Tom and Jerry
I agree to go on a road trip with Sis to KL just to shop at IKEA, the only one in the country. The idea itself is too absurd, and that is why I agreed. It is only Day 3, and I am off travelling again, this time on the North-South Highway, the backbone of peninsula Malaysia that takes you all the way from southern Thailand to tiny Singapore. We leave Mum and Dad alone at home to their own devices. We are 20 minutes early, so Sis and I sit on the curb and talk about Mum and Dad. “They’re like Tom and Jerry,” she begins. “One minute they love each other, the other minute they’re on each other’s nerves.” That is sad, but it is also funny. From now on, Dad is referred to as Tom and Mum is Jerry.
The flying bus
The bus arrives and it’s an Aeroline. Sis has booked online in advance and paid RM110 (£20) for two single journeys on this executive coach that thinks it’s an airline. The tagline says ‘Aeroline – the convenient way to fly.’ Fly? On the road? I think it’s pretentious, but I love it love it love it. See for yourself.
‘Ladies and gentleman, we will be departing shortly from Penang to 1 Utama Kuala Lumpur on fleet WMV 6681. The journey will take approximately 5 hours. Please do not hesitate to contact the cabin crew for any assistance.’
I am sitting in the bus with executives. One man is discussing commercial helicopters and speculation prices on his mobile. Aeroline is the expat-friendly English-speaking mode of transport, whose coach will not be raided for illegal immigrants. The ‘cabin crew’ attendant comes round with blankets and headphones. Channel 1 offers classical music, Channel 2 Chinese pop and Channel 3 lounge à la Café del Mar. Channel 5 is the movie on the flat screen TV. The careful attendant considers every passenger’s meal times. He comes round to see if Sis and I want our food now. Chicken or vegetarian has been pre-booked online.
Halal char siu (roast ‘pork’) rice, made from chicken meat
It’s 10 am. The bus is so shaky I can hardly eat my chicken rice. The man next to me watches me wrestle with my char siu. I am thinking if Malaysians really eat this for breakfast. I’ve seen Tom have hokkien mee for breakfast at home, but that hardly translates to family culture because he was the only one. My colleagues in the past have bought me a packet of nasi lemak for breakfast. It is rice with chilli sauce, fried peanuts, fried anchovies, a hard-boiled egg and a few slices of cucumber. I was the eager and amiable summer intern, so I ate it at the office table like they did. I don’t think it’s fair to work your digestive system so hard in the morning.
Coffee, tea and milo is served. The movie Ink Heart is playing, a wholesome family adventure film with wholesome actors like Brendan Fraser and Paul Bettany. I am not interested, so I try and get as much sun as I can from the window seat. Sis is in the seat in front of me, cowering away behind the curtains. Suffice to say she sleeps in a sub-zero air-conditioned room at home, in almost 90% darkness. I am not yet getting the equivalent of three days’ sunshine in Malaysia. I am ferried from air-conditioned vehicle to air-conditioned building, and back again. I need to find a way to discretely tan in my back garden.
Tanning from my window seat; a landscape of the Malaysian highway
Sis and I move to a double seat in front because we love each other so much we have to be together all the time. “Why do you have to go everywhere together?” Aunt N once asked. “You’re like a herd of cows.” She is referring to when all four sisters were in Manchester last summer, holding hands everywhere we went and going to the toilets together. But.. but.. we protested. Our teachers in primary school told us to go to toilets in pairs! No, it’s actually because we haven’t seen each other in years. But no, Aunt N is clear she hates public displays of affection, sisters or not. More so, Aunt N hates dependency and clinginess. She is an independent career woman in London, one of the busiest and most competitive cities in the world.
Sis gets a headache, so I get the window seat. But still she does not allow me to draw the curtains because the sun is making her head hurt. Whatever, I pull them open as soon as she takes her grandfather nap.
We get to 1-Utama in KL and it’s materialistic utopia. 1-Utama puts Trafford Centre in Manchester and the Bullring in Birmingham to shame. Christmas is here, and there is a grand display in the foyer, one of three grand foyers. Everyone is taking photos, and so am I. I can be Asian and kawaii (cute) once more.
The foyer of 1-Utama shopping complex in KL
But this concrete jungle of materialism does not make me happy. I tag along while Sis looks at reduced Coach bags, and I am bored. I am more interested in the people than the things they are selling me. The models on store fronts are white, and they look like none of the shoppers. Paris Hilton, Charlize Theron, Audrey Tautou. I am thinking, what are they selling me? A piece of clothing or an identity?
Servant to the Sis
Later, Sis and I shop at IKEA, the purpose we are here in KL. The trip is becoming terribly testing. I’m manning the trolley, and converting feet and inches to centimetres for Sis’s rather inconsistent measurements. I feel tested. I am subject to her whims and fancies, her bossiness and her irritability. Is this what it means to be a servant? If anyone wants to be first, he must be the very last, and the servant of all. (Mark 9:35)