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Driving Up the Malaysian Peninsula 
Zia Zaman

Driving up the Malaysian peninsula in my girlfriend’s car, I try to relax by opening the window a crack. The humidity cavalcades in. I shut the window.
“What time is it?” I ask. 
“Six-thirty,” she answers.
 “Where are we?” I ask like I used to ask in my parents’ car. I’m 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 Granny’s before it gets too dark.” 
“We’re not staying with her though, right?” I double-check full-well knowing the answer.
 “No. She’s seventy-two. She can barely take care of herself let alone you.”
The ‘two’ and ‘you’ rhyme in her funny accent which I’m sure borrows from Australian. She’s been living with me for three months. She wants me to learn Mandarin. She never wants me to go back to Vermont.  

She’s very sweet, stroking her hand against my rough day-old beard. She likes my lumberjack persona, my ‘Arab’ looks. I keep reminding her I’m Pakistani but it doesn’t seem to matter. ‘Knee’ is what I call her. Her Chinese name is Ngee Tian. She’s holding up my hand now as she’s driving, content in knowing that there’s 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 wasn’t going to take it but the golf course looked incredible. Knee felt it was too early to stop at Granny’s but then the karma of it all, it was destined that I meet some member of her family.

I’d been cringing at the thought of meeting her folks, but faced with the prospect of visiting a 72 year-old, I thought it couldn’t 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 I’m amazed Knee can remember. A small cat with no tail marks the driveway to the little cement block that must be Granny’s home. I’m 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 we’re here. She’s not used to Ang Mos so don’t 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 doesn’t speak any English. She doesn’t even know Malay or much outside her world. Just be really attentive and sweet and if she asks you a question, I’ll translate.”

 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 Knee’s. 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.
“I’m from America,” I throw out, guessing that that’s what’s confounding her.  
“Amrika,” I overhear in the midst of many other words. They keep jabbering.
 “Can,” Knee says as she turns to me. “Granny wants you to sit next to her.” 

So I do. I don’t know why she’s 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 grandmother’s eyes. I’m interpreting, filling in, marveling at all the wonderful stories of her family’s past. My father’s father used to live in Penang, I tell her. She somehow comprehends. There’s 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 she’s 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 it’s time to go. As I turn back to look at her, I realize what she sees. Yes, I’m a man who’s losing his hair and is much too old for her pretty granddaughter. Yes, I’m non-Chinese, not knowing more than six words of Mandarin and even those pronounced in the wrong intonation. But I’m not an Ang Mo. I’m Asian, just like her.  

© Zia Zaman 2001

Zia Zaman's new book 
now on sale!
Zia Zaman's collection of travel stories is now available on Amazon.
ISBN: 0973288302

More travel stories by Zia Zaman in Hacktreks
Cape Cod
Danny Desai

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