The Thistle And Shtisel

Many of my friends find me prickly. Just an hour ago, a good friend from school remarked “You sure like to be pricked.” Chip has a beautiful rose garden at his sprawling home up in the hills. So, he understands one is easily pricked when standing too close to a rose bush. But, who likes to be pricked? So, he got me thinking. What on earth does he mean? I like to be pricked? Is he saying I make myself an easy target, either from my behaviour or from my words and therefore I am deserving of retaliatory remarks from them? It was never them vs us in school. I did not belong to any gang or group. Not even in the Boy Scouts, in which I was one of the early leaders. Yet, I never felt I was part of them. Nowadays, it frequently is them vs me. I am made to feel the odd one out. Maybe that’s unfair. Maybe I am odd. Memories of my lonely boyhood come surging back. Where is Shiny, my old faithful dog? He was a pariah pup but I did not care. He always welcomed me with a strong wagging tail. Unconditionally. He didn’t care if I was a lonely boy. The odd one. The one they loved to pick on. Shiny listened intently to all my sad stories, at times amidst the quiet sobbing. No one must know. If they knew their darts were getting through my shell, then they would feel encouraged to throw more at me. Shiny faithfully kept all my secrets. “At least the bush will reward you with a bunch of roses, Chip.” I retorted silently in my mind, but stopped myself from being argumentative to avoid the risk of him calling me something even more prickly, a thistle instead? How would I recover from that? A thistle, me? It is true I have never been a popular chap. I was grumpy before I got old. Well, maybe I was grumpy even before I got to my 20s. Within the hour of being called prickly, I was asked in another group if having oats for breakfast daily makes me grumpy. These days, our popularity can be gauged by the number of birthday wishes we get in our chat groups. Yesterday, Lak Thiang celebrated his birthday with great fanfare. He would have been on cloud nine for sure. I know I would be if I got that many “dings-dings” on my phone, all of them with a rowdy Happy Birthday message. That evening, everyone seemed to have a mini bar full of whisky at home as they toasted the birthday boy loudly and drunkenly. It was an impromptu online party, and as they started toasting and clinking their glasses, I promptly went to bed instead. I had no whisky to show them, and no whisky knowledge either. There was the usual talk about single malts, smoothness, smokiness, and age. About Scottish vs Japanese vs Irish. All so foreign to me. A good friend I grew up with, SuperBan, had a wild birthday party too, a couple of nights earlier. I added ‘super’ to his first name, as he reminded me of Superman the way he flew around the world before the pandemic. The chorus of birthday wishes for SuperBan was deafening all day and all night – he got a few more greetings the day after too. I come from a big school in Penang. My year comprised of ten classes with a class numbering over 45 students. So, one could say it is not surprising to receive many birthday greetings from such a big group. I shall not divulge the number of birthday wishes I attracted last year. There is no need to pick on old scabs. It is soothing to tell myself they don’t really know when my birthday is, so how is it surprising when no one sends me a birthday wish? I had lost touch with these school friends for over 40 years. When Greg had a motorbike accident some 6 years ago, he was bed-ridden for many weeks. What would an aged person do if he is immovable on his back in this computer age? He surfs the internet to locate long-lost friends! After Greg found me, I rediscovered my past very quickly. The names of old teachers, old friends, old haunts and old flames. The old slangs, the old Malaysian accents all returned. Asian words such as “Aiya, aiyo, lah, lor” have found their way back into my vocabulary. It is no surprise that there was an initial curiosity to reconnect with these old mates. That was over 5 years ago. I am afraid the novelty has worn off and the boredom of familiarity has crept back into our lives. Familiarity breeds contempt, I truly believe this old saying now. Hardly a day goes by without someone sending me a contemptible message. In school, I was usually the odd one in the school compound – the daft one who pretended being introspective gave people the impression that you were observant and as clever as the quiet achiever. So, when they found me and invited me to join the chat groups, I decided I won’t be daft anymore. I shan’t be that quiet boy anymore. but, you know what? Mud sticks and so does reputation. No matter how I behave now, no matter how cleverly I voice my opinion, that banner I carried as a young boy is still hoisted high above me today. I am forever that annoying idiot. I tried to change it, to tell them the idiotes isn’t the idiot. Idiotes in old Greek means a private person. The annoying one in school isn’t prickly anymore today, I heard myself say to them. But, if you let mud stick, you can’t scrape it off once it has caked hard onto their memory. Now I’m in my sixties but it is as if time has stood still for them. To them, I’m still the prickly one today. It feels strange. When I first arrived in Australia, I felt like an outsider. People seemed polite and friendly but that was just the Western way of being courteous. They asked me questions as if they were genuinely interested in where I came from. They had difficulty pronouncing my name but they repeated it badly enough times as if they really wanted to get it right. They looked at me with that funny look, as if the batik shirt I was wearing didn’t match the bad haircut I wore on my head. Come to think of it, I think they just wanted to let me know I was very different from them. I didn’t belong. I wasn’t one of them. Funnily, sometimes I feel I don’t belong in my circle of school friends too. They pick on me and me only. They “red-card” me during boisterous football matches. At first, I was happy. I wrongly assumed I finally belong to a club. Our Man-United fan club is aptly named “MU Fuanclub”, since Fuan (another boyhood friend) assumes chairmanship of the club. But, I have been the only one “sent off” so many times during games. The others who often voice their frustrations during matches have yet to be flashed a “yellow card”. Yeah, not even a warning. Mind you, the red cards handed to me all happened to be in games that MU lost. Yeah, some of the fans are sore losers – a fair deduction, I may add. These guys could not accept any in-depth analysis of how the games were lost. “NO BAD VIBES!” is their club motto. Can’t they see it is positive to look at the players’ negatives so their problems can be fixed by the coach? Somehow, they see me as an importunate bloke whose criticisms of the players are not conducive to a winning formula. No matter, I am just as happy to watch the matches alone. It should not matter anymore, right? We all have our own family, our own dreams, our own history. It should not hurt anymore if we feel we don’t belong outside all that. They hint that I make myself a big target, an easy target for them to “taroh” (Malay for attack). It is just a harmless pastime of theirs, I convinced myself a long time ago. When I was a young man, I used to feel I was in no man’s land, neither belonging to the West nor comfortable in the East. That feeling of being a foreigner seems odd for someone who has lived here for over 43 years, yet it has not escaped me that I was once accosted in a public toilet for being a “yellow Chinaman” and white rednecks also hurled abuse at me as they sped past in their rusty faded Ford Falcon and Toyota Corolla. It is no different when I return to Malaysia – I feel like a tourist rather than like a son returning to his motherland. Heck, the locals see me as a tourist too, somehow they know before I even utter a word. Maybe it is the way I struggle with the coins and notes. Maybe it is the way I tip the hawkers by the roadside.

Shiny, my loyal friend. Forgive me, you should never have been chained.

Two nights ago, The Mrs and I finished Season 2 of Shtisel. The series premiered in 2013. Make a season a year, by my simple maths, they should have finished Season 7 by now. Why hasn’t Season 3 been released yet?! I am a sucker for blockbuster movies, especially conspiracy-laden plots involving the CIA or graphic ones with blood-soaked horse heads on satin bed sheets. I can’t resist epics with amazingly creative plots such as Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter or movies with unforgettable music such as Out of Africa (John Barry, composer), The Mission (Morricone, composer), Schindler’s List (John Williams, composer). But, Shtisel is absolutely none of that. It is low-budget, absent of a star-studded cast (or so I thought) and without any action-packed martial arts, absolutely no violence. Set in an ultra-Orthodox Geula neighbourhood in Jerusalem, the main male characters are dressed in traditional Hasidic garb, long black suits, big black hats hiding their kippahs and loosely hanging silk gartels. There is a lot of swaying and rocking when they pray. Maybe it signifies trembling before God. Their focus is on God, of course. The Jews won’t use the name of God lightly, so they will refer to Him as The Kingdom of Heaven. Every sip of water, every bit of food consumed is done after praising God first. A Bracha is recited so often in the show I ought to be able to recite it too. But the story is not a focus on The Kingdom of Heaven, but on our journey through life. The ultra-Orthodox setting just adds colour and flavour to the story. The Mrs and I felt flat and listless last night. I think she was suffering from withdrawal symptoms too, so addicted we have become to the story about a Haredi Jewish family living in a corner of Jerusalem which hitherto was as foreign to me as Mars would be. It is a totally different world where great music and art are frowned upon, and watching TV soapies is discouraged even for those living in a nursing home. So, why is Shtisel so captivating? I think it is great story-telling that a story about the everyday life of a highly devout Jewish family can captivate the attention of so many. We all have our customs, our beliefs, our taboos. Our pursuit of love be it for someone or in this case, for art, can unravel the bonds of a family when the rules are guarded too strictly. Breaking the norms often causes hurt and despair, despite their belief that God protects and loves those who praise Him. The show reminds me that with or without God, life is full of thistles for all of us and I think that is why a story like Shtisel resonates so well with me.

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