The Hummingbird Days

Just before I turned 10, my family and I moved back to Kuala Lumpur after spending a few years abroad. The move meant I had to change schools, and I was immediately enrolled in a primary school in my neighbourhood.

My command of Bahasa Malaysia back then was rudimentary at best, but extra lessons quickly took care of that failing, and I settled in relatively easily, making new friends along the way. Settling in, however, didn’t mean I wasn’t aware of differences between my new school and my old. Apart from the obvious contrast in how lessons were structured and in the school system in general, I also observed variations in the social norms of my peers, and I made a mental note of those that struck me as peculiar – or interesting.

One of them was the habit of sucking the nectar of Ixora flowers. From the shrubs that grew abundantly in and around our school compound blossomed clusters of tiny, diamond-petalled, vermillion flowers. Whenever we walked past any of these shrubs, each of my friends would excitedly pull out the thin stamen of a flower, and pop it into their mouths, savouring the tiny drop of nectar at the tip. They would remark how sweet and delicious it tasted, and pull out another stamen before continuing on our way. Sometimes all the stamens had been pulled out by earlier nectar-seekers, which made the discovery of an untouched flower all the more exciting, and the taste of the nectar that much sweeter.

I found this behaviour peculiar, and despite the look of joy on the faces of my friends, I was deeply skeptical about the true sweetness of the tiny drop of nectar. Eventually, out of curiosity, I caved in to the persuasions of my friends and tasted one for myself.

Nothing. I couldn’t taste a thing.

I tried again, another flower. And again, nothing.

Was I doing it wrong? I observed my friends. Nope, I was doing it exactly the same way they were. But I didn’t taste anything sweet. I didn’t taste anything.

That was when it hit me.

My friends were no ordinary humans. They were hummingbirds.

It all made sense now. You see, it wasn’t just the nectar-sucking habit I found odd. My hummingbird friends had their own justice system, too. As part of our school uniform, we had to wear white canvas shoes, which we had to wash on the weekends and paint white with kapur. Given the precious weekend hours spent scrubbing the shoes and applying kapur after they had dried under the sun, it was natural for us to want to keep our shoes as clean and as white for as long as possible. Whenever someone accidentally stepped on another person’s shoe, therefore, it was common practice for the offender to stick out his foot by way of apology, and offer his own shoe to the victim to step on. Both person’s shoes, therefore, would be equally sullied. An eye for an eye, a shoe for a shoe.

While I could see the logic in this system, I couldn’t accept it entirely. If the offender intentionally stepped on the victim’s shoe, then the punishment made sense. But in cases where the incident was a genuine accident and no ill will was meant by the offender, wouldn’t it have made more sense to show clemency? Instead, the punishment was meted out regardless of intention, based on a hummingbird concept of fairness, which I couldn’t fully comprehend, as I was not a hummingbird.

During recess, the hummingbirds played slightly different games from what I was used to. There was one called Pepsi Cola, where, to the best of my knowledge, the players would attempt to eliminate other players by stepping on their shoes. Given the hummingbird justice system I explained earlier, I found this game highly confusing. Even the games which looked familiar to me, such as hopscotch, was played slightly differently. Instead of throwing a pebble into one of the boxes and hopping over the box containing the pebble, the hummingbird version was played sans pebble, which made me wonder what the point of the game was. There was another hummingbird version of hopscotch which used a pebble, but instead of hopping over it, the player would kick it from one box to the next. The hummingbird version of Stone, Paper, Scissors was called One, Two, Jus (I used to think it was called Wan, Tau, Jus) and had a bird as one of the elements. I realise now that the bird symbol in One, Two, Jus was representative of who they really were; a secret symbol, as it were. It explains why I could never get the hang of it; only true hummingbirds could play it, and I was a mere human.

There was one game which I did get the hang of, and actually enjoyed playing; and that was Batu Seremban. Maybe I enjoyed it because it was a quiet game, requiring concentration, hand dexterity and loads of practice. Or maybe – just maybe – it was a game developed by the hummingbirds to foster cordial inter-species relations. Reflecting on my years spent in their company, I’m tempted to think it’s the latter.

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