Sunday, November 23, 2008

“Teh-O in K.L.”: The Story Behind The Story of Lovers and Strangers Revisited

Teh-O in K.L.” was my first piece of writing (to my knowledge) that had an impact on someone’s life when it first came out in Her World (Oct 1992), six months before the publication of the original Lovers and Strangers. A British woman who had read the story, unaware that I was a writer since we had just met, told me that she had insisted that her Malay husband read it, so he would understand what she had been going through as a Western woman married to a Malaysian living in Malaysia. When she told me what the story was about, I had this strong feeling of déjà vu.

“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. 


Beheaded on Road to Nationhood: Sarawak Reclaimed—Part I 


Gette said...

Wild stab. Annie = hypnotic.woman? :-D

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Yes. You know her? She contacted me, like you, through my website.

Gette said...

Yes, I know her. I sent her an invitation to come see us this Sunday. Hope she can make it!

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Looks like there's going to be a big turn out for the reading. Since I posted this, I thought why not read "Teh-O in KL"? Never read it before, though this story would be better suited to expats. They can relate! Then again, I might be the only non-Malaysian there, so it might be appropriate!

KeeMan said...

oh yeah, added a direct "featured blog" link from my blog to yours. Hopefully, can boost some site traffics. :p

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Thanks! Every bit helps. Just trying to inspire others to write and in doing so, I also inspire myself, too. We all need that now and then to get to where we want to be in life. Each time I post another story behind the story, it takes me back to the act of creating, the multiple acts revising and revisiting, and of seeing each story published yet again in this new MPH collection, where many readers are reading the story for the first time.

KeeMan said...

Read your interview on The Star. :)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Full page, not bad! I especially liked the half page review of Lovers and Strangers Revisited on p 17! Great review!

KeeMan said...

yeah, great review...even the title is appealing "Sweetly Sad..." :)

BorneoExpatWriter said...

Yeah, I liked that, too.