I belong to the generation where a childhood vacation meant taking the coach or the car to Genting Highlands or Cameron Highlands with the family. I made my first proper trip out of the country when I was 15 years old. I took a plane to Kuala Lumpur to attend a 5-day church camp without my parents.
I do not remember travelling anywhere with my parents except for the occasional trips to Johor Bahru to visit my dad’s childhood friend who ran a coffeeshop in the city. I was about 6 years old when we started going to that coffeeshop. I went wherever my parents took me during the weekends. I disliked most of the places they took me to.
I hated visiting the coffeeshop in Johor Bahru because the place was hot, grimy and crowded. The coffeeshop sold traditional coffee, dim-sum and noodles. I could not fathom why my parents would go to a place like that. It was no fun for a kid like me. I wanted them to bring me to a nicer place like McDonald’s for a burger and fries. If I told them what I preferred, it would probably attract the cane. I did not want to have cane marks on my legs, or made to stand in a corner of my bedroom as punishment.
As young as I was, I felt that I was living in a different world from my parents. I did not know how to communicate with them about what I wanted or needed. This feeling stayed with me till now when I am 45.
During one visit to the coffeeshop, I saw bags of meat dumplings stacked next to the dirty bathroom in the coffeeshop with flies buzzing around. I felt nauseous immediately. I had just stuffed a meat dumpling into my mouth minutes before going to the bathroom. I never ate the food in that coffeeshop again. I also refrained from drinking water because I did not want to have to use the coffeeshop’s dirty bathroom. No one had bothered to clean the bathroom – human waste was lying all over the floor.
I also recall that the coffeeshop had a red-and-white enamel spittoon under every table for customers to spit into. It was awful. I remember peering into the spittoon under the table out of curiosity and saw sputum, phlegm and goodness what else in the spittoon. I was traumatised. Afterwards, I sat on the chair cross-legged because I was so worried about my legs touching the spittoon or the floor. I was utterly miserable being in such an unhygienic place.
In those days, there was no smart phone for a kid like me to while away my time. I would bring along a storybook to read, and escape into a different world for a couple of hours while my parents hung out with my dad’s friends in the coffeeshop. I read voraciously as a kid. It was a cocoon to shield me from unpleasant experiences.
I don’t remember when we stopped visiting the coffeeshop. I suppose it was in the year I turned 10 – when my dad suffered his first stroke.