KLIA. Kuala Lumpur International Airport, voted the world’s best. In 2004.
I’ve arrived and departed from this airport more times than I can count. From an early age, my 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. As as child raised in the West, this 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 delicate intestines were no match for the incredible street food. Malaysia summers meant spells of sickness and inevitable trips to the 24 hour walk-in clinic.
It also meant that dai bat would be knocking at the bedroom door, chuckling and shaking his head at my packets of pills too big to swallow. As an alternative, he would offer me herbs, oils, ointments. dai bat was the oldest of my dad’s seven brothers. He was the black sheep of a family of proud businessmen. 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 jungle.
dai bat was also my nutritionist. After a night of feverish vomiting, I would wake up to a bowl of his porridge sitting alone in the kitchen, 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. 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 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 terrain, dai bat seemed beyond the grasp of mortality.
Even as a kid, I held on to his every piece of wisdom. I was 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 illustrations and became wholly endeared to elephants. When dai bat saw me hovering over the his teapots in the old wooden cabinets, he 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, put his newspaper down, and joined me. He began explaining Qi Gong principles, demonstrating certain breathing exercises. We practised them together.
Early on, whenever it was that inevitable time to fly back to Vancouver, I would leave dai bat little letters in sloppy Chinese. Enamoured notes of thanks. I was too embarrassed to express my admiration in person, knowing he was not one for sentiment. At some point, I stopped writing them.
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 be more metropolitan, more affluent, more complicated, while the house got wearier and more meek with age— the blue paint of the gate eroding, the roof of the house sullen and caving, the cement pavement erupting with roots desperate for air.
Still, 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 square of land in a swanky funerary establishment an hour into the countryside called Nirvana. Built on these rolling hills— Nirvana was plot after plot after plot of the deceased laid out with mathematical precision. You had to drive, the property was so expansive. Something about the rolling hills reminded me of the movie Toys with Robin Williams. One of us held the 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 eight siblings were paying. We showed up and started to pluck away the leaves and debris. To our dismay, the tent hadn’t arrived yet but we all knew it would be impossible to tolerate the ceremony in the sun. The monk showed up fifteen minutes later than scheduled, rolling up in a Benz, on their cellphone. We waited for the tent, beads of sweat dropping down the sides of our faces. Eventually, everything was in place. 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. Nothing in the room had changed over the last fifty years. Everything was caked in brown dust— her clothes, her furniture, her boxes of jewelry, her ivory comb. Even when the last of her physical and mental facilities waned, she would comb her hair every morning.
This time, I had brought with me from Vancouver, a lover. A Singaporean-Canadian who I figured I would marry. We lay in my Grandma’s bed in stifling humidity. Below us, the spiralling of smoke from insect coils rose in the air. Despite the heat, he wore socks trying to dissuade the looming mosquitoes from feasting on his foreigner blood.
I laughed. We sweated. I whispered. We fucked sweetly. Socks came off. We sweated some more. I said:
grandma came to me after she died
that’s why I believe in ghosts
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. This was a man 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 had every auntie and uncle, friend and neighbour whispering, he must still be alive. They were sure— If we can’t find him, it must be because he does not want to be found.
In my desk drawer are 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 served a man of his stature, January 4?
Or January 9, when a taxi driver claimed to have passed a bleeding man by the roadside just off the beaten path?
He made newspaper headlines again with his disappearance. There were four front page news clippings from his birthday. Most of the images are of me— a microphone in one hand and the other hand clutching my mouth in a feeble attempt to control the outpour of anguish. Front page worthy grief, I suppose.
I stood in front of the seated crowd under a big red tent. On the cracking cement pavement, surrounded by his mango trees and butterflies. Behind the crowd, I could see dai bat’s spot under the gazebo. They kept saying he might show up for his birthday. They said it enough that I believed it. As did his family, students, old friends, colleagues from around the world. From his many different lives, we had gathered to await his return and welcome him home.
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
An adventure? Do you even know? Do you know the students of his, who admired him and cherished him in ways his own family couldn’t— do you know the blood, sweat, and tears they poured into the search? How they organized and mobilized groups to trace the same precarious 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?
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. 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 its preparation 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. Inside, a dozen marbled-brown eggs danced about in a dark bath of herbs. I squealed in delight.
I don’t remember saying thank you.
Or finding him outside under the gazebo and stumbling on words of gratitude.
I also don’t remember leaving 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 him standing where he would always stand, watching us behind the gate as we got into the taxi, waving. All I remember is the smell of the herbs, the dancing eggs, and the blackish bubbling.
3:50 am, June 23, 2017
Dear dai bat,
Sorry this is a bit late. I’m trying hard to not make this sentimental. I know there’s no need.
I told my father I was writing to you. He scoffed and said that I’ve only visited Malaysia eight times in my life. I suppose he figures I barely really knew you. Maybe you even feel the same way about me? But a part of me thinks that this is my father’s way of grappling with his numbness, his being at a loss for loss. His being without the permission to have your departure rattle him, topple the pillars of his internal landscapes so that when the storm calms, the dust settles, and a new day breaks— he is different. Irreversibly so.
It has been a year. And I don’t dream about you anymore. But i just wanted to thank you for those herbal eggs that afternoon, years ago. I tried to eat them all before I left, but…there were so many! I put some into a plastic bag to take on the plane. During the flight, I realized how strong they smelled! In fact, as I write you now, I’m eating an egg. Not an herbal one though, I’m too lazy for that. I meant to learn to make those one you taught me and to make a batch on your birthday this year but I forgot. Sorry, it gets really busy. I’m sure you can imagine, life in Canada is like that. Being a performing artist, it is kind of like having many jobs. And there’s no work hours, because every hour is work hour. That’s one of the things that was special about being in Malaysia, you know? Staying at Grandma’s. Sitting in the garden with you. Slower living.
That’s what I wanted to tell you last year on your birthday, dai bat. I’ll sneak this last letter into your room, and make sure I take some seaweed on the road with me.
Love, Ting Yin