the backstage epiphany

where reality is so subjective it's entirely optional

Category Archives: Life’s Like That

Beating the post-retirement blues

My mother is oftentimes not the most typical kind of woman. She hates weddings and Chinese New Year, hates having her photo taken, refuses to wear makeup unless it’s for family photoshoots, and declares that only women (and here she pronounces the word with unadulterated contempt) drive barefoot and have no sense of direction.

I think it’s also her lack of femininity that led her to swear she was not born to work in the home and therefore she must go out to work (“I will not be one of those women who’s only good enough to be a housewife“). And because she goes out to work and revels in gassing people out, she is now worried about what will happen to her when she’s no longer fit for medicine (“I can’t be knocking people out if I can’t even see well enough to set their IV lines”).

So last week, we discussed the things she can do to take up her time when she is retired and desperate to prevent what she calls brain death. She finally narrowed it down to three possibilities:

I could take up gardening. “But I can’t crouch down all day so I’ll have to buy one of those little stools to sit on while I pull out every weed by hand. And I’ll wear a giant straw hat so I don’t turn out red as a lobster. I don’t know how much gardening I can do though; everything I ever grew died after a few days. It’s amazing you’re still alive.”

I’ll start knitting again. My mother has never been very good with needlework, and knows just enough to get by, such as the fixing of buttons, zippers and hems. So, after reminding her that she once spent an entire year knitting me a cardigan, I suggested she do crocheting instead, which she can do fairly well if she could just make her tension knots consistent. And after convincing her that it’s far too hot in this country to wear anything crocheted, I told her she could crochet doilies and placemats, provided the maid can keep them clean.

I can go dancing again. Inspired by my great-aunt, who took up all manner of dancing after she retired and to this day still attends classes at the Penang Senior Citizens Association. To be fair, my mother did do a lot of dancing when she was (much) younger, but now she’s become more particular about it, especially when it concerns a partner. “You want one who will be there regularly so that you know what each other does, and one who’s at least good at it, because if you’re stuck with one who has two left feet, you might as well be dancing by yourself.”

Nowhere in this discussion did she ever mention helping to care for any grandchildren she may have in the future, which is something I realize a lot of my friends’ mothers and mothers-in-law do. And when I brought it up, she gave me a blank stare and said, “Oh, ya. Ya… no. No. I’m not going to spend all day every day taking care of someone. I would never have time for myself. I might as well go back to work.”

Keeping up with the Pets

The Kardashians: Living proof that you don't need pet siblings to stamp out loneliness

Yesterday I learned a new word: pet.

Not the word one would normally use when referring to a four-legged, two-legged or even legless animal that has been bred and broken into a domestic environment, but the word one uses to refer to a person.

Like a pet sister. Or a pet brother.

I was quite taken aback when I heard Eza refer to someone as her husband’s pet brother today. My initial response was “What is that?” and after she waved her hand to disdainfully dismiss the term, she explained that “a pet brother or pet sister is a good friend who can be considered family. It’s a name we all used when we were in school.”

Clearly, the name Kardashian was not yet known to man.

Despite being rather disturbed by the fact that people in Malaysia — fully-grown, at-least-partially-mature human beings — are running around using the word pet to define fellow adults, I was quite intrigued by this trend that apparently has been running rampant on this good earth (really just Malaysian soil) for decades. I suppose at the Age of Knowing No Better, teenagers must have felt a sense of closeness and kinship by calling one another their pet sisters or pet brothers, and to some it would have been better to have pet siblings than their blood ones. By all accounts that may have also been the teenage boy’s way of befriending the girl of (his life’s) moment before venturing further into adolescent limbo. And — this one I’m fairly certain of, purely by taking into account individual cowardice and indecisiveness — it was probably the easiest way to say “Let’s just be friends.”

However, once the uniforms have been shed and these young Impressionables go out into the world to experience what they thought they already knew of as life, I strongly believe it would be most advisable to disregard all former knowledge of the term and its usage. Possibly the only definition of it that I find remotely appealing is the association with one’s family. After all, if there were ever two people in the world I would consider family, they would be Becca and Shirley, and even then, this curious little designation, however affectionate in nature, has its restrictions.

“Becca can’t be your pet sister, because she’s your age,” Eza explained, as one might explain potty-training to a toddler. “The pets are usually people who are older or younger than you. Becca would only be your BFF.” Now there’s another term which requires some utilization control before it makes the entire world female population sound like they came straight out of The Hills.

Which leaves me, according to the Malaysian Book of Idiosyncrasies (and surely there must be one out there, given the bizarreness of this country), with a tally of two pet sisters — and at this point I will use the term very loosely, because I must ask which self-respecting person can suffer the indignity of being called as such without gagging — and one BFF, and one jie jie (only because Eza calls me her mei mei).

Oh, to be young (or youth-deprived) and spouting jargon only your fellow countrymen can make sense of.

The first resolution

I’ve never subscribed to the idea of making New Year’s resolutions. I always saw it as a way of setting oneself up for failure and disappointment when the resolutions can’t be met, and eventually, when we see that we’ve set a bar for ourselves to do so much that we can’t, we end up not wanting to even do less, and just doing nothing at all.

Last week, a man interviewing me for a job told me that he has been following my blog, and even pointed out that he noticed I’ve been writing since 2004, which puts me in the ‘pioneering’ group of bloggers — a fact I cannot attest to because I don’t know how long bloggers have really been around. He also said that it was a great thing to be writing, to have that level of curiosity which drives a person to pursue a certain issue to such great depths and then present it in their own way — another fact I cannot attest to because I write about mostly personal, and not worldly, issues.

His statements, however flattering, got me thinking about all the writing I’ve been doing and how it has evolved and varied over the years. And I was once again reminded of how little I’ve been writing this year, partly due to the disillusionment of having certain undesirable followers and partly due to the lack of energy to actually chronicle everything that I’ve been thinking, feeling and observing. What I initially passed of as writer’s block had, in fact, become a form of self-reservation. That realization made me wonder why I’ve gone against my principles and held back so much this year, when I used to be as open and opinionated as I liked, and why I’ve turned into this weak, mealy-mouthed ninny who’s taken into account what a few narcissistic nonentities think of what she has to say.

So, for quite possibly the first time in my life, I’m making a sort-of resolution (besides getting a new job, which is something I promise myself all year round) — whether for the new year, old year or anywhere in between — to come back out of this shell and start writing more. If nothing else, I figure that rather than have all my anger, and recently resurfaced bitterness and cynicism, snowball into one long tirade, it’s better to have it more evenly distributed.

Life cycle, perhaps interrupted

One of the bad things about being in a relationship is age. Consciously or otherwise, we allow it to determine for us what stage of a relationship we should be at. At age 12, we are supposed to be much too young to have even heard the word. At age 15, we are told that we are not old enough to understand what the word really means, let alone experiment with it. At age 20, we are thought to have far more important things to do and accomplish than add one more name to our list of conquests. At age 26, we (especially the women) are warned that time’s a-tickin’ and we should start thinking about settling down before the eggs are taken off the shelf.

I will stop here, because at age 26, I will also be told that I am supposed to know no better.

Of late, when people hear that I am in a serious relationship, the question they like to ask next is: “So when are you getting married?” My reply depends on whom I am talking to — acquaintances get the noncommittal shrug, friends get a slightly more privileged “I don’t know” or “I haven’t thought about it”, and close friends get as much of the truth as they can. But the general response from those who absolutely must know or quash their curiosity is “But… don’t you want any children?” My answer is usually met by surprise, bewilderment or sometimes outright dismay: “Well… I guess… but I don’t have to. I can always adopt.”

I have nothing (much) against children — except those who resemble Jake from Two and a Half Men and who feel the need to scream, cry and vomit in full view of the public (hello, Madam Kwan’s KLCC!) — and have very occasionally considered taking my eggs (and age) a little more seriously. But, in an attempt to be as pragmatic as my age (there’s that word again!) — and perhaps society — will allow, I also have to embrace the very real possibility that I may never have children of my own. The beauty of this acceptance is that, after I told myself I may never anyone to will my bags and jewelry to and did not end up leaping out the window, I realized I could survive being childless, which may have made me a slightly rarer commodity to men whose biggest fear is the pressure of having to get married and reproduce.

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t want to be too old when I try to have children. Not only will I not be in a position to support anyone but myself for a very long time, but I don’t want to be struggling at age 60 to put my children through college (when, let’s face it, I could be sitting at a mahjong table). Also, my scary age for childbearing is 30, which I have resolutely stood by ever since I watched my best friend back in Buffalo suffer pre-eclampsia at the age of 29 and my godson spend his first two weeks of life in intensive care because he was born several weeks early. It was nobody’s fault, but having seen for myself and knowing what I know now about the risks and dangers (and there is so much more than just pre-eclampsia that we may not know about) that come with having babies past a certain age, I could never risk putting my own baby through all that, or worse, rendering it motherless.

As for the adoption part, I have no doubt in my mind that I would consider it when the time comes. With so many orphaned children in the world, every case in which one (or even more) of them is accepted by a family or single parent is counted as a blessing, and dear knows this world could use as many blessings as it can get. I sincerely believe it is every bit as possible to love an adopted child and a biological child the same way, because at the end of the day, they are all children, untainted by sin and only trying to grow up among people who love them.

Who knows, two years down the road, I may actually have a change of heart and decide I simply must have a child to validate my existence, but for now, I’m perfectly happy owning a puppy — or a rabbit — and buying cute things for my friends’ children. Besides, sometimes it’s really not about what others think you should and shouldn’t do or what you think is the right, expected and accepted way of life, but about what will be good for yourself and the people around you who matter the most.

I should probably also tell you right now that before you even think of the nastiest name to call me forĀ  not having a maternal bone in my body and having the cheek to put all this down in writing, you may want to go here.

It just so happened

I’ve never been one for video games; my capabilities have only ever extended as far as Super Mario World and Mario Kart. So when I heard that a film called Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time was slated for release in May, the only thing that sparked my interest in it was Jake Gyllenhaal. My expectations sank even more when I learned that it was based on a video game. Nevertheless, I went ahead and watched it anyway, thinking that if nothing else, Jake Gyllenhaal is still a good actor, and if Jerry Bruckheimer could turn the Pirates of the Caribbean ride into a successful full-length film, then maybe Prince of Persia would have the same luck.

I will say no more about the film except the fact that Jake Gyllenhaal was hot beyond belief, and Gemma Arterton made me want to claw her eyes out.

I didn’t give any more thought to the film until earlier this afternoon, when Eza mentioned that the film made her think about how far, given the chance, she would turn back time in order to change certain aspects of her life. That, in turn, got me thinking about how far back in time I would go to make my life better — or at least different — from what it is today, culminating in an alarming number of options:

1. Going back to my high school years, when I allowed myself to be put into Sri Inai, which resulted in a disastrous first relationship and pretending now that I don’t remember anyone from there. Had I the chance — and the sense — I would have insisted that my parents follow their initial plan to put me in the International School of Kuala Lumpur so that I could graduate and immediately return to the U.S. to begin college as a freshman, instead of having to spend a year and a half in INTI College and landing myself in yet anotherĀ  relationship I’ve regretted every day for the past 6 years.

2. Going back to 2006, when I was in my final year at the University at Buffalo and trying to decide what to do with myself once I graduated. I would somehow find a way to get a job that would get me the H1 visa, or maybe even make use of my LSAT score to get into law school, so that I could stay on there and not be left with no choice but to come back here.

3. Going back to 2008, when I was in one of the deepest emotional ruts of my life and desperately trying to find a way out. When I was so blindly and mindlessly in love with someone who cared nothing for anyone but himself that I allowed my life to revolve around him. When I sat at D’Haven and bawled my eyes out over glass after glass of gin and tonic, wondering how I had let everything get so far out of control and why I couldn’t just let it all go.

4. Going back to last September, when I had the chance to eliminate all possibilities of ever seeing, knowing or hearing what I didn’t want to. When all I needed to do was to flip through The Star newspaper silently and not invite any said possibility, which has since led my imagination, my fears, and all my old insecurities to spiral so far out of control that I am now seeking professional help to stamp them out of my system.

Thinking about all these missed opportunities, missed chances, I also realize that if none of these things had ever happened, I would not be where I am now, in circumstances that I can’t complain about (too often). And as much as we wish for things to be different, I suppose they must all have happened for a reason, whether or not it is a reason worth suffering for, and turning back time would have only gone against everything that was supposed to happen to lead us to wherever it is we are now.

Refurbishing the home and heart

Kitty: OK, Scotty, I know I’m not exactly a cake person, but aren’t you using excessive force with whatever that stuff is in the bowl?
Scotty: No. It’s like your mother said: when the world is shifting, you hold your ground. She chops, and I beat butter and sugar into submission.

Brothers & Sisters

My mother likes to send me text messages to tell me the most random things at all hours of the day. I’ll be sitting at my office desk trying to make sense of a poorly-written memo and a message will come in from her: My son* calls a bottle ‘bettol’! Same letters but jumbled up!

Or when I’m sitting in Afham’s living room watching TV: Daddy was cooking and spilt gravy on his foot. My son* couldn’t say ‘your foot’ so she kept crying “my foot you!”

So when a message came in one night, some weeks ago, saying that she and my father had spent the entire afternoon at a furniture exhibition and come away with orders for new bathroom doors for our house, a new shower door for her bathroom, a new grill for the front door and a diamond-coated knife-sharpener, I was surprised, because (a) they have just built their new ‘retirement home’ and if bathroom doors were needed anywhere it would be in that house, and (b) we’ve spent 23 years and 5 months in the same house without having had to change a single door, bathroom or otherwise.

“Why do we need new bathroom doors?” I asked.

“Because the wood at the bottom of the doors are all splintering away, and let’s face it, they’re a hideous color, and these new ones we ordered are all nice and white,” she replied. The hideous color in question was peach — or what used to be peach many years ago.

“But aren’t you going to be moving to the new house at some point? You’ll have no use for new bathroom doors here then,” I argued.

“First of all, I’m hoping we won’t be moving anytime soon, because I dread the packing and clearing out this house. And second of all, until or unless we actually move to that house, we’ll have to live with our horrible bathroom doors, so we thought we’d just get new ones. Anyway, you or Justin will inherit this house one day; you can’t be having dilapidated bathroom doors!”

She paused for a moment, and then said, “Daddy saw the ad in the paper for this exhibition, so we just thought of going. Now that we’re older and y’all are grown up, we can’t really sit around and rot. We have to find ways to keep ourselves occupied, so we go to things like furniture exhibitions. It was fun, and you know how he likes to look all these things. You’ll be like that when you get old too. It’s the cycle of life.” Another pause. “Your father calls it ‘bonding’.”

My mom has always been very accepting of the fact that I moved back here, not as the 19-year-old who was going away for school on her own for the first time, but as a 23-year-old who had her own life to rebuild and live. My dad, on the other hand, ever the emotional drama king, has had a harder time realizing that he can’t just pick up where he left off with me when I was 19, so it means all the more to me that he’s managed to come to terms with the fact that I’ve spent every weekend over the last ten-odd months away from home. Now, when my mom sends me messages saying they spent a Saturday driving to Klang to inspect their new house and stopped for beef noodles in Kota Kemuning on the way home, I think of it as her way of telling me, “We’re OK here.”

So now we have new bathroom doors.

* This is what my parents now teasingly call our Cambodian maid, who still cannot grasp the concept of possessive pronouns, after she started referring to everybody as ‘my son’.

Not for the claustrophobic

Becca: Guess what?
Me: (struggling out of stupor) Oh dear, what?
Becca: Jeremy knows you! And he knows Afham too!
Me: What? How?
Becca: You know last night I told you our plans to go to Rootz were scrapped because we had to go to Phuture? Turns out we were going to Phuture to meet your friend, that Shaun Leong!
Me: (now fully awake) What? How does he know Shaun?
Becca: I don’t know! When I met him I said, “I’ve heard of you, from Sandra and Afham,” and then Jeremy pounces on and goes, “Wait, how do you know Afham?” And I said, “His girlfriend is my best friend!” And then he asked, “What’s his girlfriend’s name?” And I said, “Sandra,” and he goes, “Sandra what?” and I said, “Sandra Foo.” And he said, “Wait, isn’t that a Chinese name? I’ve met her. Afham’s girlfriend doesn’t look Chinese.”
Me: Are you sure he meant me, and not some other girl from Afham’s patchwork quilt of relationships past?
Becca: Well, look, you don’t look Chinese when you have a full face on, so I’m sure he meant you. Either that, or he met some other girl on a night when you weren’t out with Fham, but let’s not be pessimistic.
Me: But when I told him you were coming to Rootz but then switched to Phuture, I mentioned you were going with Jeremy, there appeared to be no ringing of bells.
Becca: To be fair, it’s quite a common name. Plus he said that he’s known Fham for ‘years’, so they must know each other quite well, even if one doesn’t quite remember the other.
Me: Wow. Wow. First Yu Tim, and then Paul Poh, and now Jeremy Chan. Our worlds have collided, which means they’ve become too, too small. This is very bad.
Becca: I know. The world is not safe anymore.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t want to come back to this country. In the U.S. I would have been safely living in obscurity, meeting new people wherever I went without running the risk of bumping into people from the past. But if you live in Kuala Lumpur and have even some semblance of a social life, chances are the circles you run in will contain people that you knew from years ago and are now frantically trying to forget. In the (almost) ten months that I’ve been in this relationship, I’ve reconciled with people I haven’t seen in a good thirteen-odd years and felt somewhat glad that I’ve seen them again, met entirely new people altogether, discovered a few of them are related to some good friends I’ve had, and run into other people who know them whom I had, until then, successfully blocked out of my memory.

Afham thinks he probably knew the man in question from his Sunway College days. I suppose to find out now that someone my best friend sort-of dated back when she was seventeen also happens to know my boyfriend and appears to have met me before, despite my complete failure to recall ever having met him, probably shouldn’t have surprised me; if anything, it only makes me look bad for the measly amount of attention I pay to others around me.

Fighting the System

It had been a good day so far: I was up fairly early, a result of having consumed alcohol the night before, and was able to dash out to 1Utama to pick up the dress I had put on hold at Topshop before going to Bangsar Shopping Center for my manicure. Traffic was smooth, the single greatest advantage of living in a city which is subjected to large-scale exoduses during the festive seasons, and I didn’t have to prowl the parking aisles for too long before I was able to find a spot.

And then, as I made my way through Sri Hartamas towards Bangsar, wondering quite accurately if the speed traps that highway is so famous for would be set today, the eve of Chinese New Year, I was waved to pull over at the side of the highway, where several policemen were running the roaring trade they are so well-known for, especially during the festive seasons. So, knowing I had been going well over the speed limit, I pulled over, driver’s license already in hand, hoping I wouldn’t be held up too long as I was fifteen minutes away from my appointment.

Cop 1: Miss, you Chinese?
Me: Yes.
Cop 1: Oh… gong xi fa cai (Happy New Year), ya…
Me: Thank you.
Cop 2: You want pay saman (summons) RM300?
Me: (horrified at the amount) Now?
Cop 2: You want settle now?
Me: Well… no, because I don’t have cash. Just give me the ticket.
Cop 1: How much cash you have?
Me: None. I don’t carry cash.
Cop 1: Cash don’t have?
Me: No. Nobody’s stupid enough to carry cash these days. I only have my debit card.
Cop 1: Oh… Miss, are you stewardess?
Me: (highly indignant at the insulting stereotype) No, I do P.R.!
Cop 1: Mana you kerja (Where do you work)?
Me: Bank. Now, can you please just give me the ticket? I have to go.
Cop 2: OK, OK, we send saman to your house.

Obviously, I had been lying through my teeth when I insisted I hadn’t any cash on me, because that is part of their roaring trade: forcing bribes out of people who don’t want to be slapped with a speeding ticket and a hefty fine. But I refused to give them the satisfaction of getting what they set up the speed trap for and perpetuate the blatant, shameless corruption that goes on in this cursed country, even if I had to swallow the violent urge to say, “I’m not about to bribe you, if that’s what you’re asking.”

On another note, I realized the most effective way to get the cops off your back in this country is to speak English, and only English, to them. Their completely inability to converse in English cripples their intention of being intimidating, and they realize fairly quickly that it would be easier to extort money out of someone else who will speak their language.

And maybe someone else stupid enough to work with the System.