I love writing.
It’s not so much the creation of words than the tactile feeling of production. I’ve bought mechanical keyboards not out of necessity, but just because they’re much nicer to type on.
I’ve also lurked in bookshops, testing pens for hours at a time to find my favourite variant. I’m too cheap to get into quality pens, but boy do I splurge on the best mainstream ones. For the curious, I’ve always returned to the Pentel Energel and Zebra Sarasa—with a huge preference for the latter.
I’m so proud of my choices that I find myself shoehorning them into daily life.
“Papermate?” I’d ask a colleague. “Have some self-respect, you peasant. Here, try this Zebra.”
I’d also click my pen—rather passive-aggressively—at establishments such as banks whenever the tellers offer me a lesser contraption.
So when my neighbour on a flight from Kuala Lumpur to Cebu asked to borrow a pen to fill in her immigration card, I was more than happy to induct her into the ways of penmanship.
But for a brief moment, I wondered how people still travelled without a pen in this day and age. With all the health and customs declarations to fill, it made sense to at least ease the burdens of your journey.
“Can I borrow your pen?” the lady in red asked.
Here’s one thing about my face. It’s universally Asian. I’ve had Thais getting mad at me for not understanding ‘our language’, and Myanmarese people mistaking me for one of them. Ditto locals speaking to me in Tagalog and Korean. So when the lady in red caught a glimpse of my Malaysian passport, she backtracked and tried speaking to me in my mother tongue—or so she thought.
“Pinjam sikijam ya?” she struggled in Malay. I don’t know what it is about languages, but when a foreigner tries to speak your language, it seems endearing no matter how terrible their efforts. When locals do the same, it grates harder than sticking your foot into a meat grinder.
“Sure, take your time,” I said, hoping she’d pick up on the hint.
“Wow!” she said, after filling in a few lines. “Pen ini! Sangat bagus! Betul sangat smooth!”
Why of course. After spending all my time writing ‘the big brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’ with every pen available, I expected nothing less than a compliment. However, her appreciation was dulled by the final chapters of my book, and I merely nodded my head as I strove to find out the fates of Rand, Mat, and Perrin.
The book carried me through my whole assignment in Cebu, and it was only on my return flight that I realised I had run out of reading material. This was further exacerbated by not packing tech items for my travels and working for the airline’s magazine (I had read the February issue twenty times by then). Wanting to kill some time, I took out my journal and fished for my pen, and that’s when I noticed that the lady in red had failed to return it.
Of course, I’d always given people the benefit of the doubt, but I was pretty sure she chose to conveniently place my trusty Zebra in her own pocket. Frustrated and bored, I turned to my neighbours, a Chinese couple, and asked to borrow a pen.
The woman smiled as she offered me a cheap ballpoint, and then—here’s an example of my multi-cultural face at work—turned to her boyfriend and said in Cantonese: “I don’t know why people still travel without pens.”
I never missed a beat, and acted as if I didn’t understand. I probably had them thinking I was Filipino all the way until I conversed with the stewardess in Cantonese. Still, I thought: well done, lady in red. You’ve effectively made me one of you.
So here I am, back at home in my room, writing a draft about her, with a pen I stole from a Chinese couple.