Ten years ago, I left Malaysia for a two-year stint in the UK to further my studies.
Ten years on, I am again starting a two-year stint in a foreign country, this time for work.
But funnily enough, 10 years on, my baby brother is about to undertake his own adventure in the UK, having earned his stripes to complete the second and third year of his undergraduate degree at Nottingham University.
Earlier this year, when I applied for this overseas job, I wondered if things weren’t happening in a 10-year cycle for a reason. I felt confident that I would get the job and that it was time again for me to leave the country as I did in 1996.
Was it a coincidence that although I had switched jobs four times since I got back and started working, the opportunity to work abroad never came up, only to fall into my lap at this particular time? I was barely a year into my new job then - a good one where I was making enough for a comfortable lifestyle; I had a car, a rental condo in Pantai Hillpark, enough money to go diving or holiday every few months. It was a good job, but it was just time to move on and up. I felt it in my bones.
And now, as the 10-year cycle goes, baby bro is all grown up, and moving into a world where he will stand on his own two feet, rise or fall on his own account, learn more about the world and his place in the whole scheme of things. No Dad to call to pick him up during college holidays, no (step) Mum to cook him dinner and call him down from his hours in front of the computer downloading “stuff” (it’s alright, I know he loves his Manga and all that Japanese cartoon stuff, as does my elder sis).
We were never close. Mum died when he was just four (I was 15), which marked the beginning of a life apart for me. That year, the last family vacation was around my birthday, when we met up with Mum who had a working trip in Terengganu. They were staying at the Primula Hotel on Batu Buruk beach. I rode a horse on my own on the beach. Baby bro doesn’t remember this. And he doesn’t remember our mother.
There is a picture of the family taken in March of that year, probably the last we took before she died. It was her birthday, and she was opening her present with us sitting posed around her (as normal family pictures are composed). I’ll post the picture some day, I don’t have it now with me. There are also some pictures of me holding baby bro, but not many, as I was never really maternal and never really got on with him. If he notices a scar on his forehead at the edge of his hairline, it was probably when I was rough with him and he hit his head at the edge of the stairs (*grin* sorry, baby bro).
The last family celebration was probably my elder sister’s birthday in September. Then Mum died in October. The family took a vacation in December of that year. Dad, sis, bro and I went to Penang, then a bit later took a cousin and a young uncle to Cameron Highlands to use up Mum’s holiday time-share scheme. I don’t remember much, except for memory flashes when I look at the photos. The wind in my hair on the Penang ferry, walking on the grounds of Strawberry Park in Cameron Highlands, splashing about at the waterfall.
Some time in the first quarter of the next year, I went to boarding school. Dad remarried that August. Suffice to say, I never got on well with Step-mum, and never really went home. I didn’t get parental support, emotionally or financially, and I learnt to be independent.
And when I left for the UK 10 years ago, I didn’t feel like the parents were particularly proud that this stubborn obstinate spitfire rebel of a girl had managed to do particularly well for herself but were just basking in the bragging rights that “my daughter is going overseas to study”, something my elder sis had denied them. And when I returned without a degree (something to do with the rebel without a cause), their bragging rights were taken away for eight years until now. Of course, I doubt he sees it that way.
We hold different ideals.
Baby bro grew up with the only mother he remembers, and left behind the one he forgot. He grew up with the two sisters Dad and Step-mum later adopted, and hardly spoke to the two sisters who had left him behind. What was there to say, right? Our memories were different from his, our thoughts ran on separate tracks; ours where our father had failed us, his where Dad was a constant presence. Ours where our Mum had gone, his where mother was still around. Where was the middle ground? The rift was always there between us.
But as baby bro is about to spread his wings much farther afield than ever before, in a world where such differing memories matter none, I offer him my sisterly advice:
- Bring a good coat, the first chill of Autumn as you arrive at the airport can catch you unawares. It might be exciting to feel the cold wind, but being sick in the first week of your new life is no fun at all.
- Take the credit card they’re offering but don’t spend foolishly.
- A small rice cooker is a useful tool for cooking almost anything from plain rice to soup, broth, nasi ayam and nasi kandar (once you get the recipe).
- A whole chicken cuts up into about 14 medium-sized pieces and can feed you for a week (you don’t need a chopper either, a good pair of “kitchen” scissors can work wonders to cut up chicken bones).
- Buy in bulk if you are sure you can finish off the produce before it expires, especially fresh milk and bread. Vegetables and stuff are very cheap. Be smart when buying but don’t skimp on food just to save a few bob. Eat well.
- Study hard during term time, take a proper break when the holidays come. It was the other way round for me – I hated going to class and tried to crash-study before exams…it never works.
- Hang around other Malaysian students to alleviate missing home, but open your eyes and mind to other faces, other races. It’s so exciting to be in the middle of the melting pot that is university. I’ve maintained longer friendships with foreigners I was hanging with than with Malaysian uni mates.
- Enjoy your first snowfall - go out and make a snowman, even if the snow is the wrong kind. Lay on the ground and make snow angels. Find a bin liner, a small slope and go sledding, no matter what other people say. Throw snowballs.
- Travel - the farthest you can go, the most you can see. Join a club where you can go somewhere every weekend (for me it was rock climbing – absolutely marvellous!), save money for longer holidays. Visit friends at universities in other towns and cities. Go to London to see the Queen. Go to Europe. Backpack. Take a bus. Go slow, don’t rush. Take pictures, take it all in, take time to see the world. Student passes are the most wonderful thing since sliced bread. Buy me souvenirs *grin*. Would you believe that I bought you presents during my travels? I bought you an eraser in Paris (you were then aged 12, I think, and had a liking for erasers), but I never had the chance to give it to you. I kept it in the little paper bag it was wrapped in, in a box of keepsakes, until this year, when I finally gave it to charity.
- Get a job for the holidays if you can (but make it legal). Better still if you can mix work with pleasure. I worked at a hotel on Gurnsey Island, where we did the breakfast shift and housekeeping till noon, then had the afternoon off, to come back at 6pm for the dinner shift. Days were spent lounging about, going to town or at the beach. One of the guests at the hotel was an army officer once stationed in “Malaya”. He still remembered Malay words, and a snippet of an old song that I had hardly ever heard.
- And finally: study smart, get your degree but don’t stress. I came back without one and felt disadvantaged for a bit (lower pay in a certificate-oriented Malaysia), but it won’t necessarily get you that far. Your experiences, your skill and your strengths will get you further if you know how to use them. Make your own luck. Enjoy yourself.
So my baby bro is about to go and slay the world…I say let the world beware.
And I hope, 10 years from now, baby bro will look back at this time of his life and say:
“I didn’t miss a thing.”