Tuesday, June 02, 2009

IMPAC essay

THE BEST THINGS IN LIFE

By: Nurul Kamilah Binti Mat Kamil


“Tucked in bed with a mug of trickling hot chocolate on a cold night, traveling the distance to watch the sunset at an exotic vacation getaway, or perhaps indulging in a rush of adrenaline bungee-jumping atop the world’s highest cliffs?” I mused. What could possibly be the best things in life?

Let me rephrase that, what could I possibly proclaim as the best things in life? I mean, it is a subjective matter. It can be anything; yet making a choice was difficult. I wanted it to be personal, yet it can be shared and felt by others; others who I will pass down this scrapbook.

This was my latest project: filling up the family scrapbook of the best things in life. I was the fifth generation to be handed down the responsibility of completing the scrapbook.

In my father’s will, he wanted me to have it, of all my siblings; he chose me, the estranged one. “Those who live their lives to the fullest are those who truly enjoy life. One way to enjoy it is to celebrate the best things in life.” Go figure.

As I was short of ideas, I decided to fulfill the second item on my father’s will first, which is to meet my late mother’s relatives in Johor, in hopes that I will discover something out of my mundane life. Here I am now on a train from Tumpat to Johor Bahru. The journey was long and almost unbearable, but it was my decision to travel on a train, and I ought to enjoy it for a change.

With that optimism in mind, I kept my composure, although I had to share a coach with a young mother coaxing her screaming baby and an old man with a hearing problem. Just great, I wished I had hearing problems too, I thought to myself.

After the baby finally slept, I let out a sigh of relief. In the silence, distant memories came flooding back into my mind.

I was five years old at that time. I awoke in the middle of the night; startled by the sound of the cat scraping by the window. I caught my mother with a bag in hand. In my naiveté, I kept quite and watched her head down the stairs, without noticing that I was eavesdropping from behind my bedroom door. I heard the door slowly close. I didn’t know at that time that my mother wasn’t coming back for good.

I should have seen it coming. My mother could never have lasted the pressure from my father’s relatives. They despised her because she was of different race, and she refused to convert to my father’s religion. This had caused a great rift in the relationship between my father’s relatives and my mother’s relatives. In the end, my mother simply gave up and returned to her family in Johor.

I couldn’t understand why my mother left me. Didn’t she love me at all?

I was left with my father, who remarried later on to his relatives’ choice, and I was cast aside like an unwanted child. Ever since I left the house for boarding school and for a local university, I have not had much contact with my father’s relatives.

Out of the blue, I was called back to Tumpat from Kuala Lumpur, after being informed of my father’s death. I was devastated, but I was surprised that he left me with the responsibility of the manuscript. I guess he felt bad about what happened in our family. Probably he wanted me to find happiness. I was even more surprised when he sent me to my aunt. As a peace offering, I suppose, to mend the broken ties.

I shuddered at the thought of meeting my mother’s relatives for the first time. People call it the fear of the unknown. All of a sudden, intense xenophobia began taking me over. Indeed, I was half of their race, but all my life, I have been raised as a Malay. I feared that they would reject me the same way that my father’s relatives rejected me because of my mother’s race.

As I reached the destination, I quickly hailed a taxi and instructed the driver to take me to the address carefully written in my father’s handwriting. I had not even called the relatives in advance, as I do not have their number. They would be surprised indeed.

Throughout the whole ride, I was flipping through the frayed pages of the scrapbook. As I expected, there were many pictures. Holiday pictures, family portraits. There were also bits of tickets, seashells, or other pieces of memento stuck onto the pages, and long entries written in various handwritings on each page. I still thought hard of what to include in the scrapbook.

I gaped as I stood on the doorstep of a huge bungalow. With a trembling finger, I rang the doorbell. Oh, please be home.

An elderly Chinese woman answered the door.

“Hi,” I mustered my courage. “Is this Carolyn Chang’s house?”

“Yes. I am Carolyn Chang. How may I help you?”

“I am Andrea Chang’s daughter.” I paused, waiting for a response.

“Oh, welcome in. You must be my niece.”

I was surprised by the hospitality. Inside, there was a roomful of Chinese people dining at the table. I was lost for words when they began chattering in their language. Suddenly, heads turned and the room grew uncannily silent.

Out of the corner of my eye, I caught sight of a cross hanging on a wall over a piano. I felt uncomfortable. I was in alien territory. I didn’t know what to do next.

“Hello. I must be coming in at the wrong time. I’m Sakinah, I am Andrea’s daughter.”

The Chinese people invited me to sit down at the table. I felt like a fish out of water, unable to understand their conversation. As Carolyn, my aunt, explained my situation to the others in their language, only then did they all began talking in English. I was more at ease.

Carolyn explained that my mother had died shortly before my father did. Before she died, she did convert to my father’s religion and wanted to return to him to see me, but alas, she was killed in an accident. I was sad that I was never told of all of this.

In the end, Carolyn invited for me to stay, and so I did for the next three days. Throughout my stay, I overcame my fear, and I grew more comfortable with my new ‘family’. As the saying goes, familiarity breeds contempt, I got to know them better and they weren’t as bad as I thought. Despite the differences in culture and religion, they tried their best to understand me, and I did not feel the rejection that my Malay relatives imposed on me.

As I returned to Tumpat, I was on a mission to mend the family ties for both sides. In fact, I had already made an entry in the scrapbook. It was a picture of me and my Chinese relatives, and below it I had written: the best things in life are love and acceptance.

Word count: 1 198

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