A person never knows when he will forge a lasting friendship with someone he has just met. We make friends at many stages in our lives which ends when that part of our lives end. Friends from schools may continue through alumni association but what about friends you’ve made elsewhere? Jobs, tours, night classes, etc.
On my first tour to Europe with NUS Ken-Air in 1986, I met Shirley and she bonded well with me through our Teochew connection. We lost touch a few times but somehow, fate led us back to each other. We would meet each other at shopping malls, kopitiam and then reconnect. Now, we make sure we don’t leave it to fate and call each other every few months.
I made many friends from my various temp jobs and never bothered to keep contacts. I would like to think my colleagues and I were close at my first job at Dowell Schlumberger but somehow, all of us fail to keep contacts too.
Yet, the people whom I never expected to form a friendship in the first place has proved to be the best friend when least expected. Miss Teh is one such person. I don’t even call her by her real name but by the formality of Miss Teh. She was the purchaser of a moulding company I serviced in the early 1990s. She reminded me last night that we met when I had just given birth to Ivan in 1993. The small moulding industries then were run by Hokkien speaking towkays and I was a product of the Speak Mandarin campaign. I had to learn Hokkien fast and Miss Teh was a good Hokkien teacher, although technically she is a Kedah Teochew. She was my customer and I was her supplier. Much to my annoyance, she would often call up in the early morning to place an ‘urgent’ order for immediate delivery. I would chid her by saying that she should not start looking for toilet only when she wants to ‘pangsai’, and that somehow brought our relationship closer.
When I left my job, she continued to call me, at first to ask for my advice when she ran into problems with the products I sold her, and later just to chit-chat. I learned her story, how she left Kedah after her A’levels for Ipoh and then Singapore. I admired her courage and how as a new immigrant to Singapore, she actively participated in her RC’s activities and joined various clubs to cultivate her hobbies. I teased her about the men in her love life and she in turned rebuked me for being a lazy tai tai.
The moulding industries is a dying trade and when her boss decided to sell the business three years ago, Ms Teh started to seriously consider her days in Singapore. Luckily for us, her new boss retained her and she continued to be a presence in my life.
Last December, at her ailing mother’s urging and her own health consideration, she finally decided to return to Kedah for good. It was a painful decision for her and she teared when she broke the news to me face to face. I had been persuading her to take up citizenship and was disappointed she decided otherwise.
Last night, together with another pair of good friends, we bid our Miss Teh from Kedah farewell. Our Hokkien conversation and loud laughter may seemed somewhat out-of-place at the posh BT Guild House but we wanted it to be a grand farewell with western meals and three sets of cutleries.
As Miss Teh described to us her preparations to ‘balek kampong’, I imagined her amongst the huge padi fields in Kedah and she pooh-poohed my imaginations. In Kedah, you can find everything now, even Flipflop, she oozed.
Farewell, Miss Teh. I am sure we’ll meet again. I can already see you in your Flipflops in a padi-field, sitting atop a buffalo.