Anneh And Thambi
I wish the teasing would stop.
I thought sadly as I wiped my snotty nose. My hiding spot in the sports equipment storeroom wasn’t very comfortable. But it will have to do, until the bell rings and they go away.
Why did Daddy and Mommy send me to this stupid school?
They run a business and know many people. I’m sure we have enough money to send me to boarding school, like the children in Enid Blyton books. I also wouldn’t mind going to a school like Hogwarts. It would be far away in England, or was it the UK? I’ve never been there, but I think I would be happier if I did. I think I would belong.
Instead, I’m in this Chinese school.
We are “Chinese” by race, like how being “Malaysian” is our nationality. But we never spoke the language at home, because Daddy and Mommy don’t know how. They sent me and my sister to Chinese school, because they wanted us to be the first ones in the family to be “mangoes” instead of “bananas”.
I don’t know why Daddy would describe us as fruit. I think it’s something to do with the colour? To be yellow through and through, instead of yellow on the outside and white on the inside.
But Daddy, you and Mommy are bananas. Why should I be any different?
“It’s always useful to have an extra language.” Daddy replied.
“You will understand when you’re older.” Mommy concurred.
But Daddy, I will always be a banana…
The kids at school caught on pretty quick that I “spoke funny”. That I was slower to understand the teachers. Teachers are grown-ups so they’re alright. They’ve always looked out for me and taught me patiently. And I really have improved in language skills. Honest.
But kids. Kids are cruel.
They never let me forget that I’m the banana. They laugh when my intonation slides and I accidentally call someone’s mother a horse. They stare in mocking silence during English lessons, when I gain the teacher’s favour by having more vocabulary than your average primary school pupil. And that one time I brought spaghetti bolognaise for recess? Dumped in the drain ‘by accident’, with shouts of “Eeeeeeeeeeewwwwwwww” and “You’re eating curry meeeeeee”.
The worst part is: You’re all Chinese. Just like me.
You all look like me. Black hair, black eyes, peachy skin, more than half of you lot wearing glasses like me. You all have surnames like “Ong”, “Wong”, “Lim” or even more exotic ones than my common “Tan”. All of us eat rice and it’s my favourite food!
We’re learning to read and write words with simple and complicated strokes, reciting poems and memorising literature. I might not understand some of our lessons, but I work just as hard, if not harder than you!
Why would you pick on your own kind?
The door knob started jiggling. I hear someone laughing outside.
Oh no, I’m scared. Tears started streaming down my face, as I lifted my fists to eye level. I’m not going down without a fight.
The door swung open. “Ya, I’ll grab the basketball.” A boy shouted in Mandarin over his shoulder as he stepped into the storeroom. Then he stared at me in surprise.
I’m staring up at Letch Thunder, the tallest and strongest boy in school.
If I was scared before, I was petrified now as I brought my hands even closer to my face for protection.
Letch Thunder isn’t his real name. He’s called Letchuman Subramaniam, the only Indian face in a sea of Chinese ones. The translation of his name “Letch” has the word 雷(Léi), which meant thunder, so Letch Thunder he became.
He’s one of the older boys. A tough guy, gets into fights many times and was nearly expelled once for breaking someone’s nose during a nasty brawl. I’m surprised he’s still studying here.
Everyone knows not to cross Letch Thunder, yet there are many idiots who still try him, even taunt him with words that I know not to repeat unless I wanted a spanking from Mommy and Daddy. Some words were about his skin colour, others about how he has no parents. And I’ve seen the fights triggered by words. It’s an ugly, painful sight.
I’m scrawny compared to Letch Thunder. I can’t fight back. So I run and hide before I get beaten up even more.
Was he gonna beat me up too?
Letch Thunder opened his mouth to say something, but more voices from outside made him pause and my blood run cold.
“Where’s the ‘gwai lou’ banana?”
“I saw him come here.”
“Ha, the sissy…”
My cheeks were wet. I have no more dignity left. I was crying in front of a scary stranger with my hands weakly positioned in front of me.
Letch Thunder pulled himself to full height, at least two heads taller than me. He had a fiery look in his heavily-lidded eyes and his jaw set in steely determination.
“Wait.” He held up his hand at me before disappearing outside, closing the storeroom door behind him.
I complied. Muffled voices. Some scuffling and a shout. Then silence.
The door creaked open once more. Letch Thunder poked his head in. “They’re gone. And they won’t bother you now.”
I cautiously approached the door and stepped outside, squinting at Letch Thunder as the sunlight blinded me momentarily. “Uh, 谢谢(xiè xiè)…?”
Letch Thunder waved his hand dismissively. “You hungry? Recess isn’t over yet and you look like you need to eat more.” He said gruffly.
It took me a while to realise that Letch Thunder was speaking to me in English.
“I don’t have any money.” I hung my head in shame.
“No money? Did the bastards take your money too?” Another word I would be spanked for if I said it instead of Letch Thunder.
I nodded my head sadly.
“Right, come with me. What do you wanna eat?” Letch Thunder’s huge hand completely enveloped mine as he pulled me roughly towards the canteen.
“Ah er...fried fishballs? And please, Letch Thunder, can you...not pull me? Please?” I wasn’t used to speaking up for myself. I was surprised how quickly he let go of my hand.
“Sorry.” Letch Thunder mumbled. He rummaged in the pockets of his dirty school shorts and gave me an RM1 note. “Get us two sticks.”
We found a shady spot under the angsana tree to munch on our fishball skewers. And we chatted.
“I didn’t ask earlier, but what’s your name?” Letch Thunder asked after we had finished our snacks.
I swallowed my last fishball. “Tan Lee Jan.”
Letch Thunder nodded. “Nice to meet you, Lee Jan. Call me Letch. Just Letch. The ‘Thunder’ is overrated.” He rolled his eyes in mock horror. I laughed for the first time that day.
“You speak English really well.”
Letch looked down, smiling bashfully. “Nah, it’s alright. Reading helps.”
“You read too!?”
We found out we were both bookworms and our favourite series was “Harry Potter”, much to our great delight. Letch borrows books from the library and reads them at night. Though lately he’s been falling behind on schoolwork, so he hasn’t been able to read as much.
I learned more about Letch. He lives with his grandmother in the block of flats near my house. His grandmother has a roadside stall selling murukku and other Indian snacks, where Letch helps out after school.
I enjoy talking with Letch. It’s like having a friend. And I think Letch feels the same way too.
“From today onwards, Tan Lee Jan, you can be my thambi.” Letch declared with a smile.
“Thambi. It’s Tamil for ‘younger brother’.” Letch beamed with pride. “And I will be your anneh.”
I bit my lip trying not to laugh. “Isn’t anneh like...a bad word for Indians?”
Letch’s smile went off like a burst light bulb. “No. It’s Tamil for ‘older brother’. The only reason why people think it’s a bad word is because it’s used as one. And I hate it. If only people would learn to understand each other’s languages, cultures, backgrounds...just people understanding people, you’ll realise we’re not so different after all!”
Letch’s sudden outburst startled me, though I couldn’t help agreeing with him. After all, aren’t we all human?
“We’re all just a different kind of crazy.” I murmured.
“Exactly.” Letch agreed.
The bell rang, signaling the end of recess. As we stood to leave, I blurted out. “Hey er so my Mommy likes murukku and it’s Mothers’ Day this weekend...Can you show me where your grandmother’s stall is...Anneh?”
Letch chuckled at my awkwardness. “Of course!”
“Yay, I’ll see you after school!”
“See you later, Thambi.”
I grinned and waved before trotting back to class.
The Anneh and Thambi bond between Letch and I triggered a few raised eyebrows in school. There were comments like “Coffee and Creamer” or “Dark and White Chocolate” now and then, but I merely ignored them. The good news is I didn’t have to hide in the storeroom anymore. Strangely enough, Letch had fewer physical fights and his grades improved too.
Daddy and Mommy were surprised at first, but I think they’ve since made Letch and his grandmother Patti part of the family, judging from the number of meals we’ve shared together over the years. Mommy’s still one of Patti’s loyal murukku customers, and when business was manageable, Letch came over to study and play with my sister and I.
I was surprised when Letch accepted a scholarship to study at a Chinese private secondary school after graduation.
“I thought you hated it here!” I exclaimed as we sat under our favourite angsana tree for the last time.
Letch shook his head. “Contrary to your assumptions about me, Thambi, I don’t hate it.”
“Is it because Lee Ying’s going there?” I gave a sideway glance, referring to my sister.
Letch chuckled. “No, it’s because out of all the languages I speak, my Mandarin is the weakest. So I want to go to a school where I can boost my Mandarin while maintaining my Malay, English and Tamil.”
“What was it your dad always said? ‘It’s always useful to have an extra language.’ Besides, I don’t wanna waste that scholarship now, do I?” He added.
I could’ve sworn Letch’s face turned a shade darker when he answered the question regarding my sister though.
“I’m gonna miss you, Anneh.” I blinked quickly to stop the tears in my eyes from falling.
Letch patted me on the shoulder. “Come on, cheer up! I’m still coming round for weekly dinners. And you know where Patti’s stall is. Who knows, you might follow Anneh’s footsteps and take up a scholarship too…”
“Sod off.” I mumbled as I rubbed my eyes. “Making me cry, you and your crazy predictions that I don’t wanna come true…”
Letch burst out laughing. “Keep an open mind, Thambi.” He concluded as the ringing bell signaled the beginning of school holidays…
“I hate your predictions, Anneh.”
“I know! Which is why it gives me great joy in making them.”
Letch and I were sitting under a different angsana tree now. We’ve traded our navy blue primary school shorts for the moss green trousers of secondary school. And I’m almost the same height as Letch now.
“But hey at least we still get to catch up with fishballs.”
Letch chewed thoughtfully. “I heard you got a writer’s award. Congrats.”
“You could go far with it, ya know. Don’t lose that creative spark. Plus all that reading has to have an outlet somewhere.”
I shrugged my shoulders in response. “But the family business - “
“Yes, by all means, take over. Bring honour to your family, yada yada. But you gotta have a passion and hobby outside of work, Thambi. It’s not healthy otherwise. And who knows, you might be an author in the future!”
“Is this another one of your crazy predictions?” I snorted as the musical tones of the school bell echoed across the courtyard.
“Just keep an open mind, Thambi.”
I should’ve brought my computer charger.
I sat in the cafe twiddling my thumbs, my laptop closed and abandoned on the table.
The bell tinkled as someone opened the front door. A lean and lanky Indian man sporting 5 o’ clock stubble and thick-rimmed glasses scanned the room. I waved and got his attention.
“Hello Macha.” I grinned cheekily.
Letch threw up his hands in exasperation as he sat opposite me. “For the last time, Tan Lee Jan, stop calling me Macha! What am I, a green beverage? Making rotis at the mamak stall?”
“You’ve been upgraded to brother-in-law status haha...Unless you’ve lost your wedding band again?” My eyes sneakily glanced towards Letch’s hands, exaggeratedly counting his fingers.
Letch instinctively touched the ring on his fourth finger and pulled a face. “Ugh, don’t remind me! I never heard the end of it from Lee Ying. Though I appreciate you helping me find it, Thambi.”
“No worries at all.”
“How have you been?” Letch gestured to the wait staff for the menu.
“I’m alright. Got a publishing deal. They’re asking me for a sequel now.”
Letch pumped his fist in the air. “So proud of you, Thambi. I knew you could do it.”
“As correctly predicted by Anneh.”
Letch waved his hand dismissively. “Nah that’s all you. You gotta have a bit more confidence, man.”
The waitress approached with a miniature basket. “Fried Fishballs?”
Letch’s mouth was a comical ‘O’ as she set the basket in between us. “Oooooh I was just craving this…”
“Hence the order, for old times’ sake, Anneh.” I responded with a wink. Letch popped a fishball into his mouth, savouring the familiar flavours of salt and spice.
“So I was thinking: instead of a sequel, I’m considering writing a prequel for my next book.” I began. Letch nodded while chewing slowly.
“I was wondering if you wanted to write with me, Letch?”
Letch’s mouth stopped. He looked at me with questioning eyes, swallowed and whispered. “Me? Write a book with you? Thambi, I dunno what to say...I mean, I’m happy to write! Thank you for including me. But...what...how do I write? I…”
He reminded me of the scrawny Chinese boy from years ago, hiding in a storeroom wide-eyed with fear and uncertainty.
“It’s okay if you don’t know everything. Or you don’t know how or where to start. We’re writing together. And I know you have a story to tell.”
“What if nobody wants to know my story?”
“Just keep an open mind, Anneh.”
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What an incredible story teller you are! You’ve caught the essence of life in our polyglot society to a T! And narrated in an everyday chatting style 👏👏👏
Hehe thank you! Yeah this story is quite dear to my heart, as it helps me remember what home in Malaysia is / should be like 😂 Had many memories writing it.
Unusual story, I enjoyed it, it’s not like anything I usually read so I don’t feel I can give advice on it.😀
I'm glad you enjoyed it. Just curious, in what way did you find it unusual, if you don't mind sharing?
I wouldn’t normally read something that had words with different languages in, to me it slows the flow having to read and attempt to pronounce the words. Obviously it was integral to your story line and being a short story it was fine. If it was a book I wouldn’t chose to read it, but that is just me. I read a book with lots of Swedish terms and dialogue in and I just didn’t enjoy it.
What a fantastic story!
Thank you for the compliment!