"We're up next!" I informed my assistant, Mary. "Remember, tonight you are a distraught Chinese lady, speechless in grief."
Mary nodded as she picked the hem of her costume, a dusty green cheongsam I lent her for our university’s talent show.
A giant cardboard setup divided frontstage from the back where I, Mary and the other performers waited. Techno music blared over small talk and footsteps to and from the restroom. Markos the emcee made an announcement I was too nervous to catch details of.
"Good evening, my fellow students!” Markos’ accent was a mix of Filipino and Spanish - the ethnicities of his Mom and Dad, respectively. “Selamat petang! Magandang gabi! Sa-wat-dee dton-yen! Bonne soirée! Wu An! This evening, we will witness a United Nations Meeting where one delegate represents six countries."
Markos gave a pregnant pause, allowing time for amused members of the audience to exchange comments.
"Ladies and gentlemen!" Markos' enthusiasm boomed over the sound system. "I present to you the talented First Year Business Student who can speak not one, two ...but SIX languages! Behold, the beautiful Polyglot Miss Foo Ling-Yoo, and her beautiful assistant Miss Mary anak Abraham!!!!"
Flashback to what happened three weeks ago...
"Ling-Yoo, did you really sign up for the Greene One House talent show?" Mary asked as we walked to class. Mary is my new best friend I met at orientation.
"Trust me," I quipped. "That prize money will help pay off a chunk of college loans, apart from supporting Elimination of Racial Discrimination according to the theme, of course.”
"With that money, you could travel too," Mary's eyes lit up. "I always wanted to travel in an aeroplane - it's on my bucket list."
Our shoes scraped the tarmac as we trod on in silence. I didn't want to tell her that I hated planes. I hated jet lag. I hated being squashed up with strangers. When I applied to the University of Greene, I checked for only one "Preferred Campus" - the Malaysian campus in Malacca that was connected by train and bus, not plane, to my home in Kuala Lumpur. Mary had aimed her pen at “London” and “Nottingham”, but she checked her bank account, then hesitantly checked “Malaysia” (home country of applicant).
“Hey …” Mary’s lilt broke the silence. “I heard the talent show portrays a fusion of local Malaysian culture with foreign ones. Samy is singing a traditional Indian song in both its original language and Korean translation. Saoirse from Ireland is going to tap dance to Rasa Sayang. How about you?”
"I’m doing a multilingual act. I’m going to speak in the many languages I know."
"What languages do you know?"
"English, Malay, Filipino, Thai, French."
"Wow, that's awesome! … but … no Mandarin?"
My cheeks flushed. An electronic squeal vibrated my handbag. I fumbled for my phone, grateful for the excuse to dismiss Mary’s question.
It was a Wechat message from my elder brother. I downloaded the app before he left for China to serve as volunteer doctor. He was messaging from a place with no Whatsapp or Facebook messenger service.
I look up to my brother the same way a runner up looks up to a Gold Medalist. He completed Medical School two months before I received my Straight-A results slip for Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (the Malaysian equivalent of O-Levels). He received an acceptance letter from Doctors Without Borders the same day I won a voucher from Borders Bookstore for an essay contest (Fine, I also received a free copy of “Essays As I Say”). I know five languages, but he is already fluent in his sixth. I wish I could …
An imaginary light bulb ignited in my head.
I sent a message to my brother: “Could you please show me how you counsel your patients in Mandarin? It's something for university."
Through some persuasion and white lies, I got the video from him within the same day - a footage of my brother acting out a consultation. He was telling an imaginary lady that she had fourth stage lung cancer.
The next day I asked Mary to join me in the talent show.
"We'll share the prize money if we win," I promised. That was enough to get her cooperation.
For the next 3 weeks, I juggled between coursework and preparing for the show. I wrote my script in different languages, assembled props, and trained Mary to be my show assistant. I asked kuya Markos the Eurasian emcee, using both English and Filipino, to be part of my act. He grinned when he heard me speak his mother’s language, and agreed to help without any payment. The toughest battle still was to mimic my brother’s mock counselling session.
You see, it would be shameful to join Greene One House Got Talent to flaunt my fluency in five languages, when none of those languages included my mother tongue: Mandarin.
Though ethnically Chinese, I have always been a banana since young – “yellow skinned, but like a white person on the inside”. Dad grew up in Manila speaking Tagalog. Mom was born in Bangkok; she learned both Thai and French from her elder peers. My parents met while studying in the UK, then moved to Malaysia where they raised me and my brother as Malaysian Chinese. My brother only learned Mandarin when he had to travel to Hainan Island.
I had to mimic my brother so I could pass off as knowing my own language. I would not risk any embarrassment, or jeopardy to my chance of winning. I rehearsed my Mandarin script so thoroughly I fooled myself into thinking the girl in my mirror really understood what I said.
The big day finally came …
It looked as if people from all over the world had brought part of their home to the Greene House – an affectionate name for our multipurpose hall in the Malaysian campus of Greene University.
Green wau hung from the ceiling with red oriental lanterns. Mandala themed designs lined the walls with contemporary remakes of Baroque and Classical European Art. Local Malaysian students in baju Melayus, saris and samfus mingled with Japanese students in their kimonos and African students in their boubous and agbadas. The Norwegian senior in her bunad took selfies with her Vietnamese junior who donned the ao dai.
The hall became One House in cheering as I stood on stage next to Markos in my costume: an oversized bright green trench coat.
Mary gave me a thumbs up from side of the stage. She would only join in the show later.
English: I made casual conversation with Markos in impeccable English, singing praises of Sir John Greene, the distinguished English visionary who sailed to Malaya and built the educational institution we nicknamed as the “Greenery”.
Malay: I removed the trench coat revealing a dark brown baju kurung. I promote a platter of traditional Malay pastries to Markos using our national language. Sweet, crispy, spicy; gula Melaka, brown crust, sambal chili. The audience could taste my words.
Filipino: I wave palm leaves as my brown clad body swayed to the rhythm of Subic Bay’s tides. I teach Markos, a young inquisitive child, the Tagalog similes of maganda when describing the Sampaguita flower, the birds, the sunset, and the people of Luzon.
Thai: Markos leaves the stage. I wear a colourful cardboard and start skipping around like a comedian in a Thai commercial. I am the carton-packaged Thai Milk Tea! No one can live without me! Nam Achan and Nam Matoom are my friends and you should not live without them either.
French: I flip the cardboard inside out and become Jeanne d’Arc in armour. I chronicle my life story, recalling visions and violence. My death shall not be in vain.
I remove the cardboard and drape a white coat over myself. Mary appears onstage with two stools and we both sit down on them.
“Dear Mrs Ang,” I said, gently holding Mary’s right hand in both of mine. “I need to talk to you about your condition.”
Mary bowed her head, the weight of sorrow bending her neck down slowly.
“Your blood tests show raised tumour markers. Your CT of thorax, abdomen and pelvis show you have metastasis of tumour cells all over your body.”
“Mrs Ang, you have fourth stage lung adenocarcinoma. At your stage, your prognosis of recovery is poor. We recommend chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and if your financial circumstances permit, the tyrosine kinase inhibitor drug Afatinib. We also advise you to spend time with loved ones as time is limited and precious now.”
Mary sobbed and dabbed her eyes with a handkerchief.
“Bear in mind that this grievance is not your fault. Such a condition commonly affects non-smoking Chinese women without any family history of cancer. As your doctor, I will give you the best treatment and comfort care available. Let me know if there is any other way I can help or comfort you.”
The audience leapt to a standing ovation. The Chinese students were the first to rise.
“Ling-Yoo, I was pretty sure you knew Mandarin all along!” Mary whispered. “You were amazing, though I have no idea what you just said.”
During the prize giving ceremony, Mary and I gripped each other’s hands as Markos announced the winners. Trinkets, food vouchers, electronic devices, 300 Malaysian ringgit, 500 Malaysian ringgit … Prizes were getting more expensive from consolation to the third place, to the second place, to the …
A jazz drum rolled as Markos tore open a green envelope …
“Grand Prize goes to Foo Ling-Yoo and Mary anak Abraham!”
Squeals escaped our throats. Confetti rained as we made our way through the applauding crowd to collect the Prize. As we stood onstage, I thought to myself:
Ling-Yoo, well done! You have lived up to your name. You fooled everyone into thinking you know six languages, when you actually know five.”
I am proudly Foo Ling-Yoo!
“This year is different,” Markos said slowly into the microphone. The crowd goes hush. Markos turned from the crowd to face me and Mary.
“This year …” Markos took a deep breath. “Instead of the same boring Grand Prize money we have been giving for the past five years, we’re offering these two beautiful ladies an all-expense paid student exchange trip to the University of Taipei in Taiwan!”
The crowd erupts into applause. Murmurs of envy weave into the ovation.
“We … we get to … fly there?” Mary had the nerve to confirm we would be facing my secret pet peeve.
“Yes, all expenses paid!” Markos shook my hand, then Mary’s. “Congratulations, ladies! Your plane tickets, accommodation, and food at different locations across Chinese Taipei will all be paid for. We were going to hire a translator too, but since Ling-Yoo has proven herself fluent in the language, we shall leave Mary to her care as together, they both will guarantee meaningful conversation with the locals.”
Flashes blinded us as we pulled grins for the cameras. Mary’s beam was wide and sincere. Mine was forced.
After the cameras were gone, Mary piped up, “Ling-Yoo, thanks for making my wanderlust dreams come true! Hey … why are you so quiet? Don’t tell me you’re sick! You looked great during the show. Who are you fooling?”