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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

We, the Survivors

A Novel

Tash Aw

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK

I

OCTOBER


October 2nd

You want me to talk about life, but all I’ve talked about is failure, as if they’re the same thing, or at least so closely entwined that I can’t separate the two – like the trees you see growing in the half-ruined buildings in the Old Town. Roots clinging to the outside of the walls, holding the bricks and stone and whatever remains of the paint together, branches pushing through holes in the roof. Sometimes there’s almost nothing left of the roof, if you can even call it that – just fragments of clay tiles or rusty tin propped up by the canopy of leaves. A few miles out of town, on the other side of Kapar headed towards the coast, you’ll find a shophouse with the roots of a jungle fig creeping down the front pillars of the building, the entire structure swallowed up by the tree – the doorway is now just a shadowy space that leads into the heart of a huge tangle of foliage. Where does one end and the other begin? Which one is alive, which is dead? Still, on the ground floor of these houses, there’ll be a business or a shop, some kind of small operation, an old guy who’ll patch up your tyres for twenty bucks. Or a printing press that makes those cheap leaflets advertising closing-down sales at the local mall. Or a cake shop with nothing in the chiller cabinets except for two pieces of kuih lapis that have been there for three weeks. The packets of biscuits on the shelves are covered in the dust that drifts across from the construction sites nearby, where they’re building the new railway or shopping mall or God knows what. These people haven’t made a decent living for twenty years. They’re seventy-five, eighty years old. Still alive, but their business is being taken over by a tree. Imagine that.

That night, after the killing – or the culpable homicide not amounting to murder, as you politely call it – I walked for many hours in the dark. I can’t tell you how long. I tried to hang on to a sense of time, kept looking at the sky for signs of dawn, I even quickened my stride to make each step feel like one full second, like the ticking of that clock on the wall over there, that right now sounds so quick. Tick, tick, tick. But that night each second stretched into a whole minute, each minute felt like a lifetime, and there was nothing I could do to speed things up.

My shirt was wet – not just damp, but properly wet – and it clung to my back like a second skin; only that skin did not belong to me, but to a separate living organism, cold and heavy, weighing me down. As I walked further and further away from what I now come to think of as the scene of the crime (but didn’t then – it was just a darkened spot on the riverbank, indistinguishable from any other), I listened out for the sirens of police cars, expecting to hear them at any moment. I kept thinking, They’re coming for me, this is the end, the mata are going to catch me and throw me in jail forever. I said out loud, You’re finished. This really is the end for you. Hearing my own voice calmed me. Nothing had ever felt so absolute and certain. The police would arrive, they would lock me up, and from then on, all my days would be the same. The thought of being in a small empty cell with nothing to think about for the rest of my life – the idea of this existence comforted me. When I woke up each morning I would see the same four walls that had been there when I fell asleep the night before. Nothing would ever change. What I wore, how long I slept each night, how many times a day I could eat, wash, shit – every decision would be made for me, I would be just the same as everyone else. Someone would take control of my life, and that would be the end of my story. Part of me still wishes things had turned out that way.

I walked through the long grass – it was stringy and sharp and slashed my legs right up to my knees. It was hot, I was wearing shorts, my skin started to sting. Twice, maybe three times, I crossed a bridge and continued to wander along the opposite bank. At first I was looking for my car, but soon I realised I was trying to get as far away from the scene of the crime as possible. The only problem was that I couldn’t remember exactly where it had happened. At some point I started to feel mud between my toes and I realised I’d lost one sandal, which must have got stuck in the swampy ground, so I kicked off the other and walked barefoot. It was late, but not so late that there wasn’t any traffic on the highways beyond, and on the bridges overhead. Their headlamps would sometimes illuminate the tops of the trees above me, and suddenly little details would leap out at me, things I wouldn’t have noticed if I’d been walking there in the daytime – kites with smiley bird faces snagged in the branches, or plastic bags, lots of them, hanging like swollen ghostlike fruit.

Sometimes I’d see strange shapes drifting in the middle of the river. Fallen tree trunks and bushes uprooted by the storms upstream, tangled together in huge rafts that looked like some sort of mythical beast from Journey to the West, the kind of nonsense that adults tell children to scare them into behaving themselves, but that no one actually takes seriously, not even children – what kid actually believes in a nine-headed bug? – until one night they’re walking alone on a riverbank, and then those demons seem real and terrifying. Other times, snagged in the reeds right by where I was walking, I’d see a dead creature, a body so bloated that I couldn’t even tell what it was – a could-be cat or a could-be monkey. When a body’s been in the water for that long, its shape starts to blur, softening around the edges until it becomes impossible to distinguish one kind of animal from another.

My arm ached, I was moving in a funny way, one side of my body less mobile than the other. I realised that I was still holding the piece of wood, the length of tree branch that had felt so light in my hand just a short while ago but now seemed to weigh a hundred pounds. During the trial, when people in court referred to the murder weapon that was never retrieved, I remembered the damp two-foot piece of wood that I held that night. It was just a fragment of a tree. A few hours earlier, when I’d struck the man for the first time, the broken length of wood had seemed so insignificant that I thought it incapable of causing pain. I expected it to shatter, I expected the man to laugh at my ridiculous choice of weapon. Now it felt as if I was lifting an entire tree, the weight of the world clinging to its roots. I raised my arm, wanting to throw it far out into the middle of the river, but suddenly I found that I had no strength left in my body. It slipped from my grasp and fell just a few feet away.

I realised after a while that the police were not going to arrive. No one was going to come for me. Not that night, not the following day, and maybe not for weeks. In the end it took them more than two months to arrest me – but you already know that. You also know why it took so long. When the victim is that sort of person, the police don’t really care. Yes, that kind of person. A foreigner. An illegal. Someone with dark skin.

Bangla, Myanmar, Nepal. When the police come it’s all the same to them. Even Africa. It’s as if they all come from one big nameless continent. Back when I was living in Puchong, I saw a group of Africans by the side of the road, a dozen men. Some were sitting on the pavement, others were standing up, laughing, joking, drinking beer and liquor. One or two were dancing – they had a big portable set that played their tunes so loudly I almost couldn’t hear my own music. I was listening to Jacky Cheung on my phone – back then we only had those small Sony Ericssons that made every song sound crackly, as if you were listening to it on the radio in a faraway country. Maybe you’re too young to remember those phones. I was on the other side of the road, outside the 7-Eleven, eating a Ramly burger with Keong. This was seventeen, eighteen, maybe even twenty years ago. Back then you didn’t see so many Africans around. People didn’t know anything about them – which countries they were from, why they’d come here. Ask anyone what they knew about Africa and they’d say, Lions.

Keong was looking at his phone, pretending he wasn’t interested, as if he’d grown up with black people. But he couldn’t help making comments. Wahlau, Muhammad Ali brought all his friends! I remember laughing, even though I didn’t really find it funny. Most probably I made some comments too. It was so long ago, I don’t recall. There was a light breeze that night, I remember that. Next to us an old Indian stallkeeper was clearing up his stand for the night. Business was slow, there weren’t many people out on the street. ‘Every Friday night,’ he said. ‘Every week they come here and raise trouble. Friday supposed to be holy day – these guys, they don’t respect anything.’ In fact he didn’t say these guys, he said these Mat Hitam. Better not translate that.

I said, ‘They’re Nigerian.’ I’d seen an article in the Nanyang Siang Pau about Nigerian students coming to Malaysia, falling into debt after they graduated and being unable to buy a ticket home. I remember thinking, Must be really desperate to come to college here.

‘Shut your mouth,’ Keong said. ‘Nigerian your ass. You don’t know anything.’

As I looked at them, I got the feeling that they were floating through the city, unattached to anything around them. Their music was the only thing that seemed real – a link to their home. That was why they were listening to it so loudly, I thought. But they were thousands of miles away, and something in the way they talked to each other, shouting over the music and laughing in the half-dark street, made me realise that they would probably never return to where they came from. And suddenly I thought, I am just like them, I am floating through life.

‘What the fuck,’ Keong said. There was a note of excitement in his voice. Two guys in the group had started fighting, that kind of messy scuffling that happens when people are drunk, not really a proper fight, just grappling with each other, tumbling into the road. A car passed by and had to swerve to avoid them. The driver leaned on the horn for a long time – it was a Kancil, the noise of the honking as it drove off was high-pitched, like a cheap child’s toy that you buy in the night market. It made us laugh. A few minutes later the men were joking and talking again as though nothing had happened. We stopped looking at them – they were nothing special, they were just like us, just hanging out with friends. Keong was texting his new girlfriend, reading out her messages to me. Of course he was exaggerating. I knew she didn’t think he was the handsomest guy in the world. In fact I’m sure she didn’t even exist. But I went along with it – that’s what you do with old friends. You take an interest in their lives, even when they’re lying.

Then suddenly we heard a commotion – more shouting. We looked up from our phones and saw three police cars and another three unmarked ones surrounding the Nigerian guys. Everyone was yelling. There were a lot of cops, I couldn’t count them. They pushed one guy against a car. I could hear him shouting in English, No drugs no drugs I don’t have anything! But they handcuffed him anyway and made him sit on the kerb just like his dozen or so friends. At first the Nigerians were arguing, shouting at the police. They were big guys, much taller than us, and maybe they thought they could get out of trouble by being loud, but they didn’t know what the police were like. I couldn’t see what happened, there were too many bodies in the way, but all at once everything became quiet, and one of the men was lying on the ground, one arm around his head, the other one stretched out as if he was reaching for something. He wasn’t moving. After a while, some of them started to plead – we could hear them from across the street. Their voices were soft and rich and deepened each time they said the word Please. Please. The sound of the word made me feel as if I was stepping off solid earth and falling into an abyss. I wanted it to stop.

‘Just pay them,’ Keong said. ‘Get all the damn cash out of your pockets. Just pay.’ But we knew they had no money to bribe the cops. I’m sure they understood the system just as well as we did, they just didn’t have the money. Keong shook his head. ‘Aiyo cham lor, lock-up for you tonight my friends.’ When you’ve grown up in the kinds of places that we have, you know what’s in store for you.

A big police truck arrived and picked up all the Nigerians. While it was still parked, one of the cops came over to buy some cigarettes. We asked him what was going on. He said, ‘Local people – we don’t like seeing Mat Hitam around.’ He lit a cigarette with a silver Zippo lighter. ‘We’re like the town council, just cleaning the trash off the streets.’

We laughed loudly – as if we were best buddies with him. Yeah, clean it all up. I can’t remember what else we said, can’t recall exactly what kind of jokes we made, but we wanted the police to think we were on their side. We knew they wouldn’t be hassling us that night, that there was someone else they were more interested in. Even though I was young, I thought I already understood the way things worked. But that night made it clear to me, like the words to a song by a foreign singer. You know the melody by heart, but you can’t quite make out the words, you can only understand fragments of English here and there, you sing a line or two from the chorus and sort of understand the message, but then one day someone explains the words to you, and suddenly everything clicks into focus, the whole song makes sense. It’s no longer just a pretty tune, it’s got meaning – and that night, the message became clear: no one wanted to know about you if you were dark-skinned and foreign. Who would come looking for you if you were thrown in Sungai Buloh jail? Or if you sank slowly to the bottom of a river? No one would ask questions. Not until it was way too late.

I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. I guess I want to empty out the contents of my head after all these years. That’s what you asked me to do right from the start. Don’t hold back, be as honest and open as possible. Just talk, you said. No judgement. So that’s what I’m doing. Just talking.

October 4th

I have nothing to complain about these days. Every day is the same, and this is a blessing. Nowadays people think variety is the only thing that gives meaning to life, but they forget that routine is a privilege too. No disruptions, no crazy ups and downs, no heartbreak or distress – there is something divine in sameness, isn’t there? A gift sent from the gods. I’m lucky. I live on my savings – the small amount of money I made when I sold my house in Taman Bestari that I’d lived in with my wife. To my surprise it was still worth something when I came out of jail, so I sold it and moved into this place, a smaller house with just two small bedrooms, a bit further out of town. Twice a week, someone from the church visits me with a food hamper – basic groceries with a few treats thrown in – and if ever I’m in need, I can always go to church to talk to someone, and they’ll usually give me some biscuits or leftover fried rice – whatever they have in the kitchen. It’s called Harvest Assembly. I’ve been going there for nearly six years, ever since I got out of prison.

Apart from that, small sums of money come through to me from time to time from a Chinese charity. You know, the L-Foundation. That happened through the lawyer who tried to get damages from the prison service for the injury I suffered during my time inside, but of course it didn’t succeed. I could have told them that before they even started. Who in the world ever gets any damages from the police or the prison service? But because of the lawyer’s efforts, someone heard of my case, even though it was never famous, never in the newspapers for long. Somebody took pity on me, even though God knows I wasn’t worthy of sympathy then. Next thing I know, I get a cheque for six hundred ringgit. To you it probably seems like nothing, but for me it’s a lot. I thought it was a one-time deal, I was happy with it, but the cheques continue to arrive – not regularly, just now and then, with no warning or reason. Sometimes 250 ringgit, sometimes four hundred. On those days I’ll walk to the bus stop and ride into town, get there just before the old bak kut teh places shut, and have a big breakfast before strolling around Little India. Sometimes I like to spend a few hours just wandering around a mall in the new town, usually Klang Parade. I treat myself to a meal at Texas Chicken, and always order the same thing: Mexicana Burger and Honey-Butter Biscuits. Sometimes I think I should be more adventurous and try something else – I really like the look of Jalapeno Bombers. Bombers! They sound great. But then I think, what if I don’t like them? The thought of getting something new makes me nervous. I want my day to be happy, I don’t want to be stressed, I want everything to be calm, to remain the same.

I sit and watch the teenagers in school uniforms sharing their fried chicken and showing each other photos on their phones. The boys pretend to be tough, they use the same language I did when I was their age – you know, Cantonese cursing, which sounds really crude and aggressive. If you’d heard me and my friends at that age you’d probably have moved away to the next table. But these kids, they’re not like me – they come from the new suburbs close by, they’ve got decent families. Fourteen, fifteen years old, but they’re just babies, relaxing in the mall together after school and playing games on their phones. Even after a whole day at school their uniforms look freshly laundered, not crumpled and grey with sweat – you’d almost say there was starch on their white shirts. Nothing troubles their lives, and in a strange way, their happiness makes me feel innocent again, and hopeful. Those days out in town are special. I have money in my pocket, I feel independent and free, even if it’s just for a day or two. That’s what those cheques mean to me – a day of freedom. I never pray or even make little idle wishes for them, they just appear. That’s how God works, I guess. Always surprising, always giving.

With the injury I suffered in prison I can’t work. As you can see, I still have a slight limp, though it’s not so noticeable when I’m walking slowly. You only notice it when I have to move quickly, like when I’m running for the bus and just can’t shift my leg the way I want to. My brain says, Faster, faster, and for a few seconds I think I can do it, I really think I can get up and sprint for the bus – but my leg just drags. That’s when I notice that I’m limping badly, my body sloping from side to side. I also can’t pick up heavy loads as I could before. I used to be famous for that. The guys at the factory I worked at when I was a teenager would set me a challenge, see how many crates of fish I could lift at a time, and I’d always surprise them, even though I’m pretty short. It’s my stumpy legs that give me balance. People say it’s a Hokkien trait, that our ancestors needed short thighs and calves to plant rice or harvest tea and whatever else people did in southern China two hundred years ago, but who cares? All I know is that my legs always served me well, until I got to prison. [Pauses.] It’s because of a nerve in my back, something to do with my spine that I don’t really understand. The doctors showed me x-rays, but all I could see was the grey-white shapes of my bones. They couldn’t correct it without surgery in a private hospital in KL, but who can afford that these days? At the hospital I laughed and said, ‘I’m not a cripple, so let’s just live with it, OK?’ Someone from church suggested I could get a different kind of job, something that didn’t involve manual labour, but any kind of job that allows you to sit down in a comfortable office also requires you to have diplomas and certificates and God knows what else these days – and I don’t have any. I was never very successful at school.

One time, just a year after I got out of prison, some fellow churchgoers found me a job in their family business, a trading company that imported goods from China and distributed them throughout the country. I had a nice desk, there was air-con in the office, and I didn’t have to answer the phone or talk to anyone I didn’t know. All I had to do was add up numbers – such an easy job; nothing can be more certain and solid than numbers. I made sure invoices tallied, checked receipts, that sort of thing. Even though I’d never done that kind of work before, I knew about how to manage money. But at that time, I got a bit anxious whenever I encountered anyone new, in a situation that wasn’t familiar to me – I guess it must have been my time in prison that did that to me. Nothing serious, you understand, just some hesitations in replying whenever someone spoke to me, lapses between their questions and my answers that made them think I had mental problems. Five, ten seconds – who knows? I watched people’s expressions change from confusion, to concern, then irritation. Sometimes frustration, sometimes anger. Some people thought I was doing it on purpose. Once a guy in the office said, Lunseehai, such an arrogant bastard! He shouted it out loud right in front of me without expecting a reply, as if everyone thought the same of me, and that I was deaf and mute and couldn’t hear what he was saying. ‘Whatever the case,’ my boss said after a few months – she was very nice, she understood – ‘we think it’s better you stop work. Just go home and rest.’ Up to that point, I hadn’t understood how much I had changed in the previous three years, but losing that job made me appreciate that I had become a different person. Exactly how, I couldn’t tell you, but I was no longer the same. I had a couple of interviews for office jobs after that, but nothing worked out.

That’s why I say I’m lucky. I don’t work, yet I’m alive. My days are calm. I’d even say I was blessed.

[Long silence.]

Sometimes … [Hesitates; reaches for and picks up cup of tea but does not drink.] Sometimes, yes, of course I think of that night. How can I not? I think of the two men who were present, Keong and the Bangladeshi guy. I know what you’re expecting me to say: that I see their faces, and that I’m tortured by the sight of them – but that’s not the way it is. I don’t feel anything about either of them – not hate, not pity. Maybe I should have felt anger towards Keong; maybe things would have turned out differently if he hadn’t come back to see me. He had choices. He didn’t have to ask me to do all those things.

Now when I think about him, I don’t see the Keong of that night. I see the version of him that appeared in court three years later, when my case was being appealed. His white long-sleeved shirt, his neat hair, even the way he spoke to the judge, softly and respectfully – anyone would have thought he was a salesman for an IT company in Petaling Jaya. I didn’t recognise him at first, I thought it was someone else, that the prosecutors had brought the wrong guy to the courtroom. The lawyers asked him questions about himself, and he supplied the bare facts – he owned a business importing frozen dumplings from China, his income stream was steady, he owned a Toyota Camry and had a home loan from Hong Leong bank. He’d recently been on holiday to Australia and was saving up to send his daughter to boarding school there in seven or eight years’ time, when she was old enough to travel on her own. Right now she had just started at a private school in Cheras, close to where he lived, so he could spend a lot of time with her at home. The moment he finished work, he’d rush home to his wife and daughter and they’d spend the evening having dinner, doing the daughter’s homework together and watching a bit of TV. She was a studious girl – she really loved science!

He answered quietly, as if he didn’t want me to hear what he was saying. On the other side of the courtroom I had difficulty making out some of his words. Mortgage. Laptop. Playground. The man speaking seemed to be embarrassed by the way he lived. Why would someone feel shy about having a life like that? That was when I realised it was Keong – the same one I had known since my teenage years, and I knew why he appeared so awkward. He was ashamed because of my shame – or to be more precise, he was ashamed of being happy while my shame was on display to the world. We’d shared so much as children. People used to say, ‘No use giving Ah Hock any ice cream, he’ll just give half to that little bastard Keong.’ But time – that was something we couldn’t share. It could only favour one of us.

And I thought, Of course he’s changed. All those years in prison, when I went through phases of either sleeping all day and all night, or lying awake all day and all night – phases that lasted weeks and broke down my sense of time, my resistance to the idea that every day should be different – during that time, Keong was changing himself. Anyone could have become a new person in that period, anyone could have acquired a brand-new life. He’d been so proud of his hair, the long fringe that he’d dyed a shade of coppery orange when he was fifteen, and that he’d kept right up until that evening when we last saw each other. I used to joke with him. ‘Hey, big brother, going to become father, still keep that gangster hairstyle meh?’ He called it ‘blond’, thought it made him look like a Hong Kong pop star. He always used to do this [sweeps hand theatrically over forehead, throws back his head in slightly camp fashion]. Made me laugh. You’re a nobody, just like the rest of us – that’s what I used to say to him every time he tried to show off.

That hair was gone now, trimmed short and allowed to go back to its natural colour. I hadn’t seen him with black hair since we were teenagers. He’d put on weight, which made him look younger, not older, like an adolescent who’d once been chubby but was starting to shed all his puppy fat and turn into a handsome man. I could tell that he’d given up smoking, that he was eating better – his complexion was smoother, the deep crease between his eyebrows which he’d had since he was a child had disappeared. Ironed out by those three years.

At one point the lawyers started asking him questions about my character. Did he ever know me to be impulsive? Had he ever seen violent tendencies in me? Was I someone who felt sorry and regretted bad deeds? At first he answered clearly and simply, without hesitation, just like the serious businessman he’d become. It wasn’t a role he was performing, it was who he really was now. Both his English and his Malay had improved, and he used them carefully, considering every word before saying it. But as the questions continued, he began to feel at ease and started speaking more freely, sometimes using expressions you might consider rude. He even told a little story from our teenage years. One time hor, I steal biscuit from the store, I share with him but I steal so much we cannot finish, he say must return, must return, I say no way, poke your lung, but he lagi force me so next day we go give back biscuit. Your mother. Make me lose face! But he say how can steal, she also no money.

‘OK, OK, Mr Tan. I think that will do.’ When the lawyer said that I laughed. Even in his new life, Keong couldn’t resist talking too much. For a few seconds, when he was recounting that incident – which I couldn’t recall – I saw the years and the extra weight he’d acquired fall away. I saw the skinny kid with a sharp face and earrings again, the one I’d grown up with and had always thought would end up in jail. We even joked about it when he left KL to find work elsewhere. ‘Don’t worry about an address,’ I’d told him, ‘I’ll just come looking for you in prison.’

After the lawyer’s admonishment he fell silent once more – a husband, a proper father, someone you could trust to hold a family together. That’s the image of him that comes to me from time to time these days. A respectable man, beyond hatred.

It was only much later that I realised I’d only spent three years in jail. Three years – that’s nothing! Why did it feel so long when I was in my cell? And how did Keong change so quickly? That’s when I felt bitter. I’d never held a grudge against him, not even for coming back to Klang and bringing Evil into my life. When I talked about it to members of the church some years later they said, You must forgive him the way God forgives you. And I thought, There’s nothing for me to forgive; I don’t feel anything towards him. But when I saw him in the courtroom and thought of how quickly he’d changed, I felt angry. He had taken hold of time and mastered it, I had let myself be crushed by it. It was only three years, I told myself, only three years – you can make up that time and turn things round for yourself. But I knew I was no longer capable of changing my life. Evolution is a funny thing. For the longest time, you believe in the power of change – in your ability to mould your life through even the smallest acts. Even buying a four-digit lottery ticket feels loaded with optimism, as if those five bucks might turn into a twenty-thousand bonanza and transform your life. Then one day it disappears, that blind devotion to hope, and you know that even if you pray all day, nothing will happen to you. My anger was directed at myself, I didn’t blame Keong. Seeing him reminded me of the person I could no longer be.

As for the other man, his face remains a blank, even though it should be the one thing I remember from that night. In my defence, it was very dark when I first saw him. What’s more, he turned away from me before I picked up the piece of wood. I couldn’t see his face when I struck him.

October 6th

Towards the end of the trial my lawyer tried to explain to the jury the kind of childhood I had experienced. She was young and clever, she worked for free, she wanted to help me. I understood that my life was being used as an excuse for many things. I listened to her speak about me, and though the facts were true, I felt as if she was describing someone else, someone who had grown up close to me, maybe in a village a couple of miles up the coast. Another guy who shared my name, which she kept repeating. Lee Hock Lye. Lee Hock Lye. Always my full name. Sometimes she said, Lee Hock Lye, also known as Jayden Lee, which made the name sound fake, as if I’d made it up – which I had. But still, it was my name – had become my name. I had chosen it when I’d found proper work and things were going well, just before I got married. It sounded good, people liked it – they hadn’t heard anything like it before. It was a cool name that looked professional on the calling cards that I had printed when business started going well. Jayden – that was me, but each time she pronounced the name in front of the entire courtroom it felt as though she was referring to someone else, because she said it as two separate words. Jay, Den. As if she found it unnatural. Every time I heard it, I felt as though the name was being prised away from me, and that I never truly owned it. Also known as. I should never have taken that name, I was foolish to have chosen it.

The person she talked about was miserable, badly educated, hopeless. Someone who had no choices in life. Anyone listening would have pitied him. A woman in the jury was nodding her head slowly, her face twisted in a frown. Even I nearly felt sorry for the person being described. But then I thought: Wait, this is wrong. I also thought: I was happy. I was normal. I knew my lawyer was trying to help me, but I wanted her to stop talking. I started humming a tune to block out the noise of her words. I closed my eyes and tried to imagine being back in the village as a child. I tried to remember what it was like to be myself again, but it was ridiculous. That life was gone. What a stupid thing to do, trying to recapture your childhood while you’re being tried for killing someone. Recalling my life wouldn’t make it any more real – the truth of it existed in the version being described by my lawyer. I laughed at my own stupidity. I laughed quite loudly, and couldn’t stop, so I had to put my face in my hands. The lawyer turned around to look at me. She stopped speaking in the middle of a sentence and stared at me – the kind of look you give someone when you think he might be having a heart attack but you’re not yet sure what’s happening. The judge said, ‘I don’t think the defendant’s life story is relevant. Please continue with your legal arguments.’ My lawyer tried to dispute this, but my laughing and the judge’s scolding made her lose her concentration; all the intelligence and conviction and vigour I had admired up to that point dissolved in that stuffy courtroom. It was very hot that day, the air-con wasn’t working, I had trouble breathing. She stumbled over her words a couple of times, and couldn’t hold her thoughts together. I was glad it was all going to end soon.

She got the details wrong. Everyone got the details wrong. Maybe you can set things straight once and for all. Is your phone recording all this? I was born in Bagan Sungai Yu, not in Kuala Selangor town as all the court documents said. The two places are separated by a sharp curve in the Selangor river, and that small distance – forty, fifty feet in places – sometimes felt like an ocean between two continents. These days, with the bridges and good tarmac roads, people think of them as just one place: Kuala Selangor. I get the papers and read articles about new seafood restaurants built on jetties over the water, I see pictures of day-trippers from KL enjoying Sunday lunch, and I think: That’s not Kuala Selangor, that’s my village. But that’s the way things go: the big swallow up the small, everything becomes part of something else. It’s just funny to think that when I was a child, even at primary school, we had to take the ferry over to town, or cycle miles to get around the bend in the river, and when we got to the other side, it felt so busy and important that I thought I was in Tokyo or New York. That map that you’re looking at on your phone, it can’t show you the real distance between our side of the river and town on the other.

My father was a fisherman, just like my grandfather before him. In fact, every man in the village was a fisherman. The country left us no choice – the river coiled around the village, blocking our route south towards the towns, forever nudging us towards the sea. On the other side were the jungle and the plantations, which offered prospects even worse than the sea. Back then it was Indians who harvested the palm oil, now it’s Bangladeshis and Indonesians – whoever was doing it, we only had to look at their lives to know that their fate was worse than the storms and tides and tangle of nets that we lived with every day.

All of us worked at the mercy of the elements – the storms, floods, snakes, worms that burrow into your feet. Nature is beautiful when you look at it from afar, or from a car that passes through it with the windows rolled up. When you have to work outdoors it doesn’t seem so beautiful. Yesterday I read an article on Facebook that said: We should all spend more time outside! I looked at the photos of people walking in parks, hugging, drinking water from small bottles, eating slices of watermelon. Lying down on the grass without a mat, without shielding their faces from the sun. Everyone was having fun, no one was sweating or getting heat exhaustion. There were all kinds of people in the photos. Asian, African, every colour under the sun – but they were all behaving like white people. I mean, who else actually enjoys going out into the wilderness apart from these crazy angmoh? You get a day off work, you want to go out into the jungle? Those happy Westerners, they don’t know what ‘outdoors’ is like around here.

I remember once, when I was thirteen, fourteen – old enough to have started feeling that if I didn’t escape the village I would go mad – I spent a whole day cycling as far as I could, in every direction I could think of. I went inland into the plantations in the shade of the palm-oil trees until the mud tracks got too soft for me to cycle. I looked ahead of me, thinking, How long would I have to cycle before I came out on the other side of the estate? I could only see the perfect rows of trees disappearing into the darkness, so I headed back to the coast, cycling along the dirt path that ran along the rocky shoreline, the red earth staining my toes. All the way to Sekinchan and beyond, that was all I could see: red earth, rocks and mud, the sea stretching back towards Indonesia, so flat and shallow, like a sheet of silver without end. No wind. No shade. The sun so hot on my head and arms that my skin felt stripped away with sandpaper. The light too sharp for my eyes – the same light that I’d known ever since I was a baby. I knew that all my days as an adult – every single one, to the end of my time on this earth – would be spent under that burning sun. In that moment, I suddenly got the feeling that all the things I’d ever known – my family, my home, the trees, grass, water, food, the bare earth, the huge, huge sea: everything – were strange and foreign, as if I’d never known them at all. They were mine, handed down to me at birth, the only heritage I’d ever know, and yet at that moment they didn’t seem to belong to me. This land that was supposed to be part of me, and I part of it – in that instant we felt like strangers. I didn’t want it. One day, it would kill me.

[Pause; long sigh.]

I like my life indoors now. If I had children I would make sure they never had to go outside, ever.

What made us different from the Indians who laboured in the plantations was that we worked for ourselves. If it rained we wouldn’t eat. If the catch was plentiful we could save some money and replace our worn-out shoes, buy a tarpaulin to stretch over the front yard to keep the rain out of the house – small things like that. The equation was simple for us. But they worked for the big corporations, the ones the government took over from the British. New owners, same rules. Times change but the workers’ lives never improve. They had bad pay, bad housing, no schools, had to work with poisonous chemicals all day, had no entertainment in the evenings other than to drink their home-made samsu that made them go blind and mad. But what else could they do? Run away to the city and live on the streets? At least back then they had papers. Now it’s all Bangla and Myanmar workers – I don’t think a single one of them has an ID card.

We seldom spoke about the Indians on the plantations, except to say how miserable their fate was. Poor black devils, dead but not dead – repeating these kinds of expressions made us feel that by comparison we were comfortable and easy. We never mixed with them – our lives were totally separate. We didn’t want anything to do with them, in case their misfortune rubbed off on us. All the time I was growing up, I shared the villagers’ sense of being scared of the plantation Indians because they might infect us with their poverty, and we really didn’t need any more of that in our lives. Maybe it was just another superstition that we Chinese specialise in – you know, like: Don’t look at a funeral procession or you might die too. Looking back now, I guess it was because they made us realise that we were not so different from them. So they just existed, a constant presence on the plantations over there, which is to say right next to us – a reminder of how bad things could get.

I guess you could say it was Geography’s fault that I was born into a family of fishermen – that we became who we were. But history played its part too. Like most of the people in the village, three of my grandparents arrived from Indonesia in the first years of the Second World War, when it wasn’t safe to be Chinese over there. They’d heard about the internment camps, the summary executions, young girls being raped – all the stuff I’m sure you’ve studied at college. Even I heard about that in school. They knew it might be the same story here, but they took their chances. What makes a person leave a country for another country where they could be persecuted for exactly the same thing? You get on a boat in Sumatra, cross the Melaka Straits, knowing that you could get rounded up and put in a prison camp just like you were before. Why did they do it? I’ll never know. Aiya, they made it through the war, we’re all OK now, why do you care? That was what my mother said when I asked her about my grandparents. Stuff that went on in the war – forget it. Old Chinese folk never talk about that, so don’t go asking.

For many years, my grandmother refused to register to vote. The address on her ID card was her aunt’s in Teluk Intan. She’d spent a few years there when she first got to the country, and thought of it as a sort of home. She was the youngest, barely fifteen when she arrived. I’m not sure how long exactly she spent there, but the moment she got to our village she didn’t move for the rest of her life. It’s not like the rest of us actually bothered to vote – we didn’t, or only occasionally. It would never make much difference to us – politicians change, our lives stay the same. But with my grandmother, it was more than just not caring. She actively wanted to be hidden from view. If they come for us, they won’t know where I live! I’ll have one, two, three more days to escape. That’s what she used to say. Not like the rest of you! They’ll know your address and when the time comes they’ll know where to find you. Crazy old woman. People used to laugh at her. Who’s going to come for us? No one cares about us or what we do! But she was convinced that one day there would be a government decree, a law that would be passed overnight, and everyone with a Chinese name would be rounded up and put in camps, just as they were during the war. Hey Po-po, just chill out! We have internet now! Facebook Twitter Insta Snapchat, can Skype with someone in Russia while listening to Super Junior on live stream, team-play video games with people that you never met in Harbin and Copenhagen. You actually believe that in this kind of world, we can just round up millions of people and put them in a prison camp, or kick them out of the country? You think you’ll wake up one day and hundreds of thousands of people are going to be walking across the border into Thailand with nothing but the shirts on their backs, and all the homes and villages and entire cities we’ve built, with skyscrapers and malls, are going to be abandoned, just like that? Keep up with the times, Po-po!

She wouldn’t listen. For the rest of her life, she was obsessed by keeping her address secret, thinking it would protect her when Chinese doomsday arrived. When she was very old – I’d long since moved out of the village but was back living in the area – she fell down one day while reaching up to pick a pomegranate from the small tree she’d planted outside her house. A scrawny plant that never grew well, no matter how much she looked after it. That was another one of her obsessions, that stupid plant; in the end, it nearly killed her. The small plastic stool she’d climbed up on to reach its branches was brittle and cracking, and couldn’t take her weight when she stepped on it. She fell, broke her hip and ended up in hospital. When I arrived I found there were many forms to fill in. Each time I did so, she insisted I wrote her false address. ‘What the hell is the use of doing that?’ I said. ‘If they need to do any follow-up tests they’ll go searching for you fifty miles from where you live.’

‘Good,’ she said. Maybe it was because she was so young when the war broke out, only fifteen, and only sixteen or seventeen when she had to get in a boat and cross the seas to Malaysia. She knew what could happen to girls of that age in times of war. I guess that’s why she wanted to remain in the shadows. To be invisible is to be safe. Kids nowadays, their whole lives are on the internet – every minute of their day broadcast to the universe. Thank God my Po-po never knew Facebook – she’d have been anxious and stressed all the time. Die lor, police see computer know where you are! She was the opposite – wanted her history, her entire self, to be scrubbed out from the world.

That was when I understood that for her, our village was a place of comfort. We were trapped in obscurity, hard to get in, hard to get out. If anything happened, she could just slip away into the sea. Again. It suited her just fine.

My grandparents were all originally from Fujian province. According to my calculations, the ones who came from Sumatra – they’d only been in Indonesia for ten years max before they had to move again. Imagine that – you come all the way from China, you leave behind war, famine, getting in and out of small boats drifting on the ocean for months, eventually land in some tiny town in Indonesia, find some way of earning a living, working the land or the sea. You think you own that tiny bit of scrubby jungle or marsh or wherever it is you’ve landed, you think you can start a family, start a new life. Then, just when your days and weeks start to feel normal, when your notion of time begins to stretch out into a year, two years, a future – when you look at the place you’re in and it no longer feels as if every tree, every blade of grass is out to hurt you, you have to move again. More war, more boats, more swamps.

Guess that’s why they never wanted to leave the village once they got there. For them, that was it. End of the road. Stop. Don’t look back. Don’t look ahead. Even if this new place turned out to be as bad as the one they’d left, they’d take their chances there. No going anywhere, ever again, not even to Klang for a movie. Their children were the same – all the people of my parents’ age seemed to be attached to that coastline of rocks and mangroves and driftwood, sheltered by inlets and swamps. They started to fish, firstly to feed themselves, then, after the war, to sell in the small markets down the coast. One generation handing on its work to the next – the only heirloom we had. The men out in the boats at sea, the women sewing the nets in the village, the children gutting the fish in rickety shacks perched on stilts over the muddy banks – a way of life that didn’t change for nearly half a century, until the first bridge was built across the rivermouth in the early 1980s.

The other day at church I was sorting through the pile of books and magazines that people had donated – old paperbacks and textbooks dumped on a table in the hall where we have tea and cakes after mass. One of my little jobs at church is to arrange the books and empty the donations box. There’s rarely much money in it. Sometimes people might take a copy of Twilight, but they don’t put any money in. That day someone had left a whole stack of old Time magazines from 1979, 1980 – just a few years after I was born – and out of curiosity I took them home with me. I stayed up all night looking at the photos. The president of the United States was shot. Shot! Can you believe that? John Lennon got shot too. Hundreds of thousands of people on the streets in Cuba. Russians fighting in Afghanistan. The whole world was changing. Our own country must have been changing. And all I could think was: How did we stay the same? The people of the village – my grandparents, my parents, even the children – we must have been trying to protect ourselves against all of the things going on around us. That’s what our village meant to us: it existed to prevent us from knowing what was happening in the world. There can’t have been any other explanation.

But once the bridge was built, things were different. Not long after, the businessmen from down south started building small factories around Kuala Selangor to clean and process the fish and distribute it around the country. We caught mainly white pomfret and prawns – delicate produce that required careful attention. The factories worked faster than we could, and more hygienically too, they said. That was what all the big supermarkets in the cities wanted, those giant air-conditioned spaces that were just starting to be built, so we sold them our catches cheap and let the flimsy gutting shacks fall slowly into the sea.

It was better that way, the villagers said – now at least we can save time and catch more fish, and our kids can go to school instead of cleaning fish and repairing nets with the women. But still we didn’t go to school. We were supposed to, but no one really did. We turned up sometimes if we felt like it, we messed around, we cut classes, went out instead into the fields and plantations, smoked cigarettes, planned our escape from the village. Hong Kong, San Francisco – we imagined those places were just across the water, and that with a bit of cash in our pockets we could hop on a ship and start afresh there, just like our grandparents had when they’d come from Indonesia, or our ancestors who’d made it across from China a century before we were born. It seemed so easy.

But when I think back to that time, I realise that of course we didn’t seriously believe we were going to end up living in America. It was just a vague idea – a longing to be some place better than where we found ourselves. Those kinds of ambitions belonged to people like you, not people like us. You know what I mean – people who lived in the cities, who went to decent schools. We were just village kids, messing around. One or two of the kids, the serious ones at school who worked hard and passed all their exams, they would only end up in a college nearby in Klang, or train to be a teacher. Keong and I and the rest of the children from the village, we didn’t want that life. We wanted to be tycoons. But the funny thing was, we also knew we weren’t going to become tycoons. How to explain this? The more we longed for something, the more impossible it became. You only dream about things you can never obtain.

We heard about people from nearby villages moving to KL or Singapore, or going abroad to Australia or the US, and when they came back they were rich. We were eight, ten, twelve years old – we didn’t even know what that meant, didn’t know how they got rich or what they did for it, or even how much money you needed to be considered rich. All we knew was that they had left their homes, and now they had more than us. Sometimes they’d come back for Chinese New Year or Cheng Beng and I wouldn’t even recognise them, these men and women who’d been part of my childhood. They had big new Japanese cars, Honda Accords, that sort of thing, and all the smaller kids would climb into them. I remember crawling over the seats, rubbing my face on the upholstery and sniffing the newness of it, while another kid pretended to drive the car even though he couldn’t even see over the steering wheel. The very presence of such a vehicle in the village made everything else look shabby and poor. The smooth curves of the silvery body were beautiful and effortless and powerful – like a shark cutting through the water. All around it, our houses looked tired. Fragile. Concrete blocks and timber, patched up with zinc sheeting and planks of wood, every element a different colour and texture. If a storm blew through the village at that precise moment, everything else would have been swept away and only the car would have been left standing.

As I grew older and started to learn about the world, I could have asked them what they did in life, what kind of jobs they worked at, how they managed to leave the village and all that, but I never approached them. From a distance I watched them unload presents from the boot, carrying the boxes slowly into their family homes so that the rest of the village could see what they were – a colour TV, a Japanese rice cooker, a hair dryer. It wasn’t just their clothes that had changed, but their voices too – not much, just a bit louder and clearer than before, with more English and Mandarin thrown into our dialect. Enough to make me feel that I couldn’t communicate with them any more. Or maybe I wasn’t that interested. I didn’t have to go away and do what they did. I had a belief that life would improve for me, even if I didn’t know how.

I wasn’t the only one who was optimistic. Around this time, when the new roads and factories were starting to be built, as well as the first of the new suburbs further down south with their shopping malls and car parks, everyone in the village was happy that we didn’t have to gut and clean all that fish any more. We were delighted that someone else took our catch from us and cleaned it in a processing plant. Simply hearing that expression made us feel that we were becoming more sophisticated. We knew that we were selling the fish more cheaply than we had before, but it didn’t matter. Now we could spend more time at sea. Now we could start farming cockles in the mudflats that stretched out for hundreds of yards right from our front doors. Auntie Hong found a new recipe for prawn crackers that became so famous that day-trippers came up from the city at weekends to buy them, and one day an article appeared in the national newspapers under the title ‘Forgotten Seaside Charms’. I can still remember the photo of her, dressed up nicely in a red blouse, with matching lipstick and blue eyeshadow that made her look like a completely different person – who even knew that she had make-up? But there she was, proudly holding a bag of crackers in one hand, and a raw prawn in the palm of the other.

For about ten years, right up until I left the village, we got used to the excitement of the harvests of cockles – the distant sound of the shells as they were emptied from the boats into huge blue plastic tubs for cleaning. A bright sharp drumming noise that you could hear from hundreds of yards away. It was easier than going out to sea for long stretches, men and women could work together, they didn’t have to be separated from their families for so long, could see the storms coming and take refuge. The children helped sort through the harvest. We picked out all the empty shells or those already half-open and dead. By the time I left the village, I knew that I would be one of the last of the children to be doing that job. Each year the harvests grew smaller, and we started to find more plastic bags in the mud that got dredged up with the catch, wrapping around the shells and suffocating them. One year I found dozens of condoms too. Maybe a factory had dumped them there, or they were carried downstream in the river – who knows. The younger kids had no idea what they were – they blew them up as though they were balloons, wore them on their fingers and clawed the air pretending to be a Pontianak or some other evil ghost. We laughed a lot that year.

Then some of the kids started getting a rash on their hands – red and tender, like the raw flaking patches that follow a burn, except more itchy than painful. I was the only one who guessed that it was from the mud – some of the villagers had the same problem on their feet, from wading in the shallows during the harvest. People started visiting the Monkey God temple to make offerings and prayers. We burnt paper-money – we thought it was our fault, that we hadn’t done enough to appease the heavens. Everyone said, If we were richer, we could make more donations to the temple, we’d have better catches. They didn’t realise that there was nothing they could do about all the pollution flushing down the river that went right through the cities and emptied into the sea in front of our houses. Or from the offshore prawn farms that had started further up the coast where the water was deeper – you could smell the chemicals sometimes, late in the afternoon when the wind was blowing in the right direction. A sour stink, like old catpiss. Even though I wasn’t good at school, I understood that all those big industries further inland which were making cars and air-conditioners and washing machines and American sneakers – they lay close to the same river that washed over our cockle beds, forty, fifty miles away, and they would just carry on emptying their waste into the river, more and more as the years went by. I didn’t even feel sad, or angry – why get mad over something you can’t change? That was just the way things were.

The only thing that infuriated me was that no one wanted to listen to me when I told them what I thought was happening. Pollution? My grandmother repeated the word as if it was some bizarre other-worldly phenomenon, like an interplanetary collision in another solar system. She turned her back on me and went to the temple. ‘Don’t know what they teach you in school these days.’

Whenever anyone came back from the temple, they’d talk about destiny. To live like this is our destiny. I never thought about the meaning of fate and chance until I was in prison, and ideas just came to me during those long hours when I was lying on my bed doing nothing. What would have happened if my grandparents had landed further up the coast, or drifted south? If the winds or tides had been stronger or weaker and had carried them to Perak or Johor, or to Port Klang itself? Would I have been a dock worker or a sailor, or maybe a ship’s captain? That would have been fun. If they’d landed somewhere else on the coast, where they weren’t trapped between river and sea, maybe they’d have travelled inland and gone straight to a city. Maybe then, I would have become you.

I’m just kidding. Of course I couldn’t have become you. I know it’s not that simple. And I don’t mean that I want to become you, or someone like you. It’s just that sometimes I can’t help thinking about whether I was really destined to be me.


Copyright © 2019 by Tash Aw