Getting to know you
By Donna Tang
I haven't seen you in two weeks when I step out of the Kuala Lumpur International Airport, and then I do. Common wisdom says it's too soon for us to holiday together, but one of the benefits of having been through heartbreak and divorces is the rules not applying anymore.
When I slip into your car, I am suddenly shy. I want to place a hand on your knee, but instead muse out of the window that the sun looks different here. We are now in the land where you and your wife loved each other, cupped your hands around the flame, then blew it out. When you were in Singapore, your past was just a story, like something forwarded on the Internet. But here, the signboards are in another language, and her iPhone is still paired to the car sound system, her name in the menu like the most natural thing. I feel displaced, misplaced.
Throughout our few months dating, I have been a timid woodland animal, slow to warm up and quick to dart away. I sniff the air now, writing anxiety in it with my quivering nose. You sense this and, in your patient planning voice, begin to detail the things we could do. I relax a little into your orderliness, into the man I know back home.
Then, you are almost shy when you ask if you can show me your hometown. We've a nice hotel booked in the city, replete with stars and spas, and I am a city girl. I turn to look at you as if arriving for the first time, and you take your eyes off the highway to receive me, your held breath a question mark. Yes, I say, I'd love that, and your face breaks open with such delight my heart swells.
You are like a child now, chattering nonstop with a surprise you can barely contain. Historically, the tin-rich Klang valley once sparked a war between Rajas, and Klang itself has been both the royal seat of power and state capital of Selangor. Today it still boasts Malaysia's biggest seaport but is more popularly known for being the birthplace of bak kut teh – Chinese pork rib soup.
Entering Klang Old Town, sooty shophouses line the roads like decaying teeth, creeping plants cleaving roofs and faces. Broken windows, cracked tail-lights, drains exposed like something impolite, like an old lady's blouse falling open. Skeletons of buildings abandoned midway through construction stand starkly etched against the sky. The pavements have erupted and trash floats in Klang River – but you see none of this. Watching you spill over with buzzy, childlike pride, I understand what it would be like to be loved by you, flaws and all.
You indicate landmarks – the Sultan's palace, the golden-domed Pasar Jawa Mosque – but it's the ones of sentimental instead of tourist value that I learn carefully. There is the police station, striped blue-and-white; here, the Victorian-style fire station. Over there, the cake shop that made every one of your childhood birthday cakes. And here is your favourite bak kut teh shop, in a town full of bak kut teh shops, and we park by the road so I can try some.
I open the car door and pause. The car tips dangerously towards the open drain; there is a rusty old washing machine in it someone has left for dead. I bury my bag under the seat when you aren't looking and shut the door.
I tail you into the shop; the gap-toothed proprietor greets you like family. You introduce me as your friend from Singapore, and that's as far as my Hokkien carries me, so I don't know if the pride in your voice is for me, or for what I'm about to eat. The old man stands a little longer at our table appraising me, one leg up, cracked sole of a foot on the side of a knee. His tongue twiddles a gold tooth while I blow on a spoonful of the thick herbal broth. It's complex, savoury, smooth. Thick from hours of boiling, it's at once rich, and floral-sweet from Chinese herbs. It's nothing like the thin, pale version I get back home. I swallow, grin – you beam and pull fork-tender pork ribs out of the soup for me. I take a square photo of the meal – and the old man beams, brings extra fried shallots to sprinkle on my rice. Wherever you are in the world, an Instagram is worth 10,000 words.
We drive around town, and I catch glimpses of you everywhere. There you are, age two, arriving from Canada in your father's hot muggy hometown, in your beautiful blonde mother's arms. Age five, hair lit as bright as curry, running from house to house along your grandfather's road, the row of identical red-and-pink bungalows, one for each family, everyone thrilled to see you.
We stop for artisanal coffee in an old shophouse-turned-hipster-cafe, and I spot you, age seven, pointing out the backpack you want, outside the store two doors away that still sells school uniforms and supplies. Age 11, panic-cycling home from school, through the under-the-bridge darkness where bullies hide.
Fifteen, strategically positioned for a good view of the local girls' school at the roti canai shop opposite, where we shred fluffy Indian crepes and I lick curry off my fingers. Seventeen, becoming the man of the house when your father dies suddenly, leaving your mother five children and a lifetime of longing.
You, working and shielding younger siblings from trouble, while still in school yourself; building a career, driving hours to and from the city to lay your head down close to family every night. You, only a year ago, bracing for divorce, making painful arrangements for your mother's funeral rites.
Everywhere we go, you are greeted with so much love it spills over to this stranger as well. The lady who makes your favourite sticky pork-chop rice presses a massive bottle of peanut cookies into my hands. Old friends and their elderly parents call out to you from across narrow streets, Hey ang moh, how long are you back from Singapore for?
The brown river that oozes through the town is lined with weeping willows. At low tide, it smells of salt and shit. I don't know if I could call Klang home; but you, you I could.QLRS Vol. 20 No.1 Jan 2021