Viewpoints

Navel Gazer

Published: Saturday July 26, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Saturday July 26, 2014 MYT 2:45:12 PM

What any parent would do for their child

Alexandra with her parents on holiday in South Korea last year. Her dad is an astute reader of people, especially the longings of his daughter's heart.

Alexandra with her parents on holiday in South Korea last year. Her dad is an astute reader of people, especially the longings of his daughter's heart.

Parents want the best for their children, from indulging their heart’s desires to doing all they can to keep them safe – no matter how much the sacrifice.

There's this unassuming little stall in my neighbourhood, right next to an Indian newspaper vendor, manned by a sweet-faced young woman with big doll-like eyes, bright red lipstick and pink headscarf.

Meet Aishah, maker of the most divine nasi lemak in the world. What makes it so crazily addictive? The secret lies in her chilli sambal – it’s like heaven and hell rolled into one, the kind of powerful stuff that should come with a warning: “Not for the weak of stomach and faint of heart”.

After missing my fix the last few days – because I woke up late and by the time I’d rushed higgledy-piggledy to get there at 9am, it was sold out – I roll out of bed early today and hotfoot it to her stall.

What the…?! I gasp in dismay when I see the crowd milling around her one-table stall. I glance at my watch. It’s barely 7am! Unbelievable.

Stifling a sigh of resignation, I plant myself next to my fellow nasi lemak worshippers. It takes every ounce of self-control to refrain from shooting a murderous glare at them. For the next 10 minutes, I veer between mute agony and barbaric lust, as Wati scoops a ladle of steaming coconut rice onto a banana leaf square, adds a sliver of hard-boiled egg, scatters a handful of nuts next to it, and tops the whole lot with a generous scoop of positively evil-looking red sambal.

A guy rides up on his motorcycle and stops next to me. I look up and flash him a smile of recognition. It’s the dim sum guy from the nearby coffee shop. I’m a regular buyer of his siew mai and char siew pau.

Usually taciturn, he surprises me by initiating a conversation. Looking directly at me, he says: “I know you came first, but do you think you can swap with me? I’m kind of in a rush.” My initial annoyance is replaced by comprehension, as it suddenly dawns on me that at this hour, he should be at his dim sum station.

“Is it because you’re rushing to open your stall?” I guess out loud. “If you want, I can pick up the nasi lemak for you and bring it to you since I’m going to the coffee shop for a drink,” I volunteer.

He shakes his head. “Actually, I want to bring the nasi lemak back for my son, who’s rushing to school. The stall didn’t open yesterday, and I know my son has been craving it all week.”

The ringing of his phone interrupts our conversation. He says soothingly, “Just a few minutes more, ya. Papa is on the way.” Despite his calm voice, I can sense his urgency – his tight face is that of a man on an impossible mission.

Unbidden, the memories I’ve made with my own father surface, along with my own peculiar childhood cravings. My love for a piece of well-seasoned meat between two slices of bread – whether in the form of a sandwich, burger bun or baguette– is well-known among my friends. This particular obsession can be traced back to one incident that took place in Ipoh when I was about seven or eight.

Uncle Thum's burger van. The 'delicious juicy burgers' brought a lot of satisfaction and happiness to our columnist during her childhood days.
Uncle Thum's burger: His delicious juicy sandwiches brought a lot of satisfaction and happiness to Alexandra Wong during her childhood.
Burger, anyone? The smells wafting up from the sizzling griddle were out of this world.

One Saturday, Dad was sending me home after my piano lesson in Canning Garden, when I spotted a white van parked under a big raintree at the roadside. There was a long queue of people snaking around the van. I tugged at Dad’s sleeve and motioned at the van. Without a word, he pulled over.

An athletic young man was standing over a hotplate, moving around pieces of meat patties with a skillet. The smells wafting up from his sizzling griddle were out of this world!

I turned my face imploringly to dad. My dad is what you’d call diam diam ubi (still waters run deep). He isn’t one of those who would profess “I love you” at the drop of a hat, and he often wears a stoic expression you’d associate with typical Chinamen. 

Yet for all his stern expression, dad was an astute reader of people, especially the longings of his daughter’s heart. Sometimes even with a well-timed, manja-fied “Paaaa...”, he straight away knew what his precious only daughter wanted.

“Mister, can I have a chicken burger for my daughter?”

My eyes must’ve seemed bigger than my stomach when Thum placed the warm bundle in my outstretched hands. Thum’s burger tasted even better than it looked. That day marked a new routine for dad and I. Every Saturday after my piano lesson, dad would faithfully ferry me to Thum’s for my favourite fix: a piping hot burger – with fresh shredded cucumber and a splash of tomato ketchup, sandwiched between two halves of a soft bun.

Looking back, it is easy to see why I was so fond of burgers. Some credit has to go to Thum, of course, for creating the most awesome burgers I’d ever eaten, but there was more to it than just culinary gratification. Those moments – when I stood salivating at the side of the van, as the burgers sizzled on the hotplate and dad stood like a silent sentry by my side, his hands clasping a few ringgit – represented some of the best memories of my childhood.

Those burgers weren’t just burgers; they were bundles of happiness. I didn’t know it then, but my dad and mum went to great lengths to create so many beautiful childhood memories for me, a solid foundation of love and support that only grows stronger with time. It’s something I hope the son of Mr Dim Sum will have the wisdom to realise when he grows old enough to see the value of what I’m witnessing at the nasi lemak stall today.

“No problem,” I say with a smile. “I’d be happy to swap with you. After all, you’re on an important mission, right?”

> Alexandra Wong can guess what her dad will say when he reads this, ‘"iya, writing that kind of corny story again, ah? Let other people be celebrity, lah."

Tags / Keywords: Navel Gazer, Alexandra Wong, father, good times

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