I often cop severe criticisms for thinking aloud. It takes guts to ponder and ask questions in one particular WhatsApp chat group I belong to. Belong. That’s such a reassuring word. It conjures in my mind a sense of being accepted, welcomed and it informs me I have earned some entitlement as a member of the group. But, that sense of entitlement is incorrect – try and exert a right to think out loud in that group and the axe will fall swiftly on those who dare. I am anointed the annoying one. The one who asks annoying questions, about anything (including religion, even though I know it isn’t wise to). The one who is most likely to crack old dad’s jokes – it makes me a rather disagreeable fellow. The one Red Devils’ supporter who openly criticises their supposedly talented millionaire players. My friends have therefore good reasons to pick on me. They think when I think out loud, I speak without using my brain. They conclude I’m the empty vessel, making noises without proper deliberations. On a few occasions, their comments have been scathing and hurtful. “Why don’t you think with your brain?” A voice from the North asked. I’m called many names, such as NATO, no action, talk only. A well-disguised word for a blowhard, a blusterer. Boisterous and pompous without any solution. One even calls me a eunuch, presumably insinuating I don’t have balls, that I am gutless. Maybe that’s a bit unfair. They don’t all dislike me. Ban for one isn’t like that. I’ve known Ban since Standard 1C. We were seven and growing up fast. Somehow with Ban, I had to grow up faster. He once told me his initials do not mean bullshit. By the time we were eleven, we had already formed the Dynamic Duo. He was Batman and I was his sidekick. In truth I was his psychic, I knew who he was going to fall in love with well before he realised it. How did I know? Easy. He loved all of them, such was this Romeo. During the day, I spent much of my time in his house when we were not out gallivanting on our bicycles. Correction, during meal time to be precise. I was there so often that they must have felt I was part of their dining room furniture. It was from then on that I learned to appreciate free meals. Meals given free of conditions – without obligations and without expectations that I had to pay back. Meals free of invitations. Somehow they just assumed I’d stay for lunch or I’d turn up for lunch. It was a habit formed – I’d just follow Ban home. I was not a relative, yet was very much part of his family. I loved his mum, she was “auntie”. She often rambled in her foreign dialect with no regard. She just knew I’d understand her. Her Heng Hua dialect may be somewhat similar to hokkien if we compare just the pronouns. Auntie’s accent was foreign and her words, indecipherable. Yet, I understood her well. “Shit shit” meant “eat, eat”. She taught me not to fear foreign languages. I have become so proficient in many dialects that I sometimes confuse people. In hokkien, “wa bei” means I bought it and “e bei” means he or she bought it. When asked where the algaecide for my pond came from, I told my sister her husband bought it but somehow she insisted I told her it was from eBay. But with auntie, there were never such frustrating misunderstandings. I always knew she meant sit down and “shit” when she placed food on the table for us. I can still visualise her rocking a little from side to side when she walked. I thought it was the excess weight she was carrying around her waist and legs that made her waddle. But having witnessed the same gait The Mrs had, I now realise auntie suffered from bad hips too. Ban’s dad was “Ah chek”, or uncle. Also from Putien, he managed to lose most of his Heng Hua accent. A very kind gentle man who rode his bicycle to work – a salesman of a spare parts business – he was never without a smile. He would always stop and say a few words to me. He gave me his time. The most precious thing we have. Somehow, I had the wrong impression he was very old. I suppose my little nieces would think I’m very old too. It would not surprise me if they think I leave a trail of dead skin wherever I go. They burst into tears when their eyes meet mine though, old and harmless I may be. I suspect it’s my Rasputin hairstyle that frightens them. But not Ah Chek. He was the opposite of scary. A Chinese Santa with a prominent gold tooth filling actually, such was his kind and generous demeanour. I am again reminded of the word. Belong. Ban’s folks made me feel that. I was part of their family. That is the most amazing gift we can give someone. To treat a person like they are family. To make them feel they belong.
Ban and I grew up together in the tropical paradise that was Penang. Both cubs, we became Boy Scout leaders. I was the one with the triple white stripes first. Ban got his after me. That’s my way of saying they sacked me and appointed him as Troop Leader instead. But I got the recognition and promotion before him. Annoying, but an undeniable fact. He was raging with testosterone well before me though. His sister’s Honda Life gave him a new lifestyle – I was his navigator – the front passenger seat was reserved for me. I never knew what it was like to be sardined with six others in the back seat. Some were bashful young teenage girls whose shyness and inhibitions were likely cured after one session in his car. I don’t think anyone could have remained reticent after an intimate car ride in Ban’s car. He had an acute predilection for the windy roads from town to Tanjung Bungah, swerving abruptly as he manoeuvred the bends like a Formula One driver. I was too embarrassed to look at how the backseat passengers would have clung to one another during the exaggerated swerves. It wouldn’t be too difficult to imagine the chaps accidentally pressing their bodies onto the girls. No one ever protested about the rough rides. Except me. Ban became SuperBan after that one incident. He had to have skills like Superman’s, I remember noting in my mind. He denied he was suicidal the way he hurtled side to side, hugging his Mini along the windy road to the beach town. His girlfriend had a tiff with him and he took to drinking that day. I went to lend him my ears like a best friend would but I think I left some of my guts somewhere along that stretch of road, so scared I was of dying in a car crash that afternoon. But SuperBan’s driving skills shone like only a superhero’s can. We survived unscathed but not unscarred. He was scarred by his first lover’s jilt and hopefully by the guilt I poured on him. “You could have killed us!” I screamed at him after that episode. “But we didn’t!” He protested. “You should trust me!” He added. “I do but I don’t know the other drivers. How good are their driving skills?!” I thought out loudly. Back then, I was allowed to think aloud.