by Phoebe Yeoh
Jia-li is two smells away from home. Her eyes are always shut tight by this point in the ride to abate the motion sickness caused by the lurch of her bus and the titter of her classmates, but she can tell that they have just passed the untrustworthy sate vendor, who is grilling rancid meat again. The fragrance of fresh kway teow drifts by, and she opens her eyes, pulling her nose away from the slit in the window.
She jerks her schoolbag over her shoulder and shifts to a half-standing position at the edge of her seat. Her body lurches, and she stumbles down the aisle, catching her balance just as the whining of the brakes dies away.
The bus driver, a fat middle-aged Hindu who spits out the window, glares up at her from beneath his eyebrows. Jia-li ignores him, shoving herself off the bus before her classmates can do it for her. Tonight she starts working the evening shift from 19:00 to midnight, taking beverage orders at her father’s kopitiam. Her eldest brother, who previously held the post, has been forced into retirement by their parents so that he can study for his upcoming O-levels.
Leaping up the tile steps of the kopitiam, she weaves through the food vendors setting up for the evening rush. She wants to take off the itchy skirt of her school uniform and study as much as she can before work. If she wants to beat her younger brother, who is currently competing with her to be the Child Who Shall Be Sent Overseas, she absolutely has to up her scores in Mandarin. The U.K. or U.S. is too expensive a stretch, but her parents have said that they can afford Taiwan.
Her mother, who runs the kway teow stand at the back, casts a handful of dried shrimp into her wok in preparation for the next batch. Jia-li veers towards the stairs. A large spatula, dripping lightly with oil and bits of noodle, swings out to block her path.
Jia-li exhales harshly. “Ma.”
“Your skirt will flip up! If you run so fast.” Her mother jerks the spatula for emphasis, spraying bits of oil onto Jia-li’s uniform. Two seconds later, she uses the same spatula to scoop a heap of kway teow onto an orange melamine plate. The fragrant steam of hot fried noodles envelops Jia-li’s face, almost as good as a hug.
“Jiak.” Her mother shoves the plate towards her and turns back to her work. Jia-li tugs the irritating skirt further down her waist and rushes to the private family table, where they linger to do homework or watch TV during slow periods. Jia-li’s elder sister perches on the edge of a plastic stool, separating ringget into denomination-defined stacks.
Jia-li pulls some chopsticks from a container and begins tossing noodles into her mouth, exhaling harshly whenever she needs to prevent the hot oil from burning her tongue. Her sister begins slamming the ringget down a bit harder.
“Stupid koko is still not home. Don’t know why they make me do his work when he don’t even bother to study!”
Jia-li shrugs sympathetically. “Probably out with his friends again.” Their parents have already decided that their oldest daughter is best suited to take over the tiam when they retire. Koko, as per his right as firstborn son, will hopefully gain entrance to a local university and become a clerk somewhere, working long hours that will keep him too busy for silly thoughts.
Jia-li turns to see her younger brother rushing towards them with his own plate of noodles and his slightly moldy copy of Great Expectations. He nudges Jia-li hard.
“Ba says you should go see him.”
Jia-li is already irritated with him for having a bony elbow and for finding the copy of Great Expectations, which she had hidden in her underthings. He is becoming too smart for comfort—she will have to start working harder.
“Ha mi ah?” She slides off her chair with her empty plate, purposely shoving into her brother a bit as she brings her dish to the back room. Her father is checking inventory off a yellow paper pad. When he sees her, he pulls a grape Fanta from one of the boxes. Jia-li twists it open, pausing in between gulps as the bubbles sear her throat. Her father watches silently, and she glares up at him.
“You bring the drinks tonight?”
“Got lots of pai lang. Different from daytime people. Most okay, but some not. Anyone fishy comes, you ask whether you can serve or not, hah?”
Jia-li’s frustration with her skirt is bordering hatred, but she manages to bob her head up and down. After receiving her head-pat of dismissal, she tosses the empty Fanta bottle into the rubbish bin, rinses off her plate, and runs upstairs.
Skirts have always made her feel overly exposed, and the uncomfortable feeling she has when wearing them has deepened recently, though she cannot explain why. Stripping off the uniform, she changes into koko’s old clothes: a comfortable old T-shirt and shorts. Exhaling harshly, she starts pulling books out of her schoolbag. Her few silent hours of intense study, when she can wear whatever she wants and be alone to read and dream of leaving Malaysia, are the only times when she feels at ease.
* * *
Jia-li flings her rag down on the counter and pours herself a cup of cold barley water. The evening crowd is busier than she is used to. Young adults, still wearing their thin office polos, have come in for their dinners and subsequent midnight snacks. At the request of a table of die-hard fans, a football game is playing on the wall-mounted flat screen. Nobody else is paying particular attention, now that Malaysia has been cut from this year’s championship.
A woman in a pink dress emerges from the humid night air, hair teased into a towering beehive on top of her head. She ascends the steps, illuminated by the fluorescent lights, and Jia-li chokes on her last gulp of barley. The woman’s facial features, heavily accentuated with makeup, are unmistakably those of a middle-aged man.
Pondan. Jia-li is used to seeing the Malay versions, who don tudongs in the marketplace to mask their distinctly male voices or linger too long in the alleyways, clad in scanty western clothing. This person, however, pulls up a stool in a prominent corner, arranging his long skirt gracefully around him.
Her father glances up from his coconuts. Jia-li jerks her head in the direction of the pondan. The last time she saw one in the market, her mother had grabbed her hand and led her the long way around.
After a long look at the pondan, her father glances back at Jia-li, giving a slow, cautious nod. She stalls for extra time by weaving around tables the long way. Her parents are busy preparing noodles and drinks for the 10:00 p.m. crowd, so they don’t stop, as they normally would, to chastise her sluggishness by yelling across the room. Three steps before she reaches the pondan she takes a deep breath, preparing her most professional voice.
“Some kway teow, please. Do you still have fresh kopi?”
His accent is textbook British, identical to the audiotapes she listens to in her advanced English class. Jia-li swallows hard. “Kopi got.”
As soon as she says it, she knows she has blundered in more ways than one. Her father typically doesn’t make fresh kopi this late at night, and they have just run out of instant Nescafé. Then she blunders again.
The pondan tilts his head sideways. He looks up at Jia-li for a few seconds, makeup sweating off the creases of his eyelids, the false hair of his beehive slumping over. Suddenly, he pulls his lips back to reveal a dazzling smile. His teeth are white and completely genuine.
Jia-li nods and scurries back to her father. Her family has told her never to get involved in personal matters with customers, but she had just been wondering whether she should address the pondan as ma’am or sir. Clothes and name aside, Zara was still biologically a he. That was the way things were.
When she names the last order, her father blanches.
“Fresh kopi cannot! Already finished. Siu di!” Her little brother glares up from his book. “Go get some Nescafé at the next door market. Di chi, take care of the customer.”
Jia-li runs to her mother’s stall and carries a plate of kway teow to Zara’s table. Normally when she gets herself into these sorts of ruts, she finds some way to blame the customer. So soh-lee Sir, couldn’t understand your Western-style English. She sets the plate down, picturing Zara’s polite, dazzling smile fading.
“We’re out of kopi. My brother is fetching Nescafé for you. Sorry for the inconvenience.”
She runs over the sentences; everything had been grammatically correct. Though it lingers on the tip of her tongue, she does not add on the word Sir.
Zara pulls the plate across the table. As he chews, his mouth twists in pleasure. “Sedap! My god. Just what I needed.” He inserts a manicured hand into the neckline of his dress, prodding his padded breasts. The table of football fans screams as Australia scores a goal. Paper flutters against her hand. It is a ten-ringget note.
“Regarding the kopi, it’s not a problem at all.” Zara withdraws a manicured hand, his eyeshadow creasing as he smiles again. “You’re a good girl.”
“Jia-li kam meh lai pang!”
Jia-li blinks and whirls around quickly, stuffing the ringget in her pocket. As she starts work on the large pile of dishes that her mother needs washed, she makes a mental note to spit in Zara’s Nescafé once it is made.
She hates being called girl.
* * *
The pondan returns on one of the hottest nights of the year. Ceiling fans whir at top speed. Customers’ tempers have crept up with the humidity, causing them to order after-supper suppers and badmouth Malay politics, bosses and mothers-in-law to whomever will listen.
Jia-li is scouring tables when she sees the beehive hairdo. A cold sensation flashes through her torso. She wipes her sweat away with her rag and begins making her rounds, glancing at Zara’s face. He seems calm, his smile unperturbed. Perhaps the wad of phlegm she left in the bottom of his cup had dissolved, undetected.
As she comes closer, she notices that Zara is playing with a small assortment of containers on the table in front of him. Of all things, the pondan is reapplying his makeup in public. Clearing her throat, she approaches his table.
“What you want?”
Zara flicks a mascara wand through his lashes. “Nescafé, same as last time except for the spittle.”
His British accent cuts through the din of the kopitiam, ringing louder than an argument being held several feet away. Stiffly, Jia-li retreats to the back of the room. Her father alternates between refrigerators, breathing heavily as he locates cans of soymilk and chrysanthemum tea. Jia-li begins scooping ice into cups to help him along, sneaking occasional looks at Zara. Why has he come back? Is he going to lash out, call the polis?
When her father finishes loading up the drink tray, Jia-li serves them in a different order than she normally would, so that she can end the route at Zara’s table and buy a bit of time to apologize. After handing off her last pair of coconuts, she sets a mug of hot water down in front of Zara, tucking a Nescafé package and small steel spoon onto the side of the saucer.
“So sorry for last time,” she murmurs, turning her head so that her parents will not see any incriminating emotions on her face, should they glance her way. “Was not thinking straight.”
She holds her breath as Zara peers into the clear, steaming water. At last, he rips open the package, delicately pouring the Nescafé powder into his mug and swirling the mixture with his spoon. He looks up at Jia-li.
Jia-li runs to scoop some ice into a bowl. When she returns, Zara begins dissolving the cubes, one by one, in his Nescafé, stirring carefully after each addition. Jia-li shoves her hands into her pockets. Perhaps she should just leave. There are other customers to attend to, and the pondan may not come again—
“I was just like you when I was a boy.”
When I was a boy. She jerks her head up.
“Didn’t respect others ‘cause I didn’t respect myself. But I felt much better after I went overseas. That’s when I started doing the things I wanted to.”
Jia-li sounds out the impeccable English in her head, trying to imagine what this pondan had looked like when he was younger. Had he chosen to dress like a woman because he, as a boy, had felt the frustration she feels every day as a girl? Every time she puts on her uniform in the morning and notices her hips growing rounder and wider, flesh erupting out from the comfortably flat chest she used to have, she suddenly wants to kick things, destroy things, hurl them against the wall. But she holds back, because she knows her mother will not treat her like her brothers, will punish her more harshly, because she is a girl.
“So why come back?”
Zara removes the spoon from the mug, watching the Nescafé swirl before lifting the cup to his lips. Across the room, a man in a red shirt bangs his mug against the table, yelling for a refill. Jia-li squeezes her hands into fists. She watches Zara drink, waiting for a response.
At last Zara sets his mug back down on the saucer, sighing deeply. “To prove that I could make it as a performer and businessperson, in my own hometown.” He focuses his gaze intensely on the bit of Nescafé left in the cup. “Things here don’t change unless you make them change.”
Her mother thrusts her spatula in the direction of the angry customer. The glazed look leaves Zara’s eyes and he pushes his stool back, yawning as he rises. “Time for madame to depart!” From his padded breasts, he produces a crisp five-ringget bill and hands it to Jia-li. “Keep the extra. Next time I’ll bring my friends. Your kway teow was very good.”
The angry customer begins yelling obscenities at Jia-li once she arrives, but after picking out the fact that he wants more barley water, she tunes out the rest of what he is saying. Her father has heard the obscenities and shoots her warning glances, but she ignores his gaze.
She starts scooping more barley into the cup. Things don’t change unless you make them change. The noise of the kopitiam has become a distant buzz, and she can feel her heart beating rapidly in her chest.
* * *
Jia-li closes her bedroom door, muffling the sounds of scraping woks and gossip, and lays her books open on her desk. The chair scrapes as she pulls it out. If anyone comes up, she will be able to drop into it and immediately feign studying.
In the corner of the room are some trunks containing her sister’s old clothes, packed away for her to grow into. Jia-li opens the one on top, looking for anything that appears distinctly female. Near the bottom of the stack she finds a pink cheongsam, which Jia-li last remembers from last Chinese New Year.
She lays the cheongsam over the back of the chair. The room she shares with her sister, a repurposed closet with no air conditioning, is one of the hottest in the house. Still, she shivers as the pink silk grazes her skin. Her fingers fumble to secure the button of the high neck, and she holds her breath as fabric wraps around her throat.
She rotates to face the floor-length mirror, scanning her reflection. Her face burns. Despite the heavy, awkward bumps her body has developed and the visible tenseness of her shoulder muscles, the cheongsam fits perfectly. She can imagine her family telling her that she looks beautiful, her mother and sister encouraging her to wear it for their next big occasion.
She grabs at her throat and pulls. The button pops off and falls to the floor. Hands shaking, she jerks the cheongsam down and off her ankles, running to her dresser to find a clean pair of her elder brother’s old clothes. His T-shirt is baggy, masking the shape of her body, and the pants hit right below the knee. They are faded and comfortable and do not carry the murky, effeminate smell that all of her own clothes have developed. As she pulls a woven belt tight around her waist, however, her sense of comfort does not return as it normally does when she changes after school.
In the back of her mind, she knows that she had been hoping for some sort of miracle, that maybe wearing the dress would magically transform her and make her feel normal in her body again. Now she wishes she had never tried it. Zara is lucky. He can choose to live life as a female, whereas she is stuck in a body she doesn’t want, having to wear things she doesn’t want to wear. She wants a flat, lean chest like she used to have, not the tender lumpy breasts that now weigh her down. She wishes she could be stronger and faster, not slower and rounder. She wishes her body wasn’t changing in the way that it is now.
She whirls around, scrutinizes her reflection again. Limp from sweat, tousled from changing clothes, her hair is getting too long. Most girls wait till their hair is barely compliant with school regulation before reluctantly cutting it again, using every opportunity to accessorize with clips or headbands. Jia-li wants her hair trimmed close to her head, like her brothers, but her mother claims that her face is too broad for it to look attractive.
She glances over at the top drawer of her desk where the sewing supplies are kept. In two quick steps, she pulls it open and locates a large pair of iron scissors. She last used them when helping her mother to cut out cloth for curtains, and they are easier to wield than she remembers.
Scooting her chair and rubbish bin up to the mirror, she measures out a length of hair with her fingers. Drawing it between the blades, she snips. The pieces fall neatly into the rubbish bin. She exhales, blowing stray bits off her face, and sections off more. Another piece, another piece. She almost forgets to breathe as more bits of hair flutter to the floor.
Someone pounds on the door. Jia-li catches her own reflection in the mirror. Half of her hair now falls in jagged pieces across her scalp, while the rest hangs limply on the other side of her head. It looks horrible. She grabs what remains of her longer hair and shears it off in two quick snips, tossing the hanks into the rubbish bin.
Her father’s voice echoes from outside the room. The scissors fall to the floor, one blade narrowly missing her foot. She runs to the door and opens it a tiny bit, positioning herself so that only her eyes are visible through the crack. Her father taps his wrist impatiently.
“Did you not hear your mother? Got lots of dishes to wash.”
“Aiya, no time for dilly-dally! Come down.”
“No.” She tries to push the door closed, but her father is stronger. The door swings open, and she stumbles backwards, feet slipping on the wooden floor. Her father enters, making a sound as though he is about to yell. Then he sees her. The noise from his throat dies away. Jia-li follows his gaze around the room, from the ripped cheongsam to the fluffy black piles scattered in front of the mirror.
“Where are the cutters?” he asks at last.
Dumbly, she fetches them from the floor. Her father slips his fingers through the handles and grasps her shoulder. As he reaches out, blades pointed towards her, she braces herself, tensing her thighs in case something makes impact and she has to run. The cold iron hovers near her face, but does not contact skin. Soon, she hears the gentle clipping of the scissors at the nape of her neck, the blades tugging gently at her scalp.
She blinks hard and swallows back tears.
Hair continues to flutter down from her head. Briefly, she fights back panic as she realizes that she might have just lost her chance at university. However, there is no anger in her father’s motions. The rhythm of his cuts is even and quiet.
“Still not very good. But better than before.”
He turns away, picking stray hairs off the blades. Cautiously, Jia-li examines herself in the mirror. To even out the jagged pieces, her father has trimmed her hair to be only several centimeters long, much shorter than what she had originally wanted. In some patches the hair sticks in humid clumps. In others it juts out like the pinfeathers of a newly hatched bird. With her brother’s clothes on, she barely looks like a girl at all. She bites down on the insides of her lip. No matter what, she cannot let her father see her smile.
“Tell Ma you couldn’t stand the weight. Rainy season so hot.” He fans his hand loosely in emphasis, but his voice is drawn tight. He fetches the broom and dustpan from the corner of the room. Jia-li scrambles onto her feet, but whenever she tries to reach for them he angles away.
“You are smart girl,” he says, as he collects her fallen hair into a neat pile. “But you talk too long with that pondan. Stop, hah? That man no good.”
Her name is Zara, Jia-li wants to shout, but her father’s voice sounds sad. She nods instead. Her father dumps the hair into the rubbish bin, pats her stubbly head.
“Will tell siu di to do dishes. You, stay here until dinner.”
Jia-li shuts the door behind him. The cheongsam is still lying in a crumpled heap, and she shakes off the stray hairs and puts it back into the trunk, tossing the button in next to it. She closes the lid, hiding the cheongsam from view, and feels a strange sense of relief.
It will still be terrible, wearing her uniform skirt to school and being forced to wear dresses. But at least her hair is lighter, and even though she is still at unease with her body, she is beginning to understand. Now, she can sense what Zara had meant by change, and what she needs to do about it.
* * *
The sky threatens rain. Jia-li’s uniform skirt clings to her legs as she ducks into the kopitiam. At least her hair is not sticking to her neck, and she no longer has to sweep it out of her eyes.
Her mother hates her new haircut. She forced Jia-li to pin little butterfly clips in before leaving for school to de-emphasize the broadness of her face. Her classmates gave her contemptuous looks throughout the day, but she no longer cares. If she leaves Malaysia behind, with all her classmates, she can dress however she wants, be the person she wants to be, and won’t have to worry about what anybody says.
The television is set to a Hindi soap opera, but the wailing of the runny-eyed lead actress has been muted. Her mother is furiously frying an unusually large batch of kway teow, and does not even look up as Jia-li passes. Next to her wok are the red and white china plates, reserved for special instances.
“Jia-li!” Her father snaps his fingers, beckoning her over. Emptying a bottle of water into a glass, he places it onto an overloaded tray and shoves it at her.
“Quick, quick, got VIPs. First kopi goes to the short-leg-long-jaw in the grey suit.”
“Kopi? But it’s after—”
“–Aiya! Just go!” He spins around and begins frothing another kopi. Jia-li carefully adjusts the tray, scanning the room. The businessmen are clustered at one of the large tables in the back, which has been draped over with a red tablecloth.
A woman bumps past Jia-li, splashing liquid from the drinks onto her uniform. “Shit!” Jia-li sets the tray down on an empty table and grabs a rag from the counter, scrubbing at the front of her shirt. The woman frowns, stopping to stare at Jia-li for a few moments, and continues walking towards the businessmen’s table. She settles down next to a middle-aged man wearing a gray suit and pink tie.
The man turns towards Jia-li’s general direction, laughing at something his companions have said. His eyes crinkle, and suddenly she notices—or maybe imagines—the traces of sparkling eyeshadow.
The businessman slings an arm around the woman’s shoulder and shouts out a playful response to whatever joke he had been laughing at. Jia-li cannot make out what he says, but she recognizes the British accent.
Somewhere across the room, one of her parents hisses at her to kah meh, hurry up and serve before the ice melts and the kopi grows cold. Reluctantly, she picks out the short-leg-long-jaw and begins setting down beverages in order. Zara has ordered kopi, freshly made this time. She picks up the saucer, willing herself not to tremble. As she makes the arc from tray to table, however, her wrist weakens, and a small puddle of kopi splashes onto Zara’s lap. The woman in the blue dress makes a clucking sound, pulling back as though she has been burned.
“Clumsy girl! Watch your clothes, Richard!”
Zara is already using a pocket-size pack of tissues to mop up the spill. When he finishes, he deposits the saturated paper onto the side of Jia-li’s tray and looks up at her.
“Aiya! It’s you! You look different.” He ruffles Jia-li’s hair with a damp hand. “A good girl, this one,” he explains. “Her family makes very good kway teow for this part of town.”
“She looks like boy-one,” one of the men observes.
Zara laughs. “Got a haircut since the last time I saw her. Looks like I have a terrible influence on the youth.”
“Zah-lah so funny you! Always making jokes!” The men laugh and slap their hands down on the tables. The drinks tremble, and thunder rumbles, followed by the rapid patter of rain.
Man-who-looks-like-Zara says something about a new performance venue, but Jia-li doesn’t wait to hear the rest. She goes back to her place at the family table. From time to time she pinches the flesh of her wrist and watches it turn white, then red as she releases it.
“Jia-li.” Her father places a hand on her shoulder. His voice is concerned, but when Jia-li searches his face she does not sense sympathy. He has not recognized Zara.
“Go rest. Siu di can help for now.”
Her younger brother passes by, balancing dishes of soy sauce and fried anchovies on his arms. “Great ah? Customer pre-paid everything by card.” He flashes a smug grin and waltzes over to the tables, asking each and every one of the businessmen if he could assist them with anything else. Jia-li turns away, fetching her schoolbag. From the corner of her eye, she spots the businessmen’s tab lying next to the card machine. The receipt has been signed by a Mr. Richard Koh.
She retreats to the back room, weaving through the boxes of drinks, and unlocks the door to the alleyway behind her house. The smell of gutter and wet mud diffuses into the room. Taking off her shoes, she lowers herself onto the doorstep, splashing in the puddles with her bare feet. For some reason she no longer cares that her uniform will get dirty, or that her mother will beat her for ruining it, or that she will be forced to give up Fanta for a month to pay for a new one.
Her vision blurs, and she smears her arm across her eyes. She opens her schoolbag where her brother’s copy of Great Expectations is buried alongside her homework. The cover has a stylized depiction of the main character, Pip. Rain splashes onto his suit as she pulls the book out, and she wipes the droplets away. She has read as far as the part where he inherits money and goes to London and had been dreaming of herself in that situation, as Pip, wearing a suit, leaving his old life behind.
Using her big toe as a stylus, she writes the characters of her name in the wet sediment. Jia-li. Then, very slowly, carefully, she toes the name Pip next to it. She re-reads the two names, toying with the way they sound in her head. Jia-li. Pip. Jia-li Pip.
Zara was not a woman. He was a man playing dress-up, and she was still Jia-li. Why had she thought she could be anything but a girl named Jia-li? She smears the ball of her foot across the names, scrubbing them into the ground until she feels the sting of raw skin against sand.
Phoebe Yeoh is an engineering graduate student living in Pittsburgh, PA, doing research on emerging memory materials and devices. Although she loves her scientific “day job,” she has always found balance in enjoying the arts. Through her work, she hopes to connect herself and fellow readers to someone else’s reality, perspectives and experiences. This is her first publication.