Man at His Best

A Thousand Words On Our Culture: Life Is A Highway

"I am a thankful millennial. Everyone in my family has jobs that require no further explanation like teacher, clerk, banker, you know, the stereotypes. I, however, decided to pursue a career in the arts, something that I still struggle to explain today."

BY Kuah Jenhan | Aug 14, 2016 | Culture

I believe that dreams come true. They form the luxurious designer-belief collection sitting on the top shelf of life that not many can find. My family, like many post-World War II families, made do with everyday belief: get an education, a car, a house, a life, and then only a wife.

I grew up in a single-storey terrace house in Happy Garden. It only had three rooms to accommodate my parents, my grandparents, an aunt, one annoying sister, one small, hairless dog, and one first-generation manual Proton Saga. The car slept outside.

In a neighbourhood of Datsun Sunnys, Proton Sagas and a couple of Volvos, along our street was a young boy’s cartoon fantasies come to life: a glistening red Toyota MR-S convertible. I even memorised the car’s schedule: gone before I left for school and home between 5pm and 6.30pm. I never saw the owner, despite occasionally walking down the road to take a peek at the car.

When I reached secondary school, the car, like my grandfather, was no longer around. I continued to perform sketches in school—something that my parents insisted was only a hobby. To ensure that I got to keep my hobby, I brought home above average grades and, because of that, I was accepted into college.

While I pursued the highest education ever achieved by my family then, we said goodbye to our trusty first-generation Saga and welcomed a first-generation Perodua Myvi, an automatic transmission “Special Edition” model in red no less! With a son in college and a bright red car, my family was #made. I got my driving licence at 17, but never drove because I didn’t like to (still don’t) until my final year in college, because I found myself a girlfriend and wanted to be a “normal, cool guy”.

The first time that I asked Dad for the car keys, he nodded rapturously much like a king watching his heir walk through the wooden gates bloodied from battle and holding Cyclops’ head. Since the Saga, he’d been looking forward to the moment when he’d teach me to drive. During our sessions, he’d tell me to keep my hand on the gearstick, and when he said, “NOW!” I’d shift gears. To him, it was like his fatherly duties had concluded. He’d finally found an heir because everyone in the family “owned” a part of the house. For example, Dad owned the car, Grandma owned the kitchen, and Mum owned Dad.

I eventually drove the Myvi on the rare occasion when it wasn’t being used and learnt many more valuable driving lessons that I’m happy to share. Don’t drive with your knees even though it is fun. In an A/T car, don’t sit with your left leg folded under your right just because you don’t use it. When it gets numb, you will panic. You’re welcome.

After I graduated with a degree in advertising, I was determined to pursue one of two things: performing on stage or being The Man in an advertising agency. I went with my hobby against my parents’ wishes, and the more I worked, the more places I had to go. It came to the point where I needed my own car. (It had to be a car because motorcycles are only if I wanted to die, according to Mum.)

The only car that I’d ever liked was my childhood dream car. I knew that there weren’t many around so I began texting all the numbers that I found in a car magazine. While most led to second-hand car dealers, I eventually found an actual owner. After meeting at his office, he went to retrieve his car to drive us to lunch. From the basement, a red Toyota MR-S rolled out just like the one that I saw every day when I was a child. Over lunch in Jaya One (where I’d perform my first stand-up routine the following year, thereby changing my family’s perception of the arts. It would also be the first and the last time that Dad watched me perform before he passed), we chatted a little before he asked me where I lived. “Happy Garden.” He then asked, “Really? Which road?” which was a weird follow-up question until… it clicked, and we realised that we lived on the same street. That day, with whatever money I’d made from my hobby, I bought what others might see as a 16-year-old piece of junk, but was my childhood dream car.

I am a thankful millennial. Everyone in my family has jobs that require no further explanation like teacher, clerk, banker, you know, the stereotypes. I, however, decided to pursue a career in the arts, something that I still struggle to explain today. I live a fortunate life where I can walk into my very own designer-belief boutique, and pick and choose my favourite ones mostly because my family have provided me with that one-house-one-car head start. In return, I always bring them along with me to these fancy new places in life that I get to go. It’s not necessarily a step forward, but it is a step away.

Some of you may feel less “travelled”, and these include friends whose families could still be stuck in an even earlier model of belief—which is just trying to survive. That’s okay too, because here’s the thing that I’ve learnt about these designer beliefs that I have. The boutique may be hard to find, but once you do, with persistence, everything is always in stock and on sale. Anything that you want is yours for the taking.

I wish Dad were still around to see me in my red sports car, saying “NOW!” to myself and shifting gears all on my own. Okay, it is a semi-automatic, so I basically have to push the gearstick up and down, but still, I’ve achieved my dream. I achieved a dream. You can too. All you have to do is pay attention on this highway of life and… “NOW!”


First published in Esquire Malaysia, June 2016.