Driving Up the Malaysian Peninsula
Driving up the Malaysian
peninsula in my girlfriends car, I try to relax by opening the window
a crack. The humidity cavalcades in. I shut the window.
is it? I ask.
Six-thirty, she answers.
Where are we? I ask like I used to ask in my parents
car. Im nervous because I am going to meet her family. She has shunned
the idea for a while, pleading that in Chinese culture, a meeting was
as good as a marriage. Which obviously scares me. Still, my sensibilities
tell me I should try.
About an hour out of KL, she says. The road looks like
one long strip of palms. Way better than strip malls.
Can we, I ask, stalling, stop somewhere and get a drink?
I want to get to Grannys before it gets too dark.
Were not staying with her though, right? I double-check
full-well knowing the answer.
No. Shes seventy-two. She can barely take care of herself
let alone you.
The two and you rhyme in her funny accent which
Im sure borrows from Australian. Shes been living with
me for three months. She wants me to learn Mandarin. She never wants me
to go back to Vermont.
Shes very sweet, stroking her hand against my rough day-old beard.
She likes my lumberjack persona, my Arab looks. I keep reminding
her Im Pakistani but it doesnt seem to matter. Knee
is what I call her. Her Chinese name is Ngee Tian. Shes holding
up my hand now as shes driving, content in knowing that theres
no way I can get out of this one. I won a weekend getaway at a resort
in Georgetown, Penang in some office draw. I wasnt going to take
it but the golf course looked incredible. Knee felt it was too early to
stop at Grannys but then the karma of it all, it was destined that
I meet some member of her family.
Id been cringing at the thought of meeting her folks, but faced
with the prospect of visiting a 72 year-old, I thought it couldnt
be so bad. So here we are, hand-in-hand, scooting up the KL-Highway just
as fast as her little car can take us.
When we reach the bridge to get to Penang, we turn off a few side streets
that Im amazed Knee can remember. A small cat with no tail marks
the driveway to the little cement block that must be Grannys home.
Im about to unbuckle my seatbelt and burst out into the fragrant
fresh air when Knee grabs me, kisses me, and gives me a lecture, Now,
honey, that kiss is for coming and to remind you that there will be no
touching, nor even any lingering looks while were here. Shes
not used to Ang Mos so dont do anything to frighten her. What? Oh
yeah, Ang Mo. It means foreigner. I suppose literally it means one
with red hair but you catch the drift. She doesnt speak any
English. She doesnt even know Malay or much outside her world. Just
be really attentive and sweet and if she asks you a question, Ill
We walk up to the flat and ring a little green buzzer. Inside the
frame of the door appears an almost perfectly spherical woman with a remarkably
sweet face just like my Knees. We sit down and enjoy some tea while
she examines me with a cheerful scrutiny.
The words start flying fast and furious between granddaughter and elder
and none is being translated for my benefit.
Im from America, I throw out, guessing that thats
whats confounding her.
Amrika, I overhear in the midst of many other words. They
Can, Knee says as she turns to me. Granny wants
you to sit next to her.
So I do. I dont know why shes asking me to sit on a small
sofa with her. I grow a little nervous until I see her open up a drawer
beside the couch. Inside is a photo album with a crate paper cover. She
gently unclasps it and starts talking to me in a Hokkien dialect as though
I understand every word she is saying. Knee just sits quietly in the kitchen
while I watch her grandmothers eyes. Im interpreting, filling
in, marveling at all the wonderful stories of her familys past.
My fathers father used to live in Penang, I tell her. She somehow
comprehends. Theres a kinship to us as we laugh over photos of Knee
as a baby, as a tomboy, as a college graduate. I miss her even though
shes just half a room away, chatting on her handphone to her sis,
reporting on the unlikely scene.
Sadly, the photo album comes to an end and her grandma and I just sit
staring at each other. She takes my hand and presses it gently. I walk
away when Knee tells me its time to go. As I turn back to look at
her, I realize what she sees. Yes, Im a man whos losing his
hair and is much too old for her pretty granddaughter. Yes, Im non-Chinese,
not knowing more than six words of Mandarin and even those pronounced
in the wrong intonation. But Im not an Ang Mo. Im Asian, just
© Zia Zaman 2001
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available
LOSING ONESELF IN REMOTE ASIA
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