When I was thirteen I decided I wanted to die at 30. Back then 30 seemed so terrifyingly old, so incomprehensibly far away; I also thought it would encourage me towards a life better lived. I told this to a friend some years later, still only half-jesting, and she said, well, we’d better hang out more then. We’ve only got twelve more years left.
Ten years later I’m now 23, having arrived at that number a little over a month ago. Suddenly 30 is now too strangely young for death, and just beyond the horizon of seven more years 30 is a reminder of how I viewed my own existence then: a curious mix of flippancy and fear, and a vague sense of hope that all this angst and misery would fade away once the right words fell into place.
In many ways this has not changed, though the intense unhappiness I used to know so intimately surfaces only occasionally these days. These days it is easier to feel anchored to the world knowing – as in, being absolutely certain – that I am not as alone as often as I think. Instant messaging helps in that regard, being my sole lifeline to friends scattered around the globe. These days I am on my phone half the day feverishly type-talking to them, hoping that we can be secure in each other against months and years.
So yes, I have Officially Left London. I threw my grad hat to the wind and left with few regrets and shorter hair, but a heavier heart still longing for the shadows in Highgate Wood at twilight. So it is that I am back where I grew up in Petaling Jaya.* This house is overflowing with things that don’t feel like mine – books from a former life, drawers stuffed with relics belonging to a younger self. I have no wardrobe space to call my own, so home still means living out of a suitcase.
Nevertheless, the bones of this house feel as familiar as ever, and I am slowly settling back into suburbia. For our first lunch back we ate at Choon Yien, a kind of chicken rice ritual that marks each homecoming. It tasted like it usually does: the breast meat tough and overcooked (which is often the case with roast chicken anyway) but the thighs tender and salty-slick with soy sauce, with a sprightly lime-garlic-chilli sauce on the side to perk up the rice and meat. I didn’t know I was starving until my grease-stained plate suddenly faded into view. All this for two plus a bowl of spicy-sour braised greens for just over a fiver. However excellent Chinese food might be in London, it never tastes quite as good when you’re paying almost ten quid for the same plate of food.
Still, it’s clear that I’ve been away too long. A request for two portions of gai bei fan (drumstick/thigh rice) was met with a terse no, we don’t do that. Well, then. If I had ordered we would have gotten it, says Mum. I’m a regular here. A reminder that I’m the stranger round these parts now.
Little has changed in the past year, but the most mundane details of suburbia are receding into the foreground this time. How have I never noticed before the red and gold chengyu stickers on the walls and cupboards of Chinese eateries? White fluorescent light tubes everywhere, the same plastic chairs in varying shades of faded. Dust and gravel from building works, walls peeling paint. Brick walls dampened by rain and moss. Billboards with missing lightbulbs, and the tables for hawker stalls that spill out halfway across the road in SS2. Joe tells me that this sense of urban decay is why he likes PJ. Most of all, there are Malaysian accents everywhere I go, truncating English words and shortening sentences down to the essentials.
I’ve become quite jaded about KL, S. types. Maybe it is a matter of days before the curiosity and newness fades from these London-fresh eyes. I am still asking questions: why is there so much development that seems to go nowhere? Why do people double park? Why is local coffee so sweet? After months of bitter brews the sweetness of iced kopi-o kau (black coffee, no sugar) came as a surprise, and I learned that beans are roasted with sugar in the local style, which caramelises them and compensates for the bitterness. These things I have never known because I was always looking outwards, and rarely ever inwards from the outside.
Maybe soon I will succumb and sigh, donno la. Like that la, and I will begin to notice the grime on the tiles and the sideway glances when I forget how to parse my order in Malay. Before that happens I’ll inhale twelve bowls of noodles, slurp hot soup on sunny mornings. Roti canai flooded with curry, the banana leaf wiped clean with our fingers. The smorgasboard that is zhap fan. Deep-fried crullers at the roadside washed down with soy milk. All this as we talk about the stall we’re going to hit up next for naan and dal. Until I pack up and hit the road in a few weeks, this is what I’m back for. Might be as good as it’s going to get.
*Not KL, as I usually tell non-Malaysians to avoid lengthy explanations.