Screenshot from THE ARROW

When Zahid first told me to meet him at Taipan station over the phone, I could not figure the word as it was not written in our chat box an hour before I reached Subang Jaya.

“Daiban? Did he mean Saipan? That’s impossible. Taipei? Don’t be silly Ben, you are in Malaysia.” I tried to deduce the word from the two syllables that starts and ends in a consonant but I failed to comprehend the slur through Zahid’s breathy voice.

“I am very sure the station is not named after Saipan or Da Ban (Osaka in Mandarin). So, what is the name of the station that I should get down?” I tried to look up for the name of the station that sounded similar to what Zahid had told me, but I gave up when the bus ride got bumpy.

“I should be more hardworking in looking up for the information next time. Yeah, I should.” I sighed, giving up.

It was the 28th October of 2017. I finally moved out from Penang after staying for a period of ten years since I first came to this city to do my first degree. I was thrilled to leave the city that CNN honoured as one of Asia’s greatest street food cities – one that is blessed with mouth-watering dishes like char kuey teow, asam laksa, mee sotong and cendol and so much more that food was never a problem if I woke up at 5am and felt like having a plate of nasi kandar.

Were you out of your mind to leave this city, Ben? No, I was not. To the tourists, this is a city that promises a lot of fun. But, to me, it was a city that I associated with stress, tears, difficulties and bitterness. My calendar was always filled with a list of agendas to be ticked, and my life was made even more depressing when I switched my role from a student to an academician. Endless school activities, meetings, due dates, filing, reports made its way to my plate besides handling a group of immature students. As if this sounded like the most challenging situation for an educator, the
last year had seen me attending appointments with my psychologist.

***

“So, we have talked about your profession and it seems like your stress comes mainly from the students and the high workload. Now, do you mind telling me about your family?” Mr Tan, the psychologist asked.

“My dad is a fishmonger, and my mum is a housewife. Both of them are illiterate and no one in the family has gone to a university. I am the first one who attended a university and my younger brother followed after.” I sat on the peach-coloured sofa, trying to find a comfortable position to compose myself while taking a peep at what Mr Tan drew and wrote in his paper.

“Gosh, the sofa keeps sagging in. Ben, you should sit upright to demonstrate your courtesy and professionalism,” my mind kept reminding me over how I should behave in the public.

“Would you like to talk more about the relationship between you and your parents?” Mr Tan continued to probe further for information.

“What an irony for a psychology lecturer needing to be understood by a clinical psychologist.” I said this to myself. But I knew it was needed. I was still conscious enough to know that committing suicide was not the right thing to do and all I had to do was to reach out for help.

“I think they love me more than they love themselves. They will always make sure I have enough pocket money and they will always tell me not to save on my meals. ‘You don’t have to save on your food’ is what my mum likes to say to me. But during my penultimate year of my first degree, my parents almost got a divorce. I really thought I was going to lose my mum.”

“May I know what had happened?” he leaned forward from his armchair, expecting a reason that could possibly be the one that he was looking for.

“I think it happened when both my brother and I had left home. I think she could not get used to the quiet house. So, she made some friends to kill her boredom but she ended up with a huge debt. It was RM100,000 according to my dad. She learnt to gamble with her friends.”

“The loan shark came to our house. That’s when my dad found out what my mum had done.”

I thought it was hard to narrate this unfortunate incident to my psychologist but it came out from my mouth naturally. Was it because of the warm lighting? Did the lavender-scented room ease my nerves? Or was it because of the signed consent letter between us? I felt a sense of relief to blurt out these pent-up exhaustive emotions after keeping it for seven years. After all, it was always about saving the family’s face and honouring your ancestors for without their bravery and decisive act to leave their home country, we would not be here today. By default, one should only talk about good things in front of others and even so, one needs to master the difference between sharing and bragging because the tone of one’s voice and choice of words convey different meanings.

“You use a lot of ‘I think’ in your replies. Based on the anecdotal evidence, you seem to always blame yourself for any misfortune. You blame yourself when your students are not listening, you blame yourself when your family had a crisis, so what about your love life?”

***

Zahid was the reason I moved to Subang Jaya. I got to know him from Tinder and his charismatic persona and seemingly easy-going attitude attracted me to further develop the virtual friendship.

“I have a question for you: Can you accept dating a Malay guy?” Zahid asked.

“You are a Malay? I thought you are a Chinese! You don’t look Malay at all! Are you from a mixed parentage?” I was shocked to learn the fact.

“No. I am pure Malay but I just look Chinese.”

“Actually, I am not 100% Chinese too. I am a Baba. My paternal great grandmother was of Bugis ancestry and we adopted the Malay culture in our lifestyle. We still eat with our hand when we are home and my mother still wears the sarong kebaya and she always jokes that it is a lot easier to go to the loo with it!”

“I see. You look like a Sabahan to me in the first place because of your tanned skin colour and your big eyes. The Chinese usually have smaller eyes!”

“This is why we are called the OCBC sometimes. Not the bank, but orang cina bukan cina for we are Chinese but somehow we are not completely Chinese!”

I had never met a guy like Zahid – smart, witty and charming. I was even more impressed to discover that he worked as a Maths teacher in an international school and he could speak perfect English. After all, I was made to believe that the Malays are bad in Mathematics and English while the Chinese are natural businessmen and therefore, are excellent with numerics.

“It is a blessing to date a guy who knows what a parenthesis is. And I finally found someone who can do the math for me!” I teased Zahid for being such an unconventional Malay.

“Of course I would know. I did my thesis too!”

That was how the relationship started because we thought we found each other to celebrate our offbeat, eccentric and incomplete identities.

***

“I guess we are moving too quick, causing us not to understand each other better. I thought we had discussed about it! I am not a phone person and I don’t have to change my routine drastically just because of you!” Zahid shouted at me.

“You are not a phone person? Wow! Before we were together, you would call me up to an hour and reply my messages almost instantly. And now when we are together, getting a message or call from you is like looking for the rain god. I am impressed, teacher Zahid!”

“You know my boss keeps dumping work on me!”

“So, now the mission of getting a boyfriend is completed. A tick from your to-do list. And you can now move on to settle your work without putting your effort again to sustain this relationship. Is that how you show your love once you have physically owned them?”

“Stop your drama. I have enough of it.”

“You expect me to learn and know about you and you don’t think it is necessary for you to change your lifestyle. Then why should I change mine to accommodate yours? Why should I come to a city that I am not familiar with? Why can’t you be a little bit more caring?”

“You know it in the first place when you decided to date me! I told you I have to get married eventually and I…do not want you to be overly attached to me.”

“You can make a choice on whether you want to get married or not! Why do you need to satisfy your community? I don’t get it.”

“I choose you because I was impressed with your characteristics and I thought you understood where I come from. Now I am confused when dealing with you.”

“Confused? It is not that confusing! You are a jerk. I have never seen someone so selfish like you – expect to be embraced and loved but failing to love others.”

“You need some time to calm yourself down. I am not sure whether I am talking to Ben who is on medication or off medication.”

“See! This is another problem. You only want to date the positive side of me. You can’t handle the negative side of me! And I hate you for your ignorance about depression.”

We parted the day after Christmas. Zahid explained to me that the reason he could not continue the relationship was because I am such a drama queen. I was expected to be rational at all times because he always said that he was glad to find someone who could understand how the relationship should work. However, I strongly felt that he was merely oblivious to everything – my emotion, my depression and the fact that a healthy relationship needs to be sustained and cultivated.

***

“I wanted to tell him that he is such a selfish person, but I held my words. Because I think it doesn’t matter anymore.”

“Okay. There is a stack of cards here. Pick the one that describes your feelings when he broke up with you. And we will analyse your automated thoughts in a bit,” said Mr Chua, my psychologist in Subang Jaya, in a lavender-scented room with warm lighting, where my thoughts are dissected into patterns once again, crying to be understood and justified.

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