We met at the airport, heading to the same place.
An acquaintance introduced us. We were both leaving our homes to further our studies. We both chose the same university. Our paths never crossed again for the next three years.
March 1995 was the first time that I had been away from home. I lived in a dorm for the first quarter of my school term. My roommate, a swimmer, was never “home.” The first night that I spent by myself, was the most frightening ordeal. I tried to sleep, but every little sound made me jump. I am chicken shit.
For the better part of the first year that I was in school, I pretty much kept to myself. My parents were no longer at my back and call. The few friends that left home with quickly faded away too. The only person left was my elder sister, and she didn’t fill the void. I grew farther and farther apart from my elder sister. The quarrels that we had as children didn’t compare to the fights that we had in school. After the compulsory one quarter stay in the dorms, I moved in with my sister. At first it was all fun and games, until someone got hurt – me. We watched John Henson on “Talk Soup” every night before going to sleep. Almost every Friday afternoon, we would head out to eat. We would grocery shop in the middle of the night for cheap trills. I didn’t know better, and she controlled my money. It became so bad that at one point, when I wanted to snail-mail a letter home, I had to ask her to spare me 32¢ for postage. To that she said, “What do you need that for?”
Then she got herself a boyfriend.
I didn’t like the fact that he was always on my bed. I told her that. In turn, I was told to move out. I still remember that tearful phone call that I made to my father that night. I still couldn’t stand up for myself. I still needed them to protect me. Sobbing most of the way, I told my father that my sister is chasing me out of the house. My father, half in disbelief, the other half in rage, yelled over the phone, “Don’t you DARE do that to your sister!”
That summer in 1996, I went back home. I lined up an internship with Ammirati Puris Lintas, an ad agency and extra credit projects, to hasten my graduation. I thought I really weren’t cut out for living away from my parents. My sister had graduated too, and was forced to return home by my father’s orders. He thought she was getting out of control over in the US. She returned home. I came back to school.
This time I was truly all by myself. I started progressing. I did well in school. Professors loved me. I took up the Teaching Assistant position. The Communications Department became my family. I had ONE good friend that I could rely on, and that I was all I needed. She was the social butterfly and I a snob. I tagged along with her everywhere she went. We were in the Student Government PR committee, the Chinese Student Association and the Malaysian Student Association together. With each of these organizations, they had their own functions. It was through one of these functions that our paths crossed again.
A banana is white on the inside, yellow on the outside. Similarly, a Chinese person who can’t speak, read or write the language but instead speak, read and write fluently in English is considered the fruit. Growing up, my sisters and I have always been called bananas. (Little do those people know, we speak three different dialects and can make our way through two different dialects)
It was a grand day for the Malaysian students in the University. It was our night to share our culture and food with our host country. An army of Malaysians gathered in the kitchen to cook for their guests. Many with eyes like panda, lumbered into the kitchen to help out with various dishes for the night. I went in earlier than most, cutting up huge plantains to fry as dessert. The skin of the plantains were thick, so much so undressing them from their flesh was an ordeal. After peeling approximately 200 bananas and cutting them into smaller pieces, I was assigned to fry them with another student.
It was a monotonous three hours of picking up and dropping bananas in the fryer until someone strolled by and started chatting me up.
He said hi to me. I said hi back. But he stayed on, and started a conversation with me. We knew it each other, it wasn’t like we didn’t know each other. The funny thing was, we never spoke to each other before. We come from different states. He is from Perak, a state about 2.5 hours away (211 km) from where I lived, Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia. After finishing high school in St. Michael’s, he left home to study in KDU (Kollege Damansara Utama), while I enrolled into Inti College after school in Assunta.
That night that I left Malaysia to the US, he was there too – leaving for the exact same place and reason.
The flood gates were opened when daddy said that it was time that I checked myself into the plane. I said my goodbyes for the last time, and when it came to daddy, it became difficult to even mouth a proper goodbye. Watching him shed tears made it that much harder to part. And just as a father would, he pulled out his infamous handkerchief to wipe my tear-stained cheeks.
The plane dropped my two friends and I off in Changi Airport, Singapore, and we camped out there for a night before taking the early flight out to Minnesota the next morning. There I was, not only sick from leaving home, but nervous as hell about my future in a new home. I ignored everything around me except my two friends who were doing a great job of cheering me up. Even when one of the guys got up to speak to the new guy, I haughtily refused to be near anyone.
It was not until that day, when I was frying bananas, three years later, that we finally spoke to each other again.
“What ‘you doing,” he asked in his baritone voice, hoping to start a conversation with me.
After working in the kitchen for so long, tiredness and irritation crept up. As sarcastically as I could manage, I said, “Can’t you see? Bananas… frying bananas.”
He stood there, speechless, not knowing whether to be insulted, or not. After quite some time looking at me practically deeping my fingers into the oil, he said, “Be careful that you don’t fry your fingers too.”
Instantly, I felt sorry for my earlier rudeness. I smiled up at him and said cheerfully, “Sure.”
“Nice shirt you have there.”
I looked at my shirt right away. And sure enough, there were spoltches of flour mixture all over my burgundy polo t-shirt. The shirt looked like a tie-dye shirt with extremely bad artistry. I looked up at him as my glasses slipped from my nose bridge, and I quickly used the back of my flour-dried-hand to push my glasses up again. When I finally looked up at him again, I was smiling. I wearily thought that he had a good sense of humor and patience.
Then I threw out a new batch of newly fried bananas, and he asked, “Can I?”
Who was I to say no? He was being very nice, when he didn’t have to, while I were not only curt but looked (and probably acted) like a raving lunatic, sweating buckets of oil.
I said, “Yes.”
Just as quickly as I said that, he was already reaching for the golden fried banana. Before I can say, “Watch it, it’s hot!” he had already stuffed the entire banana into his mouth. He went ballistic after that. He was screaming, “Hot! Hot!” while fanning his open mouth. I fanned him with my plastered hand, while wet flour flew in different directions.
“Uh-huh,” he answered while juggling the steaming banana with his tongue. “Thanks,” he continued with a swipe at his brow that was dripping with sweat.
“Didn’t your mother ever tell you to blow your food first?” I asked curiously, and then added, “What a pig!”
“No,” was all he said. “Thanks again,” he said rather abashed this time when he realized I just gave him a tiny lecture.
“Sure,” I replied, not sure what he was thanking me for. The free food or the free fanning.
Without missing a beat, he continued, “The bananas are good. How long have you been here?”
“Uh…longer than you.”
“Funny. Very funny. So?”
“So what?” I prompted him.
With a great sigh, he said, “When did you come in here?”
“If you really need to know,” I drawled, “Since seven.”
“Really? I was still sleeping at that time.”
“It figures,” I replied ignoring the fact that he was calling me a liar.
And then nothing. The uncomfortable silence was deafening. I saw the room moving and buzzing about, but heard nothing.
He cleared his throat, and then spoke in Cantonese, “What are the others cooking?”
“I don’t know,” I replied in English. “Why don’t you go and look?”
“Probably later,” he said. Noticing that I didn’t reply in Cantonese, he tried again, “You do speak Cantonese, don’t you?”
“Yes,” I offered charitably in Cantonese.
Then he abruptly said, “I heard you play the guitar.”
“Uh-huh,” I answered rather curiously. “Who told you that?”
“Oh…,” he said baiting me, “People.”
“What people?” I asked more persistently.
“No I don’t.”
Then he named my two friends that I first came with. And I replied with a “Oh!”
“It’s amazing you know,” he said.
“You. That a girl, an Asian girl plays a guitar,” he replied rather masochistically.
At that, I replied with disdain, “What do you mean it’s because I’m a girl? You mean girls can’t play the guitar?”
“Er…,” he said uncomfortably knowing that he said something wrong, but was unable to backtrack.
“Yes?” I accused, waiting for a valid answer from him.
“I take that back. I didn’t mean it as it sounds,” he explained himself slowly. “I just meant it as a compliment to you. It’s just that I don’t know any girls in Malaysia that plays the guitar.”
Feeling lost for words with his back-handed compliment, I finally said, “Well, you do now.”
“Yeah. Now I do.”
“You know,” I said thoughtfully and trying to make an effort in being nice, “It’s amazing that we’ve met each other in the airport, took the same flight, came to the same school, but never spoke to each other.”
“That’s not true,” he countered.
I looked at him quizzically.
“When we first came, you came up to me one day at the library and introduced yourself…Again.”
“Huh?” I asked, rather confused at this relevation.
“You don’t remember? I told you I was going back to my dorm when we were talking. You were quite cheerful that day, and you were smiling when you saw me. And then we stopped and talked, and you introduced yourself and then I said that we’ve meet at the airport.”
I took my eyes away from the bananas for one second and looked at him with a dumbfounded expression. He laughed when he saw my expression. “And you say I’m funny.”
I was thinking to myself, What?! Who?! When?! What happened?! Weird.
He knew that I was lost on the subject, so he returned to the guitar. “That’s ok. But you’d have to tell me about your guitar.”
Just as he finished his sentence, he saw me digging the flour out from under my long fingernails, and proceeded to give me a disgusted look. I looked up and saw his chinky eyes slant, and his upper lip curled to show his disapproval.
“What?!” I demanded.
“You! Cleaning your fingernails while cooking.”
“So? You can’t expect me to cut my nails just to cook some dumb meal for a bunch a silly people when I need the nails to play my guitar,” I whined.
When I said that, his eyes lighted up and he asked eagerly, “Really?”
“Huh? Really what?”
“That you play the guitar.”
“U-huh. I thought that was our subject.”
“Oh yeah. Totally forgot when you did what you did,” showing the same repugnant look again.
He had to smile. “It’s twice now that you’ve called me a pig.”
“So?” I asked rather ungraciously.
“So…? I don’t look like a pig do I?” he asked. Trick question.
I looked at him then. I never realized that he wasn’t that bad on the eyes. From his little Mongoloid eyes that peeked under short lashes, to his big nose and his even bigger mouth, they were all contained in an oval face that ended with a strong jaw. His features were totally mismatched. He had sideburns that curled in different directions. His bangs were split in two, and dropped down to his thick eyebrows. (This was when he still had a full head of hair)
“Sure,” I answered quietly, in case he heard me.
The banter went on for the rest of the day. And at the end of it, when he left, he shouted out, “See you later, banana girl!”
The morning after
We started hanging out together soon after. Every time he saw me from afar, it would always be, “Hey, banana girl!”
He was in the business computer information system (BCIS) department, but hated every minute of it. When we spoke, he always asked me about my department and my art classes. My graduation date drew close. By the time I graduated Summa cum Laude, he decided to change majors to Communications.
It was the summer of 1997, the peak of the Asian financial crisis that left the Southeast Asian region (SEA) and Japan grappling with devaluation of its currencies. My father advised me to remain in school, and better myself. I enrolled in the Communications Department’s Grad program the following quarter. For the next year, I worked doubly hard, and made new friends through him. I maxed out on the credits for each quarter to hasten my graduation date so as not to burden my father any longer. I took on the Graduate Assistant position that paid quite lucratively (for a student at least). My classes were longer and dragged on into the night. By the time classes ended, the buses had stopped running to my place, and the walk home was a 20-minute hike through the quietest roads in town (not that St. Cloud was an unsafe place). The arrangement was, if I missed the last bus home, I would be at his place – just across from University grounds. I would call him to let him know if I were coming for the night or not, and then he would prepare dinner for me (even though it was just instant noodles it somehow tasted scrumptious). Sometimes, he would meet me in school and walk home with me and then walked back to his place.
We started biking everywhere, from school to home and to friends’ place. Once, he bought me an ice cream. I fell off my bike trying to maneuver and lick at the same time. He laughed at me, for my gluttony. He couldn’t believe that I actually dove to save a worthless ice cream, and in the process scrapped my knees for it. It wasn’t the ice cream I tried to save. It was the first thing he bought for me. It DID help that it WAS vanilla ice cream.
We both had our convocation in the spring of 1998 and finished up classes in summer. My graduation and Valentine’s gift were a pair of dwarf rabbits from him. We named them Bobo and Bambi.
That summer, I finished writing my starred paper, while roller-blading, biking and hanging out with friends till the wee hours of the morning. My rabbits even had babies, but unfortunately, my happiness was short-lived when Bambi ate her babies.
By fall, we were both officially done with school. We started looking for jobs in the Twin Cities, sending out resumés after resumés, but to no avail. During this time, I found out I have a distant aunt living in New Jersey, close to New York city. I jumped at the opportunity to work in a big city. We gave ourselves till November to find something in Minnesota. In the middle of November, we started packing our things and were ready for our move. A day before we left Minnesota, I received a letter from Foote, Cone and Belding requesting an interview. I told them I were leaving for NY the next day.
We tearfully left our friends behind that morning. We drove for three days in a huge Ryder truck with my car towed behind it. Bobo and Bambi made the trip with us too.
Our school days ended. Our new lives were only just beginning.