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Of Chicken Curry and Kawad Kaki

It wasn’t a great day. Things weren’t going my way.

A couple of months before, I sat in front of the computer with my fingers crossed and breath held, fervently muttering, “Please no, please no“. Alas, alack, the universe fulfilled its role of plan-wrecker and horror-monger that day. The great, glaring “Tahniah, anda berjaya dipilih!” felt like a netball had hit me between the eyes – and trust me, I know exactly what that feels like. A couple of seconds later, I thought, to put it mildly, “Shit.”

So there I sat on the National Service bus to hell, struggling to record the horrible day I was having in my journal on the über bumpy ride to Paya Indah Camp while stealing furtive glances at the disciplinary nightmare of a schoolmate that sat two seats in front of me. I distinctively recall having rolled my eyes quite a few times. This was going to be fantastic.

Indeed, it was anything else but fantastic. My first day involved my luggage going bust, my locker malfunctioning, people getting my name wrong and getting lost on the way to the lavatory. I didn’t understand what was going wrong. Did I not pay my respects to the local deities (or spirits, or demons) before settling in as recommended by the witch doctor (read: Chinese medium)? Did I not smile and try to make friends? But that day, no matter what I did, the food remained bad, the bed stayed hard, my back was stiff and I was perpetually miserable. In a nutshell, my first day at  National Service camp sucked.

You know, it’s funny how well you remember your first and last days of something significant, but everything else in between just seems to blend into a big, soupy mess of recollections. Two incidents do stand out, however, from the multiple gaping holes in my terrible memory.

First off – a little backstory. I was born into a bi-religious family. I woke up each morning to the scent of sandalwood from my father’s Buddhist altar permeating the air and felt the radiating warmth of the candles from the shrine dedicated to Jesus and Mother Mary as I prayed before I slept every night. So while I sat there as our trainer sorted us our respective religious groups, I put up my hand and asked him, “Sir, is it possible for me to go to both the temple and church?”

There was a short debate that followed (one that I’m not proud of), with him being stubbornly steadfast in his decisive “No”. However, that wasn’t what hit me the hardest.

“Having two religions is bad for you.”

I sat down, feeling horrible for some reason. I didn’t get it. Was it wrong practicing two beliefs? Did that doom me to hell? Screw the dooming; did it ever affect me adversely? If a man likes both chicken and fish would the police detain him? If someone wanted to sing Justin Bieber then follow it up with a rendition of Phil Collins’ You’ll Be In My Heart, would Hades condemn him to Tartarus? Although, I would agree that putting Justin Bieber anywhere near Mr. Collins is a punishable offence…

That night I went to bed, frustrated, angry, confused and determined to hate that particular trainer for as long as I lived. If my recollections are precise, I even wrote a lengthy entry in my journal that night, fuming about how close-minded people were and that what he thought mattered less to me than whether or not Kim Kardashian had buttock surgery.

What I’m going to talk about next occurred while I was half-blind. I had no spectacles on, having had them confiscated by a trainer as glasses were considered dangerous. Apparently, the game we were playing could result in bodily harm. I didn’t believe that claim until much later when a fight broke out between two of our groups.

The game went like this: each group was given a small area of the hall. Our duty was to elect a king and protect that area of hall ‘with our lives’. Having lost nearly all my eyesight, I groped around, trying to lead my group without speaking as per the rules. We made an origami crown and presented our king to the trainer in charge – and he grabbed the crown off our king’s head. We were baffled. Did we miss a step? Definitely not, we’d done everything to the T. The trainer told us to put on a martial arts performance. One by one, each of us went up and did whatever we could think of, but to no avail. He kept that increasingly annoying beatific smile on his face and held on more firmly to our crown.

I couldn’t take it. I knew we had missed something. I picked the directions off the floor, put it right at my nose, squinted at it and read the Times New Roman print once again. There it was. Lantik seorang raja dan tabalkan baginda. Elect a king and crown him. No mention of asking the trainer, no mention of having to put up a ridiculous performance.

I groped my way forwards, grabbed the flimsy crown from the hands of the trainer and promptly placed it on the head of our group’s king. Then all of a sudden, we’d won the challenge. Strangely enough, I feel much better about the heated argument concerning my religious tendencies compared to the crown-grabbing fiasco. While I didn’t experience any particular epiphany, I saw that what others thought of my choices mattered less than how I conducted myself when I dealt with my personal theology, and yes, it was less important than whether or not Ms. Kardashian had buttock enhancers embedded in her gluteus maximus. One day, I was going to choose one belief over the other – or maybe I’ll pull a Pi Patel and continue going to church each Sunday and still recite the Triple Gem before sleeping every night. I’ll probably get a lot of flak if I do that, though… On the other hand, the crowning incident showed me things about myself that I’d rather not remember – my eagerness for success, my ambition, and how impulsive I was when pressured.

If I were to draw a Venn diagram of the things I learnt from both incidents, you would hardly expect the circles to overlap. This time, however, that teeny probability of imbrication came to fruition and dang was it one heck of a lesson. I don’t think I’m eloquent enough to put it into one sentence, but I will mention this Dr. Seuss quote: You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose. Yeah, I know. It’s terribly cliché, but it’s also freakishly precise. I’m pretty sure that if you want something, you’ve got to take the first step yourself. You can’t expect someone else to crown your king. You cannot sit around allowing others to define how you see religion. Many say that a man’s actions define who he is, others claim that it is the contents of his mind. I say it is your thoughts that guide your actions, and who you are inside is for those most precious to you to discover. That’s why we have our brain safely encapsulated in our well-evolved skulls, and not jutting out of our head as a magnificently gruesome bodily piece on display, yes?

I think I went home not vastly changed, but perhaps with a slightly better understanding of myself, and of people. Whether or not this qualifies as life-changing? It’s up to you. One thing’s for certain though – the copious amounts of chicken curry I consumed and the endless hours spent marching under the blistering sun definitely did some permanent damage. I wonder when the effects will set in…

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A girl. Quasi-grownup. Unaware of the full connotations of the word "adulthood".

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