I had a short story titled ‘Nostalgia’ published in an anthology in 2010. This anthology ‘Being Malaysian – A Young Writers Anthology’, was published by MPH Group Publishing, and can only be ordered from here.
It doesn’t seem easy to get as it has been out of print for ages now, and I had assumed that it was no longer in production. Imagine my surprise when I found a link to get it!
Regardless, here’s the short story in its entirety for you to read. Wrote this 8 years ago, so do pardon any mistakes that I’ve made while writing it. Rereading it again gives me goosebumps and my cheeks heat up. It’s really quite funny to reread things written in my teenage years.
Anyway, enjoy! Included translations for the random sentences in the Malay language. This story is peppered with Manglish – Malaysian English – and the Malaysian slang.
Tan Wei Wern
I’M SURE many of the teenagers today would agree with me, that certain parents has said this many times, after a frustrating ordeal with us bratty teenagers and we can practically recite it back to them.
“You kids these days..” A frustrated sigh and then a nostalgic look in their eyes. “Don’t know how lucky you are! When I was your age—” And then they go on about how they used to pull pineapples to be sold and thus developed a strange fetish for pineapples. That’s my Mum. I’ve also heard the one about following their parents to the market every other morning, and thus developed a phobia for fish scales when they got older. That’s my Dad.
However, I wouldn’t have expected a lesson on the way home one day. I was stuck at school and buses just didn’t come my way.
After waiting for another excruciating twenty minutes for a bus, I decided to hail for a taxi. In my mind, news of young girls being driven to isolated places flashed through my mind. Never mind that I wasn’t exactly a poster girl and had a body that jiggled more than not. I made sure to SMS the taxi’s number plate to my friend before I got in. Hey, I had to act smart.
I eyed my taxi driver, if he had a nasty look, I was going to run. I eyed him up and down. He seemed like a decent person.. And no cigarette stench. Good, I wasn’t going to die of second-hand smoking. I settled back, relieved.
I was all prepared to do nothing else but daydream about my soon-to-be bestseller novel. I was about to be hailed as the Malaysian J.K. Rowling when the driver’s voice broke through my thoughts.
“Dik, umur berapa?” (Child, how old are you?) Why on earth was he asking me this?
Uneasily, I answered. “Oh, err, sixteen.”
“Kakak saya dua, belajar sama sekolah dengan you.” (My two older sisters studied in the same school as you.) He said proudly to me.
Right, and I should care because? I just replied, “Ah.”
Unluckily for me, we got stuck in traffic congestion. It was rush hour after all.
“Aiyo, jam lagi. (Aiyo, more traffic congestion.) You know ah, twenty years ago, this very road was much smaller, always jam. Now bigger, more lanes, also jam. More cars lah now!”
He was speaking as if he were ancient. I eyed him and could spot no white hair in his mane of black. I think he was younger than my parents. I wondered about his age. I ‘aahed’ and ‘oohed’. I didn’t want to be rude. I just wasn’t brought up that way. I just hoped he would shut up soon. I just wasn’t interested in his stories, and being left alone was just fine with me. I should’ve gotten another taxi, I thought wistfully. One with a less chatty driver.
Murphy’s Law struck again. “You kids these days—” Oh dear. “You see, now can take taxi.” Was that a jab at me? It’s not like I had a choice. “I last time ah, sit bus go home. Terrible traffic jam would cause the bus to stop for hours. You know lah, road only one lane. You don’t know how lucky ah, now.”
“Uh huh ….” I hadn’t heard of that old story before. Mum only ever told me that houses back at our taman were dreadfully cheap years and years ago. Not that I was interested, it was just extra information that stuck in the head.
He suddenly jumped to another topic. “Now, so hot! Memang betul! (It’s true!) Last time, not so hot! No need air-con also can one! Always rain. Once a week got rain. After rain, flood.” Typical, I thought.
“When flood, the bus cannot move, all the passengers got down and walk lah. Walk till bus can move and catch up. Sometimes bus so full, we school boys hang from the bar you know!”
Wow, I didn’t know they could actually do that and not get themselves killed. “Wah. So dangerous … ” I said, politely. The taxi driver beamed and continued speaking in a rush. Drat, I thought, he was going to be even more chatty.
“Twenty years ago.. we kids know nothing of internet! Now ah, kids all so fat, never go play lah! I and my friends take bus reach home late, might as well go home later, still get pukul (beaten). So we climb hill, go into forest panjat (climb) the rambutan tree and eat. Then we bring gasing (top) play! Kite also, wind very strong last time.”
“Very fun, very fun.” I said with a half smile. I really didn’t want to have this conversation but he wouldn’t stop talking. And I couldn’t help but entertain him as well. It was like watching an old black and white movie of life twenty years ago. You’re bored, but you’re still watching. Trying to imagine those little kids climbing up trees like how the cartoonist Lat would draw it was amusing as well.
“Balik mesti kena mak pukul punya!” (When we got home, we would surely get beaten by mum.) He laughed in fond memory of it. I merely “oohed’ again.
“You know ice cream Malaysia?” He asked suddenly.
“Err, no?” I replied, frowning.
He turned back hurriedly and glared at me, half in shock and the other in outrage. “Tak tahu ice cream Malaysia?!” (Don’t know ice cream Malaysia?!) It was like I’ve just did a felony. “That tube one! Filled with kacang merah (red beans)! Sarsi! Then put in freezer one!”
“Oh! Oh! Ah, yeah I know! I don’t know name only!” I laughed nervously. He looked ready to place me in jail.
“Budak hari ini …” (Kids these days…) The Indian man muttered to himself. “Orang Malaysia tak tahu.. Tak boleh ni!” (Malaysian that doesn’t know! This cannot happen!)
“Maaf pak cik! Saya pernah makan!” (I’m sorry uncle! I’ve eaten it before!) I said hurriedly. I was a Malaysian, hey! I may not know much of my roots, but still!
As we passed Carrefour, the pak cik said, “Tahu tak (Did you know), Carrefour last time was a balak (timber) factory? Here, this road ah, used to have so many lorries carrying the wood. And we school kids would ride bikes swerving around the lorries.”
That was interesting. Carrefour had been there ever since I remember … Okay, so I wasn’t born twenty years ago. Somehow or rather, it wasn’t just another boring conversation. Having lived here for five years, knowing the little things that went way back were pretty interesting.
I glanced outside the taxi window and couldn’t help smiling at the familiar lanes, and that McDonald just beside Carrefour. To think that it had been a balak factory once, and to think that in years, things could change so much, and people could be so different…
The pak cik looked at me through the car mirror and there was a comfortable silence that surrounded us as Carrefour finally faded out of sight.
Suddenly, he asked, “How long do you use your pencils till?” I really didn’t know what to say. I used mechanical pencils, not pencils made out of wood, no.
“As long as your finger then you throw right?” I merely nodded.
“Aiyo, twenty years ago, can use until here know!” He then proceeded to show me his tiny finger.
“Wah … Can use until so short?” I wasn’t just answering out of politeness now, it was genuine interest and I wondered if it was because of his catchy enthusiasm.
“Yalah, now I buy Staedtler, my son use for a while then ask me for more. Finish already. All throw away so fast. Now I only buy no-brand one. So fast finish!” As he said this, he kept shaking his head. I was thinking of how much he could earn, driving a taxi like this, and to support his family. It really did make me feel how lucky I was.
And he could still talk to me about the history of these roads we were passing through, and what had happened since then. He couldn’t help being a taxi driver, and maybe just talking to us students that he ferry to and fro made his day. This is how life is for him. I thanked my lucky stars that my family is quite well off.
“Nowadays, students so stressed. You stress?” He asked. I laughed of course, it’s not everyday someone comes up to you and asks that question. Mostly teenagers just moan about it, and the adults will say, “What do you kids know of stress.” And then rant about the internet bill, phone bill …. It was refreshing and reveling to know that there were people who understood us teens!
“No wonder lah. Tests now so hard! So competitive. I see my son’s book. Wah! Learn so hard things. He only Standard One that time, all his work I do when I Standard Three know! His bag so heavy … Now ah, torture go school, study study study only. Last time I go school, very happy one! Can play with friends. Not so stressed!” I muffled a giggle. Thoughts of climbing up trees and kites came into mind again. How wonderful it must have been then, to be so carefree and not to care about getting the best results. “You kids, so kasihan (pitiful).” He eyed my big bag from the mirror and shook his head again.
“So heavy. Next time, all sure get backbone pain. Become bengkok (crooked).” At this, I really laughed. He laughed along with me.
Even as I directed him to the way to my home, he kept talking fast, as I was about to leave, and his story hadn’t ended yet.
“Thank you pak cik (uncle). It was interesting.” I thanked him as I smiled. He couldn’t finish his tale in time. I was sure, if the journey had been longer, he would have continued ranting. And I wouldn’t have minded if he did. Really. Knowing the little things that made up life then, hearing it from one who had lived through those times was enlightening. It was as if I had walked through his shoes for a moment in time.
He gave me a smile of his own, I felt my spirits rise up a notch. “Next time ah, don’t forget ice cream Malaysia!” With that, he sped off, and I learned a few things that day.
He didn’t talk about the war back then, nor did he talk of beliefs and customs. But he was to me, an embodiment of how Malaysians are back in the old days.
After all, he, an Indian, could speak so freely, to me, a Chinese on his life. It is the spirit of ’muhibbah’, and through his words, I could see how far Malaysia had come. The change in people, the pace in life, and as he said, kids these days. True, he had been far too chatty. And he started a history lesson that I would’ve hated if it came from anyone else. He twisted it, and instead of lecturing, he shared with me, he spoke to me as an equal, and lived the times with me.
The differences then and now are vivid, and yes, as balak factories become Carrefours, and one lane becomes two, a passage from the Sejarah textbook comes to mind. The Father of Development, and so much more. We learn the lessons, and we seldom learn about the people.
It’s only through chance that I met this taxi driver who lived, and learned, and in the spirit of ‘muhibbah’ shared, and this in turn, rose up a ‘semangat’. It’s not only about ‘Malaysia Boleh’. It’s about being Malaysian, and knowing things no other people know. No Australian could think about ‘Ice cream Malaysia.’ No American could be the way we are and swing from bus handle bars.
We never do know how blessed we are to be born in Malaysia today with all her beauty. And yet, it is through stories like these that really tell us Malaysians are a lucky bunch indeed. It’s been fifty years Malaysia, and you’ve come far indeed. The people, the Malaysians have also done their part. Aren’t you proud to be Malaysian? I sure am!
I didn’t catch his name that day. I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. But I know that his stories have impacted me.
Thanks for your lesson, pak cik.
Thank you for reading.