I was born in Malaysia 1952, the year of the Dragon. My parents were Chinese immigrants. Our family were aliens in my own country, which had not yet gained independence from its colonial rulers. Now, world famous sky scrapers and five star hotels gleam in the tropical sun of Kuala Lumpur, the capital city. When I was growing up, shanty towns, crowded with tin shacks and hardscrabble people, baked in that same sun.
My family of 12 lived in one of those tin shacks. Ours had two rooms. My parents slept in one. My brothers and sisters and I slept in the other. Most of the time, we lived outside. Our kitchen was a charcoal stove; our wash room, a bucket. The public well was far down one hill, the public latrine not far enough down another.
Our days were defined by necessities, and our roles by gender and age. My father and the boys tended the garden, and collected scrap metal to earn money. My mother and the girls cooked, and did the laundry. From the time I could lift the yoke to my shoulders, I carried water from the well to our house.
Our drab and difficult lives framed moments of beauty, celebration, and comfort. The colorful Chinese calendar was the only decoration in our house, marking each new year with a different animal from the Zodiac. My father sometimes took a couple of us on early morning excursions to buy congee from the roadside hawker. On special occasions my mother made fish maw soup. On our birthdays, each of us would receive a brightly colored hard-boiled egg. Our days in the heat were usually hard, but the coolness of the concrete floor comforted us when we lay down on our thin mats at night to sleep.
New development has long since risen over the bulldozed remains of our tin house and the rest of the shanty town. Still, that setting and those times continue to shape me. It was there that I learned to create comfort and beauty out of dinginess and hardship, and there that I learned how to share.