I. The pungent smell of just-fried salted fish wafted from the dining table. Popo, my paternal grandmother, was busy cooking at the stove. I snuck up to the dining table, stretched my hand towards the plate and soon had a bony piece of salted fish in my fingers.
“Stop! Hoong-hoong, put it back!” Popo cried.
I fled away from the dining room, rounded the bottom of the stairs and ran into the living room. A hand grabbed my arm. Strong fingers, the back of the hand ridged with wrinkles, a solid circle of jade rested on the wrist. Popo’s hand.
“Hoong-hoong, you can’t eat this,” Popo said. “You’ve got the measles.”
I held back tears as my favorite food was pried away from my fingers. I licked my still-salty fingers, savoring the lingering taste.
I was around three years old then and living with Popo in a small town near Melaka in Malaysia. Popo’s story would be familiar to many Malaysian Chinese: a migrant from southern China, Popo arrived at then-Malaya in her early 20s. She met and married my Gong-gong, a fellow Hakka. Together, they raised a large family of seven children.
Popo and some of the family lived in a big home. Two semi-detached houses were knocked together to form one large detached house: there were two living rooms, two kitchens, and an extended dining room with two dining tables – one for the adults and one for the children.
I used to love playing with my cousins in Popo’s big house. We would hide in the many rooms, creep up and down the staircases, and chase each other through the garden. We would get lost in our games, but at the end of the day we were never truly lost because we knew where our rooms were in Popo’s house.
That was how we knew our place in the family and grew to learn our place in the world.
Although Popo enjoyed Tamil movies, she spoke only Hakka. She never learned Mandarin, the dominant Chinese language, or Malay, the language of her new country. Years later, when I moved to London, I tried to imagine what it would have been like for Popo when she left China for Malaya. Some of her life choices seemed foreign to me – refusing to learn other languages, clinging to the familiar, emphasizing family and traditions above all else. Why was she so focused on the past?
In any case, for the first few years of my life when I lived with Popo, I babbled and spoke mostly in Hakka. I soon grew old enough for school and had to leave for the big city, Kuala Lumpur, to live with my parents. I learnt English and Malay in school and spoke Mandarin at home. I spoke less and less Hakka. When Popo died, I no longer had any reasons to speak Hakka. All I remember is:
‘ngi sik bao mang?’
‘sik bao lo.’
‘Have you eaten?’
‘Yes, I have.’
II. He was perfect.
A friend of a friend, we first arranged to meet at Leicester Square in London on a rainy December evening. A big, fluffy hood approached me. From inside the hood, I saw a pair of kind eyes behind metal-rimmed glasses and a cute smile. At dinner in a nearby Chinatown restaurant, he held his own against me and the friend I had asked along for company – the two of us had more left-wing views than him. I invited him to my birthday drinks the following month. He came, and he did not leave my side that night.
Like me, he was a child of migrants. He had a Western education, ate rice, and spoke Chinese. Just like me.
There were differences too – cute differences, I thought. As a child, I tried to do well in my Mandarin classes. He skipped his Cantonese classes to go and play football. I loved Mando-pop and karaoke; he preferred to play computer games and compete in triathlons. But we both enjoyed the sweet and sour pork from a takeaway place near Battersea Park. For a time, that was enough.
“You’re so smart, Carol,” he said. “But you have to be more persistent and resilient. Look at V. She’s busting her ass off and she’s really getting somewhere.”
“Your ex-girlfriend? Why are you still so close with her?”
Despite my churlish response, I knew that he was right. He was extremely supportive of whatever career paths I wanted to pursue. When I was exploring the idea of being a journalist, he bought me a voice recorder. When I was studying for the demanding Chartered Financial Analyst exams in order to get a foot into the financial industry, he would sit with me during those endless hours. He was there as I searched for my place, my path, my room in the big universal house of work.
“We had to eat tree bark to survive.”
That was his aunt, his father’s oldest sister. She had left Hong Kong decades ago due to crippling poverty.
“Chase your dream?!” she scoffed. “I’d choose the path that pays you the most. No question.”
He had been wondering if he should choose more fulfilment or money in his career. Unexpectedly – to me at least – he took his aunt’s words completely to heart. He learned to work the job market and told me not to take the market average as our ‘market value’; our ‘market value’ was however much we could get our employer to pay us. He was ambitious and bold. I loved him. For everything that he was and everything that I was not.
He was a child of migrants. Not a grandchild of migrants, like I was. The familial burn of fleeing poverty was much rawer for him. We were alike, though, I was reminded, not quite the same.
III. He was not my first love though. That honor belongs to London. Irreverent and diverse; I loved it at once. I was a child of the East who felt lost amidst Confucian familial admonishments and ethnic discrimination. In London, I could breathe easily. I did not have to tick boxes for ethnicity when filling in forms to get a travelcard or a cinema pass. In London, I was not a rigidly hyphenated Malaysian-Chinese. On a red double-decker bus, I was simply one of many who spoke a dozen or more languages. It was a joy to be lost in the masses.
I may have grown up in Kuala Lumpur but I came of age in London. I would wander in the bookshops around Charing Cross Road and imagined the poets and writers who had walked on the London streets decades and centuries before me. I would dance with my friends in clubs with loud indie music and floors sticky with spilt alcohol. We would visit free world-class museums and art galleries, go to discounted plays and movie nights, and eat at cheap curry houses. We lived like students long after we stopped being students.
I lived by the Samuel Johnson quote, “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life, for there is in London all that life can afford.”
IV. We were perfect.
One sunny day, he held my hand. His dry, square, squat fingers were laced through mine. I looked at the shadow our clasped hands made under the bright sunshine and I felt my heart swell. A butterfly flit past us, a beautiful fragile thing.
We were perfect, for a time;
And then we were not.
I told him I wanted to get married and have children.
He told me he could not see himself getting married.
Not to me, I added silently.
Despite my best efforts, I had managed to absorb some Confucianist values while growing up in Malaysia. Filial piety, duty and responsibility were as much a part of my makeup as individualism, civil liberties and equality. I thought that we could make a good life with respect, friendship and family. I could have settled – and it would have been a good kind of settle. But he could not, would not. We – ultimately – were not enough.
When he finally ended our relationship, I couldn’t eat for days. Even cast adrift on my pain, I could see that the end of us was a truth I could not deny. I did not have to lick my fingers to taste the salt of his absence.
I did not leave London when we ended because I still loved London and I had loved it before I loved him.
On an ordinary working day, in the packed London Underground, I looked around and my heart leapt. A young boy in round Harry Potter glasses was getting into the carriage. This boy could have been mine, and his. Ours.
A stranger’s eyes met mine through the invisible cloak of my grief. On this – the most impersonal and uncaring of London public transport – the stranger said in a low voice, “Whatever you’re going through, it too shall pass.”
V. The Hakkas were traditionally a nomadic tribe. The word ‘Hakka’ means guests. I used to think that was where I got my wandering soul.
I did not leave London, but I could not move on. The idea of my perfect life had vanished. My world shrank to a safe, narrow tunnel through which I could negotiate work and daily life without having to confront life’s painful imperfections.
I had a nightmare. I was on a train hurtling around China. The train did not make any stops and I could not get off. I went from carriage to carriage trying to run away from a figure from my past. I had never seen this figure before but I recognized the feelings that he evoked in me. He reminded me of when I was younger. When I was addicted. To life. To adventure. To throwing caution to the wind. I woke up with wet cheeks. It had been a long time since I was that person.
I signed up for an arts course at a distance-learning university. The course taught me how to appreciate various art forms including painting, music and literature. I was listening to a lecture when I felt a familiar itch on my scalp. This. This was me. This was the soul who wandered around China more than ten years ago, went to the wild western borders, took a 60-hour train journey, climbed Mount Taishan so I would live to be a hundred years old, horse-trekked through hills and lakes, and ate the best lamb biryani ever prepared by a yurt mama.
“Isn’t it a bit of a shame though? Switching careers? I mean, you’re so qualified and you’ve got so much experience, why throw that away?” a concerned friend said.
I hesitated and deliberated. I took one small step and then another. I read twentieth-century English literature and discovered it to be fresh and exciting. I unpacked modernist poetry and listened to long-gone voices speak urgently of universal concerns. I created flawed and charming characters and spoke with them through my stories’ dramatic arcs. With each step, I started to unearth the ambition that he had. That I once wished I had.
Historically, Hakkas were often forced to migrate due to wars and famines. They did not usually have access to prime farming land and had to settle in hilly areas where food was scarce. So, they dried and pickled food wherever they could find it in order to preserve it. Today, Hakka cuisine is known for its use of preserved meats and vegetables.
A popular Hakka dish is moi choy kel nyuk, or braised pork belly with preserved mustard greens. It showcases the three taste elements of Hakka dishes: salty, fatty, fragrant. Thick, fatty slices of pork belly provide the ‘fatty’ and ‘salty’ elements. Meanwhile, the sweet and salty preserved greens release the ‘fragrant’ element when fried.
The languages I speak, used to speak, and would like to speak. The people I used to love, the ones I hope to always love. These are some of the preserved vegetables of my life.
‘ngi sik bao mang?’ ‘sik bao lo.’ ‘Have you eaten?’ ‘Yes, I have.’
Carol Pang’s short stories and essays have been published in the Champion Fellas anthology (Word Works), won the second prize in the 2016 New Asian Writing Short Story competition and published in a chapbook. She worked in the corporate and financial services sectors in London, England and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia for close to 15 years before changing her career. She currently teaches English to both adults and young learners. She is a proud recent holder of a BA (Hons) in English Literature (1st Class) from the Open University UK.