One day an elderly client came to the car workshop to pick up his Mercedes Benz from my brother.
Benz owner then took a drive together with the mechanic to become better acquainted with the car’s personality.
As my brother was describing some of the finer details of the car during the ride, the old man suddenly asked if he was related to a person called “Ah Ong.”
He had been watching my brother, and found his mannerisms reminding him of an old friend whom he hadn’t seen for years.
“Ah Ong” happens to be the name by which my late father was frequently addressed by relatives and friends.
It turned out that the old man knew our dad.
My brother then told him that “Ah Ong” had passed on a few years ago.
When the car ride ended, the elderly Benz driver said to my brother, “Your father bought me lunch when I had nothing. Everyone is scared of poor people, except your old man. If you’re ever in need of food, just call me. I’ll buy you all the meals you need.”
My brother thanked him for remembering our dad and agreed to keep in touch.
My dad wouldn’t have expected or known that the ONE lunch he had bought for someone facing hard times years ago, would end up contributing to the future livelihood of my brother and turn into promises of food relief should the need ever arise.
For many of us childhood outings with grandmas usually centered around going to school, going to the market & temple visits.
On mornings if I woke up late & missed the market outing with my grandma, I would stand by the kitchen window of our Prince Charles Square flat and watch for her return as she briskly crossed the bridge on the Alexandra Canal on her way home.
Once she had to cross the canal twice just to go to the market to make sure she got me the clay monkey figurine that I really liked. Things bought for me must not look like it was meant for my brother.
When I got older, her trips became infrequent.
As she aged and we moved to a new flat, my grandma became more housebound & more isolated.
She was always standing by the window and waiting for us to come home.
By then I was occupied with my own life & thought very little of her loneliness.
Many afternoons I saw her sitting by the stove silently, but I would never risk asking what she was thinking or feeling lest it gave her a chance to criticise my mother again. Likewise I learnt not to ask my parents what was on their mind.
That was how Silence invaded our home.
This time when I landed in Xiamen, I wanted to be able to talk freely. So I placed my grandma’s silver belt by the window sill of the hotel room facing the sea. I told her we would be making the crossing to her Kinmen Island in a few days’ time.
When I got the ferry ticket at Wutong Harbour, I told her.
As the ferry departed for Shuitou Harbour in Kinmen, I placed her possession by the window of the boat & showed her the waves that she rode on nearly 100 years ago.
A drizzle had begun when we landed on Shuitou Harbour, Kinmen Island. A harbour staff by the name of Mr Zhang Hui Ren (张惠人) quickly came to our assistance by getting us a trolley for our luggage. He showed us great Kinmen hospitality by supervising our customs clearance and looked for our B&B host who was there to pick us up.
He reminded us to let the counter staff know on our return trip that I would need help with luggage and boarding. Everyone was in a chatty mood. Even the security personnel with the cute beagle were happy to see us. I wanted to hug the dog but controlled myself.
The sun shone brilliantly the next day and the next 2 days as I walked the streets of my grandma’s hometown, Houpu & visited her ancestral shrine in Pan Shan.
On the morning before my journey to Pan Shan (15 June) I placed her silver belt on the balcony ledge of the B&B we were at.
Below my unit, mammas and pappas scooted about with kids on their vespas. Above me the sun shone brightly and the birds tweeted. The air was cool & crisp.
I felt the sun’s warmth on my face & neck as I gave thanks.
After I had told my grandma about our plan for the day, a butterfly bearing markings of brown, white and orange landed on her silver belt. I held my breath as it lingered briefly before taking off again.
The journey ahead for the rest of the day was filled with wonderful sights, heartfelt conversations and unexpected discoveries, assuring me that the longevity of Love continues outside time.
I first saw her picture on facebook earlier this year while researching on my trip to Kinmen Island, birthplace of my grandma.
“I hope to grow old like her,” was the first thought that hit me when I saw her picture. I then saved her pictures for future inspiration and that was it.
The old lady had offered the use of her house courtyard for a music festival organised by young artists and lovers of Kinmen culture.
This afternoon while heading back to our taxi after visiting the ancient houses of 珠山 （Zhushan Village） I was attracted to conversational voices coming from a house on my right.
An old lady and two men were chatting while seated on low stools at the doorway.
I gasped when I realised I was looking at the old lady from the facebook photos!
I spoke excitedly to our driver, Yuan, as if I had just spotted a unicorn in Kinmen.
“Are you absolutely sure?” Yuan asked, perhaps a bit amused by my giddy excitement.
“Yes! She was featured in a music festival in 2017 organised by Wang Ling & friends. She was surrounded by young people in that picture!” I gushed. Nothing is gonna come between me and my role model now.
The old lady saw me lingering some distance from her door and waved at me. She would tell me later that she did so because she wanted me to come inside her house to take a break from the afternoon heat outside.
What followed after I entered the doorway to her 400-year-old house was an afternoon of magical exchanges in a mixture of Mandarin, Minan & English.
I told her frankly that I saw her on facebook and I hope to look like her if I ever get the chance to grow old.
She laughed heartily while holding my hand firmly.
She is 84 years old this year.
Yuan explained to my Role Model that before we came to her village, I had visited my grandmother’s ancestral shrine in 半山 (Pan Shan).
My Role Model smiled at me and said benignly in the minan dialect, “I was born in Pan Shan. My surname is Weng (翁), same as your grandmother’s.”
I couldn’t have asked for a better confirmation of ancestral presence and divine guidance on this trip to Kinmen that I made on my grandma’s behalf.
Yesterday a student and I sat briefly on the curb of Haji Lane for a different perspective of the wall murals & the sky surrounding us.
At ground level, we also spotted a handsome cat seeking shade in the shadow of the column supporting the shop houses.
The feline’s portly appearance and sturdy collar showed that he or she had a protector among the shopkeepers.
And yes, as I strolled down the lane, I spotted the unmistakable cat feeding bowl and water dish right by the entrance of a yoga shop.
Someone from within called out, and the cat promptly got up and strutted right in.
By then the humidity was getting to me. I paused outside a shop promoting street & retro fashion. The Malay lady shopkeeper saw me at the entrance & urged me to step right in to escape the midday heat.
We chatted a bit and I was surprised to see that further inside the shop, there was an array of Chinese tea for sampling at $2 per cup. Wati explained that it was to help customers have a taste before deciding if they wanted to buy more.
The owner of the business for whom she worked was an avid promoter of tea and coffee culture.And even though she didn’t know a lot about Chinese tea history and cultivation, helping her boss had prompted her to buy tea gifts for her children’s tuition teachers.
“My boss is a tea expert. He’ll come to the shop early today so that I can go home to break fast. Why don’t you come back & meet him? He knows a lot about tea. He can tell you everything!” She said with absolute certainty.
I was also very impressed that given the small space, she had made every effort to arrange the tea bags and tea related products to achieve the highest level of aesthetic appeal possible.
Towards evening Krison and I dropped by at the shop. Wati was getting ready to go home. She was thrilled to see us and quickly introduced us to Tea Boss. She was beginning to wonder if I would turn up at all!
And was I glad I did! What followed after Wati’s intro was an almost 2 hours of tea drinking and appreciation lesson. Tea Boss didn’t seem to care if we would buy any of his teas, but he cared that we could differentiate & enjoy the various types of tea from different regions he was brewing for us.
Before he seeped the tea, he invited us to inhale the tea leaves and to describe the scents to him. He smiled encouragingly at our attempts to articulate our olfactory experiences and tapped the table approvingly when our responses matched his.
I felt as if we were taking a test but there was no pressure to be right or embarrassment of being wrong.
I think between Tea Boss and us, we must have sipped 54 tiny cups of tea brewed from at least 6 different types of leaves. They bore exotic names from hills and mountains which I didn’t even know existed.
Time slowed down. We were recharged not just by tea, but by the passion of a man who shared freely with us details of his travels to tea plantations and the knowledge that old tea folks taught him.
And the causes behind this magical encounter among 3 Chinese people? The sleepy orange cat and the dedicated Malay lady shopkeeper of Haji Lane in the month of Ramadan.
Seeing corn and various grains on altars as gestures of thanksgiving to the divine always comforts me deeply for reasons I’m not entirely sure of. (Maybe I’m quietly pleased that birds and other small animals might have something to eat when the ceremony’s over 😉)
The 8 auspicious grains in this new moon mandala offering are pearl rice, glutinous rice, oats, corn, red beans, black rice, red peanuts and red kidney beans. They make a good porridge that has health benefits too.
Likewise, as we care for our body & soul, may our heart be nourished by the new moon’s faithful light.
And may treasuring our own lives awaken us to treasure the lives of others.
“If I’m there, I will shoot them with my gun,” Niq announced what he’d do to the crowd that mocked Jesus as he carried the cross on his way to the crucifixion.
We were having one of our Sunday spelling, cat and book sessions.
I explained to him that even though he meant well, Jesus might not agree with his actions.
He became thoughtful. There was a penetrating light in his eyes as he grappled with the idea of remaining peaceful even in the face of injustice.
I also told him I had never met Jesus in person but I’ve seen lots of paintings depicting him. Artists portrayed him based on what they learnt from the bible, the same source where I read about Christmas and now Crucifixion.
At the part where Jesus was crucified, Niq who was till then very focused on the nails, suddenly blurted out anxiously, “Then Mother Mary how?”
When I told him that Jesus entrusted his mother to the care of one of his friends, John, before he died, the young boy gave out a soft sigh.
So this is how an 8-year-old boy who could narrate the story of Baby Jesus just last December, now learns that love is not always about feeling nice. And this Easter he sees that to be able to suffer without becoming bitter is a sign of power.