Two Hundred and Nine
A year in review
2009 was a year of many things: it was the year of change and death. More so it was the year of change because of death. Many famous people died that year; my grandfather, who was not famous, somehow also did the same. In April I called him from a phone booth in Beirut at US$2 a minute and had a 30-second conversation with him about minced pork noodles. In May I called him from London and had a 30-second conversation with him about minced pork noodles. In June they called me 3 hours after I landed in Kuala Lumpur from London, on the brink of my new life not far from home. 12 hours later I was sitting by his hospital bed, in a hospital 5 minutes from where I have lived all 24 years of my life, feeling like the last 24 hours of travel was about to change everything I knew about those very 24 years. By the middle of the month he was dead, and I didn’t get to see it. All I know is that 3 different people woke me up at 6 in the morning that morning and told me in 3 different languages that my ah gong was gone.
In Chinese familial taxonomy, the standing of every person in your family is relative and also language-dependent. Depending on your relationship to that person, and which linguistic branch is dominant in that side of the family, you call him or her a different thing. So your father’s mother is ah ma, your mother’s mother is gwa ma — if both sides of the family more or less speak the southern Min languages like Hokkien or Teochew, like we do. Your father’s younger sister is one thing, older sister is another; depending on their position among the siblings, and your own relationship to that person, each person is called something else. Like knowing whether tables, ties, or street lamps are feminine or masculine in French, everybody inherently knows this. But ah gong was only ah gong. To all of us.
I lived with this man and his wife almost every second of my existence. Then I grew up, travelled madly, lived abroad, and came home expecting not very much to change but instead everything did: no old Chinese man berating me about cigarettes and alchohol, no grumpy old man coming into my room at 3am every morning to check if I was alive, no funny old man who was a head and 3 foot sizes smaller than me telling me his slew of so bad they’re funny jokes that weren’t really jokes.
Then bloody 2009 took him away from me. We found out he was born on the same day as Michael Jackson. (Chinese lunar calendars and their ever-changing dates; we only found out when the date went up on his tomb.) A week after that, Michael Jackson died. Sometimes when I think about it, I think it was cosmically timed so that my ah gong could shine his torch at MJ’s face, laugh at his nose, and tell him that in Singapore we’ve immortalized him in a soya bean milk and grass jelly drink, after the ambiguous colour of his skin (and his famous song).
The rest of it in a nutshell, because they just don’t seem as important: I lived in the United Arab Emirates. I went to a camel market. Some camel trader offered 20 camels for my hand in marriage. I said no. I went to Yemen. Missed two bombs. Called my parents to tell them I was alive, and they said “okay, good”, because they were asleep and thought I sounded too happy for someone who’d just had a bomb scare. Happened to be in Pattaya and Bangkok at the precise moment the Red Shirt/Yellow Shirt April demonstrations erupted. Swatted flies with a tennis racket electric mosquito swatter while watching Thaksin on TV, with all his evil. Did my ultimate roadtrip: Beirut, Bekaa Valley, Damascus, Palmyra, Homs, Aleppo, Adana, Antalya, Goreme, Istanbul, London. Messed around in London for a while. Went home. Ah gong died. Mourned for a long time. My friends say India is my Prozac, so I went to Chennai, Fort Cochin, and Mumbai for a while to, well, “find myself”. Moved to KL. Settled. Got a dog. Started a business. Spent the new year with my love without having to spend a thousand dollars flying to see her.
2009 was good; but I can’t wait for this one to really kick off.