The Café of Dreams
by Elena Kua
I pine for the most unlikely place: a poorly lit street I have walked at all hours.
At half past one in the morning, the concrete roadway is devoid of clattering trucks, fume-spewing sedans, and the muttering of motorbikes, which in daylight choke the streets of this Malaysian city district known simply as “‘15.” All day, parking-spot hunters glide along like sleek, rumbling predators. But after a glaring sun dips beneath the forest line of television antennae and old commercial blocks, they disperse. Each slides quietly into the cave-mouth of its own home—chain-link fenced, concrete-walled, or bricked up. Then, as a stained-yellow moon hauls itself over the darkening city, the night denizens of ‘15 crawl out to play.
At two in the morning, after taking the trash out and seeing the café shut, I walk to my car with a firm grip on the keys. The key which opens the driver’s door has the longest blade. It is wavy like a keris, the ceremonial Malay short sword. I hold it between my knuckles like a slender, tough dagger. It will bruise a rib or puncture an eye, if need be. I change my walking gait and swing fisted arms to the tempo of heavier footfalls. They say that one must never walk like a potential victim. One should even pretend to inhabit the alert, prowling mind of a predator. Perhaps it changes one’s scent.
At half past two, by the time my father has quickly padlocked the house gates behind me, the night denizens of District SS15 are still a’ frolicking. Rats scamper around tall green dumpsters and jubilate in the eternal proliferation of trash on shop corridors. Once I saw a monstrous rat shoot past my feet and drop deep into a narrow drain; he was fatter than a grown cat. Large cockroaches skitter across my path. Come dawn, every shop-row will feature a brown paper-thin corpse upturned on its back with pincer-like legs frozen in final death clutch. And always, always, strewn along these corridors are cigarette butts and flattened Dunhill boxes, either smoked the night before or the week before—I can never tell. Scraps of pamphlets, red plastic bags, long toothpicks, and empty soda bottles grace SS15’s grassy sidewalks like old confetti from a rather sorry party.
I expect the same state of disgrace lies over SS14, a neighboring district across the highway. Though crossing the highway from ‘14 to ‘15 simply takes a minute by overhead bridge, I have been cautioned not to try it alone after 9 o’clock at night. Both districts are hotspots for purse-snatching and near-fatal muggings. So forget those Hollywood, lamp-lit nights in Paris. In SS15, and in the rest of the city of Subang Jaya, your date drives you home and waits for you to slide your grille door shut. Then, it’s your turn: You peer through the grille to watch him drive off in the dark, incident-free, no motorcycle gang having darted out from behind the giant palms of a stout banana tree to accost your sweetheart with a swift window-smashing, wallet-grabbing, head-bashing. Good night, and sweet dreams.
What far-off lands does a Malaysian girl dream of? When I was 11: America and Japan. Those cold, misty hills. Log cabins with fireplaces and hot chocolate. Bicycle lanes. Immaculately clean. No litter but the freshly fallen leaves of autumn.
Obviously I’d never slept in a freezing log cabin. But Malaysia is hot and humid all year, so I asked my parents if I could study in America. A trip to my sister’s college in Connecticut inspired the vision as I stood at the top of a gentle, leafy slope in the campus arboretum. Green lawns, fall colors, 60˚ Fahrenheit—who wouldn’t want a school like that? It was an image I cradled like a warm infant as I nursed a vow to return.
In the meantime, there was SS15 where my father sent me to college for my freshman and sophomore years. Green-as-a-gem grass was altogether scarce there, though litter was abundant. The congested commercial district that was ‘15 lay only fifteen minutes’ drive from Petaling Jaya, my home city. Together, Subang Jaya and Petaling Jaya formed one of the nation’s most populous regions. In spite of development—or rather, owing to development—neither city invited the casual student to sprawl cozily on its grounds with books and a soda. So, I was a little let down by my father’s choice of Inti College in SS15.
Inti College sat next door to Taylor’s College, its posh rival on Road SS15/8. Taylor’s exuded class. Even the girls who catwalked through its gates looked prettier, flashier. Taylor’s girls wore miniskirts while their more homely counterparts at Inti stuck safely to jeans. On that count, I probably belonged at Inti.
Eventually, I got over the shock of being placed in a small urban institution whose architecture resembled my elementary school: a plain, three-story quadrangle with smudged walls. We crossed Road SS15/8 each day to the outlying offices and classrooms. These were hidden in the dim upper floors of shop-blocks while the ground floors housed thriving convenience stores, small cafés and bakeries, haphazardly crowded furniture shops, and pirated DVD sellers with blaring loudspeakers. On one glamorous corner were McDonald’s and Starbucks, spreading a muted, soothing aroma of the West.
Standing apart from these commercial blocks was the monolithic Asia Café, a two-story food court. It was almost a fourth the size of our campus. Asia Café’s brown, faux-wood décor strove for the tropical beach club effect. A tangy breeze of spicy grilled fish wafted across the road from under its sloping roofs. At any given moment, Asia Café fed hundreds of students, corporate drudges, cashiers, clerks, and janitors. There, I lunched with other psychology majors and a handful of actuarial science students. We piled our books on one end of a table and sat perspiring under giant electric fans. These fans, so mighty, threatened to blast the hair off our heads, and they whipped a girl’s prim coiffure every which way. Yet we kept perspiring, expiring, under noon-time highs of 95˚ Fahrenheit. In Malaysia, sweating was a basic fact.
Sometimes we eschewed the sauna of Asia Café for a much smaller hawker center known only as “the marketplace.” It was a five-minute walk from campus, and when we made the trek, we carried heavy photocopied textbooks on our heads as sunhats. “The marketplace” was a shabby ring of hawker stalls shaded by zinc roof and a few trees. Stray cats weaved themselves lazily between cheap plastic stools and sat begging on their haunches. Though there were four or five hawker stalls, only one was actually courted by clientele. This was the stall of the Lin Chee Kang lady, who wore her black hair in a bun and whose expressionless face and aloof demeanor seemed a little condescending. She never looked you in the eye, inspecting only your plate. She sold not only dessert drinks like Lin Chee Kang— a bowl of sweet lotus seed soup—but also some fifteen trays of meat, vegetables, eggs, and rice. She asked you what you wanted to drink and responded with a slow nod and soft murmur, “Four ringgit, fifty sen.” Then, in an abrupt jump of one hundred decibels, she intoned to the drinks man across the hall: “LIN CHEE KANG, SATU.” No matter what you ordered, she never varied from that five-beat monotone: “HUN-DRED PLUS, SATU. ORANGE JUS, SATU.” We giggled at our tables. Perhaps we came just to listen to her. She was still chanting that liturgy years later.
Home from ‘15, I holed up in my bedroom to read. To read and wait for junior year, when I’d transfer to some idyllic campus in America. I had no ties of affection to Malaysia at the time, nothing to tether or lure me back.
Upon waking in Abilene, Texas, I peeled back dorm window shutters, curious to see the campus I had arrived in late the previous night. It was astonishingly brown. For the first two days, I couldn’t tell the buildings apart; they were all as brown as the grass was. My dorm room was spartan and impersonal. The bed across from mine had no sheets over its bare white mattress. My prospective roommate hadn’t arrived (and never did).
The night before, I had checked in with only one backpack and a Sonic hotdog. Two suitcases were still in transit, as they had been misdelivered to Dulles, Virginia, instead of Dallas, Texas. I changed into a spare set of clothes, which I’d wear over the next three days, and sat at an empty desk to journal. In a brown, wafer-thin notebook left over from old school days, I wrote, “Stuck. No way of going back now.” I cried a little while nibbling at my gigantic hotdog.
Abilene: a flat little town of population 120,000. It had more “ghost-town” than “downtown” and so many run-down buildings that I had to look twice to guess if they were abandoned or just very, very quiet. By contrast, Subang Jaya, with a population of 700,000, surpassed little ol’ A-Town by more than five-fold in vibrancy. Abilene, in the sprawling wastelands of West Texas, seemed like too little butter spread over too much biscuit. Nothing in Abilene paralleled Malaysia’s opulent shopping malls and massive pop concerts. We made do here with the Buffalo Gap flea market (every third Saturday of the month) and the occasional indie soloist who strummed his guitar to scuffed old seats in a theatre.
After a year, I moved out of the dorm and into the attic bedroom of a stone house. No. 665 had creaky, uneven floors and a troupe of frenetic squirrels in the roof whom I hollered at sometimes. The human tenants—six girls from across the globe—each made her own nest in some nook of the house. Downstairs were two Japanese students, Emiko and Mizuki. Mizuki, a dignified, elegant collector of French décor, taught me Japanese and urged me to visit her hometown, Hitachi, a city by the sea. As she spoke, I imagined myself in a black jumpsuit, speeding around the coastal cliffs of Hitachi on a Suzuki motorbike. Emiko—stocky with wild, curly hair—was slightly melodramatic and talked aloud to herself. One spring afternoon, I helped her dig a vegetable patch and almost broke my back weeding. As I huffed and groaned, I said I had a new respect for farmers, and Emiko told me her grandparents were rice farmers north of her hometown, Mito. She said I should come teach English in Mito. So, I imagined myself in a wide, conical farmer’s hat with a strap around the chin; I was sitting on the dirt floor of a reed hut overlooking green paddies. Sometimes, in my daydreaming, I forgot that I was just a pale, thin student who had hardly wrung a mop in her life. By the end of my time in Abilene, Japan had become a vision synonymous with adventure and a new home.
But as little as Abilene had to offer, I dreaded returning to Malaysia more than I did being stuck forever in small-town Texas. Besides, over the three years of my stay, I had come to embrace Emiko and the girls as family. I wasn’t ready to trade them for my “real” family in Malaysia. Abilene had become more of a home to me than the other home listed on my passport.
As graduation neared, my parents made sad, gentle pleas. It was time, they said, to return.
I unzipped two suitcases, the same bags that had gone to Dulles, Virginia, and back. They still smelled of airport. Inside lay flattened clothes and books—all my life compressed. Downstairs, my parents were frying up dinner. An aroma of burnt garlic traveled up from the kitchen and in through the windows of my childhood bedroom in Petaling Jaya. It was 7:30 p.m., and the neighborhood mosque was making its second-to-last call for prayer, a long-drawn, lonesome melody.
My father had bought a wooden closet for the room I now returned to inhabit. It was his gift of welcome, a consolation prize. In it I hung scarves and winter jackets. They weren’t needed in this equatorial climate, but I thought I might use them in Japan someday. The room’s bookshelves were full of junk belonging to family members or to no one in particular. I cleared the shelves out and slid in the few books I’d salvaged from Abilene—Japanese textbooks, “Into the Wild,” “Outside,” “Vagabonding.” Then I lay on the bed, which bounced. It was sturdy and didn’t creak like the bed I had in Abilene.
That bed had smooth wooden headboards like stair banisters, a rarity in Malaysia. I remembered lying down and staring at the Texas sky through an open back door. The door gave upon a small roofed deck, and all I saw was sun beating down on treetops. Against a stark blue, golden-brown treetops swayed in the wind. That wind rustled life into the pages of books piled around my room and stirred the ends of my hair. I squinted, trying only to see that open door and sun-soaked sky. It was the Wild beyond. I closed my eyes to pretend that I lay in a tree-hut in the middle of the African continent. I could feel the hut swaying, lulled to sleep by soft breeze. The same breeze blew further East again, across oceans, and nourished greener lands; it bent the yellow heads of rice crops and sent rows of paddies nodding, nodding, nodding to sleep.
I put my life in America in a box and hid it away. Few people, including my parents, were that interested in it. My parents were even less interested in hearing about me “not planning to stay in Malaysia for long” or “wanting to work in Japan.” When I said those things, no one looked up from their plates around the dinner table. I felt like I’d arrived on an emigrant-visa program called Malaysia, My Second Home, to begin my twilight years in a house of crusty over-sixty-year-olds. Perhaps it was good that we hardly looked at each other those evenings because I found myself tearing up for no reason at all—apparently a symptom of “re-entry.”
My coping method was to keep busy. Only days after my return to Malaysia, I accompanied an aunt to China. We spent a week cycling around Hangzhou’s West Lake and dodging Shanghai traffic. Though I couldn’t read the street signs or order food without gesticulating, I felt more at home in these unfamiliar cities and impersonal hotel rooms than I did in Petaling Jaya.
When we got back, I took up employment with a board game café, a new startup which hadn’t gotten its signboards mounted yet. This was four flights up a shop-row’s dusty stairwell across the road from Inti College, which meant I was back in SS15. Stuck there just like I’d feared.
Two floors below the board game café was a Chinese noodle restaurant run by a company of skinny Burmese waiters. In time, they’d come to read my mind. “You want Sarawak noodle?” they’d say before I opened my mouth. I’d have thin, curly Sarawak noodles again and again. Or thick, flat pan mee three days in a row. Even the restaurant proprietor was aghast. “You’re back?” she’d ask incredulously. I’d find myself returning to the café even on days off, just to hang around.
My primary task at the café was to teach customers new-fangled board games, but since I also served drinks and mopped the floor, you could say I was a glorified waiter. After the first three nights of work, I was bestowed with a red collared uniform. When I walked down that dusty stairwell again, now clad in waiter garb, I felt a new kinship with the Burmese servers below. I could now make small talk at Baker’s Cottage with the Malay cashier in her beige uniform or with the young grinning workers in McDonald’s who wore dark red tops and black slacks.
As for my own fellow servers at the café, I’d say we were close—even friends. I spent that year in the company of two bartenders, one deejay, two accounting students, insurance salesmen, a pharmaceutical inventory clerk, one nail artist, an aspiring kickboxer, hospitality management majors, cooks, and an ex-butcher’s assistant.
On Mondays, when the café closed, we ended up occasionally in one of the boys’ houses playing massively long and complex games. Perhaps we were each other’s only society.
Another evening, we piled into the nail artist’s fourth-floor apartment in SS17 and passed around chips, cigarettes, and cocktails that one of the bartenders mixed. One of the accounting kids sat stiffly on the sofa and resisted drinks. When he finally had one, he turned beet-red and danced the Macarena. As a game of Truth or Dare trailed off, he fell asleep on the floor, in prayer-posture over a large green pillow. The bartender and the nail artist rolled themselves a joint. We got up in turns to lean against the balcony railing and soak in the moon’s rays. The moon was a beacon of the greater universe, blessing us, bathing us in a clarity so sharp it almost hurt.
In all that time, I had only a vague idea of what my colleagues aspired to. Some dreamed of going to college. One or two wanted to open a restaurant. The nail artist, who hadn’t finished high school, hoped to run her own beauty parlor. Or, if she ever had the funds, she’d like to study literature. Those who were already studying at Inti or Taylor’s had faint idea of what to do with themselves upon graduation. I like to think that they each had a big secret dream, like my wanting to find a way to Japan. I still wanted to go, though the visions were growing hazy and I could hardly imagine what Japan looked like anymore. It was dwindling to a flat, lifeless postcard.
Perhaps our minds were simply rotting away from six-days-a-week at the café. Or maybe I was already dying before that. The café, and all of SS15, had become a halfway home, an endless ride on a languorous river. While my body drove to work each day, carried mugs, and mopped floors, I myself grew dormant, degenerating into a relic of routine. Half asleep, I drove to the café when I should have taken the highway exit to the mall or to the church or to a friend’s house. Even when I switched to a 9-to-5 office job at Inti College, I returned on weekends and amused the noodle restaurant lady. “You’re back on a Saturday?” she’d say. In the evenings, I now came home early enough to tuck my aging parents into bed.
I signed up for Japanese classes to keep myself alive. After office hours, I walked to a small language school a few paces from the board game café. The school, hidden in the shop-row’s obscure upper floors, had rooms so small we sometimes sat almost shoulder to shoulder. My classes were taught by Satō-sensei, a petite young woman from Nagoya. I liked her white lace cardigans and three-quarter skinny pants and hearing her say “Boo-rack pep-pah” when she meant black pepper. It wasn’t hard to remember that satō meant sugar, for that was her last name too. She was lovely, and more than ever I wanted to see the land she came from.
The Grand Plan was to live frugally for a year and then break open the porcelain pig for a tour of Nippon. What else beyond that? Who knew?
But it took just one phone call to change the Grand Plan. One summer, an old boyfriend visited from Texas; he had stayed on for graduate school there. On the last day of his visit to Malaysia, he called from the airport, ten minutes from boarding, and asked if we could start seeing each other again. Eventually, we agreed to date long-distance. We also agreed to tackle Japan together when he got done with school. We imagined ourselves sitting cross-legged on the floor of a tiny, tidy Japanese apartment. We’d leave its cramped but cozy comforts each morning to join a crowded subway of dark suits and straight ties and blue surgical masks. On a nice Saturday morning, we might walk to a pristine park and look at dogs and prams and joggers passing by. We agreed that, ultimately, our adventure might prove to be nothing more than the slow, mundane turn of a six-days-a-week wheel—we’d just be doing it in somebody else’s country. But it would be our pursuit of life together, in all its dreary glory.
As the long distance between our two worlds began to wear on us, he urged me to return for grad school in Abilene so I could be near him. I had no idea what I’d enroll for. But his wild suggestion to go back to A-Town stirred some of the old Wild in me.
I bid Sato-sensei farewell and promised to make it to her country someday. I packed my scarves and warm jackets back into that pair of once-lost suitcases, which by now hadn’t flown in two years. At the airport, my parents said they’d miss me again. They’d grown to enjoy my tucking them into bed and taking them to the movies; I promised to write home more often.
Thirty hours later, an old friend drove me into town from Abilene’s one-terminal airport. It all seemed an unlikely dream. I was finally back in a place I had missed. Everything looked the same, especially the harsh, yellow-brown grass and all of that flat expanse. But this time, brown was brown, and almost everyone I knew had left. Two years ago, my parents had been right: My time in Abilene was done. The magic was lost, and the doves had long flown.
Which is how I found my thoughts turning to a poorly lit street in Subang Jaya….
This winter, I will graduate and leave A-Town for good. It’ll be for good this time—or so I think. Malaysia beckons—and tempts me to stay. In my mind, I am already retracing heavy, urgent footsteps down a street of flattened cigarettes. This street is no place to be alone after midnight, so I’m hurrying, hurrying. Several meters ahead, light glows against cold, moist glass, and I catch a whiff of fries and burgers. Behind me looms the dark, forbidding bridge that connects ‘14 and ‘15. As I turn the corner at McDonald’s, I relax my grip on the car keys and tuck them into my jeans pocket. Farther up this street, Inti and Taylor’s lie to my right in shadow and silence. But on my left, the district booms loud and alive: Asia Café is a radiant palace in the night, bustling with waiters bringing tall chilled mugs of watermelon juice to late-night football junkies. The footie fans are laughing, chattering, and sitting in their shorts and slippers. They’re cheering their favorite teams who are playing on several plasma screen TVs under Asia Café’s roof, while on the front and back porches English Premier League games are being projected onto twenty-foot canvas screens. The café crowd begins to shout and wave their fists as a football gets hustled frantically, rapidly, dangerously close to the goal before it is abruptly thwarted off-side and the crowd groans collectively, throwing up their hands in defeat. No longer transfixed by the screen, the footie fans turn momentarily to their drinks again.
As I whisk past Asia Café, I hear the booming, eager voices of rough, tough hawkers. Metal scrapes against pots, and steam rises sizzling from old woks encrusted with brownish fried egg and flat noodles. Grease, garlic, goodness—it’s all there. I see headless chickens and ducks glistening from hooks under small light-bulbs, a flurry of hawkers in dirty aprons and soft black caps, the brusque nods of stoic Indian waiters, forgotten receipts fluttering off tables to a grimy floor, one gleaming cascade of fish and crabs and oysters on rock-hills of ice—a noisy concourse of life, vigor, and survival which dares me to survive, too.
Elena Kua is a freelance editor in Malaysia. She recently graduated with an M.A. in English and is working on a collection of nonfiction stories set in her home country.