“I wrote that,” I said, and she gave me this look: No-way!
The teh-o in the title is tea without condensed milk and K.L., of course, is Kuala Lumpur. The story, which is more of a vignette, is based on a true incident. I was trying to capture what I had been feeling as a Westerner in Malaysia, this fish-out-of-water experience, whereby opposites do attract, yet there is this sense of longing, a yearning, as an expat, to be with someone from your own culture. Too often we try to deny this, or even go out of our way to avoid other expats, especially those of us married to Malaysians, who (rightly or wrongly) see ourselves outside the typical expat community who come and go.
I wrote this story in the present tense, one of three in the original collection, and chose to use Jeya’s actual name (with her permission). She was quite thrilled! At the time that I met her, she was in an unhappy marriage to a much-older Indian national, whom she later divorced and then married a Brit and moved to the UK where she now lives with four children.
“Do you miss being around whites?” This was Jeya’s real-life blunt question about race that prompted me to think that there’s a story here, especially after the entrance of two Western women, backpackers, “wearing sleeveless loose tops, short shorts and no bras” that suddenly attracted every male’s attention, including my own. Jeya quickly noted this, thus catching me in a white lie about my missing being around “whites”, or white women in particular.
Despite “Teh-O in K.L.” being published six times in five countries and translated into Japanese, the editor for Silverfish didn’t think I should include it. Then I remembered that encounter with the Brit as well as other expats, particularly women, who often cited this story as one of their favorites since they can strongly relate to it. It was even published in The Expat (Feb. 2004), so I argued for its inclusion. I also agreed to do another overhaul of the story (while on vacation in the US), whereby I flushed out more of the details and heightened some of the contrasts that I was going after. For the MPH version I toned down some of the excesses since they had been written in a rush.
An editor in the US, who had read an early version of the story, mentioned that they all really liked the line “…stir the thick white milk into her dark tea until the opposing colors become one.” From the beginning this was story of opposites, and that was reflected in the opening paragraph, which didn’t change other than deleting one needless fragment.
“Call it a black and white thing, though Jeya isn’t black. Not African black. She’s Ceylonese, but born in Malaysia. Yet her skin in blacker than the night.”
What did change the most was the ending. The original version focused on Jeya and me, on our new friendship, and on our respective spouses. This seemed to drag out over several paragraphs and away from the story itself. When I revisited the story in 2005, I opted to focus on the two women who had just left, on the race issue, on this sense of longing, and on the tea itself, all compacted into one paragraph.
“As I look down at my tea, I’m wishing they’re still here, so I’m not the only white person left. Jeya is saying something, but I’m no longer listening. For a long moment, I’m wishing I were back in my own country with someone from my own race. But then the moment passes, and I finish my tea.”
Recently a French expat living in Sarawak, emailed me and said that "Teh-O in KL" was one of her favorite stories “because it touches me personally and because it tells me that we both feel the same beyond the gender ‘thing’.”
So I’m glad I left the story in the collection.
Lovers and Strangers Revisited is now getting translated into French as Trois autres Malaisie.
*Update, the 20th anniversary of Lovers and Strangers Revisited
Here ia a review in The Star (MPH) and a link to the other story behind the stories for Lovers and Strangers Revisited.
Here are links to some of my author-to-author interviews of first novelists:
Ivy Ngeow author of Cry of the Flying Rhino, winner of the 2016 Proverse Prize.
Golda Mowe author of Iban Dream and Iban Journey.
Preeta Samarasan author of Evening is the Whole Day.
Chuah Guat Eng, author of Echoes of Silence and Days of Change.
Five part Maugham and Me series
Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I