Saturday, March 15, 2014

Traveller’s Tales

“As a child, I used to walk, run and cycle with my
friends across the landscape that is so unique to this part
of Malaysia. ... The rugged terrain and its clumps of
tall lallang grass look a little like the beaches of
New Hampshire—except for the red earth.”

ZHANG SU LI regales SHANTINI SUNTHARAJAH with tales from her travels and her sweet life on the wind. Coordinated & edited by ERIC FORBES

A “JET PLANE” made out of lallang grass was just one of the many “toys” Zhang Su Li remembers from her years growing up in the tiny town of Gopeng, Perak. “As a child, I used to walk, run and cycle with my friends across the landscape that is so unique to this part of Malaysia,” recalls the freelance copywriter and author of the travel book, A Backpack and a Bit of Luck. Zhang and her friends used to spend their evenings playing around the old mining pools that had turned into murky lakes. By the time they got home, they were a mess: their feet were red, and the fine red earth mixed with sweat looked like chilli paste lodged between their toes. “The rugged terrain with its deep red earth and clumps of tall lallang grass is something I’ll always have in my memory, more out of necessity than for nostalgic reasons because there’s less of it every time I go back to Gopeng!”

As a lifelong animal lover, part of Zhang’s childhood was spent dreaming about becoming a world-class veterinarian but that vision came to an abrupt end during her teens. “My life came to a dramatic turning point at the age of seventeen when I stood face to face with an earthworm on the workbench of my biology lab at the Burgess Hill School for Girls in Sussex, England,” she recalls. “I am terrified of earthworms! After running out of the biology exam in hysterics, I realised that my childhood dream of becoming a veterinary surgeon had just been crushed by a helpless five-inch invertebrate!”

Since then, Zhang has found herself at various crossroads in life.

Her childhood ambition unceremoniously squashed, Zhang turned to her next love—the written word. Her career as an advertising copywriter began in Ogilvy & Mather and continued at Saatchi & Saatchi, Lowe & Partners, BBDO, Naga DDB, Leo Burnett, Grey Interactive, Arc Worldwide, Arachnid and Chimera Brand Design Consultancy. Dissatisfied with the amount of writing a full-time copywriter does, she left the industry to pursue travel and writing.

She now freelances as a copywriter and is often inspired by the beauty and complexity of the visuals she works with. “I work at a brand design consultancy that has some of the best graphic designers in the country. It’s not important to me what projects I work on. It is the designs that inspire me and make me look forward to going to work,” she admits. “I mean, great design simply cannot be explained. It has magic. You look at it, and you just have no words for it and that’s when I feel that I need to further craft my copy to work perfectly with the design.”

As a freelance writer, Zhang says she has no typical routine. Although free from the confines of a nine-to-five schedule in an office cubicle, she has stuck to a fairly strict schedule over the last few months, thanks to a little bundle of fur that brings to mind her early veterinary ambitions. “I’m fostering a stray puppy with a broken leg. I get up at the same time every morning to clean his wound, give him a towel bath, and let him out to pee and poo. My night-time routine is a repeat of the morning session with Russell the puppy, except he doesn’t poo at night. I time his meals perfectly so he does it only once a day, and on the dot at 9.30am.”

Other than nursing furry friends back to health, a large chunk of Zhang’s free time is spent talking, mostly to people she doesn’t know. “I enjoy a lot of things. I love variety but the thing I love most when I’m absolutely free is to talk to strangers—post office staff, government department officers, aunties and uncles at the kedai runcit (provision shop), the veterinary clinic, anywhere, really,” she says. “One of my favourite places is this pharmacy where the auntie who works there is a real darling! She answers all my questions, not only patiently but also joyfully. She, like many other strangers, has become a friend.”

There’s no denying that Zhang marches to the beat of her own drum and is full of surprises. When asked to describe herself, she captures her entire personality with just one word: contradiction. “I plan obsessively and think strategically at work and when I need to get practical things done, but when I’m travelling, even if it’s a short drive to a nearby location, I leave my decisions to the wind.”

Zhang’s paradoxical methods obviously work well. She has successfully balanced her freelance copywriting and love of travel for some time now and shows no signs of slowing down. “I prefer not having an itinerary and not knowing where I’m heading because that’s when we move out of our comfort zones and into a place where our long-held perceptions of beauty, ugliness, wealth, poverty, success and failure completely fall apart,” she says. She believes that this type of travel challenges her values and perceptions. “When we are stuck in a strange place, and in circumstances that are unfamiliar, that’s when we begin to truly understand and appreciate a different culture’s values and way of life.” According to her, whatever fears, dislikes or prejudices that we may have will dissolve with this understanding. And the less we fear, dislike and reject, the bigger our own inner world becomes.

As for her book of travel narratives, Zhang says it was very much a happy coincidence that led to its publication in 2007. Having always been a person who kept notes about her travels, unintentional preparation happened to meet opportunity. “A good friend invited me to a dinner where I met a senior editor at Marshall Cavendish. She asked for a few sample chapters, and I sent them to her the very next day,” she explains. (First published by Marshall Cavendish in 2007, a revised edition of A Backpack and a Bit of Luck, incorporating three new pieces, was reissued by MPH Group Publishing in June 2013.)

When asked whether she has a tip or two for an unforgettable travel experience, she surprises with her answer. “Do not bring a camera,” she advises. “While you are recording a fantastic moment to be experienced in the future, you are missing that fantastic moment right now.” She continues, “If a great experience is what you want, travel solo. That way, you will experience what the world wants you to experience rather than what you and your companion decide jointly what you both want to see—and what the world wants you to see is unimaginably better!”

Zhang has managed to accomplish what many others dream of but few attain—she has travelled the world, written a book and is successfully self-employed. But does she still remember how to make a “jet plane” out of lalang grass?

The world traveller doesn’t miss a beat. “We would tear a little bit of the blade on both sides of the stem, and place the two strips between our index and middle fingers. Then we would yank the strips off forcefully so the stem shot into the air like an arrow.”

It is good to know that no matter how far we have travelled, there are those among us who will always remember where we came from.


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