I shouldn’t have felt nervous that day when she told me she was in town. But my heart beat uncontrollably when I saw her text.
‘Let’s meet up,’ she said.
‘I’ll only be free tomorrow.’
‘Where. That kopitiam we used to go.’
I hadn’t been there in a long time. The ban mien used to be good. Is it still?
Either way, I didn’t miss it.
‘Alright. Let’s meet at two.’
I should have said no. I wasn’t the type to make plans one day before. But I made an exception because it was her.
One, two, three… four. We hadn’t met in four years.
‘Do you think there is a place in Malaysia for people like us?’ I asked her one day when we were in uni.
I was two bites into my lunch. I don’t remember what I was eating but it must have been something cheap. With a part-time job paying me RM300 a month, I really didn’t have much choice.
She paused. ‘Maybe one day, but not now.’
My heart sank.
By my third year of uni, I had become disillusioned with my future. Did I really want to be an engineer? None of my seniors seemed happy with their jobs. I felt… demotivated.
Two thousand and ten minus two thousand and seventeen. Seven years. (Don’t ask me why but I tend to do calculations backwards).
Seven years had passed since that day. Two thousand and ten was the year when the iPad first became popular in my uni. I was one of the few people who used it in class. Now, almost every student in a uni in Malaysia uses a phone or tablet to record notes or check on facts on their phones or tablets.
Now, almost every student in a uni in Malaysia uses a phone or tablet to record notes or check on facts on their phones or tablets.
Malaysia has changed in a big way now. Now, there really is a place for people like us.
I put a reminder on my phone to see her the next day. That was the easy part.
Now, I had to decide: What would I say to her? It had been too long.
Just a year before her graduation, she told me, ‘I’m going to learn German so I can join a university in Germany.’
The universities in Germany were free for everyone, but hard to get into – you needed to have at least a B1 in German. So she had to work very hard from Malaysia to learn German.
I asked her if I could learn too. I never dreamed of going to Germany but it seemed interesting. The next week we started our skype calls together.
‘Guten tag,’ I tried my German in the first call, ‘Is that how it’s pronounced?’
No, it wasn’t, she said.
‘It would be useful,’ she said, ‘if you could listen to German news every day. It trains your ears to get used to how the words are pronounced by native speakers.’
Despite the effort, I never mastered German. I never could master a language without being forced to speak it to people.
Unfortunate, but true.
I spoke no other language than my native dialect Foochow and broken English up to the age of twelve.
Twelve and twenty-four were the ages I picked up the languages that I should have picked up in primary school: Mandarin and Bahasa Malaysia (or Bahasa Melayu in Brunei).
Since I couldn’t force anyone into speaking German to me every day, my German never improved past Guten Tag.
‘I’m enrolled!’ she told me one day. We hadn’t talked in months but I was excited for her.
She told me about the university and how it was near to a lot of beer breweries. Mmmm, beer, she exclaimed. She loved beer.
A few months after that call, she left for Germany.
At first, we talked every other week. Then, every other month. Finally, she stopped answering all my texts and calls. Her Facebook account, which was already somewhat inactive as it was, died.
Despite the lack of response, I still sent her messages periodically, hoping to find out how she was doing.
‘How are you doing there? Where are you?’
The last time we chatted, she was backpacking in Europe. She had saved up some money from putting herself on an inhumane budget which only allowed her about a dozen packets of instant noodles each week.
‘Hey, how are you?’
‘Hey, are you alright there?’
After sending several of these messages over two years, I decided to stop. Maybe, she wants her own quiet time. She will talk to me when she feels like it.
Maybe, she wants her own quiet time, I thought.
At times I wondered if she was still alive. But she must be, I thought, if not I’d get the news on Facebook already.
About two years of not getting a single response from her, I received a call from an unknown number on my phone while I was working in the office on a week day.
I didn’t answer it. I didn’t like (and still don’t like) answering calls from unknown numbers. Ninety-nine percent of them waste my time with a pitch for an insurance package.
About two hours later, the unknown number texted me.
‘Are you still in Miri?’
What the hell? Who was it? Why would ask me such a question?
‘Who are you?’ I texted back.
I was immediately embarrassed when she mentioned her name. Why hadn’t I got her number on my phone? Strange.
‘Did you change your number?’
‘No. It’s always been this number, since uni.’
I didn’t have the heart to tell her I had resaved her number as ‘Unknown 10 (Don’t Answer)’ on my phone. It wasn’t intentional. I must have lost her number when my old phone died.
That day we met up for an impromptu lunch. I was in my second year as an engineer.
‘How do you feel about it?’
I told her it was an alright job, but I didn’t see myself in it for the long term. ‘Though my mother would want me to do otherwise.’
We laughed. Neither of our Chinese mothers liked hearing about our plans which always left out a full-time job.
She told me she had gotten her diving instructor license. She told me about her plans to open a dive school.
‘Really?’ I was excited by the idea.
I had wanted to get my dive license for the longest time but never really got around to doing it.
‘Let me know when it opens! I’ll definitely get my Open Water license with you,’ I told her.
Two hours was too short for us to catch up on two years of happenings, but that was all we had that day. As we packed up to go, we gave one another a tight hug and I said to her, ‘Please don’t disappear on me again. If you can.’
She only smiled.
Then, the cycle of unanswered messages repeated again.
1.30pm. It was time for me to make my way to see her. Along the about twenty-five minute drive, I kept wondering what to say.
It had been too long. Too many things had changed. Where would I begin?
In between the unanswered messages, I had wanted to tell her about everything that had happened.
About that time when I was heartbroken and wanted to die.
About that time when I went up to Mt Kinabalu.
About that time when I decided to quit my job.
About that time when I decided to change my career path entirely.
About my family.
So many moments I wished I could share with her – moments that brought me one inch at a time to where I was today, a person I was felt she would not be able to recognize.
Four years of drastic changes – where would you begin?
I parked my car and went up to the kopitiam, eyes darting around, trying to find her.
‘Here!’ I heard someone shout. I assumed it must be her.
I was still looking around for the source of that shout when finally I saw her. I waved to her, walked over and sat down next to her.
‘Want to get a drink?’ she asked.
‘Wouldn’t they come over to ask?’
‘I’m not sure. I can go get one for you if you want.’
‘Hm… alright. Can you get me a Teh C?’
She left the table briefly to order my drink for me, returning about two minutes later.
As she was taking her seat, she said, ‘I didn’t know the name of this kopitiam changed.’
I hadn’t been in the area in over a year. Right next to that kopitiam used to a small mobile shop that my mom ran while I was in uni. I used to help my mom out there during the weekends when my assignments were less demanding.
Business was not exciting, but marginally sustainable.
One day, the kopitiam owner decided to shut it down. No more mobile phone shop next to his kopitiam, he said.
He wanted more space for his kopitiam tables and seats.
Despite having many discussion with him, his decision was firm so my mother had no choice but to close it, bearing a loss of over RM20,000.
I remember hating that kopitiam owner for a long time. I didn’t go to that particular kopitiam to eat, even when it was convenient.
I looked around. Everything appeared unchanged except the name – the dingy lights, the faded orange tiles on the floor, the unpainted ceilings were the same. A transfer of ownership? A buyout?
I wondered if the kopitiam owner had to sell the kopitiam. He was a well-known gambler, after all. I shrugged. It didn’t matter much to me anymore what happened to him.
Life had gone on for a long time now since he forced my mom to close the shop.
‘So what are you back for this time?’ I asked her.
‘A friend asked me to help out,’ she said.
She told me about her friend, the event and the nice hostel she was staying in. I didn’t know there were nice hostels here.
‘So, what are you doing now? Are you going back to -?’ Where was she before she came back to Malaysia?
‘New Zealand – no.’
A family emergency had left her wondering if she should spend so much time away from her family, she said.
She had left everything in New Zealand behind and started a new job in nearby Singapore that fit her interest.
It was really exciting to hear what she had been up to after a long pause in updates.
After about thirty minutes of telling me everything I wanted to know, she turned the attention to me and asked, ‘What about you? What are you doing now?’
I felt a tinge of nervousness crawl up my spine. Should I lie?
I knew I didn’t need to lie, but I felt nervous about explaining the changes.
‘I am now in business,’ I told her, finally gathering my courage.
I told her of my goal of growing my business to a certain scale and size.
After I explained everything, she asked me, ‘What is your goal with this?’
This was the moment that I had feared.
As we were getting in and out of adolescence, it had occurred to both of us that life wasn’t about making a lot of money. We had both wanted to pursue a life that was ‘above’ just making a lot of money. We were the type of people who always seemed to volunteer ourselves to a restricted living if only to work in a field that could help a lot of people.
But today, as I sat there talking about business this and business that – it felt like I had betrayed my purpose in life.
On the outside, I had indeed failed. I even seemed and felt a bit hypocritical.
But on the inside, I knew that I had done it for the right purpose. Principally, nothing had changed.
Not answering immediately, I scoured my mind for a few seconds to find the best answer for her.
It wasn’t because I wanted to live large – I didn’t care too much about having the best material things.
It wasn’t because I valued money above everything else – no, I valued relationships more.
‘Freedom,’ I told her.
‘To build a life not confined by money, location or limitations.’
And that was it. Hearing that, her face softened.
Turmoils in my family in the last couple of years had forced me to become more aggressive in some areas. I had grown up to see how problems with money could tear people apart. I did not want to see that repeat in the years that I had remaining on this Earth.
Hearing that, her face softened.
After discussing more what this ‘freedom’ meant and how I had planned to go about achieving it, she said to me, ‘You’ve changed a lot. This – this isn’t something that I recognize.’
I smiled and replied, ‘Yeah, I guess not.’
Four years is three hundred and sixty-five days times four days. After passing more than one thousand days later, I too wish I could stay the same. I didn’t enjoy losing the innocence I once had.
At the back of my mind, I wondered if the changes in me seemed more drastic because we hadn’t kept in touch in such a long time. You know – how like when you lose weight and only people who haven’t seen you in months can tell you exactly how much you’ve lost?
The longer apart, the more obvious the changes.
That day, we parted again.
‘Do you want these bananas?’ she asked me before I left. She pointed to a bunch of fresh looking, bright yellow bananas on the table. You should have them, I told her.
‘I won’t be able to finish them,’ she told me.
Smiling again, I wondered if she was being polite. But I was not a person to refuse an offer like this one twice, so I thanked her and took the bunch of bananas with me.
I hoped I could see her more often, but I had learned to stop having expectations. Perhaps this time around, it would be better to just go with the flow.
So, to answer your question:
Why do people change?
Well, that’s because they have to.
Everyone can plan their life and say, ‘This is my ambition’, ‘This is my goal’, ‘This is how I want my life to look when I’m 40.’
But that is all just fantasy. Life moves along a path of its own. Sometimes, you change simply because you are moving along with it.
Like leaves falling to the ground when it withers, people change because people change.
That’s just how life is.