My final instalment of my England/Malaysia/Singapore travels, long overdue. I don’t currently have access to the photos, but I’ll pop them up in the not-too-distant (read: horizontal) future.
We left Penang quite early to get to the wedding. I forgot my experiences from last year, and was severely overdressed. Many people were wearing jeans and polos with sandals. Tomorrow night they’ll doubtlessly be wearing their finest evening dress. I find it odd that the ceremony is flashier and has more photos yet it’s the dinner that everyone dresses up for. I hastily removed my tie and rolled up my sleeves so I didn’t outshine the groomsmen.
The ceremony was curious but my understanding of it was somewhat vague. The bride and groom serves tea to married relatives in exchange for ang pao (red packets) and jewellery, and the unmarried relatives received ang pao in exchange for handshakes. Well-wishes were exchanged, commitment was promised and there was a roast pig to share.
We retired to the apartments to rest a few hours before dinner. There are six or nine to a suite, with several bedrooms and Western-style toilets crammed into the bathrooms. I’m staying with Shu Shu and Wu Shu, who speak the best English by far so I consider myself very fortunate. But now that I’ve left Penang I realise that my loneliness and exclusion was not at all exaggerated. Everyone speaks Hokkien or Teochiu because it’s faster than English. Often one relative will ask or say something about me, someone else will answer for them, and I’ll have no idea what they’re discussing. Conversation with me is rare, and when I kept asking for translations, I was told to learn Teochiu instead to make it easier. Right now everyone on the groom’s side is enjoying a great laughing conversation after dinner. I’m sitting on the fringes writing this on my phone. I brought A Dance With Dragons, but I think it’s just a little too early to start reading. Perhaps in a little while.
I miss you a lot. About five different people asked where you were, and I gave the excuse my Mum gave me – that there weren’t enough seats at dinner to invite both my father and I, and if I was taking his place it would be too inconvenient to make further room for you. But it was waved aside as quite a weak excuse – everyone is so merry I’m sure I could bring a handful of people and they’d find room. I think I’d enjoy having you with me, but I fear you’d have a hard time here. It’s like constantly being in Chinatown with very few chances to find Western food. But I know that a number of my uncles would go out of their way to make you comfortable and help you feel welcome. I love you.
Three more roast pigs for dinner, and perhaps two dozen dishes more. A thoroughly satisfying mix of food – I checked the scales earlier and I’ve put on two or three kilos. Not bad! I think my infrequent bursts of exercise have something to do with it. Did I mention that the badminton was amazing? I was darting around the court returning the most ridiculous shots, but my efforts were mot without cost. I strained my gluteals, my lower back and my right forearm. It hurt to sit or bend or lift! But it was definitely worth it. I think next time I’ll warm into it a little more gradually.
I miss you. Even though the conversation around me is in Teochiu, I prefer it to the company of the kids. Two of them in particular express interest and affection by hitting, and it’s hard for me not to hit them back. I think they just attention seek by ruffling my hair and yanking my tie, but from last year, they’ll do it less as they come to respect me more. Though two days is hardly any time.
Gotta go, yamseng starting. Talk to you later.
[I didn’t have time time explain, but yamseng is a Chinese toast, like bansai or cheers. Everyone holds up their drinks and calls “Yaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaam” for as long as their breaths last, and end with “seng!” My family is very fond of them, and at weddings and celebrations, most people will yamseng three or four times a night.
Another random thing my family is fond of is group photos. A photo of two people will quickly expand to four as they call two more people in. Those two more will wave over another two, and after a few moments sixteen people are trying to squeeze into the shot. I am not in the slightest exaggerating.]
Hey sweetie. Out of the apartments and back at second uncle’s house. After that last message I sent you, I ended up going back to sleep for two hours while everyone returned here. A few minutes after my alarm went off, Wu Shu asked if I wanted to go see some sort of historical cave. I said yes, and he told me to get ready. Something I’ve observed is that children are told to do things, and are expected to immediately drop what they’re doing and comply. Because I don’t speak Teotiu or Hokkien, I’m treated as a child in that respect. I found it really irritating at first – I’d be halfway through an email to you when everyone would stand up with their bags, tell me we’re going for lunch, and wait outside. There’s no five minute warning, and never knowing what the plan is (or when it’s going to take place) makes it hard for me to commit to any activity knowing I could get yanked away from it at any moment.
The caves happened to be spectacular though. The first one was a temple set inside the mountain with giant statues and paintings of the Buddha and Quan Yin (and other figures from Chinese mythology and lore). A man played a hauntingly beautiful flute while tourists wandered around and locals came to pray. It was so amazing to have a woodwind instrument resonate through the caves, and occasionally someone would pay a donation and strike a giant bell three times.
We paid to climb a staircase, and at the top was a society of monkeys! One of my cousins left a can of Kickapoo unguarded (either deliberately or accidentally) and the monkeys soon discovered that if they carried it around for long enough, tasty liquid would pour out. If you’ll recall, Kickapoo is the energy drink I was drinking at 10:30pm which (after a meagre two hours sleep) kept me awake until 6am. I didn’t think it was a good idea for the monkeys to lap at it, but when one of the younger ones tried to take it off the alpha male, they were beaten and chased away. The can passed around until one monkey ripped it open with her teeth to get at the golden nectar inside. In the end I just let them because they had already drunk most of it and it wasn’t worth fighting over (especially because I saw one of them show his huge canines as an expression if aggression).
Everyone else got tired and went back down after that, but I found another staircase and kept climbing. It was a difficult climb, but utterly rewarding. At the top were a handful of pagodas amidst the butterflies, birdcalls and mountains. In the distant one, a couple sat cross-legged on the bench, while in the higher one a couple were lying down and resting. It was a beautiful place to stop to rest, and I wish I could have joined them.
The second cave turned out to be more of a path through the mountain. The cave was impressive limestone, with statues of the Buddha as well, but its main attraction was the gardens behind it. A few monkeys, a generous lake populated by geese, vibrant flowers and manicured lawns… There was a path made of uneven stones which you were encouraged to walk down barefoot, and while it was excruciating, my feet felt amazing afterwards. I stopped to do taiji under a cliffside, and practiced skin-the-cat on the exercise bars. (It’s a lot harder to do now – I’m looking forward to getting fitter in Perth!)
I’m just lying in bed now. I felt pretty sick during the temples and at lunch, but a brief nap really helped. I’m even feeling hungry again! Dinner is in an hour and a bit, but perhaps I can scrounge an appetiser first. The Malaysian people are almost constantly eating – I do not exaggerate in the slightest. Outside of major meals, fresh and dried fruit, biscuits, kueh, coffee and tea, soup, curry, red-bean buns, peanut-balls, mochi, light wafers of pistachio, pumpkin seeds, chocolate buns, dehydrated olives and persimmons… It’s a wonder my relatives aren’t obese! But I’m finding that I’m hungry more often and I’ve barely put on weight, so I guess my body’s just adapted.
I love you honey. Talk to you again soon <3
Heya ruro. It’s been a while since I’ve called you that, ne?
I’m at dinner right now – the big marriage one. I think I might be being rude by whipping my phone out, but I also think it’s forgivable because there’s a seared piglet in front of me. Seeing as I’m not eating, and I don’t want to look at what I’m not eating, I hope it’s okay to write this.
Things are going a bit slowly, but not unbearably so. I’m seated at a table of polite relatives who speak decent English, but I’m not really sure what to say to them. I’ve signed on for a yoga class with Aunty Susan at 8am tomorrow, so I’ll do my best to get up early. I’m really looking forward to some detoxifying and limbering! Her daughter Shiki (you met her son, Yi Fei, when he came to Australia and wouldn’t stop taking photos of you) recently went for her Wushu black sash grading, and passed (with advice to become more flexible if she truly wanted to grow into her belt). I wish I could go for a class, but it sounds like her school is very strict about the uniforms. That implies they’re very exclusive in their teaching, and they might be one of the schools that say “Our kung fu is best and you’re not allowed to study any other styles if you want to train with us”. Of course I’m extrapolating, but after that vaguely threatening experience Rob and I had at the wing chun school, I’m cautious of closed-minded martial artists.
The next dish has arrived – giant prawns. It smells terrible!
Another observation about Chinese culture which I’d like to share with you is the importance of greetings. When you meet someone (particularly older relatives) for the first time in the day, you must go up to them and say their name/title. No matter how shy, no matter how bad your pronunciation, every young person must “call” their elders. Not doing so is tantamount to turning your back to them while they’re speaking to you, or some equally rude gesture. I was so embarrassed at first, but I finally know most of my relatives by name. Those that I don’t I call aunty or uncle (or korkor or jiejie if they’re from my generation) and try and learn their names later. There are still many awkward exchanges where people call me by name, and I recognise that I’ve met them every year for the past ten years but I still don’t know what to call them. But fortunately those are far and few between this year.
I’m overdressed again. All the ladies are wearing their best evening dresses and most of the men are wearing jeans and polos again. The only other people wearing ties are the parents of the happy couple. How curious- last year I was scolded for not wearing a jacket with my tie! Next year I’ll take no fashion advice from anyone and just wear whatever I feel like! >:)
And that more or less bringing us up to present! It was a long, sleepy ride back to KL, and when I got home it took me a little while to fall back to sleep. But I got up early anyway and joined Aunty Susan for yoga.
Man, let me tell you something. I thought that martial arts was biggest part of who I was. I had mistaken “favourite” for “most important”. I was so wrong. This morning class full of aunties all over 40 years old totally kicked my ass. I’ve been so proud of my body lately – I’m stronger, fitter and healthier than I’ve ever been, but after a few short minutes into the class my arms and legs began to tremble. By the end of it, I was a sweaty, shaky pile of human being. And when all my strength and skill and beauty had been casually stripped from me by old ladies, what was I? Somehow I was still alive, I still existed in this plane. Without the attachment to my body, I realised that there’s so much more to me than a few muscles and a clever deflection. What that something is has yet to be seen. It was a humbling experience.
The class itself was great. I went two years ago with Yi Qian, and it’s still the best yoga I’ve ever done. Alice, the teacher, focuses on incredible form. She wasn’t scared to scold me for tensing my shoulders and twisting my neck, or not tucking my tailbone under or pushing my chest out enough. She was strict, but the results were amazing. Having injured my lower back from an overly ambitious sessions of badminton, and having strained my neck from sleeping in the car the night previous, I felt like those two portions of my body were slowly catching fire. But as we went through the poses, opening the chakras one by one from crown to root, I realised that my back didn’t hurt anymore. I learned how to do an amazingly challenging head stand, and simple locust pose, as well as twisting, cobra (which is different from upwards-facing dog) and one-legged bridge from a shoulder stand (daaaaamn that’s hard!), as well as all the poses I already knew. It was utterly exhausting, yet Aunty Susan complained afterwards that the class was too focussed on relaxation and not enough on strenuously deep postures. She invited me back tonight or tomorrow, and I’m at once scared and looking forward to it.
I love you baby. Right now I’m just drinking ginger tea (i.e. hot ginger water), and damn does it kick you in the throat. I’m not sure what the plan is for tomorrow and the rest of the day, but I believe at some point I’m getting picked up by Aunty Vivienne to go shopping. Want anything?
Especially since visiting the temple caves yesterday, I’m finally starting to unwind. The urge to do something productive is still there, but it’s quieter now. Being in nature reminds me that there’s nothing particularly important about life, and that all pursuits are equally pleasurable and equally meaningless. I’ve been living under this delusion that I need to find something meaningful to do, but actually what I’ve been desperate for is to stop searching for a future meaningful activity and to enjoy whatever it is I’m doing right now. Peace lies in the present, not in the future.
I love you so much, and I miss you too baby. I hope to hear back from you soon. Send me some more photos of you okay? Talk to you later <3<3<3
Baby I missed you so much. I finally got the internet so I sat down for about two hours and emailed you and read blogs and was just enjoying using the internet. But after that things got a bit quiet. I enjoyed a peaceful lunch which aunty Wendy cooked for me, and wandered outside to watch the koi and read ADWD. But then Mum pulled up and urged me into the car to go shopping immediately so as not to make Yi Xun late for school. No warning whatsoever! The shopping was really great, like several Carousels stacked on top of each other, and hours passed very quickly! Mum got some new earrings to go with the (very popular) necklace Eugene and I got her from Egypt. And then she got another necklace, a brooch and a ring, all pearls with silver so she has a matching set! I’m glad that she could enjoy shopping for herself with the other two aunties, like she always wanted.
When I got home things got a bit slower. I’ve spent the past two and a half hours reading… It was nice at first but then it became something to do instead of sitting bored in a silent house. That quietude frightened and stressed me. Silly me, getting caught up in my terror of boredom again. It’s as if I yearn for something meaningful to do but nothing comes to mind so I settle for distracting myself. I guess I haven’t attained inner peace and constant mindfulness yet!
We went for dinner which took a few hours. Everybody is sitting at the table eating fruit, drinking tea and talking in Hokkien. I don’t really have much to contribute, so after availing myself of the fruit, I slinked off. I feel a bit rude and ungrateful… As happy as I have sometimes been here, much of the time I spend in Malaysia is in a sort of uncomfortably excluded boredom. It does have its moments, but there are places I’d rather be. I miss you so much.
There’s something else I’ve observed which I’d like to share with you. It’s very much cultural for someone to offer you food, for you to refuse them, and for them to give it to you anyway. The men in my family are particularly good at this, and sometimes it takes five or six refusals, pushing the food back and forth, before they yield. I’m usually too polite to refuse more than once (and those rebuffs are quite rare), so I end up eating much more than I want to!
I also learned after yoga today that the reason I’m so flexible is not because of ten years martial training, but because I don’t eat meat! As my aunty Susan can assure you, when you eat a lot of meat the body becomes stiff and makes it hard to practice yoga. It’s hard to believe when someone just tells it to you, but if you experience it yourself you know it’s true! (I guess it is to some extent, but I found it very amusing they discounted all my gong fu and hypermobility.)
I love you baby. It’s hard to describe how much I miss you. Tomorrow is a scheduled sleep-in, and more shopping (yay!). Hope to get an email back from you soon. With pictures! Muah <3