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Saturday, September 25, 2010

Rest in peace, Zeg Zeg.

As I've mentioned in my previous post, my uncle, passed away early in the morning yesterday of cardiac arrest. He was 56.

He was my father's youngest brother, so I've always called him Zeg Zeg (that's a Teochew term for paternal uncles who are younger than your father).

Whenever someone close to me have died, I would feel a sense of grief and melancholy. But mostly I would sort through my memory banks, making sense of the life of the deceased, remembering the intersections between our lives, and then, I try to come away with fond images of this person that will forever define what he or she had been to me, in life.

During my childhood, Zeg Zeg, to me, had always relished playing, in wrestling terms, a 'heel' (the bad guy). A nasty giant of a man, towering over me, bellowing about my weight, about how fat I was. And I, barely 4 or 5 then, already neurotic, already paranoid, already narcissistic, would take the bait easily and argue with him

"No, I'm not fat!" I protested with indignation. "It's all muscles! I'm strong!"

"Yeah? Are you stronger than I am?" He laughed. "I AM STRONG!"

"Yeah? Lift up my house then!!" I challenged, relishing the wittiness of my comeback. I was barely 4 or 5, but I already hated losing.

Year after year in Chinese New Year gatherings of my childhood, Zeg Zeg would point out that I should be 'careful', or I'll end up becoming even 'bigger' than he, which, I would admit, were effective on playing to my paranoia and fears of becoming too fat. Whenever he commented that I had slimmed down, or became skinnier than he remembered, it almost felt like a victory.

And this, strangely, is the majority of my memories of him. Even in recent Chinese New Year gatherings, the first thing he would usually point out when we met was my weight condition ("oh, you've slimmed down", "hah, you're bigger than I am!", "wow, you make me look skinny").

He is survived by his wife. I have hazy recollections of their wedding. Was I four? Or five? They had no children, but they always traveled around together. Lately he had became an Air Asia sycophant.

My mom once told me this: "He (Zeg Zeg) suffered from a broken heart long ago, the object of his affection didn't think that he was good enough for her. Then he met his wife, and he decided to give everything he could to her, the best he could."

I never thought too much about that remark then as I was also too young to grasp the bittersweet pain of romance and unrequited love. Now, years have passed, and I found this statement embedded deeply into my psyche. Whenever I myself suffered from a broken heart, I would always think: "Her loss, it's really her loss. The next one I meet, the next one I fall in love with, if she could ever appreciate me for who I am, if my love is returned... I will give her the world."

So if what my mom had said about Zeg Zeg was indeed true, then perhaps this is the part of him that he had passed to me.

As a child, I thought of him as, once again, a giant of a man, cantankerous and loud, often nastily making fun of my weight, but he was unquestionably a fabulous husband to his wife. That was something I understood about Zeg Zeg since I was a child. The contradiction of a person that suggested to me then that humans are beautiful because they are so multilayered.

And because, to me, Zeg Zeg had always been such a macho tough-talking blowhard, certain moments when he displayed another side of him would become even clearer than it really should be.

In 1991. I was seven. I went to Singapore for Sam Hui's retirement concert with my family. Zeg Zeg and his wife were there too. When the concert ended, my dad went off to get his car. My sister, only two-year-old toddler then, had already fallen asleep.

We had to move to somewhere near the stadium to wait for my dad's car. My mom couldn't carry her and walk such a distance, so Zeg Zeg ended up carrying my sister instead. And somehow, that image of him carrying my sister at night, walking behind my mother, as cars passed by, that became a defining image I had of him.

Eleven years ago. The end of 1999. I was 15. Results of PMR came out. PMR is a government exam you have to take during Form 3 to decide whether you end up at the Science Stream or the Arts Stream. For the Malaysian education system, the Arts Stream is meant for the academically challenged, students have to do well in their exams just to 'avoid' being ended up at the Arts Stream. Being in Science Stream is a mark of being an elite, of glamour, of being cool. Those who did well in their PMR could still choose to be in the Arts Stream, but if your results were mediocre, you have no choice but to choose Arts.

The worst thing happened to me, my results then weren't good enough to be in the Science Stream. For a child such as I, raised in such an environment, your academic results were everything. Growing up as an (almost) straight-A student during my primary school years, my shift to secondary school was like a fall from grace. My results became middling. "Average", to be put it kindly. "Mediocre", to put it bluntly. I thought I studied hard, yet it wasn't good enough, perhaps my command of the Malay language was always too weak, perhaps I just wasn't as good about memorizing things like some people did.

With my future decided, with the entire world collapsing beneath my feet. I locked myself in the room, shutting myself away from everyone else. I thought I had shamed my family, my ancestors, myself, and had became a good-for-nothing dilettante. For a guy who had always hated losing, that was most probably the worst defeat of my life.

Then I remembered a phone call at night, I didn't want to pick up any calls, but it was constantly ringing. I finally got up from my bed and answered. It was Zeg Zeg.

"Hello?" My voice was hoarse from crying.

"Hello." It was Zeg Zeg.

There was a long awkward silence.

"It's okay, everything's okay, just go back to sleep." He finally said.

I put down the phone. Went back to my bed, and cried.

When I received the news of his passing yesterday, I was almost impassive, withdrawn. I was shocked, of course, but then I accepted that life is impermanent. People come and go. It's always like that. I've already experienced a number of losses over my life, so I thought I'm well-equipped enough for all these.

I make films so I can be remembered. As I was writing through this blog post, I was going through my memories of Zeg Zeg, just to honour him by remembering him. Yet all the stuff I remembered and typed here were rather mundane.

Strange then, that I found myself crying after typing them out.