I should have known better.
Yeah that’s what has been chiming in my head the past few days when this certain realisation hit me. A year later after it happened no less too for that matter. Ah, God works in mysterious ways indeed.
While I was moving around Europe, I stumbled upon an interesting pattern. One I love repeating the story to others but never actually connecting the dots. It all started when I was in Shephard’s Bush, London. We were walking back from Jamie’s Italian for an early dinner (you’re best at reserving a table in advance) and I came across a Ukrainian who pointed out about my cheeks which had red streaks due to the dry weather and issues with blood vessels. While on normal terms, I wouldn’t be so open to trying new things, for some reason I just felt like I should. I knew Dead Sea and Himalayan Salt are very good for sensitive skin but never got around to use any.
His name was Mario. I remember because of my favourite childhood video game. Upon knowing I’m a Malaysian, he instantly spoke to me in Bahasa Malaysia. Delightfully at that. In my head, I was amused, speechless and dumbfounded because..well I’m thousands of miles away from Malaysia and here I am having conversation with a stranger who has never been to Malaysia in Malay.
If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he has good PR skills. Which is partially true too.
But then again, given how London is, someone’s bound to pick up Malay as a language because this city is filled with them anyway. It kinda sorta made sense to me .. I guess. Still, of all languages in the world, I had to get to know people who speak it. The main reason why Mario learned to speak Malay is because many of his clients are from Malaysia. It made the connection easier for him and in many ways, I admire his courage to learn something new and willing to improve himself.
Again, of all languages. I can understand if it were French, Italian, Mandarin or Spanish but I’ve not met anyone who isn’t living in Malaysia willingly learn Bahasa Malaysia as their third, fourth .. language.
A while later, as we were making our way across The Millennium Bridge to the Big Ben, someone asked me if I could take a picture of him with the background. Once I did it and we exchanged a few words, one more person spoke to me in Malay when “from Malaysia” came out of my mouth. This time, he was from Lithuania (I think). It was a short conversation, a brisk one but it got me thinking, what are the odds that I get to meet these people? ME of all people.
Let’s back track a little here in case you have no clue why I’m making a big deal out of this. For decades, I’m known to be that kid who has no affinity with Malaysia. Heck, the first place I felt like I belonged somewhere was Jakarta on my first visit (and then subsequently Haarlem and Roma). I’m also that kid who had planned to migrate to Italy and make a life there. The idea was to make my way to RUFA.
It also has a lot to do with how easy I feel to just be me and engage with strangers along the streets in Europe.
Of course, that didn’t happen but that feeling of being an outcast still throb in my heart but slower as of late.
Anyway, I didn’t think much of bumping into foreigners who has never been to Malaysia speaking Malay although the joy they show when speaking the language made me feel like we in Malaysia might miss something, that spark that makes it special. Or maybe it’s just me. I could somewhat relate to that feeling when I get to speak (rusty) Italian with people but I never viewed (what is supposedly) my Mother Tongue as part of that euphoric experience. We tend to take things we have for granted right? So that was me with my birthplace. I suppose, no matter where I go, I can’t escape from my root. No matter how badly I wanted.
Which reminded me of one time when I was in Jakarta, at my favourite music shop in Plaza Salina. While going through the cds I plan to bring back (ended up with a dozen), two Indonesian kids were at the counter asking for Siti Nurhaliza’s albums. At that moment, I was like “Of all times and places!”. To those who doesn’t know, Siti Nurhazila is one of Malaysian’s biggest artists, especially in the late 90’s and 00’s.
So you see, God has a wicked sense of humour when it comes to things I try very hard to remove myself from.
Then, while we were waiting for Guilia, my childhood pen pal who I was very lucky to meet for the first time a day before she moved to London, we dropped by Hard Rock Cafe Roma to kill time. There were some demonstration happening down the street so we thought, might as well take cover till it settles down for a bit.
As I was about to pay for my t-shirt at the counter, I greeted him the typical way any Italians would.
“Ciao! Di dove sei?” he asked while giving me this unsure look. Got me wondering if I had pronounced something wrongly (chances are I might given how long I’ve not put it to practice).
“Io sono di Malaysia..” I was a little bit hesitant to say since I wasn’t sure if he would know where it is. Oh how wrong I was.
“Oh! Malaysia! Kamu apa khabar?” All bouncy and happy in perfect Malay intonation mind you. Trying to wreck my brain deciphering his accent, as I would think it’s sorta normal if it has some Indonesian influence but nada. Zilch.
For the longest seconds ever, I didn’t manage to answer him. At all. Suddenly my brain just shut down and turn into mush. Of course, the fact that he looks like an Italian version of James McAvoy didn’t help make me feel any better.
I was awestruck by the fact that he’s cute (hello James MacAvoy long lost twin!) AND speaks perfect Malay which made me look more like a fool. Blergh. Way to go Dian!
“Hello?” Reality finally hit me, blankly staring at him while he titled his head, giving me this adorable look like he didn’t believe I’m a Malaysian. Yeah, what a dweeb I am right?
“…..err khabar baik..”
He was so not buying it. He said it himself. “Are you sure you’re from Malaysia? How come it took you a while to answer?” smarty-pants wearing the lopsided smirk didn’t make this surreal conversation any easier for me.
I couldn’t tell him that I was lost for words because of him. So I said what came to mind,
“Been away from Malaysia for a quite a bit”.
Yeah right, it was only four weeks since I left. We both broke out in laughter soon after and continued talking about our different cultures, what got him to learn my language and his with me. It was like looking at your reflection, just a different version of you.
That I found him very cute when he was counting numbers in Malay made my day even more endearing. Ah Italians, they just know how to charm you without even trying. Totally forgot to take a photo of him was something I regret a little bit. Just a little.
So what was Francesco’s reason? Bahasa Malaysia/Malay is the easiest to learn because it’s similar to speaking in Italian, you spell the way you pronounce it. I never really thought of it that way until then. Never really got myself to see it from another perspective about my country, the language that I never think too highly of. That’s also probably something many of us don’t get to see too, not because we don’t want to but perhaps too jaded by the current affairs and the on goings of Malaysia to see the beauty that lies behind being a Malaysian.
I find it strange, so strange that the past few entries has been about me finding my identity in Malaysia. Finding my place and voice in the country I’ve lived all my life. And maybe that’s a good thing, that things are happening the way it is because I always believed that in order to appreciate something you have, you have to learn to see it for what it is and what you can do to make it better.
So about me wanting to remove myself as far away from Malaysia is slowly diminishing (for now) because I feel like I have a task to do here, a purpose He’s given me, even if I can only make one person’s life a difference in Malaysia, that would be enough for me.
I’m still going to travel wherever I want to but I use that to see how I can contribute back to this place that needs a lot of like-minded people to hang on. Hang on to any good faith you can find deep inside and do our best to be the change we yearn to see.
And in this case, being crazy might just be the antidote to our conundrum.