Friday, June 8, 2007

First Impressions Are Not Everything

CS Lim is one of my outstanding good friends. Though we seldom talk or meet up these days, he's a high-flying fund manager doing what he does best - making more money, he will always be counted as one of my good friends. The best friendships are not necessarily the oldest but the most meaningful. Our friendship certainly met that criteria. He would prove to be one of the most influential people in my life. But that was not why he was outstanding for me. I have accorded him this quality because of the manner in which met.

Before meeting him, I would usually get along right from the start with all the people that would eventually become my good friends. He proved to be the exception to the rule because when I first met him I had taken an instant and potent dislike to him. We stayed in halls in our first year of university in England. I stayed in the block furthest away from the entrance, though near the tennis courts (which would prove pivotal to our friendship later), and he stayed about halfway towards the entrance. In our first week there, the tutors of the halls arranged for a get to know each other session for just the international students who were staying there. It was held in the evening and when I arrived most of the crowd was there already. There was not many of us in that hall and I think all in there were about twenty of us - Singaporeans, Malaysians, Dutchfolk, Africans, Greek and some other European countries - in the room.

When I arrived the room was buzzing with light and polite chatter, with perhaps bursts of muted laughs erupting here and there in the room. Everybody was just standing rather casually about except for this short (about five feet four), stocky, bespectacled Chinese guy with a badly cut coconut hairstyle who was diligently going about the room introducing himself to everybody, spending about two or three minutes with them before moving on in a business like fashion. His voice rose above the usual chatter and could be heard distinctly. The moment I saw him, like I said earlier I took an instant dislike to him. My impressions came thick and fast and were all but confirmed when he finally came my way, gave me his usual introduction, perfunctory chit chat and he was off to god knows where. He came, he met and he left. I hated him. Bloody, kiasu, Singaporean arsehole pretty much accurate describes my first impression of him.

After that, I took special care to avoid him as much and as far as possible. That, however, proved to be very difficult since sometimes I did sit with the other Malaysians and Singaporean (there was him and another chap called Bernard, who was much nicer) and whatever he said or did just served to make me loathe him even more. He always found room in any conversation to boast about his many and varied accomplishments, about the things he bought, the money he spent, and the places he had been to. If you played the piano, you would be certain of being informed that he had taken three diplomas in music after completing his Grade 8, played for performances once in a while and gave music lessons. If you were into martial arts, he had a black belt in Taekwondo. If you were doing a law degree, well, he was doing there on top of studying for his ACCA exams too and messing about with trading commodities on the side. If you were rich, he was richer. Everything was like competition to him. Where we finally came into contact was when he talked about his obsession with tennis. And I played tennis. When he found out that I played tennis, a game was immediately arranged the next day.

It was a cold, overcast and dull day (are there any others in England?) when we met on the tennis court that morning. I was wearing a shirt, sweater and a jacket because it was that cold and windy. He was wearing just wearing a t-shirt and shorts (which I would come to later realize was his standard outfit whether it was summer or the dead of winter). The surface of the tennis court was slippery though strangely rough when you fell down on it. It was not a comfortable surface for me since the ball tended to slide and I played mostly on hardcourts with very heavy top spin. If he played flat shots, he would have killed me. Thankfully once we got warming up it was clear that we had a similar game - big topspins and loads of power. I thought that I would have the advantage with my height, reach and serve. What's more, I had been playing a fair bit of tennis before arriving there to be fairly confident about my ability. The uppermost thought in my mind before we even stepped on court was that I was not going to lose to this bastard and run for every shot.

I was to serve first and won the first game rather easily. Back then I had a huge serve that could pretty much hold an entire game - it was fast and hard (these days forget it!). Unless you could take the speed, even if you could hit the ball, you would not have been able to control it. So he was completely bowled over by my serve first. His serve was much better than I expected considering his height. His serves came fast and quick but without much power so I could take them. But what I realized quickly was that this guy was a baseline guy who could hit from the back all day. He was also one determined son of a bitch because he would chase down every ball no matter how hopeless. And when I saw how he gave everything for each ball, I knew that he did not want to lose to me too.

He won his game on the back of some good rallies and we were even again. When the time came for my serve again, he could take it this time. He adapted very fast. Each time I served the ball came back better and better until we were trading blows on my serves as well. Each point was fought for and not one quarter was given. As the game wore on, we each held serve and it was clear from the way we played the game, there was more at stake then just a simple game of tennis. There was no more false friendly banter at the net or praising of each other's good shots any longer. This was war. This was our machismo on the line. When the score was 5-5, it began to drizzle but it occured to neither of us to stop. We kept on playing. We slipped on the ground, crashed into the fence or slid into the surrounding walls but we were not going to retire. I would sooner freeze to death then ask to stop and he was the same. Nothing else mattered except that we were not going to lose. Even as the drizzle grew heavier, we still were on court slugging it out. The battle of wills went on up to 6-6 when we headed for a tie-break. The only communication between us was when we screamed some profanity at our rackets or the sky for our lost point.

Finally, finally, I lost. I forgot the score of the tie break but I think it was something like 10-8 or 9-7. I felt miserable at the loss, more so because I really didn't like him either. It was a double blow. We thanked each other purfunctorily for the game and hurried back to our own rooms because by then it was hailing. He did not call me back for another game of tennis and I did not ask him for a replay. I figured, too bad I lost but thank god I didn't have to deal with him anymore.

After that, I had my several weeks of peace. Then one day, I went for a trip arranged by the Malaysian Singaporean Student Association to go for some sports meet somewhere. I went for it and did my part. When they sent us back in the evening, the bus insisted on stopping only at one of the halls. This meant that those not staying at that hall would have to get down and walk back to our respective halls. I got off the bus and started my walk back to my hall when I heard someone call my name and asked me to wait. I dreaded the sound of the voice and when I turned around I saw CS Lim waddling in his peculiar way to me (he walks with the points of his feet facing out). Shit, I thought, gotta small talk with him, which I eventually did.

The walk was mercifully short and after stopping outside his block to see him off I headed back to mine. After reaching my room, putting on some music and enjoying a hot cup of cocoa that I had just made, there was a knock on my door. It was a surprise because hardly anybody ever knocked on my door. The last guy that did so was one of the guys down the hall that decided that 4am and being pissed out of his mind was the best time to meet my acquaintance. I opened the door and lo, and behold, CS Lim was there standing just as I had left him. I naturally inquired what he wanted and he told me that he had left his key in his room and locked the door. Now he could not get in. What a genius, I thought annoyingly.

He immediately put me in a tight spot by asking me if he could crash the night at my place because his tutor was not around or asleep and he couldn't get his key. Now let me tell you that that was the last thing I wanted at that moment. I was tired, annoyed and now HE wanted to crash with me! But I couldn't bring myself to refuse him, so I said he could. I also suggested that I could try and help him get into his room in some other way. I am ashamed to confess that I did this not out of good will but because I wanted him out of my room. So with that, we went over to his block again and tried to first pry open his window, then contemplated climbing to the open window on the second floor and then taking the stairs down to his room on the first floor, then discussed briefly that smashing his window was not a good idea because then the room would be cold and unlivable even though it was accessible. We stood out there for probably a good 15 or 20 minutes until finally by a stroke of luck the tutor for his block happened to come back just as late and had the master key with him to boot. CS Lim and I then gratefully happily returned to our respective rooms.

I thought that was it with him and was rather pleased with myself since I had managed to behave in a civilized fashion and was helpful to someone I loathed. Little I know that that was to be the beginning of my friendship with him. The next day, he came over in the morning and thanked me very profusely and very sincerely for my offer the night before that I began to feel quite bad and guilty for thinking so badly of him.

We went for breakfast together that morning and though I didn't immediately get over my early dislike for him, his sincerity, thoughtfullness, sensitivity and generosity that he lavished on me over the course of the next few weeks eventually wore my wariness and dislike for him down until we became thick as thieves, one never for from the other. He still possessed all those disagreeable traits like boastfulness, kiasuness, etc. but the difference this time was that he was only too ready to share it with me and used it for our advantage. He was immensely generous with me - sharing his huge wardrobe of designer jackets, sweaters and shirts (we had the same top build), all the good food, books and study material he bought. It was like a saw a completely different side to him. His sensitivity was surprsing as it was endearing. He was never one for sentimentality or gentleness but one day I was particularly down after a nasty fight with the girlfriend. I was moping in my room and he came over. It was not in his usual boisterous and noisy way. He knocked politely at the door, came in meekly and patiently cajoled and persuaded me to go out for some fresh air or perhaps a movie (usually he would literally crash into my room by slamming open my door, making a run and jump for my bed and then, play with whatever was not nailed down while talking to me). He got me into the car, bribed me into the movies with promises of my favourite popcorn (instead of filling the top with salty ones and the bottom with the sweet ones that I like which he usually does and annoys me to no end) and then after that we hit the arcades and bowling alley like a bunch of schoolkids on a day out with loads of money and a car. It was one of the nicest days out and by the end of the day I was happy as an idiot on cocaine. There were many more great memories to come after that fateful night.

I often wonder why things happened the way they did. I used to think that it was because I had shown him a bit of sincere kindness that he was not accustomed too receiving and was therefore very grateful for it. But that's a little too arrogant on my part and no longer think that. I think it's beyond me to explain why things happened the way they do. What I do know is that it is because of him I have tried to curb as much as possible this reliance on first impressions and to try evaluate each individual with as much care and attention each time I meet them. A person is more than the surface they show. There is a huge universe beneath them that is waiting to be explored in which there are many facets of the person - sometimes complementing, sometimes contradicting. And sometimes the person beneath can be very different from the person displayed above. And people are always in the process of evolving and changing their internal structures or personalities. When we rely so much on just impressions and thinking statically without wanting to explore the individual, we lose out much. And when we do not give someone the benefit of some doubt in respect of our own judgments, we may have just carelessly turned away from one of the greatest experiences of our lives.

1 comment:

the Anomaly said...

I really liked reading this piece. I too have been hasty in dismissing some people as too dull to talk to and later finding out what a gem of a person they really are. In fact all those clients whom I put down of my list of "Clients from Hell" have become my very good friends before the end of the Projects I worked on with them and we continue to keep in touch. There is always something that is endearing and something to love even in the most difficult people and in the end they turn out to be the most loyal of friends. Well done Daef for pointing this out in your eloquent style with the usual dash of wit and humour.