Trolley Girl

Joanna, aka Dior, called me up the week after I did her shift for her, and was desperate again for someone to fill in at the Chinese restaurant.  I figured her hard-partying lifestyle was affecting her ability to do her shifts, but because of the job offer at Emperor’s Garden, I told her I wouldn’t be able to help her out.

She immediately agreed that if I could replace her again that week, she would give me a permanent job there, every Saturday and Sunday – I felt bad about turning down the job at Emperor’s Garden, but figured, a bird in the hand and all that – so I accepted her offer.

It was an eye-opening experience working at the restaurant.  The owner was a rich, young Shanghainese with a beautiful bride; I thought they were incredibly sophisticated, cultured and classy and was in awe of them.  I found out years later that they were also swingers, which totally grossed me out.

It was my first experience working with a crew largely from Hong Kong – it felt sometimes like I was trapped in one of those Hong Kong soap operas I used to consume back home in Malaysia.  I had to pick up their accent pretty quickly, since I grew up thinking Hongkies were like the French of the Oriental world – if you spoke their language (Cantonese) with a weird accent, most times they would just pretend not to understand you and proceed to treat you like a second-class citizen.

Every day in the kitchen, they would have the radio tuned into the station that covered horse racing, and the staff, particularly the chef and his crew, would be glued to it when their races were on.  I could never figure out how a bunch of Chinese with no discernible English could follow the rapid-fire commentary but I guess if you’re a hard-core gambler like they were, you find a way.

The head chef (Lai Sook ie. Uncle Lai) was loud, impatient and gruff, but his offsider was a nice, old man who was in charge of making the rice flour rolls with different fillings.  Since Lai Sook was often stuck in the kitchen, he would ask us every now and then if there were more ‘devils’ or more ‘people’ seated at the tables – ie. whites or Chinese – this racial profiling helped him determine whether to fry up more Aussie favourites like spring rolls or put more of the traditional Chinese selections in the steamer.

Each time a table asked for their bill, we would tabulate the number of strokes on their dim sum order card and give it to the cashier to work out the total.  I noticed that the middle-aged, grumpy manager would always insist on doing it himself if the table consisted of white Australians.  I was told much later that the reason for that was so he could cheat the gullible by adding a few strokes to each card to inflate their bill, then pocket the difference to fund his gambling addiction.  Don’t know how true that was, but he did always excitedly grab the card from us before we got to the cashier every time it was from a table of oblivious Aussies.  The Asians, of course, always made sure to check the strokes against what they ate, so there was no putting one past them.

Then, there was T, one of the waiters there.  For someone with his physical appearance (short and fat) he sure was cocky and confident.  Apparently his family back in HK was rich, and he was ostentatious with his money – fancy cars and a fancy bike which his legs were too short for (I saw him fall over when trying to start it up once). Somehow, my friend CT, who had started working there as well, fell for his charms.  I always felt she could do a million times better, since I didn’t think he treated her particularly well, but having left school early I guessed she saw in him a passport to a better life.   I didn’t think their relationship would last, so I was shocked when she told me a couple of years after I stopped working there, that they were engaged to be married.

In the time they were together, he had managed to negotiate a mortgage (one of his ‘side businesses’ I was told) for her family and as such, they had been able to move into a much bigger house.  Her entire family saw him as their financial saviour.  He even bought an apartment in upmarket Rose Bay, where he and CT lived.

I believe it was a few days from their wedding when I got the phonecall.  CT was crying on the phone.  Apparently she’d just arrived home and found him in bed, with a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.  She hadn’t even called the emergency services, so it was a bit surreal talking to her whilst she was cradling him in her arms.  She was convinced there was still some signs of life in his eyes though the police later said he’d been dead for hours.  It came out after his death that his lavish lifestyle had been a facade – he owed money to loansharks and couldn’t pay them back, and all his credit cards were maxed out – he’d even taken out cards in CT’s name and maxed them out without her knowledge, ruining her credit for years to come.  He was dressed head to toe in red – apparently doing so meant that he would return as a vengeful ghost to settle scores with his enemies.

Months later, I would find out that her family had moved out of their big new house – the reason they gave was that they had seen his ghost around the place.

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Runaway

Having run away from home, I headed to M’s house – I’d been there a few times prior, but it was quite a long way from the centre of town, which worked for me, since no one would ever think to find me there.  Turning up at her doorstep with my worldly belongings, I pretty much invited myself to live with her, and she welcomed me with no questions asked.   In comparison to my world, she lived a rarefied existence.  The house was palatial, and seemed almost too quiet due to its size and the fact that it was just her, her parents, her brother who was rarely home, and her grandmother.

She had her own bedroom with its own big wardrobe and even an ensuite with a modern toilet – unheard of back in those days – considering back in the Templer Flats days I’d grown up in a family of 10 sharing the one toilet, this was luxury beyond belief.

I’m not sure what her parents thought when I didn’t leave to go home that night, or the night after that, or the night after that – they were just too polite to say anything, and never at any stage did they make me feel like I’d outstayed my welcome.  I guess at that age and at that stage in my life nothing was ever thought through that carefully, but I spent the next couple of weeks living in blissful oblivion with M, gossiping like the teenage girls we were.  It was the holidays, so I wasn’t being missed at school or anything like that.

M’s grandmother did the cooking in the household, and she made the most incredible food.  I’d always been partial to Malay food, and I felt like I’d died and gone to food heaven living with M.  Somehow, even the simplest dishes tasted just divine.

I went to the bank where my stepmom had banked the money I had squirreled away all those years ago, and withdrew it all – something in the vicinity of RM1000.  Then we went to KL on a shopping spree.  I’d always thought M had the most beautiful clothes that were super-sophisticated and graceful – my wardrobe on the other hand, consisted of the typical teenage fashion of its day ie. knickerbockers, pedal pushers and shorts etc.

So we went to Sungei Wang Plaza – the biggest mall in KL at the time, and checked out local designer clothing, and I came away with several fairly expensive outfits.  We also checked out the cosmetic counters at this department store – I was ignored by most of the salesgirls who treated me with some degree of disdain, until I came to the Mary Quant counter, managed by a middle-aged woman.  She was extremely attentive and kind, and I ended up spending some RM250 on makeup through her, partly as an up-yours to the other salesgirls.  I think I made this woman’s day – she couldn’t stop smiling at the end of it, whilst the other girls looked on in envy.

After some two weeks, M’s mom finally sat me down.  She reminded me that I was welcome to stay with them as long as I liked, but was concerned about my family missing me.  And one thing she told me, that has remained with me to this day, was that she could see something special in me – that I had great potential.  It blew my mind – my whole life, as a middle child in a large family, where I sometimes wondered if I was adopted due to the lack of affection from my father – I had never had anyone tell me anything to that effect.

Then one day, my family finally tracked me down.  One of my eldest brother’s friends, Bernard, had been recruited to help find me.  He had contacted the school for a list of my classmates and progressively tried to get information from them.  The only people who knew were Fatin, Norsham and M.  Norsham was the one who finally broke (she was very apologetic to me about it later) – Bernard told her that they had exhausted all options and if she didn’t tell, they were going to report me missing to the police.  It would mean that I would get arrested if the cops recognized me in the streets, so Norsham told them.

My parents rang me at M’s house and tried to convince me to come home.  I really didn’t want to.  I had my long-distance Penang boyfriend I was hoping to visit at some point in my future.  They promised me I could go visit him if I came home.  I realised it really wasn’t feasible for me to keep squatting at M’s indefinitely, so I finally relented.  I remember the night my parents came to fetch me at M’s house.  They came in their car bearing a gift for M’s parents – a big shopping bag of oranges (very Chinese) which promptly broke as they got out of the car, so the oranges scattered all over the ground and we all comically ran around picking them up.

The handover complete, I finally went home.  I was told my brother who broke the door down got in big trouble with my dad for causing me to run away.  My dad was nicer to me than I could ever remember, which touched me deeply, though I had the dreadful feeling it wasn’t going to last, and it didn’t.

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Languages

Without having applied for a formal deferment, I turned back up at the Sydney University enrolment office the next year and in typical laid-back Aussie style, they happily re-enrolled me in my Arts Degree.  This time around, I made a point of choosing subjects not on the basis of what others thought would be a good idea career-wise, but on what I thought I would enjoy doing – ie. Languages – specifically, German, French, Spanish, Indonesian and Malaysian Studies, and Japanese.

I dropped Japanese within the first couple of weeks, when I realised that it was dominated by Chinese students who had the upper hand in learning the written form through their knowledge of Chinese writing, which is identical to Japanese Kanji (while I can speak Chinese, I can neither read or write it) – I didn’t care to play catch up for the duration of the course.

Unlike most of the students, I didn’t have romantic notions about the French Language or culture. I had picked it in part thanks to a comment by one of my brothers-in-law, who had attempted to learn it and failed, and subsequently declared that the Asian tongue wasn’t cut out to pronounce French words – so I had to prove him wrong.

Spanish was offered for the first time at Sydney University the year I took it up; it was conducted by a passionate but hard-core left-wing teacher who couldn’t shut up about the heroisms of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro.  Come final oral assessment time,  I came well-prepared with talking points based on the topics we could potentially cover in our conversation exam, and learned the vocabulary we’d been taught.

At the end of the test, the examiner was extremely impressed.  On the way out, she asked me something in Spanish.  I had no idea what she was talking about – she was using words I hadn’t come across.  She repeated herself a number of times, to no avail.  I finally figured out that she was asking if I had grown up speaking Spanish, since I’d sounded so convincing – but my embarrassing inability to understand her question kind of killed her theory.  I was grateful the exam was already over when she asked me, or I would have been penalized for poor comprehension.

Indonesian and Malaysian Studies was really just Indonesian studies – taught by wonderful Indonesian lecturers in a department headed by a tyrannical Dutchman.   Proper Indonesian sounds like broken Malay and vice versa (the languages are about 80% similar) – but against Aussies who were doing the course largely because they had been or wanted to visit Bali, it was essentially a slam-dunk for me.

German was my favourite subject – it is a logical and phonetic language, and made a lot more sense to me than some of the others.  Some of the best and most eccentric lecturers I had were from the German department, including Brian Taylor and John Fletcher.  The latter referred to me as ‘Die kleine Jaclyn’ – ie. little Jaclyn.  He looked somewhat like Hagrid, the character from Harry Potter, and always smoked a pipe and wore the same clothes to work every day – brown shorts, high socks and an old, dark-blue polo shirt.   On the last day of lectures for the year, all the guys in our class plotted to turn up one by one dressed exactly like him.   It didn’t register with him until the sixth or seven guy walked in, greeting him casually on the way, at which stage he pretended to write their names down to penalize them in their assessments – it was hilarious.

He once recounted a story of backpacking all over Europe on a shoestring, and told of how he was so poor that travelling on trains, he would finish off the soft drinks left behind by alighting passengers.  One time, he was sitting next to a guy who got up and walked off when the train stopped at a station, leaving behind a nearly-full bottle of Coke.  Mr. Fletcher gratefully finished off the rest of the drink.  It turned out the guy had gotten up to use the restroom, so it was an awkward moment when he returned to find his Coke bottle now empty.  Mr. Fletcher died of throat cancer a couple of years after he taught me.

In my year off, I had done waitressing work, and had saved up enough so I didn’t have to work my first year – and it paid off handsomely through my grades.  Having proved all my critics wrong, including the course advisor who had tried to dissuade me from trying to tackle so many foreign languages from scratch at the same time, I then took it easy academically the next two years, working 3 jobs concurrently to support myself throughout.

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South Africa

‘So where are you from, Jackie?’

‘South Africa’

‘Really?’

‘Yup – Capetown’

I don’t know why I said what I did to Rodney – probably the first Aussie guy to show a modicum of interest in me.  Despite my best efforts to the contrary, I had done adequately in my HSC to secure a spot at Sydney University.  Rodney was one of my fellow Economics students – a pretty smart, geeky guy.  I, on the other hand, was all at sea with my subject choices.  I’d picked Economics because one of my brothers had told me it was the sensible thing to do – Asians are meant to be good with numbers after all.  I picked Psychology because it sounded interesting and was gaining in popularity.

At my first Psych lecture the hall was filled to the brim with students.  It was extremely hot and stuffy, and the lecture, on different brain functions, was incredibly dull.  I fell asleep halfway through.  I never went back.

Economics was made up mainly of Asian students – apparently they’d all overheard my brother’s advice and signed up in droves.  From Day One, we were given a 3000-word assignment to write about the recent Federal Budget speech by Treasurer Paul Keating, and analyse the micro and macro economic implications on the Australian economy.

I had no idea what that was all about.  I’d done Science and Arts subjects at high school – History, Physics, Chem, Bio, you name it – but nothing Accounting or Finance or Economics-related.   I didn’t even know what micro and macro economics meant.  So, I recruited Rodney’s help.  Over a couple of meetings, he kept pressing me on where I was from – evidently he wasn’t convinced I was from South Africa.  He must have finally asked one of my lecturers, since no-one else in my new environment would know my background – so he said one day – ‘You’re from Malaysia, aren’t you?’

I refused to concede.  ‘Nope – South Africa’.  I’d gone as far as to look up South Africa in the encyclopaedia, so I was armed with a smattering of facts about the country in case I was interrogated further.  I wasn’t remotely interested in Rodney, and I didn’t care about lying through my teeth– I didn’t even care that he didn’t believe me – I just enjoyed messing with his head.

Anyway, despite whatever help Rodney could afford me with my essay, I knew it was so bad I didn’t even bother collecting the assignment back after handing it in.  I just withdrew from all my courses (except one – which I didn’t get around to – so I was subsequently awarded an ‘Absent Fail’ for it) – and dropped out of university.

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