Wednesday January 16, 2013
A Kuala Lumpur girl in Guatemala
By LIM CHIA YING
A girl from Kuala Lumpur makes her home in a remote part of Guatemala, where time and life is viewed very differently.
WHEN the yearning for adventure and thrills brought 20-something Malaysian student Ling Tan to the wilderness of Guatemala, little did she know that the country would eventually become her home.
Fresh out of the East West Centre in Hawaii with a Masters degree in Economics, Tan was seeking to access neighbouring Mexico in order to re-enter the United States after her visa had expired.
It was 1982 when she arrived at the Museo de Anthropologia (anthropology museum) in Mexico City and bumped into a gringo hippy couple who told her that, “If you like Mexico, you’ll love Guatemala ... never mind what they say about the civil war.”
And so she gamely decided to try out the country for three weeks and ended up having what Tan describes as “the party of my life”. When it was time for her to cross back over the Mexican border, she found herself barred by a series of bizarre circumstances. It ended at the Mexican Embassy in Guatemala City, where she burst into tears upon hearing that she might have to wait seven months for a new visa. It seems that Guatemalan officials who told her she could get her visa at the Mexican Consulate in Huehuetenango near the Guatemalan border had waved her through by cancelling her exit stamp, and that meant she had officially vanished into limbo.
Eventually resigned to her fate, Tan went to the town of Panajachel near Lake Atitlan to bide her time there. She was sitting in an Italian bistro when the owner approached her and offered her a job.
“I still clearly remember our conversation back then,” Tan, now 55, tells this writer in an exclusive interview over Skype and e-mail.
“The owner asked me, ‘Can you cook Chinese food?’ I answered, ‘Of course.’”
“‘Can you cook a 10-course banquet for, say, 20 guests?’ he then asked me.”
“I said, ‘Of course!’ – never mind that I had never done anything of the kind before! Up until Hawaii, I hadn’t learned to cook. But I bluffed my way through somehow, and now, it’s become my vocation,” she laughingly recalls.
When her papers for Mexico came through, in three months instead of the usual seven, Tan left the town convinced she would never be back.
But destiny eventually proved her wrong.
Moving to New York, she became a waitress before backpacking through Europe on the way back to Kuala Lumpur; back home, she climbed the corporate ladder as an executive in an international public relations consultancy. Four years later, she was burnt out so she quit her job and went back to waitressing in New York while working on what she calls her “Great Malaysian Novel”.
Two years later, with a final draft in sight, Tan rewarded herself with a three-month retreat to – where else? – Lake Atitlan.
The vacation did it for Tan, then single and 33. And today, 23 years later, she says she is still very much on vacation.
Life in Guatemala
Born Tan Lai Ling in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur, Tan was the youngest of five children born to parents who ran a Hainanese coffee shop.
The family lived in quarters above the shop, in what she calls a strangely assorted household that included two other business partners with their wives. “My parents not only slaved for long hours, but worked 363 days through the year, with the only break taken during Chinese New Year.
“Growing up, I swore the only life for me was that of a nine-to-five office-worker,” recalls Tan. She also remembers being reprimanded and restricted a lot during her younger days, something she attributes to Asian culture.
Upon graduation, she worked a multitude of jobs. She was a demographer, researcher, waitress, public relations consultant and muffin baker.
Tan later had her son in Panajachel and when he was six months old, she started selling pot stickers (wor tiep in Cantonese; they’re large dumplings, like curry puffs) out of her backpack on the streets. The year Tan’s daughter was born, she started her own restaurant, Las Chinitas, which has been running for 17 years.
Her gamble in settling down in Guatemala was fraught with a host of problems, notably the permission she required to stay on long-term.
“At any one time, I could only get a 30-day stay. If you are an investor or a retiree living off your pension ... basically, if you have money, the authorities make it easier for you to live here. It used to be a nightmare for me, as there isn’t a Malaysian embassy or consulate here.”
Considering other countries nearby, the only possibilities were Belize or El Salvador. Mexico was a “joke” and Honduras was a “Catch 22”, says Tan.
“It was one set of rules if you were entering Mexico from the United States and another set if you were heading up from the south. Nobody had heard of Malaysia (which they called ‘Malasia’) so I was taken for a Chinese wetback trying to sneak into the States via Mexico.
“Going to Honduras was a Catch-22 situation because you have to have a Honduran guarantor – well, how is one supposed to find a guarantor if one can’t get in?” she says, sounding indignant even over e-mail.
Tan says she had to keep applying for a prorroga, an extension, in the fullest bureaucratic sense, for either three or six months and do whatever it took to keep her paperwork in circulation.
“At some point, I even let the paperwork lapse for a few years. But in the end, it worked out. That is why I deeply appreciate my permanent residence, which I got by virtue of my children being born in Guatemala,” says Tan, who is now known as Lai Ling Tan Kong after the Spanish tradition of personal name first, the paternal surname in the middle and maternal surname last.
“I’ve also been blessed by the ease with which I’ve got my business going. Where I used to have a sleeping partner, I now have my own name on the business licence.”
The restaurant, she says, serves a mix of Pan-Asian (e.g. Malaysian nasi goreng and sushi), European (pasta, pizza and burgers) and the local Guatemalan-Mayan cuisine. While she started out with only an Asian menu, Tan says she diversified her strategy about three years back when the economy took a global dive.
“Typical Guatemalan staples are beans and corn-made tortillas, which everyone consumes a lot. But beans are always eaten salty, never sweet, so when I first made the tau sar (red bean) dumpling here, I received a lot of strange looks. The people here thought it was really funny. Sweet beans were not what they wanted.”
Tan says she loves going to the markets, where she can buy produce that was harvested from the fields that morning itself, by the stallkeeper who grew it herself.
“The tomatoes and vegetables here are wonderful, with a lot of broccoli and snow peas being exported to the States. Everything is very affordable and I really love the food here, unlike say in New York where the food tastes like cardboard and, not to mention, is expensive!”
Slow and fresh food is heavily advocated in her restaurant, which eschews anything frozen, processed or pre-cooked. Vegetables are the base for all her dishes, with meat add-ons available.
Her restaurant is fully staffed by Mayan women, with whom she has built long-lasting relationships. Tan is on the founding board of directors of NGO Oxlajuj Bátz´ (Thirteen Threads) that empowers indigenous women through education and change.
A gentler life
Going back to her initial years in Guate-mala, Tan says she did not work at first, living off her savings very frugally. Then she met Richard, the father of her kids.
“Richard is a native of Lufkin, Texas, whom I met here in Pana. He had been living in Mexico for eight years or so after retiring from the oil fields. He would come to Pana on a border run to renew his visa,” she explains.
Tan says that many people are surprised to see a Malaysian in this part of the world. This includes Malaysians, mostly those studying in the United States, who visit on their Christmas or summer breaks.
She describes Mayans as “very cool” people with a completely different conception of time.
“The lifestyle here is gentler and more collaborative than I knew in Asia. People here are also incredibly sweet and loving.
“ For instance, when my cappuccino machine broke down while I was away in the States helping my daughter move into college, my business neighbour, Dona Estela, who has a bakery, lent my workers a spare one.
“When I eventually got my machine fixed after a long time and returned her spare to her, she refused to accept any money.
“It has always seemed to me that Guatemala is a wrinkle in time. True, there are cell phones and computers everywhere now, but it’s still very laid-back and chill,” she adds.
Spanish is the main lingua franca although there are many who only speak their native Mayan tongue. Through the years, Tan, who started off with a three-month Spanish course at the University of Hawaii, has raised her command of the language to a commendable level of fluency.
“However, when I get excited or mad, I completely lose it. My children are always laughing at the mistakes I make. I tell them that I’m permitted to (make mistakes), given my polyglot background. I speak five languages and have a rudimentary knowledge of another five.”
Her two children are presently in the United States in elite colleges, on scholarships. Tan feels blessed that she shares a close relationship with them, one that is very open. It was quite a different scenario when she was growing up.
“I’m proud of the way I’ve sheltered them from all the negative things that ever happened to me, and even prouder of the fact that we’ve been able to talk about it.
“Every time we talk, there are always the words ‘I love you’ uttered spontaneously, never from obligation or formality. And I always try to be as transparent as possible, without secrets, which are poisonous.
“I feel like I got to grow up with them in a healthy way, ” says Tan.
Guatemala is a country with one of the most skewed distributions of wealth in the world, notes Tan, with the top 1% of the population owning 99% of the pie.
“But the thing is, you don’t need very much to get by here. For me, material life was the first layer to fall away. I never had an ostentatious lifestyle, yet I never felt that I lacked anything.
“I cycle to work and have no worries about car insurance or gas. I live with people who are star-gazers, who have been keeping an incredibly sophisticated calendar for a long, long time, so like them, my eyes too are raised skywards.
“While being poor on paper, my kids have grown up with the best clothes and the best private education we could afford. The fact that they are fully bilingual, and at the same time fulfilling all the minority and diversity categories, makes them additionally attractive in college stakes.
“Everything here moves very slowly, which is how I like it. There’s a lot of makeshift improvisation, with the feel of a frontier.”
Guatemala, she adds, is big in tourism, agriculture and coffee. Mayan ruins and the living Mayan culture are the main tourist draw-cards, while Lake Atitlan Lake is also an attraction, as it was created by an immense volcanic explosion 84,000 years ago – it was so immense that it blew rocks out as far as Florida and Ecuador.
In a country of just 15 million, most are Christians, either Catholics or Evangelicas. There are also Mayan shamans and spiritual guides known as day-keepers (because they keep the Mayan calendar).
Tan says she doesn’t have a particular faith but is more of a pan-spiritualist who takes a bit of what she likes from every religion: “I’m not big on organised religion but believe in more of a personal connection.”
Asked if she misses Malaysia, she says without skipping a beat that the one thing she doesn’t miss is the racial identification back home and how it permeates every level.
“It’s about how everybody jumps on one side of the issue or the other. The Bad guys versus the Good. There is no middle ground where communication can exist. You say one thing when you’re with Us, and another when you’re with Them. There is no culture of confronting differences and acknowledging them, which has to be the crucial first step to constructing a bridge.
“I’m not saying that the same thing doesn’t exist here. But because I’m not with any of them, I elude racial/ethnic categorisation.”
She adds that in Pana, she is totally accepted for who she is.
The last time she was back in Malaysia was five years ago, even though she does keep in touch with her family members through Skype or e-mail.
When not at her restaurant, Tan paints, reads, and plays the dulcimer and ukulele.
While her restaurant opens daily from 8am to 10pm, Tan makes sure to take a day off at least once a week.
“Chinese people always seem to think they are indispensable, that the world revolves around them. When I first came here, I couldn’t let go either and would micromanage my workers, looking over their shoulders. Gradually, I learnt the value of giving people their space,” she says.
She lives in Pana town, in a rented house but has an “ancestral home” in the mountains where the umbilici of her children are buried. The land commands a panoramic view of the lake and the volcanoes. Tremors are common, with the last devastating quake in 1976.
“It can get quite scary sometimes and you don’t know what to do, to run out or not. Everything starts shaking and rattling before it finally settles. But I’m still here.
“Some days, it feels like I took a nap, fell down a rabbit-hole and tumbled out the other side of the world,” she says.
An enhanced version of this story is also available on The Star Editor’s Choice, which is a free downloadable app for tablet devices.