Remember I mentioned about sending in a short story for an anthology contest and it got rejected?
I figured that since I wrote it already, why not share it here so it won’t just lie somewhere gathering virtual cobwebs?
So here you go. A tale inspired by the ‘Trash’ theme. Enjoy and let me know what you think. :)
By Eris C
I watched as Mr Tee loaded baskets of ‘rotten’ vegetables – the ones we couldn’t sell for the day – onto a wooden trolley. Green beans yellowed at the tips of their stalks, bug eaten sawi, limp looking kangkung.
All destined for the large dumpster behind the wet market.
“Tun!” my boss’ booming voice echoed over the din of the market, over to the stall where I was packing up crates for the day. “Come here. Help throw these away.”
I moved closer, chewing on my bottom lip. Three baskets of mixed greens, dumped unceremoniously together like so much rubbish in their rattan baskets. Back in my village, this would have been a right feast. A may would have boiled some with peas for a curry, and we’d relish the savoury broth by soaking it up with rice. There would be ngapi yay, fermented fish paste. Sometimes, if the harvest had been good, a may would sell her produce at Htantabin and come back with a whole chicken and a slab of pork. Those days were a real treat.
“What are you waiting for? Go do it! I want to close up early today,” chided Mr Tee, snapping me out of my stupor. I quickly wheeled the trolley to the back of the market, where the big dumpsters were. Large lorries came by to empty them every day in the afternoon.
As I passed by the poultry section, several workers greeted me.
“Oy, Tun. Throwing out the trash again?” said Aung, who manned one of the chicken stalls.
His boss wasn’t around often, which meant that Aung essentially ran the business for him. Aung was from Rakhine, an even poorer part of the country than my own. I’ve hung out with a couple of times and he was an okay guy – not like some other Myanmarese guys who can be clannish.
“Yeah,” I sighed, stopping for a moment to catch my breath. The trolley was heavy. “It’s such a waste. The amount of veggies thrown away seems to have increased lately. People just aren’t buying that much anymore.”
It was true. The ones patronising the wet market were restaurant owners and older people, people who had been dealing with my boss for a long time. The younger ones no longer wanted to shop at wet markets. They went to fancy places like Cold Storage or Jaya 33, looking for ‘organic vegetables’. Veggies were veggies. I didn’t see the difference. When you put them in a pot and cooked them, they tasted the same.
Aung beckoned me closer with a finger. I glanced around to make sure Mr Tee wasn’t looking, then leaned in while resting over the trolley’s handles.
“Do you want to do some side business?” he asked.
I raised my eyebrows. “If it’s drugs and booze, you know I don’t -”
“No, you stupid.” Aung grimaced, as if hurt that I thought of him that way. I laughed.
He pointed at the veggies in my trolley, brimming in their rattan baskets. “Selling those. We have our own little market not far away from here.”
I frowned. I knew all about it, of course, even though I was fairly new in the area. I had seen people sifting through the dumpsters, picking out vegetables, seafood, even meat. They plucked or cut away the bad parts and neatly bundled up the rest into plastic bags.
At first I thought they were taking them back to be cooked, but found out later that they were selling them back to people. Not that I’ve ever bought any before. I might be poor, but the thought of eating out of the trash was still….distasteful.
“But these vegetables are going to be thrown away,” I said.
“Oh, come on Tun. It’s not like you were born yesterday. Both you and I know that those veggies are just a little yellow here and there. Most are still edible,” Aung said impatiently, waving my worries aside like an invisible fly. “We sell them to the other workers for cheap. Sometimes restaurants buy them too. Everyone’s happy.”
“But isn’t that illegal?” I asked, glancing behind me again. I kept expecting Mr Tee to pop up at any moment, breathing down my neck. He didn’t like it when I took a break from work, no matter how short.
Aung laughed in my face and ruffled my hair. I hated it when he did that. Sure, I haven’t been in Malaysia for as long as he has, but I was already 19 and didn’t appreciate being treated like a child. Besides, Aung wasn’t much older than I was: he just came to Kuala Lumpur earlier.
“Of course it is. But then, which one of us came here legally? If you get caught, either way, you’re still going back to Myanmar.” he said.
When I didn’t reply, Aung clapped me on the shoulder with one dirty, organ-smeared hand.
“Well, suit yourself, kid. I’m just saying. If you change your mind, come look for me.” He turned back to his butcher board and started wiping it with a blood-stained rag.
“Now you better go throw those away before your boss sees you here and screams at the both of us.”
That afternoon, I got home, took a shower and went to bed. I didn’t want to think too much about it, but Aung’s words kept coming back to me.
“Want to do some side business?”
Some extra income would be good. I sent half my earnings back home, leaving me RM400 to spend. Unlike some of my friends, I didn’t have to pay for rent, just utilities and a phone. The rest went to food and entertainment expenses. Nothing lavish, but enough to get by.
But nobody ever said no to more money.
The next day, I got up as usual at midnight to get ready for work. The routine everyday went like this: I hop onto Mr Tee’s truck at 1am, and we head to the wet market. The lorries bearing fresh produce from Cameron Highlands arrive at 2am. We sort them out into neat piles, all ready for buyers by 3am. That’s when the restaurant operators come in, squabbling for their pick of the freshest vegetables.
It’s going to sound funny to some people, but I like the market. It’s always busy with activity, the floor slick and wet with blood, water, feathers and organs. I’ve gotten used to the high mix of odors of raw food, dirt and sweat. I liked bantering with the old aunties and uncles who come by, decked out in their baggy, knee length shorts.
It’s when I’m outside the market that it’s not so fun. Sure, it was great exploring the city when I first got here. The sights, the sounds. I’ve been to Yangon, but this was all so… alien. When I stepped into Suria KLCC for the first time, I was nearly bowled over by how expensive everything looked (and was).
But the longer I stayed, the more I missed home. Although we were poor, we were happy. I missed my mother’s cooking, and playing with my younger brothers and sisters. But ever since my father died in a factory accident, I had to shoulder the burden of raising the family as the eldest son. Jobs in Yangon weren’t enough for me to support the whole family, so I stowed away on a truck and after three long weeks of hiding out in a jungle, crossed over the border into Malaysia.
I’ve been here for over a year now, and I still haven’t gotten used to it. Locals throw us dirty glances. Some talk to us like we’re not even human beings. I’ve picked up enough Cantonese, Mandarin and Malay to know what everyone says when my friends and I are out on the street.
They look at us with beady, judgemental eyes, at our tanned faces and sweaty clothes, and whisper (some don’t even bother):
“Dirty Min din jai…come here sure to rob and steal.”
“Myanmar people ah? Lazy, good for nothing.”
“They always get drunk and fight, then kill each other. Should just go back to where they came from lah.”
No doubt there were bad eggs among us, but it makes it so much harder for honest people, just trying to make a living.
Even the ones who employed us treat us like trash sometimes. My first job after arriving in KL was at a hawker centre in town. The boss owed me two months in wages, and refused to pay up. He knew I couldn’t go to the authorities. So I had to leave.
Thinking back, I was lucky to get Mr Tee. He didn’t ask if I had a work visa – simply hired me on the spot for a monthly salary of RM900, board included. The board was a ramshackle room with two other Myanmarese guys on the second floor of a shoplot.
So, yeah. Some extra income would be nice.
I decided that there was no harm in joining the side business, as long as Mr Tee didn’t find out and I wasn’t getting into trouble.
So while wheeling a fresh batch of ‘rotten’ veggies to the dumpster again, I stopped by Aung’s store. He looked up and grinned at me heartily.
“I guess you’re interested?” he said, by way of greeting.
I nodded. “But you need to tell me what to do,” I said.
“Does your boss know about this?”
Aung laughed so hard at my question he cried. Not understanding what he found so funny, I sat there waiting for it to subside.
“Ohho, ohoohooo.” he whooped, wiping away tears of mirth. “Are you fucking kidding me? You really were born yesterday, weren’t you?” he said, attempting to ruffle my hair again. I knocked his hand away, genuinely annoyed.
“That old bugger doesn’t know shit. He trusts me enough to run the shop, but he doesn’t trust me that much.” Aung rolled his eyes. “If he knew I was carting away unsold poultry and selling them for my own profit, he’d destroy them himself rather than let me freeload. He thinks all the extras are being thrown away.”
“So how do we go about this?”
“Okay. Here’s what you do,” said Aung, with all the air of a drug kingpin teaching a new pusher the ways of the street. I smiled in amusement as he rattled off the routine – wheel the vegetables to his ‘correspondents’ standing by and leave the produce with them, which they would sort and clean.
Everything was loaded into a van – apparently Aung’s ‘team’ was a cut above the rest because they had a vehicle, no doubt borrowed from Aung’s employer – so they could transport more goods. The stuff was brought over to a private market about 500 meters away, just outside some rickety food stalls run by our own people, and sold to buyers. Everything was wrapped up by noon.
“How many others are doing this?”
“A lot of us. Indonesians. The Rohingyas do it too,” Aung spat on the ground, clearly disgusted.
I kept quiet. Personally, I didn’t have anything against Rohingyas. But Aung was from Rakhine – a very poor state in Myanmar that made my living conditions seem luxurious by comparison – and there had always been a history between the locals and the ethnic Rohingyas in the region. Many see the latter as immigrants, trying to encroach onto our land.
Pretty ironic, seeing as how we were aliens ourselves.
“Sounds good. When do I start?” I asked.
Aung grinned. “How about today?”
That was the start of my career in dumpster diving.
The arrangement went smoothly for a few months. We were doing very well. Aung and I and his two friends, Khin and Then, had monopoly over our little market, thanks to the van. A lot of people bought from us because we had a variety of goods in large quantities.
It was like our own department store: Khin brought all sorts of seafood, while Then had fruits. Aung had his chicken heads, gizzards and leftovers, and I had my vegetables. My veggies sold best because after the rotten parts were picked and cleaned, they looked as good as new. We sold everything for half price.
Apart from workers in the area, restaurants and hawker stall operators were also regulars because of how cheap the things were.
What we couldn’t sell (which was very little) we cooked ourselves. I was saving money on groceries and sending more money back home than I had ever done before.
A may was happy with my new ‘job’. She thought that a good boss had hired me and was paying me high wages to be his right hand man. I didn’t tell her I was picking out someone else’s trash and turning it into my own treasure. I didn’t think she’d understand.
All in all, we made an easy RM5,000 a month, because there was no stall rental involved and we got our goods for no cost. The side business was turning to be even more profitable than my regular job. I was saving enough to build a proper house for my family back in the village.
But when you’re doing well, things have a way of fucking up. And that was exactly what happened.
One morning, while manning our stall, I saw a suspicious duo loitering around the area. Locals. A Chinese couple. They didn’t look like restaurant people, from the way they were dressed. The man, who was tall and burly, had shades that covered most of his face. The woman wore jeans and a tee paired with combat boots, which struck me as odd. People usually came in rubber shoes or flip flops, because of how dirty the market is.
The pair approached our stall. Only Khin and I were there at that time.
The woman, who had long black hair tied into a ponytail, pointed at the crate of shrimp swimming in iced water at Khin’s feet.
“Berapa?” she asked in Malay.
“Twenty seven one kilo,” Khin replied, scooping up a handful and showing them to the pair. “Very fresh. We just got them this morning.”
The woman looked at it, then nodded curtly. “What else do you have?”
A feeling of uneasiness rose steadily in my throat. I wanted to turn them away, tell them that we were closed for the day, but couldn’t.
Where was Aung when you needed him?
Khin seemed oblivious to the weird vibe. “We have a lot of vegetables, all from Cameron Highlands. Also came in this morning. If you want to make sweet soup, add some chicken innards,” he pointed to a slimy basket of thin, grey intestines. “Really flavorful.”
The woman nodded again, looking at the things we had on display.
“Is it safe to eat? Where do you get this stuff?” she asked.
“It’s all from the market, don’t worry. Not from the trash or anything.” said Khin, laughing. I’ve never felt like punching his stupid, horsey face more than ever in my life.
Just then a van pulled over and I felt relief flooding me. Aung. The big boss was back.
As he got out, his eyes shifted from my worried face to the odd pair in front of our makeshift stall, and understood immediately.
“Sorry, it’s time for us to pack up. We’re not doing anymore business for the day.” he said briskly in Malay, grabbing a crate of goods and loading them into the van. Khin looked very confused and opened his mouth to say something, but I elbowed him as I helped load the van as fast as I could.
The odd pair looked at each other and backed away silently. Before I hopped onto the van, I saw them standing in the shade nearby. There was a flash from what looked like a lens, partially hidden underneath the man’s canvas bag.
Later, as Aung drove us home, I couldn’t hold it in any longer.
“They were taking pictures.” I blurted out.
Aung glanced at me from the rearview mirror.
“The man. He had a camera. I saw them taking pictures of us when we were leaving.” The words tumbled out of me in a rush. “I think they took pictures of the other traders too, but they were trying to hide it with the bag. It was like they didn’t want to be found out.”
Khin, who was sitting next to me, looked pale.
“Someone must have ratted us out.” Aung said through gritted teeth. “They were probably nosy, lousy reporters…Fuck!” he slammed his hands on the steering wheel. We jumped.
“Calm down, Aung. We don’t know anything yet,” said Khin. Aung rounded on him.
“It’s not just about the stuff we’re selling. If there were raids before, it would have been fine if our bosses paid the fines and bribed the officers. But if this made it to the newspapers….they’ll do a big crackdown. They’ll haul us off to immigration. We won’t be able to work here anymore, Khin. Do you understand?”
“We’re all illegals,” he spat, as if the word suddenly disgusted him.
“What should we do?” I asked, aware that my voice was trembling a little. I was thinking of the promises I made to a may about a new house, of paying my little brothers and sisters’ school fees and uniforms for the new year. Promises I wouldn’t be able to fulfil. It wasn’t just a matter of sending them less money. I was in danger of being deported back to Myanmar.
Aung was quiet for a while.
“We leave. Get another job. Maybe at another wet market in Kuala Lumpur.” He looked angry, but his jaw was set. “I won’t risk being caught and sent back to Rakhine.”
Mr Tee didn’t pick me up from my house that day. Instead, I got a call.
“Pack your things, you’re leaving.” Even through the receiver, I could sense his anger radiating through the phone.
“Mr Tee, why -”
“YOU KNOW WHY!” he roared, and I pulled away, nearly dropping the handset.
My mind was racing. So it was finally out. I thought I’d be safe for at least a few days, but I guess the local papers worked faster than I thought.
“Real celebrity, aren’t you? Picture in the papers and all. You better go before I report you to the authorities and they ship your ungrateful, stinking ass back to the shithole you came from,” Mr Tee growled.
“You can’t do that.” I said shakily. “I’ll say you hired me, even though you knew I didn’t have papers. You’ll have to answer for that.”
The words were barely out of my mouth before he cut me off.
“Who do you think you are, boy? You’re just a sei min dim jai I hired from the street. Who do you think the police and the immigration will believe? Me or you?” he spat.
“I want you gone. Don’t even think about staying there for a second longer, you piece of ungrateful shit. I’ve spoken to your roommates. If I find out they’ve been letting you stay, I’ll haul their ass out of there too.”
I stared at my phone, a hollow feeling in my chest. Somewhere, as if from a distance, I felt a clap on my back and a voice calling my name. It was my roommate, Kyi.
Something about another job. A place in Setapak. A friend’s friend who could ‘help’.
I barely paid notice. I understood the words, but not the meaning.
I thought about my siblings back in the village, happily looking forward to the new school year.
I thought about ah may and how she said that the other villagers were so jealous that she had such a good son who was sending her enough money to build a proper house.
I thought about trash, and treasure, and vegetables.