The start of the summer holidays was an iridescent glow of cold showers and hot rain. I was on my way to Boarding school in Autumn — I just had to pick one first.
So the next thing I know I am out in my father’s reconditioned BMW, wanting to take out my girlfriend to a burger joint, one I can only assume, was reminiscent of one in Los Angeles. If I am not mistaken there is a nostalgia joint called In ‘N Out Burger, but I can never be sure. Neither I nor my girlfriend had ever been out of our district in Kuala Lumpur.
Reconditioned cars were a big thing in Malaysia, every middle-income family owned one, usually a Mercedes Benz, but my father liked BMWs`. In fact, I had an uncle who dealt in used cars, on which he had always insisted that money could only be made in outsourcing for spare parts. And that’s right, you guessed it, mostly for second-hand Mercedes Benz from Post World War II Colonial Malaya. I hear it was a nice time then — romantic.
So I take my girlfriend out to a Burger Joint, one with Sixties nostalgia, plastered against the wall, I motion for a conversation as I begin to bite down on my House Special. My girlfriend likes to talk about POP Art and some guy named Andy Warhol, “Who the hell is Andy Warhol?”
She begins an angry tirade about how I never listen to her. As if it could anymore cliché. But, what really amuses me is what she says next. She begins to tell me that I am crass and uncultured and that though I have good taste, I am still some crude and obtuse. I was supposed to pick up on her gesture for a conversation.
“Wait, didn’t I start this discussion?”
“Could you please allow me to finish?”
So that is exactly her point. I have a habit of doing that — painting myself into a corner and then handing her the right to verbally abuse me in as verbose a fashion as possible. It makes her feel smart, and though we have never talked about it, I figured that to be true anyway. Who knew?
“So, who the hell is Andy Warhol?” I motion to dismiss.
“Just like you to make fun of me like that.”
I mean who doesn’t know Andy Warhol, right? Since she did mention art, I figured him to be a painter of some kind. So we finish our lunch and reacquaint ourselves with the finer things in life. By visiting the local art exhibition, I figure we were doing just that.
Our relationship was just like that, always the ups and the downs. Neither one of us really cared, just as long as there were places to go and people to see. Debra always told me that people were different and that she liked to believe in the right to express such a desire for exploration. Then begins another harangue about the subtleties of free travel. I was going to break up with her within the year, but I wasn’t going to tell her — not just yet anyway.
When I get home later that evening, I look up the works of the aforementioned Andy Warhol to find that I am right. He is a painter, of some kind, and his work seems to span some comparison to the “Pop Art” decor of the restaurant we had just frequented. I guess I had it wrong.
I don’t know what it is about him, not from reading the bio did I understand that he was just a fame monger. Famous for the sake of being famous. I kept reciting the Biography over and over in my mind, making sure to simply acquire the essentials of his reportage. I wanted to know something about him, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I guess, I was looking for a quick way in and a quick way out, something that said, “It’s been a long time since I have heard that line aka expression.”
“What is fame for the sake of fame?”
I guess just some guy who made it as an artist by being himself. Could I really call him a fame monger, then?
I spend the rest of the week shuffling between light workouts at the gym and beer-guzzling, maintaining a trim figure and pasty skin in the process. I had another date but this time Debra and I were going to hit an under Twenty-One Club in Subang Jaya. One night only and for the sake of alcohol-free fun. I looked forward to it with a heavy heart and a steady hand.
The next thing I know I am at a friend’s get-together and we are shuffling cards till the wee hours of the morning. We play hand after hand of big two, with petty cash exchanging hands, as quickly as we chug away at imported whiskey. There is hardly anyone with the upper hand when it comes to playing cards or blackjack, in some cases, `cause we are all card counters. Petty, trivial card counters with very little going for us on the casino level. The game we have is fun, none-the-less.
We shuffle to-and-fro between playing Big Two and Blackjack, where nothing more than RM100 is ever won on any hand. If you had an RM1,500 buy-in, you are always more than welcome to play. No one walks home with more than enough funds to purchase a pair of Nike basketball shoes. Makes for poor economics when you think about it. I mean, where is the profit, where is the hustle?
It’s about 3 am and most of us are getting drained, wishing that we had spent the night with our better halves, instead. So, we pack it up and file away the four decks of cards we play with.
I get into my father’s car and head straight home. Tonight I am the victor and make it a point to buy my girlfriend a little something.
I munch on some instant noodles before I climb into bed and wake up the next morning without a hangover. As far as I understand, most people in Malaysia do not get hangovers. We are a crass, cultureless society of animals, according to Debra.
I wake at roughly 9 am and head straight to the shopping mall. USA reminds me of Malaysia, though I have never been. I think, it has to do with the landscape of their cinematic universe — pardon me, for the use of the term cinematic universe, I like American Comic Books and American Movies — but politically I am always reminded of the Commonwealth. But, somehow despite it all, I still believe we are of an egalitarian community, where crime is low and the income of the average person is somewhere between rich and poor.
I am starting to venture out into the city more and more, and I find the landscape of my mind to be expanding. I am not sure if I like it. The truth is, if I was to compare the Malaysia I know to a country like Germany, we would not nearly be as wealthy. But, I am, of course, negating the EU and what effects that may have on the backdrop of the UK, Europe, and the rest of it. I hope to major in economics when I attend Boarding School, but as of now, I feel kind of inadequate.
I walk into a Borders Book Store and make my way to the Arts Section. There are three books on Andy Warhol; a Hardcover about his life and work; a paperback about his life and the films that have been made in his honour; and fame on fame — so, I pick that one up and decide that it is what would excite my girlfriend most.
There is also a very general book on the philosophy of high culture and art. They seem to go hand in hand so I pick both up and head straight to the counter. A nice gift, I would think.
My mom is kind of old-fashioned so when I get home I tell her about the books I just bought for Debra. She mentions marriage and that I should proposition her. She gives me one of her wedding rings — Ruby and Diamond Couture. It’s quaint, like most of everything in Penang, where my mother got married.
I meet up with Debra, for dinner, sometime in the weeks to follow, where I was to proposition her, based on my mother’s advice. It was just as I mentioned it did I think to myself, “Knowing my mother wouldn’t she only ask this of me, because she caught us having sex once… on her bed no less.
I go through with it anyway, and when the deed was finally done, Debra mentions that there should be some kind of engagement present. I tell her I have just the thing, pay for the meal and drive her home to be introduced formally to my mother.
My mother isn’t home so I hand her the books I bought for her and receive a tight slap right across the left side of my cheek.
“OW! What was that for?”
“When you figure it out, you let me know!”
I never called her back, but now I am stuck with two books on the life and times of Andy Warhol, and still don’t know who he is supposed to be. The Philosophy on High Culture, I guess I could read. Besides, it has more than enough quip-pro-quo to live my life by.
Did I mention we were not going to get married anymore?
The next day I tell my mother what happened between Debra and me. She tells me it is because I am being a sissy and that you don’t take girls out on the town, bed them and then ask them to marry you. It simply isn’t acceptable. I still can’t figure why, but decide that it will be of good conscience to make a time in my life to pick up smoking. The only thing to ever think about, it seems, is women, courtship, and all that huff guff.
So the next thing I know, my mother of whom likes to be called Madame Goh, reassures me that there are plenty more fish in the sea. The ones in Penang are nice, very concerning, and always eager to please. So we pack our bags and find our way to the airport within the next three days. That is my father, my mother, and myself.
My sister wants no part to do with helping me with the ladies, suddenly it hit me. There are different types of girls out there. ‘Nuff said, really. But, let’s elaborate. I guess, in my confused state I would classify them in several orders, first the girls from the ladies to the women. Now that takes us into a whole new world of elitism, but again, maybe I am missing the point.
Little Jen, but really bigger sister Jen, chauffeurs the car, with us inside, to the airport. There we queue and wait for our turn at the ticket counter as if it were a supermarket. I guess I am still a little confused. It is just then that I begin to draw upon my western influences and derive several theories about man as an animal complex. I guess, I never really read the theory of evolution by such and such, but the idea of such a thing is always floating around in the air. Still, I could look at the Zodiac, juxtapose that with the lunar calendar and wonder enough about the whole subject, and put it to rest.
“This is taking too long!” I said.
My mother then tells me not to make a fuss and that the line shortens as quickly as my interest in women. And here I am again thinking of the most, for the lack of a better word, obtuse comment to respond to her most condescending remark. I on the other hand take pride in my ability to stay silent. It gets tiring though.
So I start to wonder about the things I might think when I finally get to University, though I am not yet even at my a` levels. So here it is. I finally tell myself, being that I am a subordinate, I will be able to repeat without prose, my mother, being a woman herself, just exclaimed, in fewer words than I like to mention, that women are a classification of species all too different from the male variety. I think I know this now, but still, I seldom conclude.
The flight to Penang will take a total of 35 minutes in the air, but flights and travel in general always take longer than that.
We de-board and head to an aunties house, one of my father’s ex-girlfriends, of whom he still supports, and has now be regarded as part of the family, to put us up for the next two weeks. She is a nice lady, at her age, hardly condescending, but I guess that is the nature of folk in Penang. I figure this time it would not be about sex but about learning to live with the opposite sex.
We find ourselves by an old colonial home cum shop lot in a quiet corner by the beachfront, and having one of their local delicacies, Char Kuey Teow. It’s delicious.
It was at this point I started to believe that no matter what it is I choose to do in the world, I will never be able to justify the spending and the monetary threshold that my parents would have to break through just to pay for my tuition. At least, for the most part, it would be a great experience or at least, justified over the course of long life and pension.
My penchant for economics really does stem from that.
Cover image by Paweł Czerwiński on Unsplash
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