Thursday, August 09, 2007

When I was Ten

"Children have neither past nor future; and that which seldom happens to us, they rejoice in the present."

Jean de La Bruyère, 17th century French essayist and moralist

I don't remember much of that place now. All my recollections of it is grey. Grey stones which paved the expansive grey courtyards enclosed by tall grey walls beneath a cloudy, grey sky. That's what old memories always look like to me. Faded - like old photographs left out in the sun for much too long.

The only colour I recollect from that day is green - a green flag to be precise, which I held in my little hands. I was trotting frantically trying to keep up with a tall young man, whose every stride equals mine times three. Of course, being only ten years old at that time, all the adults were almost twice my height. Besides, I was a pretty tiny kid too.

That flag belonged to that young man but he lent it to me because I asked to help him carry it. He also carried a bullhorn which he raised to his mouth every minute - which he wouldn't let me touch no matter how many times I asked him for it. When he talked into it, a whole bunch of other adults who were also walking after him would gather around to hear him speak. I don't remember a single thing he said using that bullhorn because - let's face it - what 10 years old kid would pay attention what one adult say to another (or many others, whatever). In fact, I wouldn't even care what I would say through that bullhorn so long as I get to use it and hear my own voice become all big and electric out of the other end.

He was the tour guide of our little tour group - a Chinese History major or something from some big shot Chinese University. At ten, I learnt that History is a fat waste of time, and if I choose to study that when I'm in a university, I'll end up like that young man - prattling away about ancient stuff ten-year-olds don't give a hoot about to a gaggle of gawking tourists (that's why I screwed up History for my SPM examination - I did it on purpose, okay). Oh, my grandmother and grandfather, my mom and dad, and my very irritating 5-year-old baby sister were hanging about somewhere in that gaggle of gawking tourist, by the way. Just thought you ought to know I wasn't tagging along a group of strangers in China without parental supervision. I was a really good, obedient kid - albeit one whose life ambition was to hear his squeaky, preadolescent voice amplified by a bullhorn.

The young man spoke excellent English and very funny Mandarin which I could barely understand - and now that I'm much older, I realise that it was us Malaysians - and not the Mainland Chinese - who spoke funny Mandarin. I was his self-appointed assistant and my job was simple; raise the flag and yell the tour company's name every time he wanted to show us a bit of really old wall built by some dead emperor or something. I did my job with proudly and turned my nose away from the other children because I was the only kid in our tour group allowed to do it - or rather, the only kid thick-skinned enough to ask to do it. What's the difference, really?

That day, our little group visited a really old temple. I remembered that day in particular because it revealed something really bizarre about me - to myself.


The thing about childhood memories is that they tend to sport big, leaky holes in them. You would remember a series of disjointed events that you know are all connected - but for the life of you, you can't remember the key happenstances that join them. I remember that I was walking with a green flag beside a young man with a bullhorn leading a pack of tourists. Then blank. Memory file not found. And suddenly, I found myself walking alone in a massive temple courtyard with the same green flag still clutched jealously in my hands and wondering to myself where the heck did everyone go.

Somehow, everyone just vanished without me noticing it. Maybe I had one of those childhood absence epilepsy I've been reading about.

What would you do if you're ten years old and suddenly found yourself lost in a strange temple in a foreign country? In a very big temple. A very very very big temple. The enormous 14th century Temple of Heaven in Beijing to be exact. Cry? Scream? Walk up to the nearest adult in uniform and ask him or her for help?

Well, I didn't do any of that. All I did was continue walking aimlessly and absentmindedly drawing circles in thin air with that green flag I still have with me. If there is one thing I can remember very clearly from that day, it is that I wasn't the least bit scared at all. No choking panic from fear of never seeing my family ever again. No despair. No nothing. I was calm and completely composed. Disturbingly composed.

And my thoughts in those moments was even more bizarre. Instead of thinking how to rejoin the tour group and my family, I found myself wondering what I would eat later that night since I did not have any money with me. I thought of sitting at a street corner to beg for some. In fact, I got as far as to planning to steal a bowl to collect alms and thinking that I should roll myself in a dirt patch so I would look like a believable junior panhandler. I idly mused about joining the local beggar gang, wondered at what sort of initiation rites they would have, and was worried about how they would treat a foreigner like me - when I suddenly heard my mother's voice resounding across the grey-stoned courtyard.

"Kok Sen Wai, please walk to the main temple area."

Cool. Mom hijacked the PA system.

The Temple of Heaven, if I remember correctly, was divided into two or three separate complexes with their own adjoining courtyards - and the 'main temple area' I supposed, was the one with that big conical building standing in its centre. So I headed there;


That's when I started having second thoughts about doing that. What if my mom was furious at me for wandering off? Would she berate me in front of everyone? Would she take away my flag and tie me up in the bus for the rest of the tour? And as all these really scary thoughts flashed through my 10-year-old mind, the prospect of being a life living off the pity of passerbys in the streets of Beijing didn't sound too bad after all. I actually stopped walking and was halfway contemplating to make a break for it with the green flag when someone grabbed me by the arm.

It was a young woman with a name tag in her shirt - someone who worked there, most likely.

That made up my mind for me then. As I was being led away to wherever I suppose my family's at, I began formulating an excuse to talk my way out of trouble. I finally settled on pretending to cry - play the Scared Lost Kid card so my mom would go easy on me. I was actually a pretty talented little actor. I could do a very believable Sick Kid back then, even managing to force myself to vomit whenever I felt like skipping school. Fake weeping was a piece of cake.

So, I got off with a lot comforting pats on my head and an ice-cream cone for the "traumatic" experience I went through (which so totally pissed my annoying little sister off because she couldn't have any).

And the tour guide bloke let me use the bullhorn too when I asked him for it again.

Missing childhood,
k0k s3n w4i


pinksterz said...

mengada betul.

Rabbit said...

Yeah lah, like that also can. Memang pun tak takut langsung, wanna act like takut only. Cis!

U sure ur mom called out for "kok sen wai" and not "harry kok"? Or the english name of yours that starts with a F?

Jen said...

why, you crafty little worm, you. genius!! but heck, i wouldnt mind bawling my eyes out a bit for an ice cream instead of a good scolding.

even now ;)

if i were lost, i'm sorry to say that i'd put the entire clan to shame probably by crying so much, i'd pass out. oh boy. what a scene.

i'm such a chicken backside at heart. sigh.

Crux said...

I once got lost at a train station, and when I realised it, I immediately started preparing a speech to give to the fella at the counter, describing my house and asking him which train to take to get there, and if he can lend me money for a ticket, which I'll ask my dad to pay back later for.

My main worry wasn't that I may not see my family again, but that I might take the wrong train and have to repeat the entire process. And that I might not be able to get ticket money this time.

Heh. We think alike (or at least as kids, we used to)..

k0k s3n w4i said...

ur just jeluz that u didn't get icecream.

She wudn't dare call me that F name. I hated it since I was a baby. Worse name ever. Bluek.

i think chicken backside is something entirely diff altogether.
Girls still get to weep whenever they want. We guys have to toughen up, keep a stiff upper lip and all that macho crap.

crafty li'l boys we were XD
U reminded me. I have never sat in a train before in my life. I gotta try it now that I'm in India.

sXydeViL said...

haha so adorable. imagine a tiny cock. =P

btw, go to goa cock. bring ur books if u must. though i doubt u can make it in one piece there if u cant take the bus journey down to mangalore. lolz.