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Live Your Questions Now

LIFE FOR BEGINNERS

Written by Kenny Mah

Cities

I walk alone on the pebble beach. For a moment I can’t quite remember where I am. I’ve been traveling by rail across Europe. I think I’m in Scotland now, somewhere farther north. I sit down, my jeans not quite protecting me from the hard pebbles and the cold. I take my notebook out and on every page I write down the names of the cities I’ve stopped at: Milan, Naples, Nice, Montpellier, Barcelona, Paris, London, Edinburgh, Inverness. I’m heading to the Isle of Skye next, I believe. It’d be nice to escape to an island and not worry about the rest of the world. It’d be nice to escape.

I tear out every page with a city name scrawled on it and place each under a pebble. The cities a route, a journey, an attempt at escape. The wind comes (of course, it must, I knew this, didn’t I?) and carries each page away. The pebbles scatter. It starts to rain, a gentle hiss. The distance mists over. I know I best be moving soon but for now I can sit here. There’ll be time enough to chase those cities carried by the wind. The chase will be my escape; it’ll have to do.

// Getting there
Buy a rail pass. Get on the nearest train station. Get off at stops that have interesting names. Explore. The streets, the hills, the beaches, the food, the people. Repeat. Return, if desired.

•••

The truth about angels

You are sitting in that small room, almost a vigil for the living and the frail. This woman sleeping in the bed, she is not well. She does not seem to want to recover; you fear she is giving up. Every day passes more slowly than the next, the shafts of sunlight that passes through the windows thinning. She is sleeping, your mother, but she is not sleeping well.

You sit at a corner, away from the bed, away from her. She cannot sleep with someone breathing over her head, she has told you, told you this many times. She does not want you to take hold of her hands, caress them with love, she does not want your attention or your care. She is past caring about the tears that stream down your face for hers have long dried up.

She will not pray with you.

She has not eaten in two days.

You hold the good book in your hands, on your lap. You know some pages by heart. Psalms which are songs which are salves, during the worst of it. The angels sing the loudest when they are needed, after all. That’s their job. You remember your mother telling you this when you were a little girl, when you fell down and scraped your knee or when someone at school bullied you. The angels, the heavenly choir, they will sing and they will fix you, my dear, my beloved.

You open your eyes and you look at the woman sleeping in the bed, her face partly hidden by the afternoon shadows. You can scarcely believe this is the same woman who told you that truth about angels. Did you imagine this, did you make it up? Where did the angels go?

She won’t pray with you, this woman who first taught you how to pray, this ailing woman lying in bed, sleeping and stirring, and maybe giving up. She won’t cry any more.

You will. You shiver as you open the book again, and turn its pages. You will allow yourself to cry, to let fresh tears stream down your face, you will love her even if she won’t, you will pray even if she has given up on prayers. You will hope and you will be her strength.

She lies there, this woman, your mother. She is still your strength and suffused with this, and with love, you keep praying.

•••

A girl and a boy at a café

There was a girl at a café. Her hair an unruly mop; her mom would complain, “Too short!” How will you attract boys? is what her mom meant. The girl didn’t care. She was content to sit in the café and sip her coffee, watching other girls talking to their silly boys. Coffee is better than boys, she decided.

There was a boy at a café. He was there to meet a client. One business meeting after the next. Some days he worked so hard and long the days turned into nights. Some nights the boy felt like an old man instead. But he was busy and that was good, wasn’t it? Being busy is better than being lonely, he decided.

There is a girl at a café. She is no longer sitting on a stool staring out of the window. The girl is behind the bar now, making coffee for others to enjoy. Slowly, gently, by hand. The long, careful drip of black coffee is a meditation. Making coffee is better than watching other girls talking to boys, she decides.

A boy walks into the café. He talks to the girl making his coffee. She serves him a simple cup of good coffee. He sips and smiles at her. They talk some more. She makes more coffee for him and he drinks more cups. Coffee, he decides, is better than being busy and being lonely.

A girl and a boy hold hands in a café. They talk to photographers and they call florists. Soon it will be their wedding day. Spending their life together, drinking coffee, and being very happy, they decide, is better than just about anything. (And how right they are.)

Drink coffee. Talk to strangers in cafés. Fall in love. And be happy always.

•••

Three

I. September 2002: Naples, Italy

This is the most alarmingly tasty slice of pizza I’ve ever had. I’m in a small pizzeria in Naples. I’ve been backpacking all over Europe, eating my way through the continent. It’s the end of summer but you wouldn’t know it here in southern Italy. A day earlier I was sunbathing on the isle of Capri (together with dwindling hordes of German and Swiss tourists greedy for the final rays of the season). The weather was perfect.

A fellow backpacker — a cute and petite web designer from San Francisco — whom I met while rummaging through the ruins of Pompeii had recommended this pizzeria. “It’ll be the best pizza you’ve ever eaten,” she had promised and she was so right.

This was nothing like the American-style fast food pizzas I used to beg for as a child — a thick, doughy pie and a mess of unidentifiable toppings held together by a gooey film of bright yellow cheese.

This pizza (yes, an entire pizza just for me!) came out of a wood fire oven a few minutes after I had ordered it — the thinnest crust, a generous smear of homemade tomato sauce and freshly crumbled buffalo mozzarella. So simple and so unbelievably good.

Today I learned that one doesn’t need complicated cooking techniques or fancy, expensive ingredients to eat well. And we do all deserve to eat well.

II. December 2010: Krabi, Thailand

This wasn’t a planned holiday. I came alone, without my family, my friends or my partner. The work at the office was done; the clients were away on their Christmas vacations. I just needed some time out, I told them, and surprisingly, they all said sure, they understand.

There was no emergency, no nervous breakdown or spiritual awakening. I told myself that this time out was for figuring out what to do with my career, which had stagnated (or so I told myself). Truth be told, I have no idea what on earth I’m doing here.

Krabi does not pretend to be anything other than what it is — a beachside tourist town in southern Thailand. Food is spicy, cheap and good. I had convinced myself I was going to do plenty of yoga when I got here. Meditation, even.

What I ended doing was leaving my yoga mat rolled up in my room at the resort (no more backpackers lodges for this old man) and going for two or three massages a day instead. I’m almost certain there’s a school of meditation that involves lying on one’s back for a couple of hours and sleeping while a skilled Thai masseur kneads one’s knots into submission.

The insight (if one could call it one) came when I was walking along Ao Nang beach one evening (conveniently the night before I had to fly home, for dramatic purposes). The sun was setting. Very beautiful. They say God is the universe that we witness. (No, this wasn’t the epiphany.)

I realized at that moment that I would never truly figure it out (exactly what “it” was could well be another problem) but that this was okay. Sometimes in life, it’s enough to experience and to enjoy and to be grateful for it.

III. April 2012: Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

We had just moved into our new home.

There are boxes to unpack and there is dust everywhere. The bookcases, our favorite pieces of furniture, are still bare so we ignore everything else and start filling them with books first. (Who cares if there are more important and urgent things to do? This is more fun.)

We don’t get very far along in our task when we end up sitting cross-legged on the floor, flipping through our favorite travel books and guides. “Remember that time you got propositioned by that granny in Budapest offering her ‘special’ services?” one of us will say. And the other might reply, “Remember that time that deer got its horns up the skirt of that sexy Spanish tourist in Nara?”

And of course we do. We remember everything we did, everything we ate, every place we visited, every experience we had together. The people we met, their friendly smiles, their hearty laughter, their kindnesses big and small, even if we were strangers — we remember it all.

“It’s time, my darling,” you say.

I nod, I know.

We had just moved into our new home. We haven’t unpacked. We take out a couple of maps instead and let our fingers browse cities and countries we haven’t visited before. It’s time for another trip.

A trip we’ll take together.

•••

My Roti Valentine

“How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.”

That was Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Sonnet 43. I wonder if she had to endure a modern Valentine’s Day where the ways that seem to count inevitably include a box of gourmet chocolates, a large bouquet of roses (their number and their colors each with a special meaning that a well-prepared gift-giver should have deciphered and assembled in advance), a glossy manufactured greeting card with an equally manufactured message, allergy-inducing soft toys and sparkling bits of carbon.

All of this tends to be terribly overpriced but who dares channel Scrooge on this special day? Where is the romance? Where is the love?

There should be a simpler way of loving, no? When love works, it ought to be a gentle thing, not an outlandish showcase once a year or a constant barrage of verbal reminders. Love is daily action, and daily practice. Love is a habit and an observance.

At least, this is what I have in mind when I think of you, my funny Valentine (and, as the song goes, my sweet comic Valentine). You make me laugh when you tell me there is no dal without some sambal. You tell me you have never enjoyed good roti canai in Kuala Lumpur. (You also call it roti prata, but I will forgive you that, you Southerner.)

You tell me that the best roti canai you ever had is now half a country away and a pleasure lost in the past. You challenge me without a challenge to find a substitute for this perfect bread – or something better – something that will surprise and satisfy.

And so we find ourselves here, at the appropriately named Roti Valentine. (The name, I felt, must surely be a sign.)

I have asked many of our friends where we could find good roti canai served with both dal and sambal – your idea of a perfect pairing of condiments. (I prefer a good mutton or fish curry, but this quest is not about my taste buds, unfortunately.) We sample roti canai under the canopy of trees; we investigate roti canai in hawker stalls and even air-conditioned food courts in shopping malls. Nothing quite worked for you – either the dal was too thick or it was too lumpy; the sambal was too spicy or perhaps too sweet. I would have imagined that you are simply too picky but I love food as much as you do so I understand.

Somewhere out there must be the perfect roti canai experience.

Fortune rewards the tenacious (and those gifted at googling). One cannot miss the stall – a bright yellow sign like a beacon announcing Roti Canai to all traffic along the busy road. (It’s also next to the car service center, if that helps.) It’s a little after four in the afternoon when we arrive but already the tables were filling up with eager customers.

We order our drinks and two pieces of roti canai each, one kosong (plain) and one telur (egg). We remember our friend’s advice to ask for the roti canai to be made garing (extra crispy). Even when the roti canai ends up getting soaked in the gravy later, it still tastes spectacular when partially flaky. The contrast is gorgeous.

Most folks would be content to wait patiently for their orders to arrive but being true-blooded Malaysians and proud gluttons we couldn’t resist cracking open one of the small packets of nasi lemak placed on our table. There is something strangely seductive about unwrapping the newspaper to reveal a compressed mound of coconut milk rice studded with a few ikan bilis, a wedge of hard-boiled egg and spicy-sweet sambal. It’s cold, of course, but delicious all the same. A promising appetizer ahead of the main attraction.

Over at the cooking area, we can see the roti canai man patting down rounds of well-oiled dough and kneading them into shape. When the dough is ready, he flips and tosses it over his head, making it larger and thinner with every turn before finally dropping it onto the very hot skillet. The dance of his arms swinging the dough is mesmerizing. How’s that for a dramatic Valentine’s Day performance? You crack up at this notion and tell me I’m a cheap date. But you are smiling.

“I love thee to the level of every day’s
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.”

You wipe your aluminum platter clean with the last piece of roti canai, mopping up every bit of dal and sambal. Your eyes are closed as you let out an “mmm” of contentment. You make me smile with my heart when you tell me that I have found the roti canai that hits the spot, the roti canai that you have given up on finding but I always knew existed, that I always sought.

“This is,” you say, “the best roti canai ever.”

I know you mean it. You called it by its correct name. Just the once. You can call it roti prata the rest of the time now and I shan’t ever mind. (Much.)

Who knew roti canai could be this romantic? (And when it was time to pay? Let’s just say this is romance without breaking the bank.)

Valentine’s Day need not just be that one special day once a year. We can express our love every day with the small things we do. Sometimes, love is simply ordering one more round of roti canai and sharing it, fingers tearing the bread into smaller pieces and dipping them into dal and sambal together.

•••

Clock

Tick tock. Tick. Tock.

Seconds pass, then minutes. Hours turn into days and before we know it, almost half of January is gone already. Am I still in the festive mood, what with Christmas and New Year’s Eve still fresh in my mind and still we have the Chinese New Year to beckon with.

And my thirtieth birthday approaching rapidly as some well-meaning friends keep reminding me. Oh me oh my. Three decades gone and where am I, I wonder?

 
Tick tock. Tick. Tock.

Seconds pass, then minutes. Hours fade into days and week and months and years. Time can be a cruel observer of our lives. Silent but steady and sure. Time will slip us a precise, inconvenient question when you least expect it like a knife into our gut where it hurts the most — what have you done with your life, with your three decades allotted to you thus far?

 
Tick tock. Tick. Tock.

Time won’t wait for me, I know. But I have no answers, no easy resolutions. I have been reading old letters, old words I once penned and I notice this; if nothing else, I have at last learned to smell the damn flowers, even if I ain’t sure if they are roses. Don’t matter, really, when you get yourself a whiff of what it feels like to be alive, now, right now, even as the stopwatch continues beeping and the years keep turning.

 
Tick tock. Tick. Tock.

There ain’t no snooze button on my clock.

•••

This used to be happiness

I have to find you.

The morning has turned cold on us. Dark clouds, a shade of sorrow splashed across the heavens. Grey is a feeling, no? It will rain soon enough. Just enough time to drive out and buy breakfast. The warm slabs of chee cheong fun and a big bowl of tau foo fa, slathered with dark ginger-laced caramel syrup and hot, fresh soy milk. Just the way you used to like it. Where are you?

Coffee tastes bitter; I would have thrown the whole pot away normally but I must enjoy this: punishing myself. You used to take it black all the time, now you aren’t here, I don’t know if you still take coffee. Does green tea suit you better now? Or is it much warmer where you are now? Perhaps it’s a glass of iced lemon tea or barley lime that cools your palate now. I hope you are warm.

I have to find you.

There used to be so many people here. Friends, strangers, musicians and writers, artists who left their paintings and sculptures lying around. This was no Bohemia, but it felt that way. Madmen and children can become family too. We watched each other with careless eyes; we listened with our hopes and our fears guarding our hearts. How many dreams died along the way?

There are treasures to be unearthed amongst the dried leaves, amongst the fallen. There used to be chatter and conversations here, sad wine and potato chips; we were poor but we broke bread with one another like emperors, like saints; there used to be songs that were sung, music that was played, lives that were performed. I used to hear your voice like the breaking of dawn, calling out that morning has come.

This used to be happiness.

Morning has come. Rain pelts down. I have to find you. I have no idea where to start. Doesn’t matter. I used to be a young man. Didn’t have an idea then either. Except this one. That I would always love you.

No, that’s not true. It wasn’t I would always love you, no matter what we promised each other, no matter how earnest our vows. Truth is, I had believed that I would always have you. You’d always be here; we’d always be together, the days running into forever. Bohemia never disappears and a hundred melancholic poets will ever lament their losses in manic verse.

I won’t ever get this back, I know. There’s no returning sometimes. But I have to do this. I have to find you.

•••