The Taciturn Man’s Tacit Nod

The weekend breezed past especially quickly. It always does when we have a visitor. Mei is The Mrs’ Miri school friend from Form 1. She arrived last Thursday night and left Monday morning. Four nights in Adelaide, that is a long stay for most Sydney-siders. She had heard from other friends that this city is a small town, a kind word for boring. The roads are wide and the drivers are annoyingly slow. “South Australians drive like everyday is a Sunday. What can you expect from the city of churches?” A friend once asked acidly. Mei was fresh air for The Mrs. As soon as they gave each other a long welcome hug, The Mrs was resuscitated from sinking deeper into depression after having both her hips replaced. “My left hip was done exactly three months ago.” The Mrs informed her friend. “No, it was five days shy of three months.” I corrected her. Mei did not pull me to one side when she firmly advised me that The Mrs is always right when she is telling stories about herself. My silly behaviour that dared question the accuracy of her own stories was intolerable. “You do understand that, right?” She sought my confirmation. I turned taciturn and merely gave her a tacit nod. Her mellifluous voice is wasted on her, I decided. She does not sing and she does not enjoy karaoke sessions. Mei’s genius demonstration on how to be a nice listener was admirable. It was simply unnecessary to argue about inconsequential matters. No one should know better than me to be fully supportive when The Mrs is feeling despondent and dreading the general nastiness of her bed-bound life for the past three months. But, it was Mei who reminded me to be a nicer person when The Mrs obviously was beginning to resent the prolonged pain and prison-like restrictions to free movement. Again, I gave her a tacit nod and consciously refrained from giving out my habitual grunt. It was clear their friendship was never a sham. They lapped up their waking hours together with total alacrity. With Mei by her side, the frowns on The Mrs’ forehead smoothened, the laments and melancholy evaporated from her vocabulary. Adelaide surprised Mei. She had come fully prepared to “tut-tut” at everything we can showcase here. The wineries would not interest her, she does not enjoy the occasional tipple, no matter how little. Scratch out the Barossa Valley and McLaren Valley. Kangaroo Island off Adelaide, although bigger than Singapore, did not prick her ears either. We are the Festival State, but she was not into the arts. The Mrs cranked up Beethoven’s Violin Concerto in the car, but Mei said a little introduction of it was pleasant enough. We have a Chinatown here, but Sydney has a much bigger one and so she declined the offer to take her there. The Adelaide Central Market is a hub for South Australia’s farm produce, the buzz and din attract some 9 million visitors annually. But, Mei had been to Sydney’s Hay Market and Melbourne’s Victoria Market too often in her youth – markets no longer attract her. In the end, what surprised her did not surprise me. She discovered the secrets of Adelaide that bound The Mrs and me to this place when we first visited as a young family in 1985 and promptly settled here permanently the following year. It is the beautiful Jacaranda lined streets, the roses in full bloom on council verges, the stately Federation-style homes, the gum-scented neighbourhoods and the courteous and pleasant locals. I gave her a tacit nod, a silent “Bravo!” to have discovered our secret so quickly.

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IMG_2243Mei was meticulously dressed in the four days I saw her. Graceful and lady-like, her movements were noticeably elegant despite her rounded shoulders. A short stint of yoga will easily fix them. She wore the cutest nose scrunch whenever she laughed. Her silky smooth skin attracted much praise from other women who were introduced to her. She had the perfect pink tone on her ultra fair skin. Even at her age, she could be a great ambassador for Maybelline. Her high nose bridge was unusual for her Chinese genes, which may be why her oversize Gucci sunglasses fitted her with aplomb. Big brands somehow suit women like her; her beige Prada handbag seemed to blend in with whichever day dress she wore. The Mrs possesses a high degree of self confidence, packed with the knowledge that she is well read, well informed of current affairs and keeps abreast of minutiae bytes of cooking shortcuts. Mei, however, was the exact opposite. Quick to announce her disdain for gardening, house chores and cooking, she was almost proud to dismiss any notion of her trying out The Mrs’ quick and easy recipes. “It is so easy!” The Mrs encouraged Mei to try her easy Jajangmyeon recipe but without much success. Mei merely scrunched up her nose and smiled and exclaimed,

“It is easier not to know anything!”

“Try it, you will have so much time for yourself!” “And look, you will have slender and smooth hands like mine..” as she offered her wrinkle-free baby-soft fingers for closer scrutiny.

The Mrs loves our four chooks. She told Mei that when she is well again – when her hips are fully operational again – she will be back to catching worms for her pets. They lay the most delicious eggs when fed with such a high protein diet. “Where do you go to catch the worms?” Mei asked, feigning interest.

“From my four compost bins in the backyard.”

“With my bare hands, of course.” The Mrs added, with a matter-of-fact voice. Mei scrunched up her nose again, but this time she was visibly repulsed, and was no longer cute.

Mei taught The Mrs her “know nothing and therefore do nothing” tactic decades ago, but The Mrs being the proud woman that she is, would rather the world know how smart and knowledgeable she is. She did adopt the strategy on a few occasions – which explains why I am better than her at ironing, vacuuming, washing (dishes and clothes), cleaning the aquarium and pond, mopping and frying Penang Char Koay Teow and Sar Hor Fun. In my household, the one who is better at a chore gets to own it for life. I gave Mei a tacit nod to let her know I am fully aware of her clever strategy.

When Mei found out I have been practising Intermittent Fasting (IF) for almost two years, she finally became genuinely interested in something I had to say. After rattling off to her the many health benefits one can get from IF, I hastened to ask why she would be interested. She did not seem like a candidate for our IF club, she already possessed a taut body many ladies would die for. But, there she was, asking sensible questions about the merits of fasting and the main differences of fasting versus dieting. Her husband had lost a lot of weight once from a strict diet but she told him he was shrivelling up like an old man with flabby skin hanging off his arms like those of a turkey’s wattle. He promptly gave up after that. “But, your arms don’t look like a turkey’s neck. Why?” she asked. I gave her a simple answer – fasting is not dieting. It is a lifestyle that leads to a taut, healthy body. Just like that, she was sold on IF and started her first 14-hour fast that same evening. She gave me a tacit nod the next day, as if to say it was really easy. Her husband will be her disciple when they return to Sydney.

For lunch on Saturday, we went to an Italian cafe. I was a dollar short at the cashier’s, and so I went over to my sister and asked if she had any small change. The cashier said loudly with his strong Italiano accent, “It’s ok, doanch worry ’bout it.” My sister could not help herself and quickly relayed to Mei my many stories of getting freebies around the world. “Even on an MAS plane to KL, a stewardess gave him a huge bag of peanuts. A HUGE bag that contained over twenty-five sachets of the best MAS peanuts!”  Francis, a brother-in-law who was unnecessarily frank one day, gave me a name that sounded like Jeffrey but he bastardised it to “Jiak-fre”, a play on the hokkien word Jiak (eat) and the English word free. He too had witnessed my many free meals whenever he travelled with me. On their last night, The Mrs and I threw them a farewell party. Mei said her husband would bring some of their golfing friends along. They had all come here to compete in three days of golf. Sure, why not. I have to portray myself as a generous host and it was a good opportunity to dispel the myth about my pseudo name Jiak-fre. Mei’s husband has a handicap of 18, quite a good golfer as I understood it. He showed me photos of him with many of golf’s elite, such as Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Nicklaus, Montgomery, Vijay Singh, Jason Day, and so on. That made him an elite in the business world – how else would one get so many prized opportunities to play with these legends of the game? I failed to display the myth about me that night. Someone at the table said The Mrs and I are lucky to live so close to such a fantastic Chinese restaurant – The Empress was voted Best Chinese Restaurant 2019. Yes, we are indeed lucky. As if to prove it, we were later served free desserts – a tropical fruit pudding. Nice! Later, I found out Mei’s husband had already taken care of the bill as I returned from the men’s washroom. I gave Mei a tacit nod. She understood. Jiak-fre, again.