Saturday March 26, 2011
Tomyam, with insight
By ALEXANDRA WONG
Once upon a time, if someone had told our columnist that she would be on texting terms with the tomyam warung operator below her apartment, and that he would be chauffeuring her to the airport someday, she would have said, “Crazy ah?”
I’m waiting by the roadside with my luggage when the realisation hits me: Tam and I have come a long way since the day I took my first sip of his tomyam.
I turn around at the familiar voice. A mustachioed, honey-skinned bloke sticks his head out of a Proton Waja. Ah, he had arrived early.
“So how was your trip to India?” he asks as I load my bags into his back seat.
I launch into a gushing monologue about how it exceeded my wildest expectations, how the masala dosa and chilli chicken were out of this world, how I met heaps of interesting people, including a Bavarian biologist and a 90-year-old Masters student.
I conclude breathlessly, “It was like a blooming United Nations meeting!”
He knits his brows thoughtfully. “Hmm, Alex jadi 1World lah.”
Words fail me momentarily, before I burst out laughing. 1World? Even copywriters can’t come up with insta-gems like that.
“And you?” I settle comfortably into the seat. “Business ok?”
“Ok lah. Thinking of how to improve my operating margin. Planning to buy a house. Properties are the best investment. No point buying cars or luxury goods — their value depreciates over time. Houses, on the other hand, can yield great returns in rental. There’s this guy near my house who drives around in a run-down Iswara, but he owns five houses. Imagine the rental — more than I can make in three months!”
“Ever thought of selling your stall?” I ask.
He shakes his head vigorously.
“This stall has altered the landscape of my life.”
Fleetingly, I wonder if I misheard. The last sentence was pretty deep. Did he actually understand the nuance of the expression, “landskep kehidupan”?
In the next instance, I feel ashamed for not giving him enough credit. Tam was more proactive about self-development than some of the most “learned” people I know.
When I’d asked him to take me to Borders once, he had surprised me by saying that he had purchased books there several times.
“Apa maksud Tam, mengubah landskep kehidupan Tam?” I ask him to elaborate.
“Regardless of how successful we become, never forget our roots. Don’t look down on our beginnings. Like this stall. Although other people have urged me to focus on other shops, I love this stall, because it was this stall that brought me out of poverty. Without this stall, I would never be able to enjoy this level of lifestyle. That is why this stall has altered the landscape of my life,” he explains.
The depth of his insights takes my breath away. Tam is a constant bundle of surprises. For all the communication difficulties we sometimes encounter — his loghat (dialect) can be treacly thick, and I, with my rusty Bahasa Malaysia, occasionally grope for the appropriate term — I love talking to him.
He has this habit of listening intently and quietly, then shocking you with a pithy sound bite that both summarises the zeitgeist of what you’re trying to say, and links it to current cultural context. Who needs self-help gurus?
He continues, oblivious to my widened eyes, “Through my line of business, I get to meet a lot of people. We talk, we joke, we share. You must have heard of this lady from Perak who is very rich yet leads a very simple life. I was told she has millions of dollars in the bank, yet takes buses, wears recycled clothes, eats at warung (stalls).”
Perhaps I haven’t fully awakened, or the deceptive monotone of his voice has anesthetised my alertness. He actually spoke that much before his meaning sinks in.
“Cheeky devil!” I swat his shoulder with a magazine.
“What?” he continues innocently. “You’ve never heard of this lady? Hmm. Quite famous I hear. Every day, all she does is chat up people, listen to their stories, and if she thinks they’re good, she turns them into newspaper articles. Still doesn’t ring a bell?”
I would have swatted his arm one more time, except that he was making a dangerous turn.
“Like you, I like to mix with a lot of different friends. Can learn more. Not to praise your race or what, but we can all do well to learn a thing or two from the Chinese. You’ve got sound principles when it comes to money.”
Blame it on the conservative Asian who tries to deflect praise even when it is due. I say embarrassedly, “No lah. Not all Chinese are so prudent. You can’t stereotype by race.”
He considers my words, then nods.
“True, true. I heard of another Chinese guy who was zipping around in a fancy car and all. His fingers were draped with diamonds. Wore heavy Rolexes. He gave the impression he was loaded! Then one day, I heard Ah Long (slang for cut-throat money-lender) was looking for him. I was puzzled. Why did he need to borrow from Ah Long when he was already so successful?”
“Maybe he bit off more than he could chew?”
“Or maybe he thought, I’ll over spend today. Tomorrow will bring more business. But he forgot, you can never predict what happens tomorrow. The economy might suddenly be hit by a crisis. There is a saying in Malay: Biar papa asalkan bergaya.”
How the tables of stereotype have quietly turned. My ancestors would have a fit if they heard us — a Malay talking to a Chinese about financial prudence. Perhaps we have much more in common than we think.
When no reply is forthcoming, he darts a sidelong glance at me.
“You know the meaning, right?” he checks, as if to make sure.
“Biar papa asalkan bergaya? Yes, yes, I got A2 in Form Five OK?” I retort.
“I’m from Hakka stock. We’re famous for being prudent with money. Don’t worry, you won’t find me behaving like my friend’s sister who bought an LV bag on a RM1,500 salary!”
We have reached the airport by now.
“Thanks for helping me out Tam.”
“No worries. Friends don’t keep score right?”
“Of course not!” I reply gaily, waving goodbye.
As he drives off, I think to myself, now if only there were more people like Tam, the world would have less to worry about.
o To would-be conmen, Alexandra Wong (bunnysprints.blogspot.com) doesn’t have millions in the bank, but she has certainly become a lot richer in life experiences after becoming a writer.