Yesterday, I saw a coffin.

“Yesterday, I saw a coffin,” my grandmother said.

“Really?” The wards in the Klang hospital were really crowded, about a few feet of space to walk between the rows of beds that are placed so closely to each other that patients practically sleep next to each other. I can hardly imagine a coffin in these wards.

“She means that someone died yesterday,” the elderly asthmatic patient whose bed is next to my grandmother said. She had been hospitalised longer than my grandmother but I could tell that the two of them have become fast friends.

“Uh…okay.” I’m squeemish about bringing up the subject of death around, you know, very sick people but this lady, with a nasal cannula for her asthma issues just shrugged. “We’re right by the ICU.”

“Chinese lady,” my grandmother said.

“The other lady was a Malay woman,” the severe asthmatic patient said. “Yeah, they died yesterday.”

“Yeah. They died. Guess it was their time.”

*
Klang Hospital feels like the busiest hospital in Malaysia. In fact, it feels like the busiest hospital in the world. The wards are clean but cramp. And then during visiting hours, it feels like a wet market with relatives piling in to visit. The humanity packed into one room is almost frightening. One patient had about ten members visiting her at one time with three babies, one a wee newborn, piled on her bed.

The atmosphere in the wards are a combination of joy and sorrow. One family was fast talking and their merriment punctuated with loud hearty laughter every so often. While another, a husband holds onto his wife’s oxygen mask as she lay there. I am not sure she is even aware that her husband is there while his face was a blank look of defeat.

I don’t know if my grandmother can see any of this, or is easily defeated by the sadness in the ward. I’m the sort of person who notice the sorrow and helplessness. Hours after I left, it was the faces of concerned and sad family members that remain etched in my memory. On the other hand, my grandmother epitomises optimism, she makes fast friends and was quick to point out to me everybody she had met: “This aunty here has kidney problems. This one has diabetes. That one – Parkinsons” and everyone is happy. The kidney patient is not sad, she has a doting daughter who takes good care of her.

She seems cheerful. The three ladies all requested that I bring them prunes tomorrow because “we can avoid taking the medicine that makes us poo”. I offered to bring orange cake that I baked for her but she said to save it for Eid which is in 5 days time. I tell her we will come back tomorrow.

There is ash on our car when we leave. I can’t help but hope it is not an omen.

*

It is difficult to reconcile how I feel. On the one hand, I know that government hospitals do have some of the best doctors and specialists around. On the other, well, it is a government hospital. There is no aircon, the wards are cramp and from the outside, it looked like it caught fire and continued to function as a hospital despite the disaster. And there are rats that come out to play at night.

We are continuously debating whether to move my grandmother to a private hospital. But the answer is not that straight forward. To put it simply, private hospitals especially at my grandmother’s age will be very expensive. Even more so because she does not have insurance. She is too old for insurance and everything will have to be paid out of pocket.

The thing about private hospitals is that niggling doubt that I have. You’re always wondering, is every procedure necessary? Do I need to take this drug? Are you really watching out for my best interest or are you milking me for money? My own experience at private hospitals is mixed. I had an excellent specialist who cared for me during my asthma episode and helped me recover. On the other hand, I paid nearly RM 300 per visit from a gynaecologist who came by to my room twice a day to say “Hey there, how are ya?” He’d stay for 3 minutes, max, we timed him and pocketed a cool RM 600 from me daily. RM 100 a minute.

In government hospitals since it’s public healthcare means continuous care even after you have been discharged. They will move your case to the KK and you are always monitored for the ailment that you came in for.

In a private hospital, well, once you’re done, you’re done. There is no continuous monitoring – you’re on your own kid. But there is comfort in a private hospital, it feels like a hotel. The rooms are air-conditioned, there is cable TV and room service.

Do you show that you love someone by taking them to a place where its more comfortable as they recover despite always wondering if the healthcare is better? Relatives assume that you don’t love your parent enough to actually spend money and put them in a cushy hospital.

Or do you grit your teeth and put up with the rats, the cramp spaces because it was in this hospital, the head of trauma, following his gut instinct refused to let a seemingly okay patient go? Because it was also this hospital that a specialist noticed something so minor in a blood test that most would have just discounted and noticed that it was a symptom of a far graver problem.

*

Bad Day

I think I’m having a bad day. The bad day being the day after my grandmother had been admitted to hospital for a mild heart attack. This is what we know now, that it was a heart attack. On Thursday, we did not know this – my grandmother was complaining she was feeling weak and wanted us to take her to the hospital.

Problem is, my grandmother was and remains a hypochondriac. Just a few months back she checked herself and my grandfather into DEMC, a posh private hospital in the centre of Shah Alam, to which the final bill after 4 days came up to a whopping RM 13,000. She was absolutely fine, mind you. Before she checked in and after she checked in. So when Thursday morning she complained she was feeling unwell and wanted to go to DEMC, everyone suggested perhaps we check her into a hotel instead.

Thankfully, both my aunt and my mum decided to take her to the Klinik Kesihatan (government clinic), just in case. They conducted an ECG on her and the results of the test concerned the doctors enough to refer the hospital in Klang. It took 2 hours to transfer and then there, my mum, aunt and grandmother waited for 8 hours to see the specialist. During which, my grandmother declared that she was fine – who wouldn’t be, after sitting next to a on orange-clad convict surrounded by coppers – “Why is his chained to the bed?” my grandmother queried that nice police officer keeping the convict company. “He’s epileptic,” the nice police officer replied. “It’s for his safety” – and burn victims with angry blisters all over their back.

My aunt and mum spent those 8 hours badgering junior doctors to release my grandmother (all of them refused) before the specialist made a grand entrance at 8pm with the head of ER. They explained that the blood test results showed she had a mild heart attack. Obviously, at this point both my aunt and mum probably looked and felt like douchebags for trying to discharge their 80-something year old mum from the ER when she had a heart scare.

As they say, when it rains it pours. The next day I had an appointment for tea tasting in Bandar Manjalara. For those of you who know Malay, it sounds like fancy area but for those of you who know KL; Bandar Manjalara is in near Kepong, a superbly dodgy part of KL. I was hoping that the client would cancel on me, I can’t possibly go to the other end of KL when everybody is fretting about my grandmother.

But he was keen and I should be a professional and so off I went on the most hectic day involved for everyone.

*

I got into an accident back on the way from conducting a tea-tasting session with a prospective client. We, being me and my staff Kid, were in Bandar Manjalara, a suburb very close to Kepong, renowned for its sprawling viaducts and overhead bridges. The roads in Kepong climbed and towered over each other like the overgrown lawn in my tiny garden outside my house, with weeds that is taller than my toddler. It was a hot day, the GPS in Kepong came on and off and Waze kept taking us around the scenic route of Kepong. By scenic I mean, there was a chance we would be made residents of Kepong and never leave because how-the-fuck-do-you-get-out-of-this-area? And then halfway through the tea tasting I received news that the doctors will not let my grandmother leave the hospital for at least 5 days.

I was tired, mostly emotionally spent and I wanted to go back home. I could already imagine the drive back and it felt liberating.

That is up until someone rear-ended my car.

I could hear the screeching of tyres before the awful sound of metal and metal smashing into each other. I jolted forward but by not that much. Not enough to give me a whiplash anyway and so the first thing I thought off was – “Hey, can’t be that bad. I can drive off can’t I? It’s not going to be considered a hit and run. I’m the one who was hit and then I ran off…”

Kak Lin!” Kid said. “You have to stop the car and check it out.”

The car that rear-ended me was a Proton Wira. The lights were smushed in, the bumper caved in and it was a miracle that its engine and compressor were still working. The Chevrolet was nowhere in a bad shape, just a broken bumper. Of course, the first thing that came to mind was my dad, who would not see it as just a broken bumper. This Chevrolet has been to the workshop more often than some young men going to Friday prayers in Malaysia. He was going to flip.

A tall, reed-like young man with bloodshot eyes came out of the car. It was a bright day, the sun was in our eyes and he blinked a few times. He slurred as he spoke. ‘Oh,’ he said when he saw his smushed up car.  And then he looked at us. ‘What do you want to do about this?’

“Why did you hit us!?” Kid demanded.

He told Kid later that he got confused with the clutch, the accelerator and the brakes. “They all looked the same,” he whined.

I did a quick mental calculation to see if I could just pay off this bumper because I really did not want to go through the hassle of reporting the accident. But I really did not want to get this kid who was obviously high on drugs get away with it. I hinted that perhaps we could settle it outside. Kid thought he looked like the sort who would bail.

“Police report then,” I sighed.

I asked Kid on the drive to the police station later if she thought the kid was high. “I’m quite sure he is,” she said. “I’m gonna ask him.”

“Kid, you’re not going to ask someone if he’s on drugs in front of the police!”

“Of course I am. Watch me.”

Actually, one did not need to ask if he was high. His drive there was obviously so erratic, his behaviour in front of the police merely confirmed everyone’s suspicions, including the police that he was on drugs. The police snapped at him a few times and he was oblivious that he was annoying everyone there. When the police showed the write up of the report – a simple formality really – instead of just saying okay, he tried to embellish the report to make him look good.

“Wait, sir. As I drove into the lane, the bonnet of my car flew open, it blocked my view and I drove into her car.”

“It did?” the bored policeman asked, skeptical.

Funny thing was, it did happen. It actually happened after the accident when we were driving to the police station. It certainly did not cause the accident.

“Yeah, so I couldn’t see. It’s not really my fault,” he surmised.

“No. It’s still your fault.”

*

Two hours later, I was finally on my way to dropping Kid back at the shop. Kid was able to grill him what he was on and how much. He denied it at first but Kid called him out on it. “I can tell when someone is on.”

“I didn’t take it today,” he protested. “Just yesterday.”

Apparently he took batu. And at a empat dua kosong dosage. I nodded sagely before confessing, “I’ve no idea what you’re talking about.”

Batu is cocaine I think. Or heroine. I’m not sure. While I may be familiar with street drug terms in the West from, err my watching of The Wire, I’ve no clue what they are in Malaysia.

And empat dua kosong is 420 which I presume are milligrams.

“Is that like a lot, I’ve no idea really what a normal dosage is?”

Kid shrugged. “Depends really. Some people take 500, some people take less. Depends on the quality, how much money you have.”

*

On days like these, I sometimes say something a little blasphemous and that I should mandi bungaMandi bunga is an old animistic belief in Malay culture to rid yourself of bad luck. What you do is you take a bath with flowers. I’ve no idea why this rids you of any bad luck but at the very least you’ll smell good.

I joked with Eizwan that I should mandi bunga after today. And since I have a gorgeous tea blend with roses and tea, our Lady Grey, I joked that I should mandi Lady Grey.

Eizwan nodded. “Actually since you carry hibiscus tea, you should add them too.”

*

Seeing the World in Different Hues

In all honesty, it feels very odd to be home. I hate to say that the one month in England was a life changing experience, certainly it is too presumptuous and most tellingly, too early to say if anything was a life changing experience unless we look back at the event years and years in the future – but well, I’m going to say it. That one month course certainly changed me in ways I did not expect it too.

And so I come back seeing everything a little differently.

I see the world in vivid colours and I know my mood influences how I actually physically see the world. If I am in a fantastic mood, the colours of the world tend to be brighter, more saturated with higer contrast. I see the world in different tones and hues, depending on how I feel at the moment.

It’s the same with the way I write. A tutor asked me how I wrote and I explained to her, and I don’t think she quite understood me – in hues and colours. I would see a scene in my mind, and I would see a colour to that scene and that colour would influence the mood, the tone, the language of what I will write. The world builds from that scene and colour.

When I came home, Malaysia was simultaneously in familiar and yet unfamiliar to me. I realized only recently that hues and tones that I associate home with has changed. I view the world differently. I can’t quite describe the new tone I’m seeing. The world is not as vivid but it certainly was not as grey as I last remembered it…

Of course, I could be romanticizing the entire fallacy. It really could just be that I need glasses OR that Malaysia is less hazy than I remember it to be.

**

Eizwan and I came back from Hong Kong, really, really, really craving Chinese food. I came back home dreaming of dim sum, chicken with cashew nuts and kailans. Lots and lots of kailan.

Not that there’s anything wrong with Chinese food in Hong Kong, I’m sure they are excellent. It’s just that well, being Muslim and all, we’re limited to the halal stuff which brings it down to just three places in the whole of Hong Kong. The two Halal places that we did go, the Islamic Centre Canteen and Wai Kee at Bowringdon Market – is just not enough! Plus, I found the Islamic Centre Canteen just alright, certainly it does not compare to the dim sum that you get in Malaysia but the roast duck at Wai Kee was excellent! I drool just thinking about it.

I had plenty of good food in HK, just not enough good Chinese food. The irony that I have to come home to Malaysia to hunt them.

**

The lovely thing about being a traveller for the past 1 month is that I can pretend that I err…don’t have responsibilities. Which unfortunately, smacked me right in the face when I came home. It’s not that the husband has not been doing a good job, the poor boy worked very hard while I was away so that I would come back to a clean and comfortable home.

But there are all those things. Little things that he could not cope up with, little things that just take two. Things like garden maintenance (ah well, problem solved there though – all the plants died) and well cooking. The fridge is rather bare save for lots of chocolates and chocolate biscuits and my pantry looks rather dismal. Are those eggs more than a month old?

Being a foodie means I should abhor an empty kitchen. And I do. But I’ve been away for more than 5 weeks enjoying my lack of responsibility that the thought of being a motherfucking adult is just tiring.

Which is why I’m sort of justifying The Wire marathon I’ve just started. Am just sayin’.

Roots Made of Concrete

Picture courtesy of sister-in-law, well, I hope she doesn't mind since I nicked it off her FB without permission.

Despite insisting that I was not going to get into the spirit of Eid, as it turns out, I had a lovely, lovely Eid. It was a lot more relaxed than the previous years – my family would usually make the trip to Johor before Eid and spend Eid in KL and Eizwan’s family almost never travel to Kelantan anymore since the entire family is here.

Eid is mostly a KL affair for my family, which still surprise a number of people. They look at you incredulously and splutter, “But, but what about your kampung (village)? What about your buffaloes, geese, and ducks and the long stretches of paddy fields?” It is well known that Eid in Malaysia (well, actually, any holiday really) is a time for people to balik kampung (going home to your village) to reconnect with your roots.

Well, I’m always connected to my roots since my roots are made of concrete.

It is really hard to explain to people that my grandmother would not know what to do with a buffalo, and as mind-boggling as it may seem to some, there are those of us who grew up in the city, my generation, the generation before me and the generation before them. I’ve no idea what my great-great-grandfather did before he left for Malaysia (or Malaya back then). Legend has it that he hopped onto a little sampan (a tiny boat) and paddled all the way from Java to make a new life in Johor. In the city.

My paternal great-grandfather came from China. There might be ducks, geese and paddy fields from where he came from but I would not know. Not much is known about him at all, from the stories I’ve heard, he was keen on forgetting where he came from, the few things he brought with him from China was a little seal bearing his family name. He got himself converted and married three lovely young women as one did back in the day, but that’s another story for another day.

Me, Eizwan and SIL at a relative's house.

So, no. I’m as city girl as it gets. Plus, if there were geese during my Eid, it would make my mother very unhappy. Geese and her are no mixy. They are sworn mortal enemies. My mother still speaks of them in a hushed whisper, faint lines of trauma visible on her face as she speaks about the time a gaggle of geese chased her down the road when she was coming back from high school with no one to rescue her.

Come to think of it, if you can get geese in the city, why do you need to go back to the village for the holidays?

But Happy Eid everyone! Hope it was as wonderful as mine.

The Putrajaya Floria Show

If you can’t tell what happened on Saturday as a Malaysian in Malaysia, you must be hiding under a giant rock somewhere. If so, please tell me where the rock is, I wouldn’t mind hiding under it sometime!

Kidding.

But Saturday, July 9th came and went with both sides making all sorts of accusations, claims of victory etc. For me however, it prompted a lot of soul-searching and a deep kind of sadness for me. It made me wonder what makes us Malaysia Malaysia, what makes a Malaysian, a Malaysian – something that goes beyond ethnicity, citizenship and all those little political ingredients that you would find in a constitution and a charter.

If the British have tea, are we Malaysian for our teh tarik?

If the British have the Chelsea Flower Show, what about Putrajaya Floria?

Come Sunday, I was dying to get out of the house after staying indoors all day Saturday. We did brave a roadblock to see my in-laws where we hunkered down. Having only been a week since we returned home from the UK, and since I’m pumped up in all my anglophile glory with all my anglophile habits, I did not want to just be so Malaysian and stay at home and watch tv all day. I was going to go for a walk in the park.

The plan was grand, but as always in true Amiruddin fashion, the execution was awry. Eizwan spent the entire night playing Infamous 2. While I would like to be a good wife and blame the husband for not prioritizing sleep, it was my fault for egging him on. And criticising his game play. And accusing him of not approaching the monster battle with a sort of game plan. And that was why he kept dying instead of going through with the game as fast as he could have.

You have backseat drivers. Well, meet me. I’m a backseat gamer.

Anyway, the end result was, we struggled out of bed around 11am and by the time we got to flower show it was 12pm. And oh, Adlina, are you so full of yourself that you’ve forgotten that while it may be pleasant in the UK for a stroll around 12pm, by 12pm Malaysian time, you would positively be baking?

Of course I did.

It had rained earlier and walking about in Putrajaya park was a lot like walking in a sauna. Ten minutes in, walking from the parking lot, I was not so sure that I could survive this, and that perhaps we ought to surrender and be a proper Mall-aysian and hide in a mall. Of course, I was not going to tell Eizwan, that as always, my ideas might have not been the brightest and so we ploughed on.

As we walked along, I looked at everyone at the park. Were they feeling the same way I do, a melancholy over what happened on Saturday? Have we changed as a country from yesterday? Or am I mistaking all of that glazed look as that look when dammit, you just can’t decide because there are so many things to buy!

There were a few things I’ve learnt on this trip to Putrajaya.

  1. I’m not in England. Despite pretending that I might be. 20 minutes in, and I was sweating profusely. 30 minutes in and my shirt was soaked. 2 hours later, you could cut me open, fluff me up and fill me with a filling of your choice. Butter is nice. So would sour cream and chives.
  2. DSLRs are the bane of every show’s existence. Going through Putrajaya park was like going through an obstacle course with people hunkering down every two minutes or so, to do a macro shot of EVERY DAMNED FLOWER THEY SEE. And since this is a flower show…
  3. You can grow Western herbs in Malaysia. And they don’t have to look as manky as mine. Sigh.
  4. I’ve discovered another wonderful thing that makes us Malaysia Malaysia. The first time David ever came to Malaysia, I took him to Sunway Pyramid, one of my favourite malls in Malaysia for dinner. There, a giant lion greeted him, complete with glowing eyes. He cracked up laughing so hard that he nearly fell of his seat in the car, had he not been strapped down.

David mentioned something about us Malaysians loving our tacky structures. Like giant lions with glowing eyes. Giant pitcher plants made of concrete spouting water in the centre of KL. Even the supposedly sophisticated Singaporeans are not immune to the Tacky Structure Syndrome with their wonderful Giant Merlion spouting water.

I was affronted, of course. We are not tacky people who enjoy tacky structures. So far, in this garden show I’ve not seen a single tacky structure. Until I saw Penang’s beautiful gardens. They did not win a prize. I wondered why they did not. I surmised that it could be because they were a state held by the Opposition – nothing is free from politics here. Or it really could be the three giant cats grinning at me while wearing the Malaysian traditional outfit. I know some of you would be disappointed that I did not take a photo of it, but I don’t want to have a memory of the gleaming cats staring down at me forever. *shudders*

And then there were these, done by the show organizers. Nothing says class more than a….

Giant bee in the Garden

Giant ladybirds

And should you feel so inclined to actually have one of these structures in your own home, please contact this landscape designer, who could make a giant swan structure for your home.

Should you come over to my place and see a giant swan structure, well.

The day ended well though. I met a supplier who sold acclimatized Western herbs. He was trying to sell to me a vanilla bean plant for RM 25. I was not convinced. To try an convince me, he told me that if I were to own a huge field of vanilla bean plants, I’d easily be a millionaire. Thing is, I’m still a plant newbie, and my parsley is barely hanging on and my thyme plant looks like its been fried. So I highly doubt I would end up a millionaire, I could end up facing foreclosure with a plantation filled with dead vanilla bean plants.

And I bought lots of plants.

Two of them, as you can see are for eating. Aesthetic values are all fine and dandy but really, what we really like are edible plants. Was trained an economist after all, there must always be a return on investment.

Remember the Chili

I can’t remember when I decided that I wanted to grow my own chillis. The earliest memory I could think of was when I was still working in The Evil Corp. A few of my colleagues, as we did in Gamen Office were spending ages standing together over at the cubicles. Specifically my cubicle, which since I barely had any work anyway, I did not mind.

One of my colleagues suddenly asked, “Hey, you guys want chilli?”

I’m sure this was frankly bizarre that anyone could ask such a question when, as an organization we deal mostly in finance.

But, we are, Malaysians at heart and chilli is a very important part of our life. Except for me, of course, since despite being born Malay as my Malaysian friends mock, I can’t eat chilli without choking. Heck, I’ve been deceiving a very dear friend of mine for years about my ability to eat spicy food – I had to play up the I’m Asian card and everything, you know.

But I digress. This is not about my wimpiness on consuming chilli. This was about the chilli that my colleague was offering.

“Say what?” was everybody else’s response.

“No, seriously. A friend of mine came back from Bangladesh recently and she brought back chilli. Damn hot one! You want?”

It was an offer no one can refuse, really.

A bit of background to this story. As of late, chilli in Malaysia had become extremely inconsistent. Sometimes you could buy a bag of bright red chillis, chop them up and find that you could munch on them like snacks without a hint of a bite at all. And then the next week, you could buy the same bag and then spend about an hour sticking your tongue out under a running tap.

Again, it could just be me, I’m a big wimp that way.

But the overall consensus within my family and friends, using a highly unscientific polling technique, is that chillis in Malaysia in general have not become rather mild. Food is starting to taste rather bland and my dad has resorted to munching on green chilli like crackers for some sort of bite. Nowadays, he takes it like a salad since it’s that mild.

Perhaps that was when I started to be interested in growing my own chillis. That instead of relying on other people to grow my chilli for me, I could grow it myself. I thought about it as I stood by my colleague who continued to rave about the chillis from Bangladesh. And then I received an email from my boss who always want things done by yesterday, and promptly forgot about it.

The next time I thought about growing my own chillis was when I suddenly got a thing for nachos. It’s not just a thing. It’s an addiction. Still is.

The thing about Mexican cooking is that it uses jalapenos instead of bright red Thai chillis that we are used to. I made chilli once using Thai red chillis and it did not give me that wonderful earthiness chilli has in the States. And using Thai green chillis as a substitute for jalapenos is just wrong, wrong, wrong. Don’t believe me? Try whipping yourself a batch of salsa – one with Thai green chilli and the other with jalapenos which you can get at Jusco supermarket. Taste the difference as Sainsbury’s would say.

I once told my mum that I am going to open a chilli farm. “After I write my bestselling novel, of course,” I said to her. My mother cracked up so hard, she teared up. I would like to think she was mocking either the chilli farm or the bestselling novel idea. Not both. Because that would be well harsh.

Because around the same time I discovered jalapenos, I discovered that there were millions of varieties of chillis out there. There was the habanero, the naga chilli, the scotch bonnet which features predominantly in Jamaican cooking. And since keeping halal meant that I can’t just drop by restaurants worldwide, I wanted to find all these great ingredients so I can taste the flavours other cultures have created. I wanted these chillis, dammit.

All the while I’ve been dreaming about growing my own chilli farm, another country, my ahem, other motherland, had stopped dreaming and started doing. Which motherland? Why, the UK of course! Somehow, within the last ten, twenty years the British began craving chilli. The British? Craving chilli? Surely not, the purveyors of bland food cannot actually be wanting chilli!

Come on, I lived in the UK. I knew what their food was like. Bland. And rather boring.

Which was why when the Guardian published their very smug article about how Britain has some of the best food in the world, I cracked up. And forwarded the article around. We had a good laugh altogether. And then there was a segment on River Cottage where Hugh Fernley-Whittingstall went to a chilli farm and had some chillis. He choked. I laughed, thinking, ah Westerners. They can’t handle their chilli.

I went to the UK as a student in 2001. Ten years have passed since I got the shock of my life when the Resident Tutor told us that “If we wanted to have a fag, just step outside since this is a non-smoking resident hall” My poor, poor, virgin, politically correct ears. Fast forward to 2011, I was keen to see how much have changed in the UK.

Of course, some things have changed. But most of all, I was really surprised with the quality of food that you can get in the UK. There had been a campaign for all things fresh, and food is very fresh and very tasty. But most surprising of all, was the abundance of chilli. While 10 years ago, chilli was in tubes that you buy at the fresh produce section, today you can get a variety of chillis at the supermarket. Even in Scotland. In a tiny town called St. Andrews you can get birds-eye chilli from Britain. British birds-eye chilli. Would wonders never cease.

My dad was excited, I don’t know why he was so excited to see chilli but there he was like a small boy, having seen the chocolate aisle in Tesco for the first time (wait, that was my brother). He insisted my mum bought him some and then later that evening, he did what he used to do in Malaysia. He munched on them like snacks.

Which was a big mistake, because automatically, he teared up and he choked. He stopped talking because he could not handle the heat. It was only after he felt better did he say that it was spicy. Like a lot spicier than the chilli in Malaysia.

“But they’re British!”

My dad, who had always been a champion of British engineering said, “Whatever the British do, they do it very well. Even chillis.”

I joked to my friends later on that it’s all set. I can move to the UK now. There’s chilli in St Andrews, enough to make an Asian a happy bunny. But in another way, it’s terrifying to think that what used to be the purvue of Asia, the chilli has now started to become the staple of a Western palate. This is no means to be used to rile up xenophobic sentiments but it should give us pause for thought. In the last ten years, the country was changing itself – from eating bland, boring foods to growing some of the best chillis that I’ve ever tasted.

*Look away now, unless you can tolerate a bit of pontificating from my end*

There are so many things I admire about the British, which is probably why I keep going back there. While our former Prime Minister told us to look East in the 80s, I still look West. There are many things I admire about what the West had done, their own atrocities, stupidity and arrogance aside. I’ve always admired their innovation and most of all, their fierce independence. No one can tell them what to do, and if they want to do something, by God, they’ll just do it.

A bit like the chilli farms. I doubted the government told them “Go forth and make chilli farms!” Nor did they wait until the every factor was right. They just did it. I’m sure people mocked them, saying the Brits don’t eat chilli. But they did it anyway. And they’ve succeeded.

In Asia, especially in Malaysia, it is in our culture to wait, to get angry and to hope that things will change for the better. We can’t go into business, the government is corrupt. I can’t drive my car, oil prices is too high. I can’t do anything, unless someone else changes things for the better.

And by changing for the better, I mean, by not waiting until the conditions are right, you just do it. The conditions in the UK are all wrong for growing chilli. And they’ve done it fantastically well, even better than a country that could grow chilli, for a country whose staple IS the chilli.

I doubt it is because the government gave them the right incentive, or the sun shines a bit more over there (you know it doesn’t). It is because they have a will, they found a way and they did it in the best way possible. No excuses. And because of that, they have overtaken us.

The British are not better than us. They just worked harder. And they worked well.

Sometimes I get really frustrated living in Malaysia like everything seems to stand in the way of what I want to do. And then I think of the British chillis. They could do it and they’ve done better than us. Remember the Chillis guys, when you think all is lost. Whatever the circumstance, overcome it. And do it well.

Tread Softly, for You May Be Treading On Snakes

Priorities. We sometime get them wrong don’t we? Especially when you have a choice of having savings to buy a home versus going for a weekend in New York? Despite me desperately wanting to go to New York, I know, it should be my priority to have enough money to eat. And to buy a home later. Whatever. *Sobs*

I’m very good with priorities, generally. I know what should be priority. Like whether you need to do a grocery run or you’d end up eating take out again, you choose to do a grocery run. That’s because you prioritize your health over ease. See? Easy.

Sometimes I get my priorities wrong though. With dire consequences.

***

One particular memory of getting responsibilities and priorities all wrong happened one Saturday evening. I was feeling particularly responsible this evening and I felt that it was important to do all the errands like going for a grocery run despite the fact that I would really rather lie down in bed and stare at the ceiling? What you don’t do that? Try not having TV. The ceiling becomes just as fascinating after a while.

But anyway, as I step outside the house, I find a small black thing, wiggling by the slippers outside my porch. Even in the dark, there was no mistaking what it was.

‘Uh, sayang (love),’ says the husband from inside the house. ‘Why did you stop?’

‘I think there’s a snake by our slippers.’

‘A what?!’

Yes, it was. A snake. A very small one wiggling away by the slippers.

‘Yeah, don’t worry, it’s very small! Like see?’

I thought to myself, I’m not particularly worried about snakes. Firstly, I’m not a princess. And secondly, I’ve seen plenty of snakes overseas, in India and even in the UK. And naturally, since this snake is on my porch, next to the garden, naturally it’s a garden snake.

So I kicked the slipper and the snake wiggled. I screamed and ran off.

‘What?! What?! Are you okay?!’ Eizwan shouted.

‘Oh, no worries. I thought the snake was going to climb up my trousers. It’s fine now.’

‘Snakes are not fine!’ Eizwan declared, peering at the snake. ‘Let me deal with this snake first.’

For some bizarre reason, I felt very cross with this announcement. I’ve seen plenty of snakes before, as I’ve said, in the UK and in India. This one is in the garden. This must be a garden snake. It feels over the top to deal with just a garden snake. I don’t want him to kill the snake, it feels very uncivilised. And I’ve already decided on this evening’s priorities. It is to go shopping. I am being responsible.

‘No,’ I announce.

‘What?’

‘It’s just a snake. Come on, I need to go shopping.’

‘Lin! What if it goes inside the house?’

‘We have cats. The cats will kill it.’ I roll my eyes.

We argued about it for a while, but I was adamant. We are going to get into the car. Eizwan sulked as he got into the car and remained sulky, going on and on about it being my problem later.

‘They’re garden snakes,’ I said.

‘But what if they’re not?’ he asked me. ‘What if they’re something more dangerous?’

‘Don’t be silly.’

‘Sure that was a tiny snake. Tiny snakes had to come from somewhere. What about the mama snake then?’

Crap. I forgot about it then. And then my little paranoid brain started to think…what if? What if that baby snake was a dangerous snake? And what if that baby snake had a mama snake looking for it?

‘Don’t be silly, Eizwan. Mama snakes don’t miss their baby snakes.’

Or do they?

***

I texted my mother about the snake, hoping to reassure myself that the snake is just a garden snake. And that, it was small and tiny. And that the cats could kill it. My mother’s reply was less than reassuring: “I’D STILL SCREAM ANYWAY. MAKE SURE YOU COVER EVER HOLE IN YOUR HOUSE WITH A TOWEL. DON’T LET THE SNAKE COME IN.”

I was becoming less and less assured by the end of our shopping trip. Even Eizwan who wanted to prove a point about how silly I was about not letting him deal with the snake was now starting to realize that in his efforts to prove his wife wrong, the snake might just come into the house and make itself at home.

Sure it’s a baby now. What if grows bigger, we have nooks and crevices for it to hide, plenty of food. What if it makes its appearance later on as a fully grown, mature adult snake? With priorities of eating my cats?

As we sat down at a restaurant to takeaway our naan, we debated about what species the snake might be. ‘Garden snake,’ I say.

‘But it’s black in colour. As far as I know, aren’t garden snakes green?’ Eizwan asked.

‘So what do you think it could be then?’

Eizwan did not want to say. Finally he said in a low tone. ‘Cobra.’

***

Later that night, instead of relaxing with a book or a movie, I propped my laptop on my lap in bed and then frantically researched snakes in Malaysia. I Google garden snake in Malaysia. And to my distress, no one can confirm that garden snakes can be found in Malaysia. They’re common in the United States, but not so much in Malaysia.

So what’s common in Malaysia then? Kraits, cobras and vipers. Silly me for assuming we could just be like the West. I may read the Guardian newspaper in the mornings, I may eat pasta and sometimes put on a winter coat to pretend I’m still in the UK, but face reality Adlina. You’re in Malaysia.

For every midgie the British complain about, we face mosquitoes that spread malaria and dengue.

For every thunderstorm warnings in Savannah, we have daily evening rain that uproots trees, causes flash floods and destruction.

So for every non-poisonous garden snake in the UK, we have…

Some dude who specializes in snakes in University Malaya wrote a long entry about the various snakes you can find in urban Malaysia.

‘We found a pit viper in one of our departments!’ he went on to say, enthused. ‘So it shows you can find dangerous snakes all over urban Malaysia.’

Feeling much better now, I retire to bed. Not before checking to make sure there are no snakes in bed. Because apparently, in India, many deaths occur because snakes make their way to your beds because it’s warm and comfy.

Am just sayin’.

***

The next day, I receive a phone call from my dad. He sounded very serious. And quite upset.

‘I heard from Umi about your problem. Listen I want to talk to you,’ he said. ‘About the snake.’

‘Ahahaha. It’s just a small snake. No big deal, when we came home it was gone.’

‘How do you know it’s gone and it’s not inside lurking somewhere in your house?’

‘I…I don’t know.’

‘You should have dealt with it first.’

‘Um…’

‘Get some sulfur and then pour it outside the house. Stops the snakes from coming in.’

‘Uh…okay.’

‘Make sure you kill the snake next time. Before it kills you.’

**

What used to be a pleasure now, my little garden has now become a hiding ground for an enemy of the state. Every time I look at my little herb patch, I wonder if the snake is in there. I tiptoe into the house, every cardboard box hiding a potential combatant.

When I leave home for work in the mornings, I despair for my cats. Sometimes I imagine that I come home, finding the fat body of my cat, on the floor, it’s mouth open in a twisted scream, dead from a snake bite.

And then I cry a little on the way to work.

**

I finally showed the picture of my snake to my brother. ‘See! See, if you zoom in about twenty times you’d see the little white patch on his head. I think it makes him a cobra.’

My brother snatched the phone from me and looked at the picture. ‘Oh God, Lin! I can’t believe you’re making such a fuss!’

He tosses the phone back to me. ‘The thing is fucking tiny. It’s just a garden snake and you guys are making too much of a fuss.’

Or is it?