Remember that feeling when you’ve been away from Malaysia for a while and you return and WOAH! The sudden braking and the swerving. The swearing. The Aedes-like ZIIIIIING of motorbikes hurtling past you.
I am talking of course about Malaysian roads, which have never been exactly good but are now rivers of lawlessness. Then after a few days of driving, you get used to it again. You relax. Your toes stop curling. Think you can cut me ah, brudder? Think again.
We were reminded of that intial shock when my mother-in-law came to visit.
Now my mother-in-law lives in Minnesota, a place where the stock is largely Scandinavian in origin, the roads are orderly and rules and rules.
The last time she visited, she likes to remind me, I almost got her killed crossing Jalan Imbi where it meets Jalan Raja Chulan. Endless stream of cars, no pedestrian crossing. Walk now, I said, and she did. But she panicked when she saw a car round the corner and ran backwards. The car swerved this way and that and so did my mother-in-law – back and forth – before she finally leapt with a grace belying her 72 years to the safety of the sidewalk.
I’m not sure who was more frightened, my mother-in-law or the driver.
You confused him, I told her afterwards.
To her credit, she is still very nice to me.
Even after I got her son and her grandchildren to move with me to Malaysia.
Malaysians abroad, especially those married to foreigners, will understand what I mean when I say there are no perfect choices in life. Stay abroad and your parents miss out on your kids’ childhood. Come home and your spouse’s family loses out.
When we told my mother-in-law Betty that we were moving to Malaysia after 9 years in the states, she was not thrilled. My own mother in KL of course viewed our move with her own irrefutable logic. Betty had seven grandchildren, she pointed out, while ”I have only two.” Oh. Quite.
Betty said she understood, mourned for a while, and then she rallied, helping out any way she could.
Last month, Betty visited KL.
The first few days, I think it’s safe to say, she found the heat and the general hecticness of KL life a bit overwhelming. Then she started recognising places and getting into the rhythm of things.
She re-arranged our messy house and watched the kids after school as my husband and I worked. She cooked.
My parents took her out shopping and they bought cute samfus for the girls for Chinese New Year. Then there was the evening when my mother and my mother-in-law busted curfew, going shopping in Central Market, eating at Old China Cafe, then stopping at the teahouse upstairs afterwards to sip tea and gossip with the owner.
They finally came home, giggling like two teenagers, after 11pm on a schoolnight, to my disapproving face and wagging finger.
At Chinese New Year, Betty joined us for reunion dinner and vegetarian breakfast. A regular church-goer, she nevertheless paid her respects to my ancestors with jossticks at the temple.
It was nice, she said, to live your lives for a while and see what it’s like.
As for the crazy traffic, I can’t say she ever quite got over it, but she did manage to relax enough in the car to hold conversations.
Come back, Betty. It’ll be even better next time.