Written by: Koh Ze-Wen
Feet in saltwater, head tipped to the sky, the screech of gulls ahead. Idle fishing pole gripped in your palms, disobedient fish swarming below the pier.
A call in the distance that sounds like your mother’s. You turn to holler back –
You blink awake to cool sheets, rat-tat-tat of a fan above. For a second you think you’re home and your brother’s about to rush in, banging at the door, but you know this grey ceiling, the university-issued closet in your periphery.
Coffee. Then consciousness.
You turn on your phone, sipping your coffee, and listen to the chime of messages. You have three missed calls from your mother. You ignore them.
The time on the header distracts you from the guilt – you’re late for 8am class.
There’s a solid three seconds of blissful confusion; and then it’s head under your desk rooting for a file, hand pouring blistering hot coffee down your throat while the other shoves your tumbler under the water cooler.
You’d think after two months that you’d have gotten used to 8am class without having that annoying alarm clock you’d left in your childhood bedroom, covered in dust without the scramble of fingers to wipe at the snooze button.
There’s an Economics class you’re taking with a lecturer from Sarawak. You ask her, Sarawak where? And five minutes later she’s gushing: I can’t believe Julia’s daughter is studying in Sunway, what a coincidence; that Julia always was a joker.
It’s a small world.
You’re imagining the perceived similarities in your awkward smiles, your sunshine-beaten brown skin, the way she looks like your mother, always ready to tote out a kuih.
You’re being overly sentimental, you tell yourself, as she offers a list of places to eat in Sunway, a good shop to stop by for kolo mee.
It’s at least 15 minutes away, and you don’t have a car so it’s further by foot, but you thank her anyway.
(Somewhere under your stacks of lecture notes there are to-do lists marked with “Get a RapidKL card”, but somehow you never muster the heart to. It feels too much like – giving in. Accepting that you’re living here, long-term.)
Anyway, it’s just a cool coincidence. She laughs like your mother.
Everything’s a bit starker, noisier in the city.
Cars honking, the siren of a police car, the startling whistle of an airplane above.
Sometimes, while your roommate bustles around the kitchen, pots clanging, you close your eyes and imagine a different kitchen somewhere across the sea, the smell of fragrant rice in the air.
Early mornings before the sun had risen, your mother shook you awake once, sleep clinging to your lashes. You knew those streets so well, the uneven tar of the road to your small school, the familiarity and the warmth of your mother’s packed lunch in your palms.
There was always this stagnant silence, broken only by gravel under your feet, and a crow overhead. Like living in a watercolour world – everything muted and gentle, smoothed over by nostalgic memory.
But there are no silences here without the ever-present backdrop of traffic. Why are the roads never empty in this city?
One day you sit up awake, the sleep shooting out of you immediately in hazy panic. It’s 4:03 in the morning.
You lie down, blinking at the ceiling, and after a brief moment of hesitation you gather your keys, even though it’s a stupid idea, and run down the stairs.
You sit at the gates of your apartment complex and listen to the silence of an empty street. Something in you aches to be back in a dimly-lit living room at 7am, tucking your white school shoes on, complaining about how sleepy you are as your mother rushes you out the front door. “Don’t be late for school!” she’d say.
You stay until the sun peeks above the horizon.
There’s a girl in your class from Penang. It’s not the same – she rants about Hokkien mee (Northern Hokkien mee, she informs you primly, is prawn mee) and the old worn brick buildings – but you smile nonetheless, and warn her away from the one hawker centre everyone calls Cholera Centre.
“Do you have a RapidKL card?” she says. “We should get one together!”
You think about saying no – and then you think about saying yes. Your degree course takes four years, and you can’t imagine spending all four of them sitting miserably alone in your empty flat, the fan pat-pat-pattering away while you pat-pat-patter away your existence.
She smiles at you, all freckles and dimples, and you’re won in an instant. Next thing you know, you’re exchanging numbers and she’s sent you a text: “Next Friday after class, okay! Don’t be late!”
She’s sent a cute emoji after it, an octopus holding up a thumbs up. Your heart feels a little lighter.
You’re having a good day today.
You don’t have 8am class, and you wake up without the beep of an alarm, stretching lazily to the warm sunlight filtering past your curtains. You brew a hot cup of coffee and sip at it slowly, toeing on your slippers as you walk through your flat.
You open your fridge and stare at the contents, something in you singing at the fact that nothing is close to expiry yet (the things that make a college student anxious, you think, are directly proportional to the things they’ve spent grocery money on).
You decide to make extra batches of breakfast for your flatmates. They’re an odd bunch, mostly international students from Indonesia or China, and you haven’t really clicked yet, but scrambled eggs are the best way to anyone’s heart.
Humming a fun tune, you pour portions of eggs onto separate platters, and one by one your flatmates file out of their rooms, patting you on the shoulder in thanks as they grab a plate.
You sit at the table, happy with steaming hot breakfast, and turn on your phone.
It goes beep-beep-beep, and you look at the string of texts and missed calls from your mother – stare at the little green button to call back. You think about pressing it.
It turns out that the food in this big city can actually be pretty great, when you know where to look. You try a chilli pan mee that’s the most satisfying meal you’ve had since you landed, and there’s a char kuey teow a local hawker tops with gooey egg and fresh prawns that leaves you in happy tears.
You’re at lunch with a small group of friends, including the girl from Penang (Ren-tze, she insists, with a hyphen), jostling at your side about a club she’s just joined and how fun it is.
Sitting comfortably amongst a bunch of excited friends, you think about maybe joining too.
It turns out that friends spawn friends, like a strange, exponential graph. Mostly, Ren-tze ropes people into having lunch with promises of the best food she’s Googled from local food blogs – but it’s nice, you think, to have people to talk to about your latest crisis or complain to about that one compulsory ethics class.
Your lecturer asks you stay back after class, and she gives you back the rubric for your latest assignment – a simple little program you’d coded to give different nuggets of advice for anxious students. There’s a few ticks, and on the top she’s written in red a big A with a couple of stars.
“You’ve been doing really well in class lately!” she says with a big smile, and you remember that two months ago you’d thought she looked like your mother. You can still see why.
“I noticed you were really quiet beginning of the year, but you’ve really been growing out of your shell,” she says. “I’m proud of you.”
You nod through most of it and offer meek thanks in typical Introverted Asian fashion, but when you walk out of the classroom you feel tears prick at your eyes.
You have been doing well – not just academically. Doing well at liking your neat little kitchen in your flat, at enjoying watching the night lights out your apartment window, at listening to your local friends talk about home-cooked food without a sharp pang.
Somewhere deep and dark and hidden, you’d felt like liking this city would’ve been a selfish betrayal, and that hating it and its food and its people somehow kept your heart true. But it’s okay, you think, to miss home, and also like it here.
In fact, you’ve felt okay a lot lately – with where you are, and who you’ve become. And growing like a weed in your traitorous ribs, you feel the hope that you’re going to continue being okay.
You think about your actual mother, clucking her tongue at you every time she sees you, saying that you’ve lost weight and pushing more food onto you. Tearful fights, and tearful reconciliations, face burrowed in her apron as she muttered about how stupid you were to cry. Freshly-cooked chicken porridge, and the wrinkled hands that made it on hot afternoons.
You slide your phone out of your pocket and stare at the blank screen, finger hovering.
“Hi ma. I know, I know – I’m sorry. I miss you.”