Thursday, August 4, 2011

True Swamp

I like True Blood because it feels like home. I grew up in a swamp. This parliamentary area just outside Kuantan is called Paya Besar, which literally means big swamp.

I was a bit of a sissy, growing up. The kids would be outside, killing snakes and birds for the night's supper, and I'd be at home, watching TV and reading books.

There wasn't much in terms of entertainment, back then. Electricity was 12 hours a day. TV3 was broadcast in 1986, when TNB - back then LLN - finally gave us 24-hours electricity.

Books were a large part of my entertainment. I didn't read a lot, because in two years after I learned how to read, when I was six, I pretty much read everything in my father's collection.

He had around a few hundred books, most of them encyclopedias for kids. Most of his stuff were from the '60s.

From an early age, my siblings and I realised that we needed to get out of the swamp. Only things you can grow up to be in that swamp was a teacher, a clerk, a sales assistant or a junkie.

My father used to counsel junkies. I used to follow him around, in the evenings before dusk, meeting thin young guys who shacked up by the river. Sometimes they'd stay at my dead aunt's place.

He got some of them jobs. One kicked the habit. I don't know what happened to the rest.

My father never told me, "Don't do drugs." Or "Don't smoke."

All he ever said was, "Do anything you want. But use your own money."

It was not a privileged childhood. I realise now that we were poor. Not extremely poor, but we had to do without a lot of stuff. My father used to buy chicken necks and fry them. Not because he loved chicken necks, but because they're cheap.

I took him out shopping a few years back, and I bought wings, drumsticks and breasts. His face looked so scandalised. The price difference was about 20-40 cents per 100gm.

Rent for a house in the village starts at RM50. Per month. Now, it's getting more expensive. A new highway was built and I heard that most of the malls and supermarkets, hypermarkets, etc were brought in by the royal family, to help develop Kuantan.

Teluk Chempedak used to be the dirtiest beach ever. Now, it's very clean. There's an international school in Kuantan and we also have areas where the rich live.

Again, it was not an easy childhood.

My siblings and I, we all left home when we were 12, and in a sense, none of us ever came back.

Half of the family are teachers, so education is very important. Some of us - not me - used to study until we were told to go to sleep.

I didn't have a bedtime and I watched TV till there was no programming. When TV3 did their 24-hour TV, I watched till 4am, on schooldays.

There was no Astro. No PS3. No Xbox. I borrowed a Super Jamiko - a Nintendo knock-off - once and played for 12 hours straight.

Back in the swamp, though, my grades never fell. My weakest subject was composition. I hated essays. Math was easy. English was basic. In our household, we made sure we could do stuff a few years in advance. I started learning to read when I was four. Mastered it when I was six, and that was considered a bit slow.

Getting As was not a thing to celebrate. It was expected.

I'm the last child, so I was spared a few of the things my older siblings had to do. Desperate for money, the family sold fruits, vegetables and kuihs. I used to follow my mother around as she peddled kuihs. My sisters used to sell guava to other kids. My brother, when he was very young, had to herd cattle.

The land that we own, stuff grew big on them. They grew big, and they grew healthy. Name any tropical fruit, and we have them, or had them. When my father planted morning glory (kangkong), the leaves grew so big, they looked like yam leaves.

I remember there was a rose guava tree (jambu mawar) the fruit of which smells like roses. The tree died years ago.

We used to rear ducks, chickens, quails and even fresh water fish.

My mother didn't like selling stuff. The people in the village - some of them - were mean. Maybe because all of us were poor, but my family always had more stuff. Not because we took UMNO money, but because my father is a frugal man.

In 1991, he decided to build a new house on our land.

He bought wood from a nearby sawmill, marble tiles from Kuantan Quarry, ordered doors from a place in a godforsaken part of Kuantan and gave most of the contract to his Chinese relatives.

He saved a lot on the house. Today, if you want to build the same house, you'd have to spend five times as much. Maybe more.

I've had my differences with my parents. I spent most of my 20s trying to reconcile those issues. Way I see it, my father was an emotionless automaton and my mother was very manipulative. But that's what parents are, I guess.

There are some values I upheld to this day, though. Working hard is one of them. We take pride in the fact that we are still the hardest working people in the swamp.

When I was younger, I had to do shit like water corn and sell them by the roadside. I ran a stall in the dry market during Ramadan. We did a lot of home improvement and maintenance ourselves.

We're not rich people. We never were. We're barbarians.

Nowadays, when I go back, I just want us all to relax. I think we've worked enough. So much so, that the only drama left was what to eat and how to cook stuff.

I think about my nephews and I believe they are lacking a lot of skills that came to us naturally. They don't need to read, cause they have PS3 and XBox. I don't know what will happen to them. Not my kids. And yelling at them would do no good either.

One day, I'll just be another old man in the swamp, planting trees that would outlive me.