the good things you remembered most. Nights spent with her girlfriends clubbing on Heritage Row with the obligatory post-booze mamak session at Buharry’s, jogging in KLCC Park, foodie roadtrips up to Penang, staying up late with her parents on the night of 30th August to watch the fireworks, the strains of Negaraku sounding from the TV with everyone singing along, tears in their eyes…
Not that life here was completely shit here either. Boxing Day shopping sprees on Oxford Street, West End musicals, New Year’s at Trafalgar Square with the sleet turning said square into a slushy mess, but who cared? Plus, a lot of her friends were here who didn’t bother going back, as well as her British and international uni mates, so she certainly didn’t lack for company or good times. It’s not bad here. It’s just…not the same.
Stubbing out the remnants of her cigarette (gotta quit soon), she heard a group of Christmas carolers start to sing in the nearby park. She looked out of the window and smiled. How happy they were! At least they know where they belong. Checking her phone, she read an SMS from one of her British girlfriends inviting her out for coffee followed by an orchestral performance at Albert Hall.
“Soz hun, can’t make it this afternoon. Not feeling well.”
That done, she decided to curl up back on her bed and sleep the rest of the day away. Tomorrow was another manic Monday after all. She dreamt of being safe and warm in her mother’s arms.
© Thean See Xien, 2010. The moral right of the author has been asserted.
Thean See Xien is a loyar murtad who has succumbed to the lure of the corporate world. He used to be able to string a decent sentence together, but has subsequently lost that ability. He hopes to be able to get it back some time.
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