When I was a kid, good Malay food was restricted to golden lontong - a stew of cabbage, carrots, beans, tempeh, tofu and a handful of glass noodles in a mild coconut gravy - and rich beef rendang to go with moist lemang (rice boiled with coconut milk in a length of bamboo) at Eidl Fitr. I remember bad Malay cooking. Lots of it, when I lived on the East Coast. It was always red with chilli oil, and always too hot, or too sweet, or too hot and too sweet, and looked disastrous. Malay food was nearly always over-spiced for me. There was never much balance, and for a kid who got jammed full of good Cantonese cooking from the time I could munch -- never enough colour.
But the jerky stew I had my first evening back in Kuala Lumpur was different. It was a subtle yet earthy stew, jerky that had been boiled till it was just tender in a creamy coconut milk gravy, thickened with onions, garlic and green chillies, and infused with white pepper. I imagined it was the sort of stew that travellers since time immemorial made, using beef that had been aged to last the journey. It was good food. It was my fondest memory of going home.
The rest of the two weeks there is not something I intend to ever repeat. I woke up every day at 7AM, and went to bed at around 10PM to midnight. I lived off my antihistamines. Packing in my parents' dusty apartment, with grime making the walls look condemned and the furniture stained, I would start tearing and coughing within an hour of work. Boxes that hadn't been opened in twenty years had to be checked, and put into storage for another twenty years. I couldn't take pleasure from flipping through things I'd collected in the last decade, so I threw out almost everything. At lunch, we'd stop for more of that jerky stew, and perhaps ferns boiled in the same gravy, with piping hot rice. We'd go back to packing. When we were finally allowed back to our beds, I'd go to sleep thinking about how terrified I was of flying to San Francisco as the days ticked down. I worried if I'd be stopped at the airport for coming in for six months. I worried about the Trusty Guide, whom I'd be seeing, and if what I was doing was worth the effort. The last time I had to leave him, I had a nervous breakdown in Hong Kong, and remained suicidal for two weeks after I got home to Perth. When that finally numbed, I didn't see the point. I buried myself in my work. I started believing I had no future outside of my tiny room in my parents' house. I told the Trusty Guide everything would be alright.
There is a Trusty Guide. He exists. I worship him like he is the missing portion of my sanity.
And I went to San Francisco, again, where, by the way, I still am. Customs did raise an eyebrow, a well-meant one, at my being here for six months. I got the nicest officer, who liked The Grudge, Googled me up to make sure I was really a horror writer, and by the time I left the room for people who deserved a closer look by customs officers, he had my website and the names and links to the stories of mine I liked best. The Trusty Guide was grim by the time I walked through the sliding doors, but he's been far less grim ever since. My first couple of weeks here were insane, but insane in a way I understood and inflicted myself. I had a piece of software to finish translating. The Trusty Guide was incredibly patient with me, as I now worked from nine to midnight, but on my own terms, on something that, while tiring, didn't cost me quite as dearly. We had houses to look at, and his landlord gifted us with the potential to rent an apartment above their garage, which took away most of our despair at house-hunting.
The new apartment is bright and sunny, with welcoming hardwood floors. It's beautiful, in a garden filled with fruit trees. I can hear leaves and birds. We are two blocks away from proper food, ethnic greengrocers and Borderlands.
I get to talk to and meet up with my friends. People who don't mind a spot of tea, who take me out to see cemeteries, discover awesome pho and ramen together, who are some of the most decent people I've ever met, who talk about all sorts of things geeky and filled with great morbidity. One of these days, I should probably get myself to St. Louis to drag mokie out for tea. Because that's overdue. We can make cucumber and egg sandwiches, with the crusts trimmed off. The fact I can actually think of this, and think of going to see people I've never met, and looking forward to things in the future, is one of the coolest things I've ever done.
I still wake up dreading going back to Perth. I still wake up every day having to first try to figure my way through the concept of dropping this entire life I've gathered together in a few months, and waiting a year before I can return. But I also wake up with the dearest, fuzzy cat lumped on my back, or wrapping herself around my head. I spend my days rubbing her belly, sharing her sunspots, reading books I never got to read while growing up, and playing video games. I plot stories. I don't look forward to six months from now. But if you like, I suppose this story will do for now.