Forest

2014

KLIA. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, voted the world’s best. At least, it was in 2004.

I’ve arrived and departed from this airport more times than I can count. From an early age, the parents would take my sister and I to spend our summers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia— our dad’s birth home situated just outside the cacophony of the city. Our visits would coincide with KL’s peak season of heat, air pollution, and mosquitos. I was a kid raised in the West, so it was torturous. My little body revolted against the tropical shock. My skin burned, my limbs doubled in size with bleeding bites, my eyelids swelled with erratic growths, and my intestines were no match for the incredible street food. Malaysia summers meant spells of sickness and inevitable trips to the walk-in clinic.

It also meant that dai bat would be knocking at the bedroom door. Shaking his head and chuckling at my packets of pills too big to swallow, he would offer me herbs, oils, ointments instead. dai bat was the oldest of my dad’s seven brothers. He was the black sheep of a family of proud businessmen, being a self-trained herbalist and botanist. A university drop-out planning to start his own university. Unmarried. Childless. He chose his own English name: forest, which was fitting. dai bat was a mountain man dressed as if he had just emerged from the woods.

dai bat was also my nutritionist. After a night of feverish vomiting, I would wake up to his porridge, a porridge that we all agree kept my grandmother alive for years beyond what nature intended. Outside the window, he would be in his usual spot, out front under the gazebo in his prolific garden of mango trees. Legs crossed. Face hidden behind a newspaper spread. I used to think he looked like a statue out there, his stoic presence animated by the dance of the butterflies and geckos that called his plants home.

In the afternoon, I would weakly saunter into the kitchen. Underneath a round plastic food cover would be a sandwich of beets, dragonfruit, and seaweed prepared for me. dai bat swore by seaweed. He would put it in everything— told me that it saved a pack of Korean climbers facing death when trapped on Mount Kilimanjaro. As an elder who dedicated his life to guiding hikers through treacherous jungle and mountains, dai bat seemed to be beyond the grasp of mortality.

Even as a child, I held on to his every piece of wisdom. I was about seven when he handed me my first comic book. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t read a word of Chinese, I obsessed over the elephants and gleaned from the illustrations that poachers were evil. Seeing me eyeing one of his teapots in the old wooden cabinets, dai bat pulled it out, cleaned off the cobwebs, and handed it to me as a gift. From that point on, I would collect miniature teapots whenever and wherever we travelled. As I got older, I went to dai bat with questions about my struggling vegetarianism. I remember my first cooking lesson from him, the GI index charts and photocopies, the duck (that he swore was not a meat), and of course, the seaweed. When I became a university student studying dance, I would do yoga, ballet, and Modern dance across- the-floor phrases in the living room. One time, he glanced over, and — I’ll never forget this— he put down his paper, and joined me. He began explaining Qi Gong principles, demonstrating certain breathing exercises. We practised them together.

It used to be that, when I was younger, and it was time to fly back to Vancouver, I would leave dai bat these little letters. Enamoured notes of thanks. I was always too embarrassed to express my admiration in person, knowing he was not one for sentiment. I don’t know when, but at some point I stopped writing the letters.

Our trips to KL became less frequent. Years and years would go by between visits. But when we did finally return, dai bat would be just as we left him. Perched out front under the gazebo. Behind the newspaper. With the mangos, the butterflies, the geckos. It’d be like we never left, except that KL would more modern, more affluent, more corrupt, while the house got more weary and meek with age. The paint of the gate rusted over, the roof of the house sullen and caving, the cement pavement erupting with roots desperate for air.

I was always leaving KL with my bags stuffed with seaweed.


Summer of 2013. My grandmother was dead, and had been dead for 100 days. This meant two things. One, we were finally allowed to visit the homes of friends and family, without fear of bringing ill spirits upon them. Two, this was an auspicious time for us to visit the plot where her ashes had been planted. The plot was a little piece of land in a swanky funerary establishment an hour into the countryside called Nirvana. On these rolling hills— plot after plot after plot was laid out with mathematical precision. You had to drive, the property was so expansive. Something about the whole scene reminded me of the movie Toys with Robin Williams. One of us was holding a piece of paper with grandma’s plot number T320145, everyone else with nose pressed to window, pointing and exclaiming as we drew nearer.

The caretakers had been doing a shit job of keeping the plot clean despite the hefty price the seven brothers and one sister were paying. We showed up and started to pluck away the leaves and debris. The tent hadn’t arrived but we all knew it would be impossible to tolerate the ceremony in the sun. The monk showed up late, rolling up in a Benz. We waited for the tent to arrive. The chanting began to the drone of the bell. At last, we burned for my grandmother: buns, fruits, sticky rice, dumplings, noodles. Enough carbohydrates to last her a good while.

I was staying in her room, the only one without air-con. It was clear that nothing in there had changed over the last fifty years. That felt like its purpose. To stay ever so still. Everything was caked in brown dust— her clothes, her furniture, her boxes of jewelry, her ivory comb. Even when she lost most of all her physical and mental facilities, she would still comb her hair.

This time, I had brought with me from Vancouver, a lover. Someone I figured I would marry. We lay in my Grandma’s bed in stifling humidity. Below us— the spiralling of smoke from insect coils. Despite the heat, he was wearing socks as protection from the mosquitos. I laughed. We sweated. We fucked sweetly. Sweated some more. I laughed some more. I said

grandma is the only dead person who has visited me
that’s why I believe in the afterlife

 


 

Spring 2016. Just my father and I travelling to Malaysia together this time. The first and only time.

We were arriving for dai bat’s birthday, March 27. For months prior to the trip, his sudden disappearance had become a popular story with friends and family. My mentor said over a dinner party table one night

Tell them! Tell them about your uncle

And I did. And I would whenever prompted because it made for such a compelling mystery. It felt unreal. Amusing, even. We get so used to people and their existence. And this man had been on the planet weathered by age and wisdom for as long as I could remember. The fact that dai bat exiled himself from the family for a decade in the 70’s only added to the mystique. It contributed to this unspoken and spoken assumption that he must still be alive. If we can’t find him, it must be because he does not want to be found.

I still have the newspaper cutouts— dai bat made headlines in the 90’s by discovering the largest flower in the world. Named after our family name, the Rafflesia Kelantanesis Gan can only be found in the Cameron Highlands. The very lands that would eventually swallow him.

It was debated when he was last seen

January 1? The day he brought the group of students up the mountain?

January 2? When the rest of his students returned?

Was it when a restaurant owner saw a man of his stature seated alone, January 4?

Or January 9 when a taxi driver claimed to have seen a frail bleeding man by the roadside along the beaten path?

He made newspaper headlines again, with this disappearance. There were four front page news clippings from his birthday. Most of the images are of me. I have a microphone in one hand. The other hand clutches my mouth in a feeble attempt to control the outpour of anguish. Front page worthy grief, I suppose.

They kept saying he might show up for his birthday. They said it enough that I believed it. That’s why we were there after all. Family, students, old friends, colleagues from around the world. From all his different worlds. There to welcome him home. I stood there in front of the seated crowd. Standing on the cracked cement pavement. With his mango trees and his butterflies. Behind the crowd I could see dai bat’s spot under the gazebo. And realized he wasn’t there.

 


 

The other day, my sister’s boyfriend said

Hey wouldn’t it be a crazy project to look for your uncle?
Quit everything, head over there and make a documentary about it?

Wouldn’t that be an adventure?

And I thought

fuck you

An adventure? Do you even know? Do you know the students of his, who looked up to him and loved him, and cherished him in ways his own family couldn’t— do you know the blood, sweat, and tears they poured into his search? How they organized and mobilized search groups that traced the same paths he climbed with them all those times before? Each of them scrounging up personal savings in order to take weeks off work? Do you know how they searched in the scorching heat all day? Strategizing, mapping, planning all night? Do you know with what desperation they searched? To bring their teacher home? Do you know? That the police gave up and they still carried on? Do you know that those who were searching were faced with the fact that with every. passing. hour…their teacher had less and less of a chance of being found alive?

Are you suggesting that the tragedy of my lost uncle might be a fun vacation from your mediocre uninspired unemployed existence?

I said

It’s been a year
You won’t find that body in one piece

He looked disappointed. I changed the subject. It has been a year.

 


 

Summer of 2013. My last memory of dai bat. At some point on that trip, I had shared with him my new enthusiasm for herbal eggs. Soy-kissed hard-boiled eggs that would be prepared in large batches at my mother’s Taoist temple. I told him Wikipedia made it sound complicated. dai bat shook his head, his signature move. With his toothless grin, he said

seven herbs. so easy!

He began listing the herbs with his fingers, one by one.

One afternoon, we were returning from a visit with cousins. I smelled a distinct bitter aroma coming from the kitchen. To my absolute surprise, I found the slow-cooker bubbling and steaming. I looked inside and saw a dozen marbled-brown eggs dancing about in a dark bath of herbs. I squealed in delight.

I don’t remember saying thank you to dai bat. Or looking for him outside under the gazebo and stumbling on words of gratitude. I also don’t remember leaving that time. That last time. I don’t remember packing, or leaving a letter, or saying goodbye without certainty of when we’d be back next. As hard as I try, I don’t remember dai bat standing behind the gate as we got in the cab, waving farewell. I only remember the smell of the herbs, and the eggs– dancing, dancing.