Monday, September 17, 2007

Local Hero

I came home from work one stifling hot afternoon. Despite being four degrees above the equator, Taiping is relatively mild compared to other places around here, because we get a lot of rain, usually have a nice breeze blowing, and are the foot of the mountains. This day, though, was especially hot, with none of the normal comforts of the local climate.

I was changing out of my clothes so that I could hop in the bathroom, pour water from the basin over myself, and take a "shower". All the windows slats were open to let in the breeze. Out of the window I saw the old Chinese Auntie from the ground floor sitting down in her garden.

We call her Auntie, one, to be polite, and two, because we have no idea what her real name is, because she doesn't speak any English or Malay. Nevertheless, she always waves hello at us, and once Trien's pregnancy started showing, Auntie would try her best to talk to her. She is old, with skin wrinkled like a crumpled paper bag, and dotted with age spots. She has a mole with huge hairs sprouting from it one at corner of her mouth, and kind, laughing blue eyes. Despite having great difficulty walking, she does her best to toddle around, and go to the store by herself.

She likes to tend her garden, which is around her apartment. There are some banana trees, and some various other tropical fruit trees. Sometimes Auntie walks around with a long pole trying to chase the monkeys away from her fruit trees. Other times, she gets one of her visitors, probably a son or grandson, to throw firecrackers at them. Still, they always come back. Also in her garden are some vegetables or herbs with long thin pointy leaves. Even Trien doesn't know what they are.

It was among these unknown plants that I saw her sitting when I glanced out the window. At first I thought she was just taking it easy. She is old, and it was very hot. Then I saw her laying back, and struggling. That's when I realized that she had fallen, or fainted, and couldn't get up. So I put my clothes back on.

"Baby, Auntie is in the garden and can't get up. I'm going downstairs to help her."

"Honey, What happened?"

"I don't know. She needs help."

I went downstairs, and Trien locked up and followed me to the garden.

It was even hotter down in Aunties garden than it was elsewhere. The plants seemed to intensify the heat and humidity. When I reached her, she was drenched in sweat.

She was trying to pull herself up by grabbing onto the thick roots of the plants, but didn't have the strength, and kept falling back. She laughed and smiled, and was saying something to me, but of course I couldn't understand her. I tried to help her up, but she had trouble finding her footing and kept slipping back.

I wasn't quite sure if she wanted to be helped up, if she just wanted to sit up to weed her garden, or if she really needed help. This was because as I tried to help her up, she still seemed to be trying to do some weeding, or to pick some plants. I told Trien that we needed someone to talk to her, so we could communicate, and find out what was really going on.

Trien kept an eye on her, while I walked around to the front of our building to see if any of the Chinese people were about to help out. That was not the case, so I decided to walk toward the Lake Gardens to see if there was anyone there.

Before I could get too far, a new compact car pulled up through the back gate of the apartment block across from ours, which is usually closed during week days. Out came a young lady. She seemed to be a student. She was young, just a bit chubby, but attractive.

I yelled across the fence at her to get her attention. She either didn't hear me, or pay any attention. So I shouted LOUDER.

"Excuse me!"

She turned around, right at the entrance to the building.

"Do you speak English?"

It was easy to see that she was wondering what this white guy was doing in the parking lot yelling at her. Of course, if I were her, I'd be wondering the same thing.

"The old lady across the way has fallen down, and can't get up. She doesn't speak any English. Could you come interpret so we know what she wants and what is wrong?"

"What old lady? I didn't know there was an old lady who lived there?"

"On the bottom floor. She is in the garden around the side with my wife."

She came trotting around the fence, and I pointed to where Trien was standing with Auntie. You could just barely see Auntie's head over the plants.

She ran right over to Auntie, bent over, and stated talking to her in Chinese, most likely Hokkien, which is the usual dialect around here. Auntie answered her, and was laughing again, but now it seemed that she was slightly embarrassed. The girl grabbed one arm, I grabbed the other, and we lifted Auntie to her feet. Auntie kept trying to pick some of the plants, and even offered us some, but we didn't know what to o with them. Her second concern was her hoe, which Trien picked up and carried for her. The girl and I helped her along, and when Auntie seemed to be steady, I let the girl carry Auntie to the porch in front of her sliding glass door, where she sat down.

After she sat down, Auntie touched her hands together and bowed to me, and said the only English words she knew, over and over:

"Thank you".

I nodded my head, and said you're welcome. I asked the girl if Auntie was OK, and she said she was OK, she suddenly felt weak and fell. I told the girl that it was too hot for Auntie to be working now, she should be inside resting. Auntie kept saying thank you for a couple more minutes. After we were sure she was OK, Trien and I went back inside.

After that, every time I went downstairs, Auntie would always smile. Sometimes she would get up and come to the door to say thank you.

Then one day Trien and I were walking back from town. Trien was already nine months pregnant, and looked it. There was an old Chinese woman bicycling back from town, maybe in her early to mid seventies. She could speak English fairly well, and she started talking to us, and asking us questions. Like how much we pay for our apartment, where are we from, when is the baby due, the standard stuff. Then she asked about what happened with Auntie, and I told her.

Then she told us about Auntie. Her children and grandchildren come around, but really don't pay her much mind. They come in and out all the time, but basically she is all alone. The church van picks her up on Sunday to go to the Chinese Methodist Church downtown, but other than that, nobody takes her out, so she slowly makes her way to the store.

The lady said Auntie was working in her garden, when she felt very weak and fell down. She didn't know what to do, because she was too weak to cry out, and there wasn't likely to be anyone around to see her and help her. That is, until I looked out the window.

When Auntie saw the three of us, she came out and we were able to communicate. Auntie was happy to be able to tell me how thankful she was that I helped her. Then the other lady started talking to some other people, telling them what happened.

The result? I have become known as the nice western guy who helped Auntie out, sort of like a local hero.

As a postscript to this episode:

Auntie found out from her friend that Trien was in the hospital waiting to deliver. Every day when I came home, she would be waiting to see if we were bringing Melody home. It took a week, but when we finally got out of the car with Melody that Thursday afternoon, Auntie came out with a big smile and was overjoyed to see the baby. She had to pinch her cheeks and made many comments in Chinese we couldn't understand. And , of course, she kept trying to talk to Trien. Auntie was so happy just to see the baby and to hold her for a second. You would have thought that she was the grandmother.

Now, She always looks to see if Trien or I are bringing the baby out. When she sees little Melody, her face brightens, and you can see the traces of young motherhood and its memories flicker across her face.

It doesn't take much to touch someone, and make a difference in their life.