Strange Encounters

“Haces que mi alma se despierte con tu luz…”

– Solamente Tú, Pablo Alborán

When I left Cambridge last summer to commence “fieldwork”, I had a 15,000+ word proposal in my hand, a suitcase full of winter coats I will never wear in this year-round tropical heat and monsoon rain, and absolutely zero idea how my life was about to change in the next fourteen months.

When it began I was constantly dreaming of the day I will reach the penultimate month, when I could dream of returning to Cambridge which I have dearly missed, of wandering through its puddled cobblestoned streets and of smelling the musty old-books scent that greets me as I walk into G. David’s Bookseller again. But now that I have reached that penultimate month, I look back and wonder where all those months had gone. My supervisor, with whom I’d had a long Skype catch-up session in my studio’s kitchen just this afternoon as the sound of thunder played repeatedly in the background, said that fieldwork goes by like a bullet train; slow and steady at first, then zam! Off into thin air. It moves so fast that you can hardly feel the ground move beneath your feet.

I have had to make some “difficult decisions” during fieldwork these past few months. Difficult intellectual, ethical, ideological, practical, financial, and logistical decisions. But the most important decisions I have had to make are almost always about with whom I choose to elicit a long and meaningful conversation, be it about their marital history, their families, their travels, religion, or the existing state of this country’s politics. This is the mysterious thing about these encounters: they are so full of untapped potential, like an unopened gift that could contain a pleasant surprise or, to the contrary, bitter disappointment. Sometimes as I shake hands with a stranger I wonder if we will meet again. I wonder if we both will hit it off, and if we both have the sort of complementary personality that could stretch this encounter to somewhere far beyond the confines of that initial moment of introduction. I wonder if ten years from now I will still remember his or her face, if he or she will remember this particular moment with me.

Us Malays have a word for this: jodoh. Although the term jodoh is largely used in the conjugal sense and is often substituted with terms such as “marriage” and “spouse”, it has also come to encompass all sorts of encounters between two individuals, which we believe are always pre-destined. Nothing is a “coincidence”; every encounter is well-timed to the millisecond, and is meant to occur at that precise moment in your life and with that individual. These encounters may end as we bid thank you and goodbye and part ways, but perhaps they do not have to end there; they could easily develop into a warm friendship, blossom eventually into a memorable romance, and, perhaps one day, marriage.

Every encounter in my life has changed me, both in small and profound ways. Sometimes I may not remember the face but I will always remember the seemingly tiny and insignificant pieces of advice they have given me, perhaps in jest but which I have taken in all seriousness anyway. One lady I met in the Syariah Court in Kota Bharu advised me not to marry young (“jangan kahwin muda”) because she had eloped to Thailand to marry her husband when she was 18, and twenty years later was deserted by her husband, who as of this year had been missing for nearly a decade. She gave me that advice as she examined the brass bangle from Accra, Ghana I was wearing, thinking it was real gold, but I hardly noticed her hands on my wrist; I was busy listening to her complaining about the young Malay men of today, who, in her eyes, hardly present themselves as promising husband material. (I fervently agreed.) The take-home lesson of that day: Don’t rush into things. Especially marriage.

One way fieldwork has changed me is in the way I communicate with people. These past few months, I have had to approach many strangers for the purposes of research in all kinds of public and private settings. To make these encounters successful, I have learned that not only do I need to push my embarrassment aside and put on a thick face (“muka tebal”), but strong and steady eye contact makes all the difference. With this, it feels as if I could telepathically alert the individual from ten feet away of my incoming presence, and to be mentally prepared for a conversation we are about to have, however brief or long it may be.

I also make it a point to look people in the eye when I shake hands with them, though I notice that this is not always reciprocated. One thing I perceive about us Malays is that we like to stare at other people from afar, but when there is no distance between us, eye contact seems to be averted at all costs. Perhaps we are naturally shy creatures, but I think we severely underestimate the power of the gaze. When I am speaking or listening to someone, my gaze, speech, body language are directed entirely towards him or her. They have 200% of my attention, and I make sure they know it. My mind may wander off every few minutes to that meeting tomorrow I have to confirm by tonight or to a few items I need to add to my packing list, but these flutter by in half a second and hardly compromise my concentration on what is being exchanged between us. And what I give, I expect to get back in return; I am attentive because I would want people to be attentive to me when I speak — certainly a fair exchange, I believe.

Although it is sometimes important for me to reveal my status as a researcher and which institution I am affiliated with, I tend to not bring this up unless it is absolutely necessary. However, I am very petite and apparently have a youthful face, so I often get mistaken for a high school student. Revealing my identity is always a bit awkward; they start feeling embarrassed, I feel bad for making them feel embarrassed, and afterwards they’re not quite sure whether to treat me as a junior for my age or as a senior for what I’m doing. Absolutely terrible. In no way do I feel entitled to anything or to any sort of information, but when it comes to dealing with bureaucracy I have discovered that I do have to be assertive and make “demands” to get what I want, and that all these niceties and courteous e-mails will only get trampled over by people who do not appreciate other people asking for things nicely.

Fieldwork has taught me much, with all the good and the bad that it brought into my life. To what extent all this information — or “data”, as the scientific word may be — will contribute towards my future intellectual endeavors will be determined when I return to Cambridge. This is a process that will take place on the leather couch in my supervisor’s office in the historic Gibbs’ Building of King’s College. I can imagine the striking green of the fields outside her window contrasting against the grey skies above already; perhaps I am physically still here, in Kuala Lumpur, but half of me has clearly drifted elsewhere. But for the next month, I’ll have to keep both my feet on the ground, and make the most of what the present has to offer.

This photo below is taken on Free School Lane, one of the back streets in Cambridge (right behind Corpus Christi) where my department is situated. I took this one afternoon post-proposal submission, on one of those long walks I took around Cambridge just to soak in as much of the city before my upcoming long separation from it, in between last-minute rendezvous with friends I was about to leave behind.

Perhaps I will see this smile again sooner than I think.

Free School Lane, Cambridge

2 thoughts on “Strange Encounters

  1. Such a wonderful shot for this challenge. A very positive message on the floor. Smile, and that will give you positivity. Your fieldwork sounds intense, good luck with the rest of it. Malays in Kuala Lumpur can be very friendly if you open yourselves up to them 🙂


  2. Pingback: The Companion Ship | feelosophical

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