Mar 09 ● BY Vanessa Chan
There were many ways she was better than me.
The Malaysian suburb we grew up in was separated into ten sections, a remnant of British colonial city planning. I grew up in section 1, the oldest of the ten sections, in a tiny terrace house with an orange roof and shared walls with neighbors on both sides. At night I heard the neighbor on the left side—a plump woman my mother called Lady Fat Face—arguing with her taller, lankier husband, whom my mother called Sir String Bean. On the other side was an elderly man who never said anything but who came out every day to water the dying orchid plant in front of his house. Genevieve grew up in section 8, one of the newer sections, in a bungalow that seemed palatial to me. She and her family didn’t have to share walls with any prying neighbors, and us kids could run around her yard, which was enormous to my childish eyes. They even had a gardener, a bent man called Muru who smelled like toddy and came once a week to mow the lawn.
Genevieve’s last name was Boudville, which sounded far more Western than my own. Rumor had it her family was descended from Portuguese settlers who had colonized Malaysia in the 1500s. At school, she refused to identify as Malay, Chinese or Indian, one of the race boxes we were required to check. “Lain-lain,” she always said. “I’m different. Western.” It wasn’t hard to believe. Her eyes didn’t slope up like ours did; they opened wide, eyelids hooding her long, curling eyelashes. If you looked at her at an angle, she almost resembled the white women on billboards dotting the cityscape, selling off-season designer goods to Southeast Asian buyers. Her mixed-race features were the closest I’d seen to a white person’s. To me, she was perfect.
Her romantic origins contrasted sharply with my own. For as long as I could remember, my mother had called me “zongzi,” meaning, dumpling. It was an illustrative nickname for many reasons, including my round, chubby, pale face, with tiny facial features that seemed designed to blend in and not stand out—my eyes small, my nose flat, my lips thin.
But more importantly, a sticky rice dumpling did play an important part in my birth, a story my mother would tell gleefully to anyone who would listen—I was three weeks late, and the doctor had summoned my mother into the hospital to induce me. For reasons known solely to herself, my mother had eaten an entire zongzi, the density of the dumpling’s glutinous rice amplified only by the fatty pork stuffing. As her contractions intensified, the doctor stuck a translucent cord down her nose to suck out all traces of the Chinese dumpling from her stomach, little nubs of brown rice dotted with blood and mushed up fatty pork suctioned out from her nose, before I could be induced.
“It felt like the world’s longest nose blow, like all I had to do was sneeze, and out you’d come out, my little dumpling,” my mom would say, mussing my hair.
* * *
In primary school, girls followed Genevieve everywhere, desperate for the crumbs of her friendship, but for some reason she chose me. Maybe it was because I was the only one who could pronounce her name the way she liked it. She taught everyone how to create the perfect lisp, “Jssshhh-nuh-veev”, because, she said, “only unrefined people use the hard J.” Every day, I practiced in front of the mirror, watching my tongue flit between my teeth. Maybe it was because I helped her with her school bag, returned her library books, and begged the school lunch lady for the last pisang goreng, fried banana, Genevieve’s favorite, just to watch her smile as she savored the gooey yellow center. Some days she’d share the snack with me. We’d sit on a table in the center of the school canteen, gingerly licking the hot yellow sweetness so we didn’t burn our tongues, pretending we were mermaid princesses, perched on a rock, surveying our empire, the school.
My mother was always curious about our friendship. “Zongzi,” she would say, “walking next to that friend of yours makes you look like one of the seven dwarves!” And while she was right about the contrast in our appearance, she didn’t understand that as much as I deplored the lack of romance in my birth story and my appearance, I lacked the charisma to edit it into something better.
Some days I meted out punishments to girls who dared defy Genevieve. When Linda wore a red velvet hair scrunchie that Genevieve wanted, I demanded that she hand it over, and when Linda refused, I instructed our class that no one was to speak to her for a whole week. After just two days of the silent treatment, she cracked and handed over the scrunchie, plus a pair of her favorite butterfly clips for the trouble. Even then I knew that proximity to Genevieve imbued me with power I could not summon on my own.
* * *
When we were thirteen, Genevieve was the first of us to get a boyfriend. After school, we’d take the bus to McDonald’s, where we’d gather on the air-conditioned upper level, away from the prying eyes of the servers. She’d tell us about Peter, who was two years old than us, went to a neighboring boys’ school, and wore his hair long and untied, like one of the brothers in the boy band, Hanson.
At these meetings, she also taught us how to kiss boys. She taught us that sometimes, when you were kissing a boy and his saliva got too wet and disgusting, you could use your fingers and rub them up and down outside his pants, and if you were lucky, he’d make a funny sound and start panting, his pants would get wet, “kind of like he peed himself but more sticky,” and he’d stop trying to make out with you for a few minutes, so you’d be able to get away. Sometimes I’d kiss the boys she left behind. They’d make the same funny sound when I touched their pants. But they always seemed a little crestfallen when she walked by with a new beau.
One time a new girl, Jo, called Genevieve a slut, and said that her mother had told her to stay away from Genevieve. I watched my friend’s face crumble just for a second. She looked over at me and I knew immediately what I had to do. I marched Jo over to the top of the McDonald’s stairs and pushed her down.
* * *
A year later, I became enamored with our class monitor, a girl called Lai Yen. Every day at morning assembly, all the girls would line up in the school’s parking lot and sing the school song and the state song before we were dismissed to classrooms. As the disjointed chorus of a couple hundred bored, off-key teenage girls rang through the school, I found myself willing the songs to never end, so I could gaze at Lai Yen on that pedestal, face turned up to the sky, her pale, double-jointed fingers pulling the rope that dragged the flags, one brown-and-white for school, one red-and-yellow for state, up the poles and into the bright blue sky.
“Her boobs are so small, I don’t even think she’s got her period yet,” said Genevieve one morning, as I strained over the heads of other girls to see Lai Yen. But she couldn’t understand how my heart threatened to jump out of my chest, like a goldfish in a bowl, every time Lai Yen walked by and I smelled that scent of sweat and Rexona deodorant unique only to her. She didn’t know about the yawning chasm that opened below my stomach when Lai Yen’s low, lilting voice called my name to mark daily attendance.
Yet while Genevieve did not approve, she was willing to hang out with me, as I waited to catch glimpses of Lai Yen collecting books for the teachers.
“Why do you even like her?” she asked crossly one day from our perch outside the teacher’s room, scanning the floor for Lai Yen. “She’s not pretty, and she talks too slowly.”
“Not as pretty as you, you mean?” I teased, poking her in the arm.
“I mean, no, but that’s different. We’re best friends.”
I flushed. It surprised me that at fourteen, Genevieve could articulate the difference between desire and devotion when I could barely understand them myself.
“My mom says my Aunty Rosie is a tomboy and she wears boys’ clothes. She lives with Aunty Siti and won’t get married.” Genevieve looked at me with genuine concern dotting her brown eyes. “Are you a tomboy?”
Was I? At the time, the only kinds of lesbians I had ever encountered were the girls who cut their hair short, wore tight white bands across their chest under the school uniforms, and sat on the drain ledge outside school together, occasionally hollering at other girls. The principal called them delinquents, the mothers called them dykes, and they were hauled into the school office constantly for “being disruptive.” But they made up for it with athleticism, winning our school many district- and state-level sports trophies in track, netball, and rugby.
I was none of these things, especially not athletic. It troubled me that I didn’t know how to answer Genevieve, but I was grateful for her curiosity and touched by her concern.
A few days later a piece of paper dropped on my desk. “Help me hand out the books today? =),” the triangular note from Lai Yen said, propped on my desk like wings from a dead insect. I kept my eyes focused on it because I didn’t want anyone, much less Lai Yen, to see the pink pleasure coursing through my face to the tops of my ears.
“Ya,” I wrote back. I did not trust myself to add a smiley face.
From that day onward, Lai Yen and I would collect our classmates’ exercise books, filled with graded homework, from the teacher’s staff room together. Each day, we’d split the pile in half and walk down the long, stuffy hallway to our classroom clutching the pile of books to our chest. Sometimes Lai Yen would laugh her quiet, tinkling laugh and toss a few extra books on my pile. Sometimes my stomach would jump when I found my stubby fingers accidentally swishing against her long, pale ones as we set the books down on the teacher’s desk. Once I saw a tiny speck of dandruff in her long bangs, and it took all my willpower not to reach out and brush it away, just so I could touch the sliver of pristine forehead peeking at me through her greasy curtain of hair.
Sometimes Genevieve would walk down the hallway with us, though she never carried any books. She would use these moments to ask Lai Yen the intrusive questions I wanted to ask but didn’t have the words for.
“Lai Yen, do you have a boyfriend?” she prodded one day.
Lai Yen’s cheek lit up like a siren.
“No, my mother won’t let me.”
“Lai Yen, who’s your favorite celebrity?”
“Nick Carter?” she replied, as though questioning what the right answer should be. “Or Jesus?” My stomach knotted.
Later at recess, Genevieve and I would dissect these mini-interactions. We never achieved much resolution.
“She said she likes the Backstreet Boys, which means she likes boys,” I said, crestfallen.
“But don’t you like boys too?” Genevieve asked. She was right. But I had never yearned for a boy the same way I did for this pale, responsible girl.
“Was Jesus a boy?” Genevieve asked. “I can’t tell sometimes with all his hair.” She laughed and poked my side. Then she said, “Do you think it’s the same as kissing a boy?”
* * *
The next day, before loading our arms with books, I grabbed Lai Yen by the wrist and ran down the stairs into the science lab that no one used because it was next to the toilets and always smelled faintly of stale diarrhea.
“What are you doing? We’re going to be late,” she muttered, as I unlatched the door.
The lab smelled dank, like rust and stale piss. Cracked, chemical-stained beakers, an abandoned Bunsen burner, and glass pipets without their rubber tops lay strewn on the tables. Lai Yen jumped as a lone cockroach ran across the gray cement floor and out to the toilet.
“Ew, I hate cockroaches. It smells. What are we doing?”
I took a breath and pressed my lips to hers. I was surprised by how chapped they were, and how unmoving. With boys, it was always a race to catch up—a prodding tongue trying to inch its way further into my mouth, engulfing lips threatening to swallow my face alive. Lai Yen’s lips felt clean and soft, and quiet, like an offering.
As I pulled away, I saw that her eyes were open and watery with confusion, disgust, and a mix of other things I couldn’t identify.
“You’re a tomboy.”
My insides split in two. Whereas with Genevieve the word had felt like a curiosity, with Lai Yen it was an indictment.
“I am not,” I said, not knowing if I was lying.
I turned to face the dusty blackboard and a pile of blue-stained beakers, trying to squeeze back the tears that clouded the back of my eyes like sand.
The lab door creaked. “Anyway, Lai Yen, we’ll tell everyone that you kissed first.” Genevieve’s voice echoed through the lab, joining the conversation as though she were a part of it the whole time. “And that you’re a bad kisser,” she added, for good measure.
I turned back around, shocked but relieved. I wondered how long Genevieve had been waiting and how much she had seen.
Lai Yen’s eyes fluttered with panic.
Genevieve looked at me, eyes steely, cool. “Let’s go.”
We pulled the door close and stepped out of the lab into the sunny afternoon. Genevieve nodded at the door latch, and at me. She said, “You do it.”
“Don’t leave me here, I’m afraid of cockroaches,” Lai Yen yelped piteously from the other side of the door. “It smells bad!”
I slid the latch slid smoothly in place as Lai Yen’s cries got louder, begging to be let out.
“Someone will hear her, right?” I asked Genevieve. “She’ll get let out?”
“I suppose. But she doesn’t matter. We do. Let’s go,” she said.
Genevieve and I walked back to class, arm in arm.
* * *
The year we turned sixteen, Genevieve entered an Amway-sponsored beauty pageant held in a local shopping mall. There were about a dozen teenage girls competing and two parts to the competition—the evening dress and the Q&A. Genevieve’s mother spent weeks altering a cocktail dress of her own from the ‘80s to fit Genevieve. It was the most exciting thing I could have hoped for my life: my best friend in a pageant. Girls at school stopped us to wish her luck and asked her how she would do her hair, how she was preparing. I basked in the glow of every curious question, fielding them like a publicist: “Thank you for the luck, we’ll do our best”; “We’re about 90 percent sure we’ll leave her hair down, but there’s always a chance we put it up”; “We’re doing lots of research to prepare.”
Furrowing her thin eyebrows, my mom was both confused and disapproving. “A pageant? Parading around the mall for all the dirty old men?”
I created a vision board for Genevieve filled with fashion advertisements I’d cut out of magazines. I pasted pictures of her head onto the bodies of supermodels. Genevieve sipping Pepsi in bootie shorts at the gas station—Cindy Crawford. Genevieve clad only in Calvin Klein underwear—Brooke Shields. Genevieve surrounded by the white tulle of a wedding dress—Elizabeth Hurley.
After school, we would hole up in her bedroom and practice for the Q&A portion of the pageant. To prepare, I had watched old Miss Universe pageant tapes and curated the most commonly asked questions. We practiced them all: who she looked up to the most (her father, because before he had died, he’d worked hard to provide for their family); her ambition in life (to help people less fortunate than her); and her best friend (me, because I was always there for her).
“What is your hope for the world?” I yelled into a plastic bottle, my makeshift microphone.
She looked at me blankly.
“My hope is that everyone can live . . . ” I prompted. We had just practiced this.
“. . . in peace and harmony!” she said with a sigh of relief, falling back onto her bed.
I beamed; this crown would be ours, no question.
The day of the competition it stormed all morning in humid, confused spurts, leaving behind a sticky tropical humidity. Genevieve’s mother carried a small handheld plastic fan to blow at Genevieve’s armpits so sweat stains wouldn’t create warm, dark circles on her dress. The mall was crowded with people taking refuge from the rain and reveling in the free air-conditioning. In the middle of the second floor, there was an elevated wooden stage that tapered out into a narrow runway. At the back of the stage, black paper lettering spelled out, “Amway Girl Beauty Comptition.” I tried not to let the missing E bother me. The sound system was a pair of weak Sony speakers that could play both CDs and cassettes. Someone was playing a burned copy of Britney Spears’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman” on loop. To amplify the sound, the organizers stuck a wired microphone next to the speaker. Whenever the microphone rolled too close to the radio speaker, a screeching static rang through the mall and everyone covered their ears.
Blue plastic chairs had been lined up erratically around the narrow runway. Parents of contestants whispered and eyed other parents suspiciously. You could see the outlines of teenage girls behind a thin green curtain that functioned as a makeshift barrier to the backstage. Around us, curious mallgoers stood awkwardly. Some of them hummed along once, twice, “I’m not a girl, not yet a womaaaahhhnnn, all I need is time, a moment that mine, while I’m in buh-tweeeeen,” then gave up.
One by one, teenage girls came onstage and sashayed up and down the wooden runway, dressed in woefully altered ‘80s gowns and cocktail dresses. One girl came out in a translucent white dress that could only be described as a negligee and was quickly ushered offstage to the sound of wolf whistles from the growing mall crowd. During the competition, I noticed women slightly older than the contestants, perhaps in their twenties, wearing denim miniskirts and bikini tops with Amway emblazoned across their chests and handing out makeup samples to the gathering crowd.
I sat in the front row with my mother, whose presence I greatly resented. She had insisted on staying after she’d dropped me off at the mall, and I couldn’t seem to get rid of her. Every so often, she’d make snide comments that embarrassed me.
“Zongzi, they couldn’t get an actual speaker system?”
“Are they just parading teenage girls onstage to draw a crowd, so they can sell product?”
“Why are they playing this ridiculous song over and over?”
Soon there were just three girls left, Genevieve one of them. My chest tightened, I was so excited and scared for her. The announcer, a bald man in a creased tan suit (“creepy old man,” my mother muttered) lined the finalists up in a single row. Genevieve raised her eyes towards the ceiling and smiled beatifically at the crowd. She looked so beautiful. She had done her own makeup, lining her eyes with black kohl on the bottom and bright blue on the top. We had debated lip gloss. She’d wanted a peachy orange; I’d been partial to bright pink. In the end, she’d gone with pink.
“You’re my lucky charm, I should always do what you ask,” she’d said to me.
Her hair fell loose, long, and dark down her back, almost to her waist. Her mother had swept all but two long strands off her face and secured her hair with delicate silver and purple butterfly clips. The remaining two strands framed her luminous brown eyes perfectly. She looked like Jennifer Love Hewitt.
The radio stopped; someone had turned it off. “Thank god,” said my mother.
The man in the tan suit pulled out a stack of flash cards. “It’s now time to see if you girls have the brains to match your womanly beauty.” He waggled his eyebrows. The mall crowd whistled.
The first two girls were complete duds. One opened her mouth and then covered it quickly, looking like she was about to retch. She ran offstage, hand over mouth, tears streaming down her face. The other, a girl in a pink and green sequin dress with enormous shoulder pads, didn’t speak English and had only memorized one answer.
“What is your goal in life?” the announcer asked.
“My mother is the person I admire most, because she is kind,” the girl said, straightening her artificially broad shoulders.
The crowd booed.
It was Genevieve’s turn. My heart hammered through my chest and my hands were clammy. She caught my eye and I gave her the brightest, most encouraging smile I could muster.
“Well, well, who do we have here?” The announcer reached an arm around her waist and pulled her towards him. “Jay-nuh-veev?” When he hardened the J in her name, Genevieve flinched.
“Disgusting old codger,” my mother muttered. For once, I agreed with her.
“So,” he continued, “tell us. What is your greatest hope for the world?”
“I hope,” Genevieve started. “I hope that,” she looked around helplessly. I dug my nails into my palms and looked right at her. She caught my eye.
“PEACE AND HARMONY,” I mouthed aggressively. “Peace. And. Harmo…”
“Ihopethatwecanallliveinpeaceandharmony,” Genevieve rattled off. Her face flooded with relief.
Tears filled my eyes. As the announcer dropped the bright silver tiara on her head, I almost felt the weight of it on my own head, tangled in my hair. We’d done it. We’d won the whole thing.
* * *
“Do you think he’ll come?” Genevieve whirled to face me, excited. Fresh off her pageant win high, she’d kept the Jennifer Love Hewitt hair but swapped the pink lip gloss for a darker red. We were getting ready to sneak out to the playground behind my house where all the teenagers from the district’s girls’ and boys’ secondary schools hung out. We’d been hearing rumors about a new older boy, Ian, who’d just moved to town and attended, not the neighborhood public schools, but a private international school for expatriate kids. We’d also heard that he was cute, but more importantly, that his last name was Islington.
“His father is full British! And his mother is Eurasian. I heard they even lived in England for a while!”
I let her chatter on as we snuck out the back gate quietly, so we wouldn’t wake my parents.
“If we had babies, they’d be basically white!”
Personally, I thought the name Ian Islington a little too alliterative.
The playground bordered a small monsoon drain. Concrete lined both sides of the drain, its banks leading into a canal that was always filled with brown water. On clear days, the water stood stagnant, a patient lake that smelled like sour trash. But the monsoon drain roared to life when tropical storms rained down, becoming a powerful brown river filled with pollutants, trash, and urban runoff, dragging a world of broken bottles, candy wrappers, dog shit, and dead animals to the distant blue ocean.
By the time we arrived, the playground was already humming. Shanti Swamy was going down on David Selva on the slide. Other couples touched each other furtively in dark corners. The night was warm and sticky, crickets chirped, and in the distance, someone’s dog barked at the moon, its three-quarter crescent lopsided and bright.
We joined a group sitting in circle, knees touching, sipping warm Tiger beer. The grass reached through my dress and scratched the back of my thighs; I should have worn pants. Someone passed around White Rabbit candy, the milky-white nougat melting into rice paper. We hurried to chew the sweets before the night’s warmth melted them, and a pile of rabbit wrappers began to build in the middle of the circle.
Genevieve squeezed herself next to Ian. His fair English skin was pink and blotchy from the heat, and a small orbit of acne dotted his left cheek.
“Hey, you,” she said, nudging him. He didn’t seem to notice. “I won a beauty pageant today, you know.” She fiddled with a strand of hair.
He swallowed his warm beer and pulled at the grass. “Okay.”
“Can I have a sip of your beer?” She fixed him with the full strength of her big brown eyes and pressed her fingers into the crook of her left arm. “Please?”
Ian handed her the beer wordlessly.
I could sense her frustration, the clench in her jaw and the pinch between her upper and lower lip as she reached for the sweating bottle. Ian’s lack of interest didn’t seem like a huge loss to me. I’d already decided he was an idiot—who wore a leather jacket in tropical weather? I tried not to think about how sweaty his armpits were.
Genevieve pulled out a new pack of Marlboro Lights from her purse and passed it around. I was surprised—sure, we smoked sometimes but usually just by taking the occasional drag off other people’s cigarettes. She offered me one. I waved the box away.
“Come on! Don’t be a spoilsport,” she said, rolling her eyes.
Surprised by the tightness in her voice, I lit one and took a small drag, the bitter smoke coating my tongue.
“You can always tell someone who knows how to smoke from someone who doesn’t,” she said, waving her cigarette.
I clenched my Marlboro tighter between my thumb and index finger and looked at her white cigarette, balancing precariously yet gracefully between index and middle finger, the tiniest plume of smoke curling white-gray off the tip.
“Have you never held a cigarette before?” Genevieve turned to me, a line of scorn breaking the smoothness of her forehead.
By this time, more people in the circle were looking at me. A girl sniggered.
“Cut it out, G,” David Selva said. “You’re being a bitch.”
“Ian, don’t you think she’s holding it weird?”
I felt stung, her cruelty splintering the joy of our pageant win, making me feel dispensable to her in a way that I hadn’t felt before.
Ian looked over at me, sleepy, drunk, disinterested. “I . . . ”
“Ian, don’t you think she looks like an amateur?”
Ian shifted uncomfortably. “I’m gonna go take a leak.”
I saw Genevieve’s eyes flash. She’d used me as a foil, but it may have backfired.
“Wait a second.” Genevieve tugged at his sleeve, her eyes searching mine for something, anything, to reel him back in. I didn’t look at her. The betrayal, the beer, and the cigarette rang through me like I was standing too close to a clanging bell.
She rustled her bag and pulled out her pink Velcro wallet. Without looking over, I knew it had a G and a crown in the front in gold lettering; I had bought her the wallet for her sixteenth birthday. The sound of separating Velcro cut through the night.
“See,” she said to Ian. “That’s my father.”
I looked over, curious in spite of myself.
“My mother met him when she was a flight attendant.”
The shadows obscured Genevieve’s face, but the moonlight reflected off a photo of Prince Charles nestled in her wallet. It was an old photo, the prince’s familiar hangdog face still unlined, and his hair, now white and receding, still a sandy brown.
“Prince Charles loved her, but he was engaged to Princess Diana at the time. It’s why I look white.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing.
I didn’t know why she had the photo, or why she thought anyone would believe her. She looked around defiantly, daring us to say something, anything. I was appalled by the audacity of the lie—we had all grown up with her. While it was true that her father had died young, and not many of us had met him, nobody had ever seen an English person outside of television. At this point, everyone had gathered around, their making out, drinking, and smoking abandoned. The three-quarter moon was unforgiving—it displayed in full, the pity, the eyerolls, and the mockery coursing through every teenage face. Even Ian, drunk, new, seemed unsure.
The same dog howled again.
Suddenly Genevieve was on her feet, screaming, “Who wants to go skinny dipping?”
She pulled off her thin black dress, sweat from the warm night gleaming on her shoulder blades. She looked at me, the same pained look she’d given me after Jo had called her a slut, the same look she’d given me just a few hours earlier at the beauty pageant when she’d forgotten her lines, the same look I knew I’d given her when Lai Yen had rejected me. It was only a second, but I saw in her wide brown eyes, an apology, a command, a plea.
She turned to run, her feet crunching over the White Rabbit candy wrappers. For a few seconds, she was enveloped in darkness, then we heard a splash and her voice echoing along the monsoon drain’s concrete banks, “Come on in, the water’s warm!”
I ran over to peer into the drain and stifled a retch as I watched her body rise out of the still, brown water, her hair sticking to her back, reflecting the moonlight. Perhaps she deserved the humiliation, but who was I without her? A broken bottle floating aimlessly in a drain, a stray with no owner, an anchor without a ship. Even in her cruelty, she was my cause.
My hands shook as I peeled off my dress and stripped down to my underwear, the boys roaring as the moonlight caught my dumpling figure. Then I held my nose and jumped into the monsoon drain after Genevieve. Even underwater, I could hear the chorus of horrified teenage yells echoing down the drain’s banks. The garbage-infused water was indeed warm, but it was also sour and acidic. It made me gag as I swam through the swishy current, swallowing the acrid taste from years of sodden refuse.
When I reached Genevieve, I held out my hand. And as the three-quarter moon shone, we leaned back together like dead fish, her hair a dark crown around us.