Old Vienna Exploits

Working fulltime at the Old Vienna Coffee House at the Queen Victoria Building in the city, my allotted tables were all outside on the balcony, furthest away from the restaurant entrance and overlooking the floors below.   If you could imagine working on your feet 8 hrs a day 5 days a week, with lots of periods of inactivity, you can appreciate it was an inordinately boring job.

Every hour, on the hour, the big hanging clock inside the building would come to life accompanied by the same music.  It would draw all the tourists in without fail, but its proximity to my tables was enough to cause me temporary hearing loss after awhile and drive me crazy.

One reprieve about the Queen Victoria Building was that it was a tourist haunt, which meant I got to meet lots of interesting people of different cultures.  It was later described by Pierre Cardin as the most beautiful shopping mall in the world; its aesthetics made it a little less painful to be there.

Next door to the Old Vienna was this designer shop specialising in expensive leather clothing.  It was manned by two attractive, leggy girls – one a blond and the other a brunette – with fake tans and spray-on leather clothing.  They looked like the kind of models you’d see holding umbrellas at Motocross events or similar, frankly.

And heck, did they get a lot of attention from the males who worked in the mall.  The world around them practically came to a standstill every time they strutted out of the shop.  They never seemed that busy either, and seemed to lean over their counter gossiping most of the day away, simultaneously flashing their legs and cleavages, whilst Aussie males found various excuses to go in to chat with them.

The layout of the coffee house was such that my tables, being away from the main dining area and with their vista, were a magnet for backpacking tourists who just wanted to sit for hours over a cup of coffee whilst catching up on their correspondence etc.  Most of these young backpackers were European, and I was their waitress.  Thanks to the overall boredom of the job, I engaged in conversation with many of them, and made friends that way.

There was a very good-looking Swiss guy who sat down once, and the two girls from the leather shop caught sight of him.  They pulled out all the stops trying to flirt with him, and whilst polite, he seemed immune to their charms.  They gave up, deflated, after awhile.

I was intrigued; I’d never seen the girls have to work for attention, let alone have nothing to show for it at the end.  In fact, he seemed a lot more interested in me, and after talking for awhile, he asked me out.

The movie Big Trouble in Little China had recently been at the cinemas; there was a ‘Chinese’ girl in the movie with green eyes.  Thomas’s brother was travelling with him but hadn’t been at the coffee house that day we met.

As a throwback to the movie, which both brothers thought was awesome, Thomas had apparently told his brother excitedly after seeing me at work, that he had met a Chinese girl with brown hair (my hair colour at the time).  Long story short, we ended up dating until he had to return to Switzerland.

Thomas was the first guy I dated through working at the Old Vienna; after him, I would meet lots of other European/American travellers who similarly found me interesting.  Most of them were just good coffee-mates, frankly, but it made an impression on the other girls at work.

They began to joke about who Jackie’s man-of-the-week was, and my Greek supervisor begged me to tell her the secret to getting so much attention.  I told her to just be natural and carry a conversation with them; I saw her try, to no avail.

By this stage I was aware of what their problem was – the two hot Aussie girls at the leather shop; the British/Kiwi etc. waitresses – they weren’t exotic to look at from the perspective of European travellers; there were plenty of leggy white girls back where they came from.  Asians with bleached hair, not so much – back then anyway.  I had stood out since I came to Australia; this time, it was to my advantage.

My new narrative – Europe/Europeans were so much cooler than Australians, and I should work on getting myself over there sooner rather than later.

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Mail-Order Bride

The  narrative that had developed in my head thanks to my high school experience and beyond, was that the average Aussie guy was not remotely interested in me (and I quickly decided that the feeling was mutual – maybe out of a sense of self-preservation).  There was one exception though – the desperate, lonely, divorced middle-aged man saw me as some sort of mail-order bride material.

During the gap year between high school and university, having secured a full-time job as a waitress at one of the eateries in the Queen Victoria Building, I would commute to work every morning by train.   CT, who had left school at 14 and was now working with me, would join me in the commute.

There was this old Russian guy who sat by himself on the train most mornings, and he would burst into a melancholic warble – I thought he was odd, but after awhile CT and I got to talk to him.  One day, we found out he had a son in his mid-30s, a construction worker or labourer, and divorced from his Australian wife.  He had a 5yr-old child for whom the grandfather felt needed a mother figure.

So the old man offered me $5000 to marry his son so I could be a fulltime mother to his kid.

CT thought I should consider it.  I guess I could probably attribute it to my Convent school years back in Malaysia, that we were nurtured to believe in ourselves.   We had stellar role models growing up; one of our former students was a Cabinet Minister back home – we were expected to be leaders, not settle for a life of oblivion.  Even having been ignored  by the boys since arriving in this country, and with my self-esteem at rock bottom,  I was incredibly offended.  $5000 for my life? That was all I was worth?  Screw that.

I met lots of interesting characters at the Old Vienna Coffee House, where I worked – it was as multicultural as it gets.  The owner was Jewish; the managers were Greek; the staff were a  mix of Aussie, Lebanese, Kiwi, British, and one of the cooks was a Malaysian guy.  Coming from a country where the extent of my exposure to diff. ethnicities was almost exclusively limited to Malay/Chinese/Indian/Eurasian, I found all these cultural identities endlessly fascinating.

I remember the first Greek girl I had come across in high school here – I was floored and starry-eyed with being in the presence of someone associated with the Greek mythologies of old – given the right outfit, I could even see her as a Greek goddess.  Likewise with the Italians and the Lebanese (wow, you speak French?!) immigrants, unencumbered as I then was with the negative stereotypes that Australian society held towards these groups – derogatorily and collectively referred to as ‘wogs’.

At work, I became good friends with a Czech lady – a career waitress – Beata.   If these other cultures were exotic in my mind, even more so were East and North Europeans.  At some point during our acquaintance, Beata decided she needed to play matchmaker and get me hooked up to a fellow Czech friend of hers.

I was excited; during the school break after our HSC exams, I had been following tennis on TV and my favourite player was the world no. 1 ranked Czech, Ivan Lendl.  Never mind the Aussie blokes, I was going to get myself a European guy, I thought.

Beata arranged for him to come in at lunch one day and sit at one of my tables.  When he showed up, I was horrified.  Here was this scruffy, hairy guy with wild hair, in singlet and shorts, looking like he hadn’t bathed in weeks.  He didn’t look so much like my hero Ivan Lendl as he did Ivan Milat (as I was to realise years later), Australia’s most notorious serial killer (http://www.smh.com.au/news/national/ivan-milat-cuts-off-a-finger/2009/01/27/1232818339450.html) – and about as old.  To be polite I did introduce myself, but he was so gruff he didn’t even make any effort to be conversational.

I remained friends with Beata but was acutely aware from that point onwards, that she probably held me to the same kind of stereotype that older white Aussies had of me – that I was some kind of worthless, submissive Asian mail-order bride good for keeping house for some desperate old loser and not much else.

Hanging out with CT
Hanging out with CT

Crème de la Crème

During the year off between high school and university, I waited tables at a number of places, each with its own set of characters and stories to tell. One of them was a small cafe in Macquarie St, across from the NSW Parliament and NSW Supreme Court. Thanks to its position and its cutesy setup – it was located in the basement of a historic sandstone building – most of our customers consisted of barristers and politicians.

The food was overpriced by my estimation – a pie 2.5 inches in diameter with some side garnish (what they called ‘salad’ on the menu) cost $9.50 – keeping in mind this was in the 80s – but that didn’t stop these obviously overpaid self-important types from filling the tables every lunchtime. Many lawyers came in still dressed in their traditional garb and wigs, which I thought made them looked somewhat ridiculous. Their conversations often seemed crafted to showcase their wit and intellect, and their laughter sounded loud and forced.

My fellow waitresses were mostly European backpackers – including a cockney-accented English ladette and a Swiss-Italian girl. I found out working there that middle-aged, rich, powerful Australian men really had a thing for European girls – the Swiss girl, Danielle, with whom I became quite good friends, was constantly asked out on dates. She was courted once by this barrister who took her to an expensive restaurant; being a hippie chick, instead of ordering off the menu, she asked for rice with soya sauce, which I thought was just crazy. She dumped him after one date, which made him really mad, and which she thought was very funny.

The manager was a big-hearted Maltese guy called Sam, but he left after awhile to start up his own cafe in Parramatta. The owner was a coke-addicted (so I was told), sports car-driving, thirty-something Aussie guy with a couple of other high-performing cafes. The kitchen was run by a couple of rednecks, but contrary to stereotype, they were pretty cool and laidback and I never had any problems with them.

Our vegetables were delivered daily by this guy who had played one of the main characters in Gallipoli, the Peter Weir WWI movie that made Mel Gibson a star. Whilst tall and good-looking, he obviously hadn’t had the same success as his co-star. Sam’s replacement as manager was this tall, gawky girl called Amanda, who had a live-in boyfriend, though I noticed a blossoming relationship between her and the actor/delivery guy that eventually grew into a full-blown affair right before our eyes.

I remember meeting Don Chipp, the leader of the Democrats, late one afternoon – he’d come in for coffee or tea with his wife. They engaged me in conversation without introducing themselves – they probably didn’t know that I recognised who he was. I thought they were the loveliest people I’d ever met – very interesting, and obviously very compassionate people. I was impressed.

Then, there was this time when our Federal Treasurer and future Prime Minister came in for lunch. We were full, as we often were, and having failed to make a reservation, we didn’t have a table for him. Being an overseas backpacker, our English ladette didn’t know who he was, and didn’t care in the slightest – which offended him sorely – he had that ‘don’t you know who I am’ demeanor about him when she turned him away instead of falling prostrate at his feet. He wouldn’t take no for an answer, so we finally got him a table outside on the footpath – he made sure we knew he wasn’t pleased – but that was as good as it was going to get, so he took it.

I remember one of the things he ordered was soup, and he refused to budge for me when I brought it out, making my job that much trickier as I had my hands full with plates of food. It crossed my mind that I might ‘accidentally’ spill it on his lap. I mentioned it to the English waitress and she agreed that she’d had the same inclination to mess with his food. Funny how some politicians can rise that high in public office in spite of being so obnoxiously arrogant.

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Extended family and some friends from the early days.

The Volunteer

For a while after finishing high school, having read voraciously during the holidays, I was inspired to do volunteer work. I’d just completed reading Chuck Colson’s book; he was one of US President Nixon’s aides who had been caught up in the Watergate scandal and subsequently spent time in prison for his role in it. After his conversion to Christianity, he started Prison Fellowship, a programme designed to help prisoners rehabilitate and ultimately rejoin society.

At the back of the book, there was a list of contacts for this programme worldwide. Excitedly, I called the number listed for the Australian branch, and managed to speak with the local programme director. It was a complete letdown; the guy did not sound remotely interested in accepting any help – he came across as highly cynical and negative about the whole deal. I came away disillusioned and convinced he wasn’t even a Christian.

I even signed up for a course to, of all things, teach English on a volunteer basis to illiterate Australians.  In our first class, we were told that ten percent of white Australians couldn’t read or write English – a statistic which shocked me.  I relished the kind of reception I would get as an immigrant looking to help the locals with their own language, especially since they presumably belonged to the same socio-economic group who harboured the most resentment towards Asians.  I never completed the course since I didn’t care for the methodology used.

Through my local church in Cabramatta, I met this social worker who worked for the Indochina-Chinese Association. I was available and his office needed volunteers, so I started turning up every day to work in Cabramatta. It was a walk-in centre for recently-settled Indochinese immigrants who came in for all kinds of assistance – mostly for help in translating documents, writing letters and querying utilities bills.

My parents, who don’t read or write English, often have a pile of correspondence for us every time we drop in, to help decipher their contents. Back in the days when the Indochinese had just started to arrive in the country, I guess they didn’t have children old enough or who had been in the country long enough, to be able to help them in these kinds of tasks. So, I spent my days on the phone with phone companies, challenging overcharged items on our clients’ bills, writing letters to dispute traffic fines, etc. – the sort of thing I would usually hate doing, but fun at the time because it was in my job description, even if I wasn’t getting paid for it.

I often struggled to understand what they were saying – back in the days when most Aussies saw us as one homogeneous group of people ie. Asians – our differences as I saw it were pretty stark – I knew no Indochinese language, and the Chinese they knew was invariably Mandarin, of which I had very little working knowledge. Yet, they were always so polite and so appreciative, it affected me deeply, and it struck me how much those of us who do know English, took for granted.

One old gentleman was so grateful he insisted on giving me the lunch he’d bought for himself earlier that day, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I was very touched, but had to give it away as soon as he left – it was a pork roll – a Vietnamese favourite – and I haven’t eaten pork since I was a kid.

One day after finishing work, I decided to drop in at Cabramatta library. I noticed near the reception desk there was a sign that said ‘No bags past this point’. The place swarmed with Indochinese students who’d just finished school and they all dumped their schoolbags in a big pile near the reception before proceeding through the turnstiles. I was no longer a student, but I had a handbag on me. I really didn’t want my handbag thrown in the same pile, but I wanted to make sure it wouldn’t be a problem to take it along, so I waited at the reception desk for the assistant. She ignored me, even when she didn’t look like she was busy. I tried to get her attention to no avail. Finally, I took it on myself to go ahead and enter with my handbag in tow.

Immediately, as though she had been waiting all that time to pounce, she yelled at me to stop.

‘You can’t go in. No bags allowed!’

‘It’s just a handbag’

‘Oi, don’t you understand English? What country are you from? I said no bags allowed!’

I was so mad, I stormed out. Armed with plenty of practice in writing letters through my job, I wrote one to the head librarian and told him what happened.

I got the reply in due course – he’d spoken to the lady concerned, and decided there was no malice in her tone. It was, after all, an ethnically diverse part of Sydney, he said, and she’d simply wanted to know what my racial background was, to help her serve me better. What f-ing bullshit, I thought. I wrote another letter, threatening to take this matter up with the Anti-Discrimination Board.

Days later, still fuming over the incident, I boarded my bus as usual from my parents’ place to work. This woman got on a few stops later and sat next to me, with her little son on her knee. I turned to look, and was shocked to find it was the same woman from the library. She didn’t recognise me; she was busy with her kid, tenderly teaching him how to read a book and generally being a loving, attentive mother. This couldn’t be a coincidence, I thought. I was being tested. I thought about it for awhile – seeing this other, human side to this woman – was meant to soften my heart. I didn’t go ahead with the Anti-Discrimination Board thing, but I decided I still hated her guts, so, whatever.

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Church camp at Port Dickson

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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Don Quixote

Of all the kids, I was closest to my stepmom growing up, and when I was about 13, she started to loosen the reins by granting me more freedom to take part in extra-curricular activities.  Maybe she thought I deserved to have a bit of life outside of The Odeon – she even told me I didn’t have to work the afternoon shift at the canteen if I had after-school activities on.

So I took advantage of that by signing up for a bunch of school clubs – including the Literary, Debating and Drama Society, basketball and most significantly, the school choir.

She also let me hang out with friends on Saturday mornings as long as I made it to work at the canteen before the first movie session started.

With my new-found freedom, even though we’d since moved to a house in Temiang, I spent a couple of hours every Saturday morning at the Templer Flats with friends from school who happened to live there and in that general vicinity.

We were at the age when we were just discovering boys, and I started documenting our teenage crushes in a personal diary.  They were basically swoons over crossing paths with some cute boy or spying some dreamboat at the shops or trying to figure out who the mystery guy was who sent me a note etc. – pretty lame and innocent teenage stuff.

During the week, I had choir practice; persuaded by one of my best friends, Norfatin, to audition to join, we had both managed to secure spots in the group – a high honour, since the Convent choir was one of the best in the State, and possibly the country.

We trained hard for competitions, led by excellent teachers and song leaders, and through a lot of blood, sweat and tears, we bonded into a tight-knit group – that was also how I met one of my other best friends, Mona – an exquisitely beautiful girl in the year above us.

She was practically royalty among her peers thanks in part to her stunning good looks and, I guessed, to her genealogy (her family were descendants of the Islamic prophet Mohammed).

When we were in Form Three, our team, along with all the best school choirs in the country, converged on the campus of Universiti Malaya for about 5 days of practice, culminating in a TV broadcast of our singing.

Despite having chaperones and curfews, we still managed to have a ton of fun; the three of us called ourselves some goofy names including The Fantastics and Charlie’s Angels.

And we made friends with members of other choir teams, notably a group from KL, and the mostly-male choir team of Penang Free School (PFS).   I loved PFS’s dramatic rendition of ‘I, Don Quixote’ from the musical The Man of La Mancha – I still remember most of the lyrics – (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XYXpnFm1YRQ&feature=related ).

It didn’t take long before Mona acquired an ardent admirer, a Chinese boy from PFS – a bit dorky looking, with soulful, melancholic eyes – he wrote her some incredibly flowery poems that sounded so profound and well-written I was convinced they were plagiarized.

I think he even composed a song and serenaded her with his guitar.  One of his best friends was this other guy, Alex, who was an accomplished athlete at the national level – and he was interested in me.  It was a dizzying five days, and at the end of it, he had stolen a kiss from me, so, at 15, I had my first ‘boyfriend’.  All this I recorded faithfully in my diary.

I was brought back down to reality when we returned to Seremban.  Sometime after the trip, one of my brothers, recently returned from his overseas studies, discovered my diary and read it.  He hit the roof, and told my stepmom the contents – ie. that it mentioned boys.

I was in my bedroom at night and he banged on the door, demanding I let him in.  When I refused, he broke down the door and tried to force himself in, whilst I pushed back on the other side.  I was terrified.  Things settled down at some point, and I was allowed to go to bed.

I stayed up all night and pondered what was going to happen to me from now on.  I had evidently betrayed my stepmom’s faith in me – I had used my newfound freedom to develop an interest in the opposite sex.

I didn’t know what kind of punishment was in store for me the next day, and what constraints were going to be placed on me from then on.  I couldn’t fathom what it would be like facing the combined wrath of my dad and my brother. I felt I had only one option left – so, at 4am, I packed a bag and sneaked out of our house  – I was officially a runaway.

Choir trip at Universiti Malaya campus
1982 Choir trip – at the Universiti Malaya campus

Bob Is Sexy

‘Oi, tukar, tukar!’ (Oi, change! Change!) yelled the Odeon cinema usher as he banged on the counter at my Dad’s canteen.  He needed some change for whatever reason, and forgot to say please.  I was furious; I’d had enough of his BS.

At 15, I’d had a personality transplant; from a mild, soft-spoken and obedient kid, I’d turned into a  take-no-prisoners Hakka warrior overnight.

I was ready to pick a fight with anyone, anywhere, and thanks to spending most of my time working at the Odeon, it generally meant the hodge-podge group of cinema ushers recruited, I was sure, based on their talent to piss me off.

I’d had an uneasy relationship with the cinema staff almost from Day One.  I remember early on at the ripe old age of eight, taking an instant dislike to one of the guys there – he seemed a bit too friendly and it gave me bad vibes.

One day I spotted some graffiti on one of the posters on the outside wall next to our canteen – it looked like something one of the other ushers had scribbled for a laugh. It mentioned a name, which I forget, but let’s say – Bob – and the message said –

‘Bob is sexy’.

I was disgusted and horrified at the same time – at that young age, having only started to learn English at school, I was convinced it wasn’t a good thing.  After all, ‘sexy’ came from the word ‘sex’ – and ‘sex’ was ‘bad’ – therefore, whoever ‘Bob’ was, must be some sort of sexual deviant.

So I asked one of the ushers – ‘Who’s this Bob? Is it him?’, pointing at bad-vibes boy.  He laughed and said yes.

That did it for me.  It confirmed all my suspicions about ‘Bob’.  I made it a point to be blunt and rude to him, and made sure he couldn’t get anywhere near me.

I even took pains to explain it to my younger sister and warn her about him.  It wasn’t until years later that I found out he wasn’t ‘Bob’ at all – it was actually the guy I’d asked the question to – so, not only had I maligned someone due to my lack of English comprehension, I’d done it to the wrong person.

I wonder if he ever puzzled over why I was so hostile towards him all those years.

One of the veteran staff there was nicknamed ‘Bengali’ by everyone – I never knew why – he was Chinese and bald and didn’t have any Indian blood in him as far as I could tell.  He even lived onsite, in a little storeroom upstairs plastered with old movie posters.

He was fond of me to the point of obsession, for some inexplicable reason.  Every time he saw me, he would sing out my name loudly – ‘Nyok! Nyoooook! Ah Nyooook’ – and just keep doing so all hours of the day.  I was pretty sure he was a bit crazy.

He would sit on the 6-inch ledge in front of our canteen during his breaks, enjoying his cigarettes . Every now and then, he would sneak me a movie poster pulled down from the billboards.

This was highly illegal, since they were meant to be shipped back to the film distributors at the end of the movie run.  I’ve often wondered what happened to him after we moved to Australia.

Back to Mr. forgot-to-say-please for his change, he was at the top of my list of ushers I despised.  I’d had a few verbal altercations with him in the past.  This time though, I felt he’d gone too far.

Thanks, I guess, to my family’s survival instinct to avoid having our canteen lease terminated (a constant implied threat by what I saw as the tyrannical management) I never witnessed anyone else confront him about his behaviour.  I had no such compunction about doing so.

‘Mahu tukar (Want change)?’  Here’s your bloody change, I thought – and I flung the coins hard on the stainless steel counter.  As predicted, they went flying everywhere – some hitting him on the face and others bouncing on to the floor.  He totally lost it.

He tried to grab me over the counter, and failing that, dashed around it to enter our canteen, procuring a sharp knife on his way (on top of candy and drinks, we used to sell cut fruit, hence the presence of knives).  He pinned me against the wall and held the knife to my neck, completely out of control.

I groped around for something to fight back with, but the only thing within reach was a sad little bottle opener suspended on a string.  I clutched it and held it against his neck in return – resulting in a knife vs bottle opener standoff, if you can picture it.

Everyone was freaking out (except me – I was all in despite my obviously inferior weapon).

It ended when he got dragged away by some of the bystanders.

Invariably, the General Manager heard about the commotion and summoned my poor stepmom into his office for what I presumed would be a dressing down plus more threats about kicking us out.

Apparently all he told her was to let us know not to fight with his staff.

Or maybe that’s just what my stepmom told me in case I decided to go all Hakka warrior on the GM as well.

This particular usher never bothered me again after that incident.

My younger sister at the Odeon canteen
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