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Now in paperback, Shirley Lim’s long-awaited first novel traces the unconventional development of an extended family struggling to find common ground. At the center of this engaging "un-love story" is Li An, a strong-willed Malaysian woman who finds herself attracted to Chester, an American Peace Corps volunteer. On a night of violent riots, Li An and Chester are drawn together, forever changing both their lives. Lim’s characters find themselves caught up in the larger tensions between East and West, women and ...
Now in paperback, Shirley Lim’s long-awaited first novel traces the unconventional development of an extended family struggling to find common ground. At the center of this engaging "un-love story" is Li An, a strong-willed Malaysian woman who finds herself attracted to Chester, an American Peace Corps volunteer. On a night of violent riots, Li An and Chester are drawn together, forever changing both their lives. Lim’s characters find themselves caught up in the larger tensions between East and West, women and men, freedom and responsibility. With insight and wit, Lim shows us that what we expect may not always be what we get, but all roads lead us, ultimately to our deepest selves.
Li An was rushing to get to her second class on time. A new tutor, she was timid with her students, arts freshies just arrived at the university in June. The big dark Ceylonese student, Gomez, had looked at her during the first meeting as if to say he didn't believe she understood Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" as well as he did. His superior stare had made her doubt her decision to begin the year with the poem, considering there were easier passages in the practical criticism collection every first-year student had to read. She had selected the "Ode on Melancholy" on impulse, although she had presented it to the class with an air that suggested she had carefully planned to teach it. That was her first mistake, and being late now was her second.
Henry had taken the car early. He was always up early and in his biology lab by 7 A.M. She had insisted on keeping her motorbike after they married. The 125 cc Honda couldn't keep up with the Norton and Suzuki motorbikes and speeding taxis on the Federal Highway, but it carried her fast enough, with lots of wind in her face.
Six students were waiting for her in the tiny seminar room—four girls, Gomez, and a pale Chinese boy who had made the wrong selection in courses. Wong, inarticulate, giggled nervously when he didn't understand something, but when she spoke to him about changing to a different subject, he refused. He had heard the geography lecturers were notorious for failing their students, and he hoped she would be easier on him.
It wasn't more than a few minutes after the hour, but thestudents looked at her reproachfully, as if she had stolen something from them. This morning she had prepared a prose passage from D. H. Lawrence's Sons and Lovers, and she read it aloud, relishing the overflow of sibilants like spiced chickpeas in her mouth. When the students ventured no comments, she spoke with increasing recklessness, ignoring the giggles from the corner and Gomez's glare: "You see, Lawrence suggests that physical attraction, sex, is a powerful force."
The Chinese girls lowered their eyelids. Pretty Eurasian Sally listened intently, and Mina, the Malay student whose father worked in the Ministry of Agriculture, who said she wanted to be an actress, and who Li An knew admired her, remained silent, seemingly unconvinced.
When the hour was over, Li An sat in the empty room, unable to move. Was this struggle of English words against unyielding minds what she wanted?
Only last year she had been cramming for the exams and couldn't have enough of English literature. The library was crowded with students—a hundred seemed to be waiting on line at the reserved books counter—and so cold with air-conditioning that everyone wore sweaters and cardigans. She sat upstairs, reading old copies of Scrutiny and copying fine phrases by F. R. Leavis, occasionally tearing off her sweater and running outside in the blazing sun to the back of the faculty lounge, where she bought sizzling flaky curry puffs and smoked two cigarettes in a row. All the English lecturers seemed glamorous and witty, even portly ones like Mr. Mason, and Jane Austen's novels dazzled her with social comedy that unfailingly ended in civilized marriage.
Henry was very kind to her that year. One afternoon in the library she fainted from lack of sleep and food and too much reading, and he offered her a ride back to the residential hall in his car. That evening he visited her with jars of Brand's Essence of Chicken in their distinctive green boxes and a bottle of eau de cologne. He was a chemistry graduate student whose father owned rubber estates, a brick factory in Segamat, a lorry transport company, and blocks of housing estates in various towns, including a few in Petaling Jaya. Henry, the eldest son, was living with his father's second wife in Kuala Lumpur while he was studying at the university.
"You can't be serious!" Gina said, when Li An began seeing Henry. "He's such a China-type! What can see in him, lah?"
"Plenty of money, man," Ellen mocked. "Now no more hawker food, only air-con coffee shops."
"Henry, oh Henry, buy me diamond ring, big like pigeon egg," Gina yodeled unbelievingly.
They pummeled each other, hooting and laughing.
Of course Li An wasn't serious! She was wild, smoked a pack of cigarettes a day, spent the rest of her small scholarship funds on petrol for her secondhand Honda, and hardly ever washed her three pairs of Levi's.
She brooded on Henry's love in between studying for finals. It was like being on two different planets.
In the library there was her body's silence—a silence that was filled by the conversation she was listening to intently, in a world of insidiously overpowering words. To be an English student was the most enviable position in the world! Everyone should be jealous of me, she thought.
Outside the library she swung her dirty blue-jeaned leg over the Honda and turned the throttle till it roared, grinning at her Indian friends, Raja, Maniam, and Paroo. A swaggering teddy boy, she rode her bike bent over the handlebars. The Indian students made a space for her in the lecture halls whenever she rushed in late, having sped her motorbike all over Kuala Lumpur and Petaling Jaya.
But later, in Henry's white Mercedes, on her way to dinner at his second mother's house, she thought of his father with fear. Mr. Yeh, a short thick man in his late forties, spoke Hokkien with a loud brutal voice. He wore sleeveless undershirts and transparent tetralyne shirts that didn't conceal the powerful rolls of muscle in his chest. His hair was cropped short like a Hailam butcher, and if you didn't know who he was, you could easily mistake him for one. She had seen butchers just like him, standing behind blood-splattered wooden trestles in the wet markets, hair bristling under their bloodied singlets, cleavers in massive hands, looking as meaty as the unskinned haunches of pork hanging on giant hooks beside them. A rich odor surrounded them, the fragrance of lard cakes, and she imagined them like impassive murderers before their execution.
Second Mrs. Yeh was dressed in an expensive lace blouse and London-imported skirt. She studied Li An carefully.
"Hello, Auntie," Li An said. She wriggled her toes in the worn Bata sandals and hoped the stain from the afternoon's curry puff wouldn't show on her jeans.
Second Mrs. Yeh, she suspected, could probably see right through her cotton T-shirt to the discolored bra straps. Auntie had those peculiar women's eyes that could detect immediately where a fingernail had cracked and not been filed. Whenever she looked at Li An, her glance stayed on the frayed thread, on the loose button.
Auntie was very different from Li An's mother. Li An's father had died when she was three, and her mother had remarried a year later. Then, beset by baby after baby, she had never had time, it seemed to Li An, to look at her. Li An's stepfather, Han Si-Chun, a rubber trader who spent many weeks each year traveling to plantations in the interior, had commanded every atom of her mother's body ever since—in childbearing, housecare, cooking, and dutifulness to his family, his loud bossy sisters and infirm yet ever-present parents. No one ever talked about her father, whom, Li An concluded, was supposed never to have lived if her mother was to prove a good wife to her second husband. Her older brother escaped to Sarawak when he was seventeen and seldom wrote. In her turn, with a scholarship to the university in Kuala Lumpur, she had fled Penang and a home more pathetic than an orphanage, she told herself. In an orphanage at least one could feel sorry for one's life. Her mother had asked for no pity, and all Li An's British children's books forbade self-pity and imagined adventure instead—flight, exploration, conquest. She could find no sentiment in her childhood.
So it surprised her that she found Auntie's judgment important, indeed, longed for her approval. Auntie, who held her queenly head high, seemed quite pleased that Henry had found a common modern college girl like her.
People like Second Mrs. Yeh, she thought, didn't need books. Their lives were straightforwardly one-way. All their moments were filled, but they never had to rush, for they had already arrived. For them, life was settled and smooth.
Such women saw details. Details were important for them. Auntie told Li An how she had shopped for blankets with exactly the correct peach shade to match her sheets and bedroom curtains and walls. She showed her the blankets while they were still in their clear plastic covers.
"How lovely!" Li An patted the plastic, hiding her impatience.
Pleased, Auntie showed off the reddish brown jadeite carving of the goddess of mercy, Kuan Yin, that she had bought in Hong Kong last month. "Very good bargain," she said in her pleasant slow voice, stroking the stony flow of hair on the Kuan Yin.
Li An tried to memorize the jadeite's translucent veins, its gold color pouring through polished brown and red streaks like running fire. One day, she thought, when she became an older, confident woman like Second Mrs. Yeh, she might be examined on how much she knew of the world of stones and things, and this was her first lesson.
They ate giant black mushrooms steeped in wine, cold abalone, paper-wrapped chicken, bok choy fried with prawns, curried pork. Li An took small helpings, but still her jeans grew uncomfortably tight. Did Henry eat like this every evening? The food was delicious, but too much of it and it became hateful, the tastes clashing in an indigestible mass.
Auntie gave orders to the servants who carried the dishes in, Mr. Yeh silently ate several large servings of meat and vegetables, and Henry talked about Professor Forster's experiments with mimosas.
"You know, whenever you touch them, the leaves close up? Forster is studying where the sense of touch is located in the cells and measuring the degree of sensitivity—why the mimosa doesn't close when the wind blows on it but reacts to human breath. If there's a trigger threshold, where the trigger is encoded genetically."
Henry spoke with concentration, paying no attention to the food and eating whatever Auntie put on his plate.
"I'm thinking of switching to biochemistry. Forster is a geneticist, and he wants me to make the move."
"Why, it's almost like poetry," Li An said. "That's the touch-me-not, isn't it? I prefer the name to mimosa. Mimosa sounds like a European flower, alien. We played with touch-me-nots for hours when we were kids." She remembered the delicate branching foliage with its pink-purple globular flowers. Common weeds, they grew thick with painful prickly thorns over the wasteland by her home in Penang.
"I'm not sure what poetry is." Henry smiled with a slight embarrassment. "But Forster's work is exciting. Biogenetics is the real science of life. All the exciting discoveries are waiting to be made there."
He didn't understand the fuss Li An made over words. "Words are more a bother than anything else," he explained. "They create problems for people like me who can't use them very well, and they make problems for people like you who use them too well."
He didn't tell her he knew most people found him boring because he was shy and couldn't express his feelings, and they thought her wild because she was always expressing her feelings. He thought he understood her very well. She was a shy girl who used words to cover up her insecurity in the way he used silence to disguise his shyness.
When he had picked her up off the library floor where she had fainted, she had seemed an undernourished parcel of fragile bones. But when he came by the residential hall that evening, she had recovered and become brash and talkative. Full of ideas, spilling long sentences, she dazzled him. He suspected she was putting on an act, but she entertained him even if he didn't take her talk seriously.
She was being entertaining again tonight, talking on the similarities between their two courses of study. "The real science of life! That's exactly how I see literature!"
Henry marveled that Li An was so enthusiastic, running after every little bit of excitement.
"What literature does is connect things, even the most unlikely things. Like Donne and the Metaphysical poets. He connected sex with a flea bite, love with a compass. That's what we have to do in our lives, connect with others."
Henry glanced at his father. Although Ah Pah generally spoke only Hokkien and Malay, he understood English and could speak it if necessary. Henry wasn't sure what Ah Pah would make of her patter, but he wished she hadn't mentioned sex. Old-fashioned Chinese couldn't be expected to understand that kind of talk.
"Do you want some fruit?" Second Mother interrupted. "We have Australian plums."
He looked at his Second Mother to observe her expression. She was absorbed in moving the dishes to the side of the table.
Li An shook her head. "No, thank you, Auntie, I'm full already. It was a very nice dinner."
Relieved, Henry returned to his mushrooms. Ah Pah, he knew, never bothered with family affairs. People expected his father to demand certain responsibilities of him, the eldest son, but that had never been the case. He had done well in school, and Ah Pah had allowed him to proceed in his studies without once talking to him about his plans for the future. His brothers were still in high school, and Mark, who appeared to like business, was expected to work in one of his father's companies.
Henry was interested only in science. From an early age he had been fascinated by the properties of materials, how matter changed properties when combined with other elements, how reactions could be measured and predicted so that the entire world might be seen as a matter of measurements and reactions. One needed only to observe phenomena carefully to understand and predict how nature worked. Second Mother's calm self-absorption predicted that Ah Pah would find Li An acceptable.
None of his friends talked to him about Li An. They were all pushing to finish their master's and win a fellowship to some university in Europe or America. Many were planning to marry before continuing; it would be too difficult being alone in a strange country, they confided. Their girlfriends were nurses or elementary school teachers who cooked well and smiled a lot.
He had not been interested in a girl before. He had been too shy, and the kinds of girls who went out with the science students were shy plain ducks also, so he had never tried.
Li An, however, was different. She talked too much and too fast, which embarrassed him. She liked roaming on her motorbike like a boy. Her tight jeans showed her thighs and calves, and her smoking made her conspicuous in a crowd. Men picked her out immediately as someone they could tease. She was like a Western girl—bold, loud, and unconcerned about her reputation.
He liked her bright round face that buzzed with ideas, but he wanted to marry her because her body drove him crazy. In the evenings when he kissed her good night, with her breath in his mouth, he wanted to swallow her. In her men's clothing, she was still soft and curved. He trembled each time he held her, the longing was so bad.
That night he drove to Lake Gardens and parked under the tall African tulip trees. He switched off the car lights, and they were silent in the fuzzy darkness for a long time, breathing the moist cool air.
Backed up in her corner, Li An looked out of the car window as the shadows slowly yielded to her sight. The faint glow from a sky seeded with stars and a quarter moon showed neatly scythed fields and tall reeds concealing dim puddles.
He felt a painful pressure in his upper chest and twisted his body to evade it. He resented that she could sit so near and seem indifferent, her profile hidden in a reflectiveness that he suspected didn't include him.
This must be what a man feels when he is in love, he thought, this jealous stab in the chest, this desire to take, to penetrate the other and leave her no space for anything but himself. His voice quivered as he spoke. "What will you do after the exams?"
Li An laughed. "Do?" She seemed to be mocking him. "It depends on the results. If I do well, I'll get a scholarship and go to America."
"America? Why America?" He choked as he repeated the word. He had not thought she would leave—leave Kuala Lumpur, leave the university, leave him. But then, they had never talked about her plans.
"Why not America? Isn't that where everything is happening? It's so boring here. Nothing ever changes. No one is doing anything, no one is writing poetry, no one is painting, no one is singing, no one is going anywhere. So why not go to America?"
"You're like a child!" He was glad that the anger filling him was easing the pain in his chest. Yes, she was childish, playing at dressing up like a boy when she was already a woman, whining about boredom and roving on a motorbike as if she could chase it away.
"All kinds of things are happening here. This is the time for us to assert ourselves. We are going to be the most important people in the country because we are the people with brains. Malaysia has just become a nation. It's only eleven years since independence, so how can you expect there to be poetry or art yet? It's like science. You have to work every day with your experiments, and then someday you will discover that truth which no one else has found. Malaysia is like an experiment. Going to America is a selfish way of acting."
She had never thought of her life as something belonging to a group, rather than to herself. It was the first time she'd seen Henry angry. He was usually objective and tolerant, like a kind teacher.
"You really believe something is happening here?"
"Happening? Why are you always asking for something to happen? Perhaps when it does you may not like it after all!"
"But nothing ever changes here!" she cried out. "Everybody seems so dull. The girls only talk about boys and worry about their hair and clothes, and the lecturers drone on and on. I don't want to spend my life teaching in some small town, like Mrs. Devi in sixth form, teaching the same history year after year, growing old and stuck in a rut."
"Am I so dull?" He could no longer bear it. His anger had disappeared, leaving his arms weak. He could not raise them to touch her.
He knew he was dull. Short and pallid with unremarkable eyes, he was pitifully unobtrusive. Although he was successful at work, girls like Li An paid no attention to men like him.
"Please forgive me, Henry."
She put her arms around him and squeezed him as if to comfort a child. He liked the strong way she tightened the pressure around his arms.
Putting her head on his chest, she rubbed it against him. He found the gesture unnerving.
"I don't mean you. You aren't dull at all. The work you're doing on genetics is wonderful! I envy you because you have work that is important. You know where you're going and where you belong. I wish I were a man and a scientist. Then there would be a place for me here. I could be a doctor and learn to cure tropical diseases. Or I could work with tropical plants like you are doing. But all I know is English. The only thing I can do with English in Malaysia is to teach."
He couldn't think with her face so close to him. "Marry me," he said, his cheek against hers. "Marry me, and stay with me. You won't have to teach. I'll pay off your government bond, and you won't be forced to go back to your town. You don't have to work if you don't want to."
His body was shaking as if he was hurting. He closed his eyes as her breath, a warm breeze, went by his ear. His lungs grew congested with fear, and he felt in such danger he could hardly speak.
He had not meant to say it. They had known each other for only three months, since September, and he didn't approve of her. She had a reputation—not a bad one like a loose woman, but a reputation all the same—for being bold and free.
"Oh, no, Henry, you don't know how poor I am." She didn't move away from him. "I have nothing in my life. My father's dead, my mother's remarried someone who doesn't want me in his house, my brother in Sarawak has a child and no time for me. All I will have is my degree."
She dropped her arms and moved away, pressing her back to the far corner of her seat. Her voice was strong and mocking again.
He was confused. Was she saying yes or no?
"I don't care. I have money." He stopped. Did it sound as if he were trying to impress her? "My grandmother left me an inheritance."
He felt ashamed even as he spoke. That wasn't what he wanted to tell her. He didn't want her to marry him for his money.
"You could write, Li An. I'll let you write. You say it's time for Malaysians to write about themselves. You can't write about Malaysia in America."
He wanted to tell her he loved her, but he was too shy.
She wished he hadn't spoken. She had been having a good time looking at the curved bow of the moon and the black drooping branches, thinking that trees were more often black than green to animals that came out at night, when he had begun questioning her.
She thought she understood what Henry wanted when his body trembled, and if he insisted she might be willing. She was curious, and he would be grateful; he wouldn't hurt her.
But then he put his arms around her and put his head on her hair. He was like a little boy silently demanding her attention.
The sliced moon remained unmoving, a stationary section of an illuminated body, unreachable in space.
Like me, she thought. No one can reach me. She was terrified by the power of her isolation. Pity for herself overcame her, and she turned her head up to kiss him.
They married in March, before Li An was offered the position as tutor in the English department. Henry didn't have to pay off her government bond after all. She was still going to teach, but here at the university.
Excerpted from Joss and Gold by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Copyright © 2001 by Shirley Geok-lin Lim. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Copyright © 1993 Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen. All rights reserved.
|Book One: Crossing||1|
|Book Two: Circling||95|
|Book Three: Landing||161|
|Afterword by Leong Liew Geok||267|