How does one begin a conversation with strangers? More to the point, how does one start a conversation with strangers whose people one has read about only in stories that are poignant and horrific in equal measure?
Here’s one way – talk about the produce.
“What is this root?” I ask the Rohingya vendor at the Pasar Borong Kuala Lumpur in Selayang, jabbing at the plastic bag of herbs. Inside is another layer of wrapping, a piece of newspaper in Thai script.
“Is it from Thailand? Can I buy just a little of it?” Then, without missing a beat – “What is your name?”
He is taken aback, but only for a moment. His face breaks into a grin. I feel a flash of triumph.
“Daud,” he says.
“Daud,” I repeat. “I’m Hui Lin.”
It’s easy after that. We find out that Daud is married. His wife lives in the ramshackle multi-storey shophouses across the street – the ones that are considered a safe haven to the Rohingyas, despite the conditions and the frequent police or immigration raids that happen here. He has two children, both of whom attend Hashim’s madrasah. Daud speaks English and appears confident in his pristine beige button-down shirt.
The next person we speak to is a little quieter – a little younger, perhaps in his early twenties or late teens. At first he stares openly at us, expression unreadable – Curiosity? Suspicion? Assessing? It’s hard to tell. It’s similar, though, to the looks we got as we strolled down the aisles.
“Can I buy just one chunk of ginger?”
Soon we’re discussing his dream woman. A few of his fellow vendors sidle up to join in. One has a very eager smile and the lively, strutting demeanour of a teenager. Another is tall, moustached, and looks so sullen, almost as if he didn’t actually join our circle by choice.
“No, I’m not married. The girls here are too fat. They eat too much gravy,” he says gravely, in broken but rapid Malay. “I’ll get married when I go home to Burma.”
We meander in search of a woman to talk to. Nasimah sits on a low stool just outside the building, peeling onions into a basin under the scorching sun. She turns her face upward at us as we approach, her disposition friendly. Her teeth are tinged red, the effect of betel nuts. She answers our inquisitive questions quite readily.
“We get our food from the market and we cook them at home.”
She also asks about us, and how many years we’ve been in KL. She’s been here for 11 years herself.
“Ranzambi (sp?) doesn’t go to school. She only went to school back home in Myanmar.” Ranzambi, her 18-year-old daughter, sits beside her under the shade of an umbrella. She turns and smiles reluctantly at us at the mention of her name, as if she’s not too interested to participate in our conversation. I can understand that. I feel like that a lot. She continues to stir away at her little pot of white goo, which is apparently meant to be eaten with betel leaves. Another girl joins us but doesn’t say anything, just leans against the van, listens, and smiles. A man stops by, takes a box from Ranzambi’s plastic basket – perhaps cigarettes? – gives her some cash, and leaves.
Soon after that, we leave too.
It only struck me later that the second person we spoke to, whose name escapes me, had said Burma, not Myanmar…and that he harboured some hope of going home.