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When I Dissected Cockroaches

By Sitiaishah Salim


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Genre: Fiction

Rating: PG (language)

Word count: 902


I’ve always been amazed by some people’s ability to remember events in their lives when they were very young. Recently, I read a memoir by Alice Kaplan, called A French Lesson. She described in detail the words her siblings taught her to memorize when she was three years old. I can remember a lot of things when I was five years old but, beyond that everything comes and goes in fuzzy form. It’s like when you wake up in the morning and you rub your eyes with both hands and try to focus on some objects in front of you.

I don’t really remember how old I was when I started to get interested in reading, but I know I inherit a reading habit from my father . Everyday, when he was not away he would come home for lunch with all of us. After the lunch, my two little brothers went outside to play while I hanged around in the kitchen to help my mother to clear the dishes. Although I was only four years old my mother wanted me to get familiar around the kitchen. My father sat at the end the table with a hot cup of strong black tea added with condensed milk. I went into the living room to get an ashtray before he asked for it. He was pleased when I did it. While my mother did the dishes, my father read aloud the newspaper. He started on the third page where the editor’s comment was. From time to time my mother turned around and asked him about some of our politicians.

I sat next to my father and listened intently to every words he read. Most of the time I didn’t understand what they were but those words fascinated me. I would repeat them again and again. Once my father read an article about the Indonesian government led by President Soekarno, who wanted to confront Malaysia’s Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on border’s issue. My father read the essay to my mother, "Indonesia mahu ganyang Malaysia" (Indonesia wants to asswhip Malaysia). I asked my father what ganyang was. He said ganyang is Malay-Indonesian dialect and said not to use it because it was considered rude.

A couple of days later I had a fight with a boy next door. His family had just moved in a week ago, but he already terrorized most of the younger children on the block. When I saw him trying to snatch a little wooden truck from my little brother, I ran up to him and told him not to. He gave me a menacing look and pushed me aside. I shoved him hard and said in my language, "I’ll whip your ass." He lost his balance and fell on the ground. Whether he was embarrassed being hit by a girl shorter than him or by other kids who were watching the whole thing, he started to cry. I grabbed my little brother’s hand and disappeared in the house. I got time out after the incident but it didn’t stop me from using the word ganyang because I’ve learned every word has power in it when I use it right.

My father had a habit of jotting down the words he found interesting from his reading too. He never parted with his little, thin note book he carried in his shirt pocket. He made sure his note book fit into a pocket of a new shirt before he bought it. He would ask me to spell those alien words while he wrote them down. I felt important and smart because my father trusted me with this important task. Most of the words were originally an English words but they were spelled in Malay consonant. For examples, the word democracy, in Malay literature, there is no one word to explain the meaning of democracy, so it becomes demokrasi. Sometimes I understand what they meant after he explained them to me, but most of the time I didn’t. I was five years old when the first time I learned the meaning of operation. I saw my father wrote the word operation in his note book and next to it was operasi. The next day I ordered my younger brothers to use the word operasi when we dissected a half dozen of fat cockroaches. Dissecting insects became more interesting after that.

I was in grade three when I started to write new found words in my little note book. My friends rolled their eyes when ever I tried to fit these English words converted to Malay in our games. At the same time I was their resource and their dictionary when they stuck with the homework’s. Until this day I still carry a note book, but now I pick tangible and intangible words which I use them for my personal essays writing.

I never learned how my father became an avid reader and his love affair with reading. He left the school when he was thirteen and joined Malay Royal Army when he was seventeen. His passion for knowledge has a great impact on me and his reading legacy infused with the blood in my veins. He died with little money but he left us two cupboards full of books dated way back from 1920’s and most all of them we could only find at our National Public Library in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.