Virga Or Viagra

My younger sister aka Little Sis almost floored me last Sunday over lunch. I thought I heard she asked, “Do you know about Viagra? What it actually means?” “Little Sis! Of course I do! But it does not mean I need it!” I had to balance my retort delicately. Too strongly and she may wrongly suspect I take them. Too lightly and she will also think my flippant dismissal of it is indicative of a flaccid admission. Not that there should be any stigma for viagra users. “Why would you ask that? Is your husband finding a need to use them?” That was smart of me – I thought to myself – putting her on the back foot will teach her not to ask such personal questions. Instead she roared. “No! Virga, not Viagra!” She tsked-tsked at me, as all my sisters are prone to do to express their annoyance at me. But, being my younger sister, she never used to dismiss me in such a brusque manner. The hierarchical structure of a Chinese family unit is still very much observed, such has been the tight rule of our matriarch. My ranking is seventh, being the seventh-born. There can be no usurper. So, if there is a difference of opinion, the younger ones will be the first to quieten down. We don’t offer any ideas unless asked and we don’t touch the food in front of us until those who outrank us have. There are exceptions of course, as with anything in life. But by and large, the norm is the younger ones will show respect and observe that hierarchical line. Admittedly, that rule is quickly relaxed should a plate of lobster Yee-foo noodles be placed right in front of me. Or, a freshly opened Musang King durian is precariously positioned for a photo shoot near Little Sis. She will be quick to say she’s poised to attack it first, despite being ranked last. Observing this ancient tradition is a tacit nod to the virtues of filial piety that our parents had imparted to us all through our childhood, not an endorsement of the rule that age-based seniority deserves special respect. We willingly bend because we still can. Unlike the elders. They are more like the old oak trees that break rather than bend. When the elders speak, they command silence and expect obedience. When I speak, I expect courteous resistance at best and more too often, ridicule and sarcasm. There has been a notable shift of late though, since I turned 60 over a year ago. Maybe I have joined their club finally and am no longer treated as an inconsequential junior whose existence is of little relevance to them. “Virga”, Little Sis repeated. “It is rain that does not reach the ground.” The story of the virga is a sad one. Made in Heaven, they are sent down to earth to sustain the crops but they fail to even reach the ground, having dissipated in the atmosphere. Created for a purpose but perpetually an abject failure. For a long time, I too felt like virga in my family. Inconsequential and irrelevant. Useless. Aimless and often a disappointment. Hardly noticeable, my absence from a family party would rarely raise an eyebrow or warrant an enquiry, I imagined. Any room would not be less interesting without me, I dare say.

On the menu that afternoon was Penang bachang made by an incredibly versatile Penangite or Penang lang. Anne, a lanky perfectly-proportioned woman with gorgeous, long and silky black hair whom I have met a couple of times at dinner parties thrown by Little Sis, is Penang-born and bred. Radiating a sweet smile that is accompanied by a near-perfect set of natural white enamel unblemished by tea and black coffee, she is an obvious candidate as a model for any toothpaste brand. To be adept at making bachang (sticky rice dumpling) would not qualify her to be pigeon-holed as someone who is amazing or special. To be versatile enough to make perfect salted eggs, sambal belachan, nasi ulam and have a myriad of other Malaysian dishes raved and praised by the Malaysian diaspora here would put her on a level of par excellence very few have reached. Above and beyond her responsibilities as a mother of a young daughter and an incredibly supportive wife, she also helps manage a large successful winery in South Australia’s Clare Valley. “Manage” is a poor word that does a huge disservice to describe the physical and fiscal responsibilities and, dare I say, somewhat dare-devil feats required that accompany a “family-run” job in the wine industry. The long arduous hours she grinds through day after day and the tenacity to complete her impossibly challenging tasks without so much as a protest or a whimper inform me she is a very special woman. Both husband and wife arrived here some ten years ago, attracted by the offer to run the whole operation of a winery from toiling the land to planting and harvesting the choice grapes to making award-winning wines and storing them in massive tanks and oak barrels. After that comes the slick and upbeat marketing campaigns to distribute their products to a worldwide market. Anne is known to have scaled the heights of such massive tanks to repair a broken pipe or something, and then abseiled from one tank to the next without blinking or thinking about the “what-ifs” if she were to lose her nerve or footing or both. Since I suffer from acrophobia, she instantly won my admiration. She flexed her biceps and asked me to feel them. Her rock-hard arms won her many points too. Yet, she does not possess the typical physique of a weather-beaten farmer. No coarse calluses offered during a brief handshake, no sun-damaged, parched and mottled facial features when she smiled and surprisingly, she revealed a pair of pure white soft forearms when she rolled up her puffy woollen sleeves to help her husband clear his broken wine glass toppled during a brief careless moment of celebratory clinking of glasses. Anne and her husband Raymond, although their marriage is obviously also made in Heaven, are the opposite of virga. They are the heartbeat of any party – she the centre of attraction. Her life story is a powerful and poignant one. Filled with purpose from a demanding mother even from an early age. Her needy and aged parents still rely on her to look after their well-being. They still live in Penang but the physical separation does not lessen the emotional and financial dependance on her. I do wonder if she ever wished she was a virga, the ability to simply disappear and not reach her destination and fulfil her purpose in someone else’s lives would be so liberating and uplifting. Instead, she is the “viagra” that many people close to her depend on. She is the one they need and she has to continue providing the “blood flow” and the lifeline for them to carry on. Without her zest and enthusiasm for love and life, her loved ones would be the poorer.

Ma, enjoying Ann’s bachang at Little Sis’ party

Yesterday, I went to Chinatown specifically to hunt for durian. It was my first visit to that corner of the city this year, I reckon. COVID-19 has made me much less inclined to leave my house. Besides, Asian groceries are available even in the suburbs now – a far cry from when I first arrived here back in 1977. Then, not only were Asian groceries difficult to find, we Asians stood out like the proverbial dog’s balls. A rare sight. A common way strangers greeted me then was to ask if I knew karate or kungfu. My standard reply was real kungfu exponents never reveal their skills unless seriously threatened. Luckily I was never ever seriously threatened. Back to the hunt for durian. My friend Chip had shared some photos of the durian he partook last week. His third durian for this season, he said. Not just any durian but the King itself! In Adelaide! Maoshan Wang in Mandarin or Musang King, accessible to and obtainable by plebs! Life is fair after all! This obviates the need for a costly air ticket and time to fly to Asia for the King! Just a leisurely 15-minute drive to Chinatown without the snarly traffic and toxic fumes. It was a Saturday morning “rush” in Adelaide, yet I slipped the car straight into a parking bay that had a sign that said free parking for 15 minutes! Free and isn’t it lovely?! And just across the road from where I needed to be! The two Kings cost me $115, providing a total of 19 “hoods”, local Penang parlance for the aril that covers each seed. Cheap, if you convinced yourself the price includes a free air ticket to the land of the King. But, it sounds even cheaper when you’re told they have flown it to you and you need not have to leave home to get it! That would have been my mum’s way to rationalise it. For once, she said it was very reasonable amidst a hearty chuckle. Ma even flashed a most treasured sweet smile. It’s amazing how a sweet-tasting but foul-smelling fruit can instantly inject an electrifying spark or a Dopamine boost to provide us brief feelings of euphoria and lift us from the rut and the mundane. Not dissimilar from what Viagra does, I bet.

A very contented Ma, pleased with how flat the seed is. It means more flesh and better value!

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