Friday, April 24, 2009

"Music Never Leaves You"

I had not been actively listening to music for years. In the car, I would almost always be listening to NPR or National Public Radio. Sure, sometimes they have a piece on music but usually not. Sometimes I do get bored of all the ‘intelligent talk’ as they call it on NPR, and chatter. I had been picking up some popular stuff off and on over the years. At home, more than likely I would be watching something on TV, or just enjoying the utter silence. Music just wasn’t in my daily life.

A few years ago I was home in KB for an extended visit. Zoe was barely a year old. My brother happened to be around for an extended stay too. After Zoe’s bedtime, we would get together and watch movies and talk music. (And munch on some chocolate. Of course, I could afford the chocolate…I was breastfeeding and needed the extra calories!!) This is how the old loveseat from the living room inevitably migrated into the computer room. We’d watch movies off the MAC and we found a way to make it comfortable. Sometimes we'd been working on our computers with iTunes in the background.

I was asking my brother for some music for Zoe when he came up with some Disney music, bossa nova style. It was interesting. Then there was There Might be Giants with their ABC song. One thing led to another. Next thing I knew I was listening to a whole host of new music. Some bossa nova, new age, some house and acid jazz. It sort of rekindled my love for music. I went back to the US refreshed with all my new music, yet I hardly played any of it except when we were on road trips and I needed something to help me stay awake!

Music though, never really leaves you. You think it does, but its influences are everywhere. It’s insidious, inserting itself into your life even when you least suspect it. Like a soundtrack of a movie you can’t get out of your head, an irritating snippet of elevator music, a tune that you overhear that brings you back to a certain time in your life. There are songs out there that just take me back to the past. To a certain moment, or a certain day, a certain event.

I remember years ago when I had broken up with my boyfriend, how sad and lost I was. All I played was sad music. Why do people do that? I was young then. It was a big deal to me. I was hurt and betrayed. I remember writing in bold pastels: 'Music never leaves you’ and sticking it up on the wall in my student flat. I kept looking at it. And I guess it burned into my memory because I can even picture it now, where it was on my wall, what it looked like. Whenever I am sad I always remember that little poster of those words. Then I play some music.

It’s been lately again that I have rediscovered music in a whole new light. A new friendship with a music lover spurred it on. An exchange of music, a shared love for it has opened my eyes to both new and old music. I’m discovering some contemporary Chinese music, some classical and even instrumental music: this music that I would never have listened to on my own. When you open your mind to what’s out there, you might be surprised.

But, as old favorites like John Denver’s Song Sung Blue was a cue that my father was home because he loved to whistle this tune when I was a child, and any Bossa Nova stuff would remind me of my dear brother, Zoe’s bedtime ritual request for Jay Chou’s music would transport me back to the first few months of 2009 when I introduced his music to her, and to the music lover who showed me the way to this singer-songwriter.

Music is unavoidable. You can’t go anywhere without being touched by it or by the lyrics that sometimes accompanies it. Who’s your favorite composer, who’s your favorite singer, your favorite song or tune? I’m sure you have an answer. And if you don’t, then like me, you have to start paying attention to the backdrop of your life. It’s the music that lurks there. You will come to realize that it will touch you. In one way or another. And perhaps, the backdrop may inch its way to the frontlines.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009


As the disparity between fair and dark skin grows on my body, I keep wondering to myself whether it is hitam manis (dark and sweet), or hitam hodoh (dark and ugly). It’s this thing about getting fitter that eludes me. I keep trying, and I keep slipping! I keep coming back, and I keep going away. It’s time to take a stand. So, I’ve been furiously working out in the pool. I do my laps, I feel good. I eat some more. I do my laps again. I feel even better, I eat even more. Or something like that. In the midst of it all, I manage to shed a few pounds, and get a new skin. Hitam manis, I hope. Skin cancer, stay the heck away! Where’s the sunscreen?

As the weeks roll by, I have been watching myself slowly turn into this dark thing that I used to be when the pool was just built. Father built a pool in our front garden when I was nine. With that, basketball, badminton, and just playing jadi (‘tag’) and jumping rope quickly went out the window. Slowly I lost the company of all my girlfriends who would usually come over on the weekends for playdates. In came my boisterous cousins. All boys. My cousins and I had a standing Friday date. It was pool day. We’d fool around, swim laps, and play water polo. My father was the champion of these activities.

Various cousins came and went but there were three in particular who were the kaki polo (polo regulars). They were all older than me. I was the youngest one. Yeah, I had a good time!! Ben was my favorite cousin. Not because of anything special he did. He was just more talkative, more interactive and he was what we call in Kelantan-speak, cendeng. (This word has many meanings, but in this context, I mean smart-ass). We teased each other a lot. The other two regulars were Harry and Lando. Harry was very shy and quiet, but agreeable, almost all the time. Lando was unpredictable. He was talkative one day, and brooding the next.

We’d set up goals on both ends of the pool. It was our version of water polo. We didn’t tread water like you see in the Olympics. It’s a small pool, and it’s shallow. We’d divvy ourselves up into two teams and fight to the end! Sometimes the shenanigans would start in the morning, and we’d have lunch at the pool. Something our fathers ta pau (carry out) from somewhere. Then we’d play through till tea time, when we come out intermittently to snack on fig rolls and Nice biscuits or mmmm, bourbon creams. There was even soda!! And on, till the bats come for a taste of pool water. Then we're out of there.

Those days were heaven. We learned how to swim in this little pool. We bonded. Those years of playing polo together and just fooling around. But where are we all today? Some of us are still living close to each other. We barely communicate unless there’s a family event. Some of us are far away, like me. We’re all not in Kelantan anymore. Harry and Ben are in KL, each successful in his field. Lando is somewhere in China, chasing his dream. I’m in the States, doing my own thing, and probably the least accomplished professionally.

Whenever I visit KL, I want to make sure I see all my relatives there, if only to get together to say Hi, who are these children and what are their names? My relatives are many. Most of them had migrated to KL many moons ago. So the extended family is mostly there.

This last visit to KL was phenomenal. Harry’s wife, who shares my name, organized the gathering. Everybody showed up. Even cousins I didn’t know before showed up. And they cooked impressive dishes. Our Hainanese clan is thriving. There were some new children to meet too. I can’t remember their names now though! I need a notebook next time. Note to self..where'll I write this note down?

Zoe bonded with her 2nd cousins and I reconnected with my cousins. While we’re talking about the economy and how bad it is, I’m observing and noticing the changes between then and now. Oh how this cousin has aged, and that cousin has turned neurotic (ooh, maybe she was always like that), and how another has not changed one bit in appearance or demeanour. Lucky bitch! hah!

Ben drives a spanking new car, company sponsored. He’s a fitness fiend, having lost all his chubbiness from his teenage years. He’s handsome and smart and utterly loaded. Still a bachelor. Harry has a wonderful wife, two cute girls whom Zoe adores, and a little boy who is the centre of attention. Lando wasn’t there. Last I heard, he was enjoying the good life, having just bought a yacht with some of his friends.

These cousins featured so much in my childhood. Every single one of them, but especially Ben, Harry and Lando. I’m glad that their finding their stride in life. Or at least they seem to have found their stride. How easy is it to tell from just a fleeting visit? Who knows? It’s all an impression. We don't have time to sit down and have a heart to heart. We've all grown apart over the years.

I’ll ponder that when I do my next 100 laps. With copious amounts of sunscreen!

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The clown I know

My uncle is a clown. Correction. He works as a clown sometimes. People invite him to events and they pay him to entertain kids. Sometimes they don't tell him how much they will pay him but he goes anyway. I think he enjoys it. He loves to make children laugh. I haven't seen him at a gig but I've seen him with Zoe. He's her hero. He used to be my hero too. He's a photographer, an artist, a jerry-rigger. He put wheels on a plastic chair and it became a sort of wheelchair for my grandfather.
Crazy guy!!

"Where is 二舅公 (2nd grand uncle)? Is he coming today?" She would ask incessantly.

Last night she saw him for a fleeting moment, while he was in between gigs. He was home to grab a bite and change outfits. We were there for makan after the prayers for my grandmother on the anniversary of her death.

Surprisingly, she had no issues with him taking leave without making some funny balloons for her or playing with her. Probably because all my aunts were present and they were each fawning over her in their own way.

I was too busy wolfing down some much anticipated laksa. Chinese style. This is thick rice noodles, topped with fresh local herbs and raw veges (daun kesum, raw shallots, cucumber, bean sprouts, long beans), bathed in a rich, creamy, curry coconut broth that is infused with finely pounded mackerel. It's just heaven...I'm telling you.
That's it. Can't think of anything else. I'm just going to re-laks--a

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Recapturing Zoe's love for the beach

Zoe had her first taste of the beach when she was about 7 months' old. That was her first trip back to Malaysia.

She loved the beach. Any old beach, as long as it had sand and sea. And she had her pail and tools to dig around. She would play with hermit crabs and build her sand castles. She'd get tickled silly when the waves licked her feet, crawling up her legs. She'd splash around unabashedly.

4 trips in, she has developed a phobia of sand. The colour just isn't what it used to be. There's rubbish all over the place.

"It's dirty, Mummy..I don't want to walk...carry me" she would wail.

Who can blame her? The state of the beaches around Kelantan is quite honestly, appalling. I grew up around beautiful beaches, but where are they now? Erosion has taken out most of the beauty in the old faithfuls like PCB and Pantai Tujoh. Beaches like Pantai Irama in Bachok still retained some appeal until recently when they put up some sort of retaining wall.

I love being at the beach. I don't have to walk on it or play in the sea, nor feel the waves at my feet. Just being there is enough. To look out at the sea is to know that I am at home. And if I'm not looking at the sea from here, I still get reminded of home. It's a win-win situation for me. It would mean so much to me if my daughter can share the joy of being at the beach with me. I sort of need her to love the beach. For me, it's almost like a sense of belonging. For her, I have yet to find out I suppose.

In the US, the closest thing to a beach where we are, is a lake. It's sad and pathetic, I know. The closest beach is probably a day's drive away. We are very inland. Right slap bang in the middle of this vast country. Heart of the Mid West.

So - when I come home to where beaches are aplenty, I tend to want to take every opportunity I have to be at one. So far the popular beaches have been a disappointment. Even the one we went to yesterday, which is a rather secluded one with fewer visitors, was filthy. The shoreline was peppered with rubbish.

Come on though, the Kelantanese have got to see what they are doing to their beaches. Look at Terengganu. Beautiful, spotless, sandy beaches. When you drive from Kelantan to Terengganu, over that bridge by Kuala Besut, going into Bukit Kluang. Wow, what a difference. The sand there is pristine. When you drive back homewards, beautfiul blueish sea turns into a greenish brown mass. The transition is shocking!

I'm not a tree hugger by any means but this is just ridiculous! An environmentalist would have a field day at this Pantai Mengkabang, also known as Pantai Lubang Golok by the local kids. Plastic bottles and bags, broken glass bottles, old shoes, straws, food wrappings, even discarded clothes are everywhere. I'm a little afraid to walk barefoot here. As I get further in towards the sea, I get a little braver. The waves have either taken away the trash or it's simply buried deep enough I can't see it!

Slowly and firmly, I convince Zoe to get off me and walk. She's a little heavy for me to carry around these days. She walks about 20 metres with me, whining and moaning, " I don't want to walk, I don't want to walk!".

Finally I distract her into picking up the shells along the way. We found plenty of cockle shells and these twisty Towers. She starts getting into collector mode and goes for every uncracked shell. Soon, we come upon some men and boys with their vast net. It had been raining for most of the day until this evening so the sea was cloudy and the catch was going to be good. Some of them stay on shore and others spread out into the sea with their part of the net.

Zoe suddenly asks for sand toys. I got my beachlover back!! She's still tentative, scraping sheepishly at dry sand. I suggest moving closer to the sea. She's reluctant, but slowly takes baby steps towards wetter sand. I leave her with my friend for a moment while I take in the Kuan Yin statue that's facing the sea. What a strange place for it, I think to myself. So I venture offshore to take some pictures.

By the time I come back a few minutes later, Zoe is back to her old self. A manic wet-sand thrower (a wrecker of digital cameras!), a wave kicker-upper, a normal 4-year-old who doesn't care if sand gets in her hair. Or in Mummy's hair.

I figure something out too. Maybe I already knew it before. Zoe's phobia of sand was more or less brought on by me. I'm always telling her she has to be clean. Wash those hands, rid those germs from your fingers, don't put your fingers in your mouth, blah blah..

Finding a balance between loving nature and everything around us, and being clean. Sometimes, it's easier said than done.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

The dream

I had a special dream when I was 3 months' pregnant with my daughter. My then recently deceased maternal grandmother came to me.

It was April 2004, it was spring. I had been lying in bed constantly for at least 5 weeks by then, immobilized voluntarily to keep my baby safe. My mother called me and asked me if I was lying down. Of course she knew the odds were good that I was. Still, the news of her death hit hard. I knew I wasn't going to attend her funeral and that was rough.

She was the only grandmother I knew. My father's mother had passed on before I was born. 外婆 (Maternal grandmother) had a big hand in looking after me when I was a child. She was my go-to person. My protector, my secret conspirator, my provider of forbidden foods!

外公 (Maternal grandfather) used to tell me about her charmed life. 外婆 was adopted. She was a single child in that adopted family. She went to school but quit at the age of 9. Her mother, my great grandmother, was your stereotypical Chinese woman from the early 1900s. I think her feet were even bound, but I can't be sure whether it's just the imagery in my head telling me that, or if it is indeed reality. This I know though: great grandmother was an opium addict! Don't ask me how she got it or when she did it. I never saw it. I just knew it was a fact.

I don't know 外婆's life from the age of 9-16. At age 15 or so, she met my grandfather. He'd come from southern China, seeking a better life. The two fell in love and they married. 9 children followed. My mother was the first child. Well, 外公 loved 外婆 with all his heart. They started a business together and she was to be the principal manager of the business. She bore him 9 children, yet she hardly knew how to cook. It is an unlikely story considering women in her era were mostly housewives. My mother being the oldest, amassed a set of life skills that I still hope to hone one day. She can cook, cut hair (and still manage to make you look decent), sew, I'm still in awe of her, wow! But I'm digressing.

Back to 外婆. To cut a long story short, she was pampered. Even in her later years, ridden with illness and complications thereof, she was well cared for by family.

As we approach the day of her death, April 16th, and prepare for 清明 or cheng beng, (this is like All Souls Day, we visit the grave and clean up its surroundings and pay our respects to the departed), the dream I had 5 years ago keeps coming to mind.

At the time, I was put on bedrest by my obstetrician. It was a trying time for us. We were renovating our basement (a no-no if you're a very superstitious Chinese - banging and loud noises are not good for the baby in mum's womb!), and I was relegated to staying upstairs unless I was going for a doctor's visit. I lived in fear of those contractors stealing my stuff or harming me every day they were down there and I was alone upstairs!! Never mind that they are insured and bonded, you never know? Right? That is my Malaysian mentality speaking to me.

My 外婆 had come to visit me in my home in the US. It was a pleasant thing for all of us. She was healthy, vibrant and all smiles. She smiled her usual smile, the one that I had known so well. It made her cheeks puff up and her eyes tiny slits, her false teeth featuring prominently.

"So you're pregnant. Finally." she cooed.

"Yeah..finally" I managed, delaying the flow of warm tears.

"Don't worry, you and the baby are going to be just fine." She touched my hand and squeezed it. I knew this wasn't real. She had come back to tell me this.

"What are you going to do here while I'm in bed? I can't show you around this place." Even in my dream I thought this question was ridiculous. What I actually wanted to know was how she was.

"Just don't worry. I'm doing ok. I'm happy." She smiled that smile again, and walked out of the room.

And that, would be my everlasting memory of her. Reality or not.