I still remember the first time I met her.
It happened right here at Norsiah’s Kitchen, Melbourne’s most popular Malaysian restaurant located close to my university. On that autumn night in 2010, at this restaurant, I was supposed to meet a girl who came to Melbourne with her workmates for a short visit. As I lived only a couple of blocks away and it would only take a few minutes for me to get here, there was no way I could say No Thank You and be further condemned as an anti-social PhD smartass.
While I was walking towards this restaurant, I was nervous just thinking of the prospect of having a “blind-date” that night (not that I had been looking for one in the recent years). I mean, meeting someone that I only knew through the random friendship in Facebook could yet be another classic case of flirting with danger. She could be an imposter pretending to be a girl! Haha… But wait, I remembered that that she had mentioned earlier through a private message in the Facebook that she had been reading my blog and, so, what could possibly be the harm? After all, it had always been my policy to welcome anyone to be my friends in Facebook. If I get lucky, I could meet a multimillionaire heiress of a huge empire! Haha (not that I had been looking for one, either)
My calculation and imagination were cut short by the loud noises coming from the restaurant. As I was approaching the happy crowd sitting casually outside of the restaurant, I could slightly hear their conversations, talking and laughing as if they knew what I had been thinking. The cold air did not prevent these people from having fun as if life was a grand party. It was, however, still early in the evening and the restaurant, well known for its dirt cheap prices, was packed with students and locals alike who simply loved the contagious curry that Makcik Norsiah specially made everyday.
As I entered the restaurant, I could see her sitting down behind a joined table among what seemed to be a serious bunch of people. It was indeed difficult to recognize someone that you had corresponded only virtually. Apparently, she was not a much-dreaded 100-pound girl as many blind-date non-believers would have predicted, but she definitely looked different in a real world. Tucked in a long, oversized brown jacket, she looked like Inspector Gadget’s sister who was ready to unleash her next fancy gadget and save the world. Although she did not fit in every imagination that I had secretly developed, she definitely looked sweeter than I had thought.
After a round of handshakes with other smiling gentlemen around the table, I looked at her and said, “Hi, Ciked.” At that time, I only knew her as Ciked, the name only years later that I managed to know the real meaning and pronunciation (it came from “Cikedis Udang”, a type of junk food, and pronounced as Chi Curt, not Chi Cat). But even without knowing the right semantics and phonetics, I knew right away that Ciked was a perfect name; it somehow rhymed with Cekmi.
For a moment, the whole room at Norsiah’s Kitchen fell silent as we exchanged our first greeting. She looked at me in the eye and said, “Hi, Cekmi.” The words sent a chill up my spine, as if it was a calling from Heaven. I could sense the glares from other people around me who might think that I had just fallen in love with the girl whom I had just met, kinda love at first sight. But they were so wrong – our love grew later at many sights. It was only years later that I could finally see how lucky I was that night to have met such an amazing girl dressed in an Inspector Gadget suit, sitting among wonderful people, eating great food at the gorgeous Norsiah’s Kitchen, enjoying a glorious autumn night, savoring the beautiful city of Melbourne.
That’s how I first met Nurul.
Her name is Nurul. Petite and tiny like a button, people can hardly tell whether she is a child pretending to be a strong lady or vice versa. She is in fact a thirty-four-year-old woman, married and expecting her first child. She is a counselor who has spent many years treating problematic university students. She is a confident, independent superhero who reads the psyche of human beings around her, like that smart mind-gamer in The Mentalist. Her background is also worthy of a good research – born in Pahang, raised in Terengganu, grown up in Kelantan, studied psychology in Kuala Lumpur, worked in Kedah – she is a true dialectician who can easily switch into many Malay dialects, local or standard.
But most of the time, she prefers to be known as a simple girl from Terengganu. Surrounded by lovely beaches and great seafood, it is an irony that she is allergic to seafood. She is, nevertheless, a big fan of Keropok Lekor, a tasty “fish sausage” specially made in Terengganu. Just ask her about the best Keropok Lekor in town and she is ready for detailed reports. Being an avid animal lover, she is also super-sensitive to sights and sounds of cute animals around her – cats, birds, ducks, and even goats. Her favorites are Salem and Shamito, two spoilt cats who always crave for her sweet angelic voice calling their cute names “Lemmmm… Mitooooo…”
Anyway, her friends were told that she first met her husband overseas, although no one knew how they actually knew each other. Nurul has always said that she had followed her husband’s blog some time prior to their fateful meeting. Later, through the wonders of Facebook, they were finally united. But again, she has never explained how they actually started liking each other. Love is a many splendored thing, isn’t it?
Well, they got married the following year in a modest yet meaningful ceremony. Various conspiracy theories were put forward regarding their “hasty” marriage but none of which were beyond the bounds of possibilities given that, during their solemnization, there were no signs of aggression or bloodshed. As the story goes, Nurul took a one-year leave from her employer to follow her husband overseas. For many months to come, the world was their oyster. Through good and bad times, they lived happily together before circumstances changed that forced them to be away from each other.
In the weeks before their gloomy farewell, the couple had celebrated their first wedding anniversary in a romantic lake house, travelled to many wonderful places, and did so many crazy things as many other crazy couples would normally have done. Nurul had been an amazing companion who would do her everything to protect the love of her life. Alas, she is now alone in Malaysia without her significant half. But, of course, she will definitely thrive on this challenge.
Because she is Nurul, thirty-four years old, the proud holder of Master of Science in Counseling and the honored winner of Excellent Service Award, and married.
It started with mild pain, as if a tiny ant bit my left ankle. Soon it became excruciatingly painful, as though a tiny shark bit my whole left foot. When I had to crawl my way to the toilet, I became more confused. What’s happening? I didn’t remember having a tragic accident or a clumsy fall out of bed. It made no sense at all. Well, my left foot was once fractured 16 years ago, but I didn’t think it just came back again out of blue. Dismissing all the X-files theories in my mind, I thought it was probably because I had been “lazy” these days, sitting down in front of my MacBook the whole day and writing up a painstaking thesis that my body couldn’t take it anymore.
When I called Ummi, she said it could be a symptom of “nnyetok”, a Kelantanse term for body pain due to inactivity which causes nerve injuries and blockage of blood flow. As much as I was fascinated with Ummi’s diagnosis, I would love to hear it from a scientific point of view. So, after much struggle (and forcing a kind friend to carry me like a little baby), I saw a medical doctor, did a blood test and ran an X-ray. When the results came out, the doctor said that everything was okay and there was no sign of broken bones. The only thing that looked “suspicious” was the level of uric acid – it was slightly elevated. When asked what the hell that was, she said that I might be experiencing a classic case of one of the oldest disorders known to human race – Gout.
I digested the information as if getting gout was the most natural thing to happen to me at my current age. I informed the doctor that my big brother was also having a similar experience a few years before, to which she replied that gout does appear to be hereditary. When she said that it is more common in men especially between the ages of 30 and 60, I felt someone had just hit my face and shouted out loud: “You’re getting older, Hilmi!!!”
Feeling ever more confused, I got out of the clinic later, bought some prescribed medicine and rented some over-used crutches. Within a couple of hours, the drugs did its wonders and the pain was gone – I could stand up and walk again like nothing ever happened. It’s hard to believe that the drama started and ended so quickly. It was like a “midnight sneak preview” of what it was like losing control of something I always take for granted, of greater tragedies and sufferings out there that I couldn’t possibly imagine.
There is of course a possibility for the return of gout attack, but until then, I would not forget this “touch-and-go” experience. After all, I have just joined the list of some well-known gout victims like Alexander the Great, Michelangelo, Martin Luther, Isaac Newton and Benjamin Franklin. So high five, guys! haha
As for the crutches, I was only forced to use them for one day, but the impact they had on me would definitely last for a lifetime. I actually “enjoyed” using these crutches because they made me feel so “alive” (not that I was looking forward to using them again.)
No, people. I’m not sharing this story because I look cute with crutches. I’m sharing this story because it’s a reminder of how fragile life could be. So love your life ‘coz I love mine!
I think I have found the key to heaven. Culinary heaven.
When Nurul was down with morning sickness and couldn’t even stand the slightest smell of garlic, I took over the kitchen and started cooking (again!). It was so awkward being back in the department that I had long abandoned since Nurul “invaded” this space a few months before. Now that I was listening hard to her step-by-step instructions on how to slice those shallots and hold that wok and stir-fry that Char Kuey Teow, I felt like I was being transported to the old boarding school where I always hated those son-of-a-bitch seniors who made me walk like a duck every night after prep. But then, as soon as I put the cooked dish on a plate and saw something more familiar to my eyes, all the depressed feelings were gone and replaced with renewed joy, like I was looking at an old photograph and longing to go back to a time when everything was so perfect … so joyful … so yummy.
But hey, don’t worry. The sky is certainly not falling when a foolish amateur like me works his ass off in the kitchen. After a few painful attempts to produce simple dishes like maggi goreng (fried maggi) or sayur air (water-based vegetable soup) or singgang daging Kelantan (Kelantanese sour soup beef), I began to see the big picture and, oh boy, I think I finally got it.
“Whoa, this is marvelous!” I said while licking my proud, self-made food as though I had just won the inventive challenge in MasterChef Australia.
“It’s not that difficult, is it?” said Nurul.
“Not at all.”
“You know what?”
“All you need is practice.”
Nurul was right. I think I have found a way to cook – simply hit the kitchen and produce a disaster! I mean, all I need to know about cooking is visualizing and seeing it by myself, not being told by some fat stranger in a dry cookbook. I’m sorry, I just hate it when I have to follow certain recipes in a book or a website. For me, the instruction is way too technical, too trivial, too difficult. But, of course, the root of my poor culinary state is not written in any cookbook. It’s already written in my childhood.
Yes, when it comes to foods, I have always been a spoilt brat who is only interested in the results, not the process. Being brought up in a family with a girls-cook-and-boys-eat environment, I have almost come to believe that I can always get anything I want to eat without having to cook at all. So, asking someone like me to follow a recipe from a cookbook is like asking a tough bodybuilder to ballet dance. See what I mean?
FREE FOODS FOR THOUGHTS
Now that I have seen the big picture (or thought that I had seen one), I can finally sit down in a “classroom” and reflect on what I have done (or damaged). Here I am in Melbourne, learning stuff all over again at 35, like a kid who never grows up. As I recall the drama that I have been through in the kitchen, I begin to appreciate another exciting world that has long existed but has been kept hidden from me (sounds like the Chronicles of Narnia, huh?). And as I write down the learnt recipe in my personally-tailored cookbook (Cekmi’s Gourmet! haha), I think of the ambitious chefs who have found their passion in culinary arts and fine cuisines, of the book publishers who have made a fortune out of top food writers, of the TV producers who have earned a million out of food programs, of all the dedicated mothers around the world who have shed tears and cooked their hearts out for their beloved husbands and children. But most of all, I think of my own late mother who fed me so well and made me who I am.
When I think of all these, I thank God for teaching me another great lesson. I just need my own space and have someone there to assist me. This inductive, instead of deductive, strategy seems to work just fine for me. It’s more or less like doing a PhD with my supervisor as a loyal guide. But, seriously, I don’t need a PhD to learn how to cook. What I need to do is always there before me to be discovered. All I need to do is learning by doing it, not thinking about doing it. And I think could do almost anything that I want to do if I dare enough to go ahead and do it.
Now that I am holding the secret key, I’m ready for the next challenge. I don’t know yet what’s going to happen, but the door is already open. It does look exciting from here. I could smell the good food.
This year would be the last chance for me to experience the full cycle of seasons in Melbourne. So the moment autumn poked her bright face, I grabbed every single opportunity to be connected with this glorious Mother Nature showing up at every corner in the city. Being able to watch the transformation of colours and shapes of this natural heaven always gave me that aaah feeling I badly needed. I thought then that I had had enough of autumn in Melbourne, until that day when I secretly entered into the deep wood on Mount Dandenong.
It was so foggy and wet on Mount Dandenong that morning. This 633-metre tall mountain looked like a fairy-tale labyrinth filled with all sorts of cute characters. Located only 35 km east of Melbourne city, I took the earliest train from Flinders Station, got off at Belgrave station and hopped on a bus to Sherbrooke Road. From this point on, I was left alone with nature and was transported to a different world filled with magic. I could hardly name these mesmerizing creatures since I was not a trained botanist, but I was certain they all shared the same name – Angelina Jolie.
Each time I saw these sexy and beautiful autumn leaves falling and seducing me like showers of gold, I felt like I was being reborn again. So abundant under my feet, I suddenly felt a pang of guilt for admiring their beautiful death. How pitiful. There was no one cheering and acknowledging their graceful falls. Aren’t they supposed to be treated with dignity like human souls? Angelina Jolie might agree with me, right?
My heart stopped when I finally arrived at the Alfred Nicholas Memorial Gardens. For a moment, I thought I had just seen a copy of paradise. Honestly, this was the most gorgeous foliage of season I had ever seen in my life. The dream-like kaleidoscope of silhouettes and contours made me feel as though I were part of an artist’s impression in a delicate painting. Things seemed to be eternal here. I was mesmerized beyond songs and poetry. Even Angelina Jolie couldn’t compete with this beauty. Sorry, babe.
So it’s true, the existence of this world is simply a guarantee that there exists a world that is perfect. I’m drowning.
I was back in Melbourne that morning feeling overwhelmed over what I had gone through in Shanghai. Waiting for Skybus at the Melbourne airport, things looked kind of a fantasy to me. I was not sure which world was real then – Melbourne or Shanghai? My whole perspective about universe had apparently been turned upside down, as though I had been duped the whole time in Melbourne, thinking that this was the only right way of living, while in many parts of the world, things were running just as well according to their own rules and systems.
As I saw the 297-meter-high Eureka Tower emerging right out of the clouds of my senses, I began to unpack the different layers of Shanghai and recall the order of events and collect my thoughts scattered in many places. Besides being robbed by a gang of local Chinese men, there were also some other things in Shanghai that I wouldn’t forget.
THE HOLLYWOOD OF PROSODY
The moment I arrived in Shanghai, I didn’t feel excited at all. I mean, I had been to Hong Kong the previous year, so why would I expect things to be different in Shanghai? I was, however, very curious about the 6th International Conference on Speech Prosody 2012 because this was my first time attending a conference with such a broader theme than phonetics per se. Here is the number – 372 researchers from more than 30 countries participated in this conference. But again, after listening to a keynote speech and a few oral sessions on the first day, I started to wonder why I decided to join this event in the first place. When I was becoming more interested in the delicate patterns of grand chandeliers hung majestically in the grand ballroom of the Grand Central Hotel Shanghai, I knew that I could be at a wrong place. Maybe Speech Prosody was not my thing.
Outside the ballroom, many posters on Speech Prosody were being presented by excited participants, mostly PhD students like me. I walked past their carefully-crafted posters and, after nodding once and twice and pretending to listen, I walked away immediately. Many times, I couldn’t help eavesdropping interesting small talks among younger participants who seemed to be desperate in building up a network, like a naive star waiting to grab for the next chance available to reach the ladder into the Hollywood of Prosody. The standard flow of conversations normally went like these: Hey, are you presenting as well? What is your research all about? Wait a minute… were you in Hong Kong last year? Which hotel are you staying now? Do you like the food here? Are you joining the tour this Saturday? Gee, that was a boring talk, wasn’t it? Stuff like that.
Sometimes, I wondered whether these participants would hook up with each other after the conference. The way the intellectual discourse flowed and the way they licked their coffee cups somehow led me into thinking that somebody would be dragged into someone else’s hotel room that night. In any case, all of them seemed to be genuinely passionate about their research and about building a mega empire of scholarship and friendship. Thanks to these seductive people, my first day of the conference was not all that dreary.
MY POSTER MOMENT
The second day was nonetheless getting a little better. I woke up as early as 5 o’clock in the morning, feeling fresher and more energized and more optimistic about the world. There was an aura of bliss and peace in my hotel room that I began to wonder whether I was floating in the Seventh Heaven. Heaven or Hell, I would have to come back to earth to present my poster that day at 11 o’clock, which was a bit nerve-cracking since I had never done a poster presentation in my whole life.
A poster tube on my shoulder, I walked out of the Seventh Heaven Hotel with slight nervousness for new experiences waiting for me in just a couple of hours. The conference venue was only a few minutes’ walk from my hotel, so I took my own sweet time walking along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, China’s premier shopping street. A wide pedestrian space was laying before me, which was in complete contrast to the suffocating downtown in Hong Kong. There were many traditional stores, specialty shops and upscale stores lining up both sides of the street: Tiffany, Mont Blanc, Dunhill. You name it.
From afar, I heard some traditional Chinese music lingering vaguely on the air, as though the emperor of the Xin Dynasty from the 9th century was sending a secret message to me: “Fighting!” Saying thank you to the kind Majesty, I then walked past some street musicians who were showing off their lively art at this world’s longest shopping street. Some old men and women were practising what looked like tai chi moves. They were so absorbed in their meditations that I began to envy their spiritual convictions. The sky was gloomy but I felt the clear rhythm and perfect harmony. I said my silent prayers.
I arrived at the conference venue later with some bright-eyed girls waiting so eagerly to serve me. For one thing, I truly admired the spirit and helpfulness of these volunteers who were all students from Tongji University, the main organizer of the event. For another thing, these people were also freaking organized and ready to demonstrate their newly polished communication skills at any given moment of crisis.
“I’m one of the poster presenters this afternoon,” I said to one of them, pointing to my poster tube.
“Oh, yes, yes, yes… Come this way!” said a cute girl with fancy glasses, grinning and giggling as if she had just met a Hong Kong celebrity. Before I knew it, they were clamoring over my poster as though it was the best candy in the world. Within a few minutes, I was all ready and set with my colourful, eye-catching, bling-bling poster.
For the next two hours, I spoke non-stop to many brainy strangers with big names who seemed to be all thrilled with my research project. Not that I was the most articulate person on earth nor I was the most interesting person in the conference, but things beautifully fell into place like magic. For many, it was an excellent presentation with an exceptional delivery. For me, it was a task that I had to conduct so as not to make the organizer wonder where the hell the presenter was missing. It was a nice experience and I did what I was supposed to do. Nothing less and nothing more.
LOST IN TIANZIFANG
Before long, I was “kidnapped” by Chia-Hsin, one of the conference participants, to an exotic part of Shanghai called Tianzifang. He insisted that I should celebrate the success of my poster presentation by exploring an art street and by getting charmed into a real Shanghainese atmosphere, not by getting brainwashed with the cold presentation of a hard-to-please professor in the Grand Central Hotel Shanghai ballroom. I couldn’t agree more.
“I felt like a criminal now!” I said while we walked to the nearest subway station in People’s Square.
“Why?” he asked.
“I should be at the conference now, not sneaking around with you!”
“Do you really want to go back now?”
“NOOOOOO!!!” I said with laughter I couldn’t even understand.
Chia-Hsin walked with such childishness and radiance that I had never seen before in a human being. At 32, this Taiwanese guy looked so much younger than his real age with his stylish round-framed glasses, a complex flowery shirt, rolled-up jeans, and a sling bag with a designer label. Although this was his first time in Shanghai, he looked too confident as if he had been in this part of the city before. I met him the other day after his excellent oral presentation on Hakka. Currently completing his PhD at the University of Michigan, he was at the beginning of a promising career in his life.
“Don’t you love this place, Hilmi?” he said in the middle of our exploration in Tianzifang.
“Yeah, I so do,” I said, feeling the vibrancies of romantic cafes, creative craft shops, lively studios and luxurious boutiques all around me.
This place was simply mesmerizing. Located in the French Concession area of Shanghai, it is indeed a popular tourist destination. The whole neighbourhood was filled with labyrinths of narrow alleyways consisting of endless stream of shops and stores and treasures. Fully captivated, I just wanted to keep walking and be drowned with the maze-like structure of the buildings standing so close to each other. I could clearly observe the old Shanghai lifestyle through all kinds of Shinkumen architecture. Everything here was in fact built with no organization at all, which perhaps made it look so mysterious and inviting. After a few minutes, I would bump into the same tricky lanes leading to another confusing lane that, after some time, I couldn’t be bothered about getting lost anymore. I was completely lost by the loss itself. Thanks to Chia-Hsin, the carefree afternoon spent in Tianzifang turned out to be one of the finest getaways in my life.
VENICE OF THE EAST
The final day of the conference ended with an elaborate banquet dinner and a wonderful cruise along Pujiang River. While I appreciated all of these standard, overrated Shanghai experiences, they were all too touristy and too expected. The next day, however, having nothing better to do, I joined a tour group to Suzhou, a city dubbed as the Venice of the East.
As I sat quietly on a bus for nearly two hours, I saw the locals riding cute motorbikes and bicycles on dedicated bike lanes. There was hardly anyone bold enough to put on their helmets, as if wearing one was a thing of the past, some ancient behavior that existed only in a history book. Most of the streets I saw were lining up with maple trees, which were unimpressively and boringly green. I wondered why the conference wasn’t scheduled during autumn, the season when I could witness the glorious colours of these maple trees.
The tour in Suzhou started in Panmen Gate, the oldest city gate of Suzhou and the only existing water and land gate in China. My eyes were fixed on many scenic spots, like the old Ruiguang Pagoda. While admiring this 2500-year-old gate town, I was kept busy by my loyal companions that day: Nassima, an Algerian girl studying at the Universite Aix-Marseille, France; and Timo, a German guy studying at the University of Cologne. While Nassima was all excited over everything she saw at the splendid Wumen Gate Bridge and the beautiful Grand Canal, Timo was all cheeky and crazy and loved making fun of other people.
“Too many people!” Timo would say with a mocking Mandarin English accent he acquired during the conference, saying people with pee-paw.
“Welcome to our big hall!” I would play along with a similar local accent, making hall sound like whore.
We would laugh over our linguistic jokes, while Nassima said something in English which sounded very much like French. She, too, had problems switching between English and French. For her, as long as French words were “anglicised” and produced like English words, things should be fine. Timo, on the other hand, spoke with a very strong American accent. His ‘r’ colouring was annoying that I had to stop him in the middle of a conversation whenever he said because with becouRse or visa with visaR. In any case, these linguistic phonemena should warrant further research in language transfer and prosody. Who knows?
During the tour, I also got to know Kalu, a conference participant from Nigeria. Being the only black in the group (and perhaps in the entire Shanghai!), he had been thrown in the spotlight at every nook and corner of the city. People on the street would just stare directly at him with no slightest pretension at all as if he were the prettiest creature on earth. I couldn’t help laughing when a local girl stood next to him all of a sudden and took pictures without even asking for his permission, like he was some kind of an inanimate statue. Fortunately, he was such a sport who would smile at the locals’ deep curiosity over a different type of human skin. I was lucky since no one would take me seriously to be one of the aliens. Hey, just like in Hong Kong, I passed easily again as one of the locals. Shieh shieh.
The second destination of the tour was the Humble Administrator’s Garden, the best representation of Chinese classical gardens of the Ming Dynasty. This UNESCO World Heritage Site was breathtakingly beautiful. Holding tight my Sony camera among the endless stream of visitors, I would snap at whatever images and objects that came before me: quaint pavilions, nostalgic bridges, enchanting ponds, tiny islands, old trees, great lawns, dreamlike scenes of a fairy land. It had been a pleasant and humbling afternoon, until the whole touring experience became unbearable with tourists pouring in from every direction. A nice stroll by the lake now turned into a nasty wrestling competition when one tour group bumped into one another. The classical garden, which was supposed to be admired for its serenity and stillness, had become a place filled with grumpy visitors who kept pushing their way through a narrow exit.
After the pleasure-turned-pressure tour, I was back into the hustle and bustle of Shanghai city. I returned to my hotel and freshened up. It was still early in the evening and so I decided to get out and see what’s left of the day. Walking along the Nanjing Road Pedestrian Street, I realized that I was alone on the street without any friends from the conference. But, hey, this is good, I thought. I could finally experience and define Shanghai in my own terms. But again, I had no idea what sort of danger waiting for me here. Because it was on this particular evening that I was robbed.
Like many other typical nights in this street, I had already seen people approaching me with all sorts of offers, from tea ceremonies to massage services and many other interesting invitations. I had already heard that one of my friends was recently scammed and was forced to pay a certain amount of money. But, I wanted to see more than those “hearsays”. I convinced myself that I would not be convinced enough until I experienced it myself. So curious, I accepted a tea-ceremony invitation from a stranger on the street.
“Come this way,” he said, leading me to a place that looked like a karaoke bar.
“I will just look around and leave, right?” I asked.
“Yes, no need to pay anything. Just see,” said the friendly man with a smile that reminded me of the crook in Dennis The Menace.
I was taken to a cozy place filled with sweet aroma and soothing music. Sitting comfortably in a sofa, I was served with an assortment of tea and fruits. I had a sip of tea with hard-to-name flavour and waited calmly for a drama to unfold. A middle-aged lady sitting next to me was talking in an over-friendly manner, asking about my original Swatch watch, about my student life in Melbourne, and about which hotel that I was currently staying. But I kept all the details to myself and trying to play safe while giving the hints that I was not really interested in their so-called tea ceremony. Half an hour passed and I said that I wanted to leave. Just when I wanted to get up and thought the game was over, the music suddenly stopped and the friendly ambience suddenly turned into a kind of a crime scene in CSI. Three muscular men entered the room and looked super ready to cut me into pieces.
“This is the bill,” one of them said, showing a ridiculous bill amounting to RMB9988 (equivalent to RM4972.90 or AUD1623.40).
“No, I’m not interested in your service,” I said.
“Then who’s going to pay for all of these?” he said, pointing to the tea cups and fruits on the table. I stayed composed for a few seconds and tried to be reasonable. I saw no point of being panicked or arguing since I could be physically harmed by these strong men at any time or, worst still, sold into the black market in different body parts.
“Okay, okay,” I said calmly. “Take all my money. This is all I’ve got.” I showed them RMB300 in my wallet.
“No, we don’t want your cash, give me your credit cards,” he said.
I gave them my Malaysian credit cards, which were certainly going to be declined since those cards were already reaching their limits. When they came back with disappointment, I gave them my Australian debit master card and, to my surprise delight, it was successful. Standing close to me, they forced me to sign a transaction and write the word AGREE on another document. I waited for the next dramatic scene to appear, but they let me out a few minutes later. Walking back into my hotel, I felt like I had just walked into someone else’s dream. But I could still taste the sweet tea in my mouth, feel the hidden fear inside me, and curse myself for the stupid game. Still, I was relieved that I could recognize myself in one piece that night. It was not until the next morning that it finally dawned to me that I had just been electronically mugged.
SHANGHAI’S LAST PILGRIMAGE
I woke up feeling so exhausted, as if all the energy had been drained out of me completely. Still thinking about my utter ignorance and costly curiosity, I called the bank in Australia and cancelled the card. I also called my mum afterwards for familiar comfort, though I wouldn’t tell her what had happened to me. I felt a sudden pang of loneliness and a desperate urge to fly back to my home country at any cost. Then I remembered my promise to Timo – I was supposed to meet him that morning to accompany him for what he called the “Last Pilgrimage”. I didn’t feel like doing a bare-footed pilgrimage after getting robbed, of course, but, as they said, there was no use crying over spilt milk. I told myself that I had to move on. Maybe a pilgrimage would do a good thing for my soul repairing, so to speak.
Pulling all my strength together, I met Timo and tried to distract myself from what happened. Timo was surprisingly supportive, despite his “American” meanness and all that. He told me not to worry, since that was always the way with traveling. I felt like smacking his face on the street, but then I wanted to smack mine when I knew that he was damn right. He was only 25 years old, but I admired his easygoingness, straightforwardness and uncomplicatedness. Maybe that’s the way with the European upbringings – simply venture the possibilities of the world and make do with their sweet and bitter results. No wonder he won the best student paper award at the conference.
So off Timo and I went into the clean and naked streets of Shanghai with no local guides. Most of the time, I was just walking blindly while Timo navigated the exploration with his Lonely Planet travel guide. We walked past myriads of sights and smell and colours: beautiful urban gardens filled with old couples singing and dancing in merriment; backstreets filled with local women enjoying the cool early summer afternoon; old towns filled old architecture, temples, foods and souvenirs. It was a thrill to just have a quick preview, a “touch ‘n go” sort of experience over people’s everyday livings and immediately leave the scenes as they were. Being able to have a taste of everything in Shanghai backstreet alleys was simply amazing.
If there was one thing that I could nominate as Shanghainese national favorite pastime, it would be spitting. As far as my 7-day limited experience was concerned, I couldn’t help to notice that people were spitting casually on the street as if it was the most natural thing to do on earth. Timo and I tried to imitate this spitting activity, but we were too polite to even accumulate the ample amount of green mucus in our throats.
Occasionally, we stopped by at a local store, trying to buy something and using a sign language at our best to bargain for the right price. We ended up, however, not buying anything since that was not our primary target – we just wanted to have fun without getting too monetarily involved. But too late, we were also almost victimized by these greedy, sneaky, scamful people.
“Gosh, they were so brilliant!” said Timo after we were almost tricked into believing that there was indeed a genuine “tea festival”. Three fake tourists from China had just approached us and pretended to be interested in tea tasting. The moment I realized that they took us to a private store, I sensed the danger right away and pulled Timo out of the scene. It was another well-planned scam to rip off tourists’ money.
“Yes, they are a master of trickery!” I said. “Would you believe that this has just happened to me last night?”
“Sneaky people!” said Timo with his trademark humour of pee-paw.
TOP OF THE WORLD
We ended our “Last Pilgrimage” at one of the best places in the world – the Observatory Deck on the Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s highest observatory. We came an hour early before the sunset, so we waited patiently for the night to fall. Standing tall at 474 meters above the ground, I saw a glittering world slowly appearing around me – The Bund sparkling horizontally before me, the Oriental Pearl Tower sprinkling its neon lights on my right, Jin Mao Tower standing proudly right in front of me.
I stood here for a long time, thinking of all the events that had dragged me up until that point. And I was thinking, I should no longer fear for the unknown if I was capable of achieving what I wanted. No matter what happened, at the end of the day, I was the one who would finally decide how high I wanted to stand up.
I woke up that night feeling overwhelmed with a lot of sweet sounds around me. Looking at Park Street through my bedroom window, things seemed to be locked in an eerie, unfounded, once-upon-a-time fairyland. From a far distance, Melbourne’s city skyline was showing off its neon lights and Aussie charms. Then, I began to listen to everything around me: cockatoos singing on the swaying trees, leaves falling on the accepting earth, neighbours snoring on the comforting pillows. It was an exercise of the enthusiastic ears, learned easily by children and forgotten naturally by adults. I had previously communicated and received mysterious responses from these things, but something was telling me that tonight would be extra special.
The air suddenly felt chilly. I could clearly hear the wind hissing through the slight opening of my bedroom window, sending some cold winter air into my tiny apartment. Nights were getting longer and icier. But at least, I didn’t wake up feeling lonelier now. The panic button appeared to be missing somewhere that it was hard to recall how it used to look like. Mr Loneliness must be lonely out there.
Close to me now, the melodic sound of Nurul’s sleep warmed my heart. She was breathing peacefully in her faraway dream. She must be talking to Alice in the Wonderland, sharing the breaking news of her nasi lemak business in Melbourne. I hope Alice would send some miracles to our mortal world, but who would have thought that this could have actually happened? While I was still trying to comprehend this latest joke in my life, a few packs of nasi lemak were sold that day. And I could hear the voice of Mother Victory saying confidently to me: “Listen to your heart, my dear. Remember, fans who lack the faith can make a team lose a game it is already winning.”
I was not sure whether Mother Victory was talking about nasi lemak or about the Olympic Games in London. Before I could ask anything, she vanished into the air like fairy Godmother. I heard another tender voice coming from a corner of my bedroom. “Welcome to our happy world,” she said. Aha, it was Ms Joy from the Happy Universe. I looked at her and wondered how on earth she had arrived in my life. She must have beaten up Mr Loneliness with her sexy legs and wicked smiles.
I was still thinking of Ms Joy when my apartment was suddenly filled with a lot of strange figures. I couldn’t clearly see their faces since it was a bit dark, but it was getting noisier, as if there was some sort of a birthday party going on. They were all talking simultaneously to each other in what seemed to be an ancient language. I thought I was dreaming, but they sounded so real. The next thing I knew, I went into a kind of trance that frightened me, but I wanted to continue the game until I was tired of it.
“We are all gathered here tonight to wish you the best of lucks for your presentation soon in Shanghai,” said one of them with the loveliest voice I had ever heard. I thanked them for their cordial words and asked them where they came from. But they kept talking so excitedly like they had never talked before.
“Hey, Hilmi. Congratulations for submitting another paper to an international conference in Sydney!” said a middle-aged woman who sounded almost like my supervisor. I told her, while I appreciated her kind gestures, she seriously needed to leave since it was getting so late at night. The office hours had certainly ended and I was sure it was already past midnight. What would my neighbours think of me tomorrow?
Few minutes later, the party of sweet voices grew even louder and louder. I felt dizzy with imagination and fantasies. I tried to segregate the sounds, layer and by layer, and struggled to comprehend what they were really saying.
“I’m having a baby soon!” said a bubbly woman who sounded just like Pilah. I smiled and tried to imagine how Pilah must have looked like now – a six-month pregnant lady!
“Ayoh must be the happiest of all. He would be expecting three grandkids this year – what a productive year!” said a man in what looked like a white kopiah. Just when I wanted to ask who he was, I heard a girl said, “Congratulations on your graduation, Hisham Hamzah!” Oh, I remembered that my cute little brother had just graduated and joined the Wall of Graduation in our living room in Binjal. Way to go, Hamzah clans!
Suddenly, everyone was quiet. A slim-looking man with funny spiky hairstyle entered the room with elegance and style. He might be one of the famous members of One Direction. Beaming proudly, he said: “Hey, look at me. Ain’t I gorgeous? I’m 53 kilograms now!” Haha, that must be my own body talking. What a joke.
“You look happier now, Cekmi,” said a nice lady in tudung next to me. She came with her two naughty boys who had been running wildly around the apartment. She could be one of my dear blogsahabats. How I missed their good company and warmth.
“Thank you all for coming tonight,” I said. “I know I have been too occupied with my down-under world in Melbourne, but you guys are always within my circle of happiness and joy. My day has been good, so let night fall.”
I stayed awake for a long time and tried to entertain the unexpected guests that night. The dawn must be nearly breaking when the party was over. I went back to my bed, feeling thrilled with what I had just experienced. Mystical or not, I certainly had had one of the best nights in my life.
While I pressed my head on the pillow, I felt the slight puff in my ears. Someone was whispering and I could practically smell the familiar perfume of the distant past. She said: “Get some sleep, my dear. You have accomplished a lot of things tonight. Be good, okay?” It was my late mother.
I finally said my prayers and thanked all the sweet sounds for their surprise visit. They were the Sounds of the Moment, accumulated from my past and my future, reminding me of how wonderful life had been, and would always be.