The Hale Boys

Compassion can be described as sympathy towards one’s struggles and misfortunes. Somehow that description always had a pejorative slant in my eyes. Do we show compassion out of pity? In my formative years, I always felt pity was a valid feeling to have towards someone’s struggles. Life, however, is the great equalizer and showed me that I wasn’t the intellectual messiah I thought I was.

Tall, gangly, Pakistani me was dropped from mid-air (without any knee pads) into a private high school in Perth, Western Australia, to fend for myself. I was tentative about what the future held and was of the opinion that new schools can be formidable, and when you’re from a different neck of the woods (or woods from another hemisphere), insurmountable.

Enter on cue the Hale Boys - international students who had chosen (or been prodded to choose) Hale School in Perth as their adopted home to play out their secondary school ambitions (or lack of them). An introduction to my partners in crime are as follows: 

Tobias Lim Kun Lee (AKA ‘Miku Lim’ or ‘Manchurian Lim’): a short but stocky Malaysian, Miku was the bearer of both harsh realities and glad tidings (but mostly the former). A brutally blunt individual, Miku was the smartest out of the lot, both in reality and through self-proclamation.

The anointed and expected deliverer of the Malaysian badminton dynasty, he was destined for great things (Olympic coverage of Lee Chong Wei snapping up silver for Malaysia left a ‘could’ve, would’ve, should’ve’ aftertaste in my mouth). Life, however, pulled him onto the straight and narrow towards the route of prowess in the legal sphere.

Jeffrey Effendi (AKA ‘Jermaine Jepri’ or ‘Drizzy’ or ‘Jeffers’): Jeff was the other ‘day boy’ (like me) who had infiltrated the rank of the international boarding-house students. A quiet and pensive Indonesian who had migrated to Australia, Jeff was searching for his space on this new canvas. Being very talented, much of what he would touch turned to gold (if he put the time and effort into harnessing it). That was where we would complement each other, spending hours after school in the library, trying to the reach the academic heights which Miku had been achieving straight out of the womb. This grind time at the mill every evening created a strong bond between us two.

Sacheev Dodani (AKA ‘Cheev’ or Sachu’): I distinctly remember meeting Cheev for the first time. It was Year 10 geography and a quiet, non-assuming young man with the same skin tone and an abundance of body hair made me instantly pigeon-hole him to be from the Indo-Pak region. Forgetting the nuances of colonialism and migration, I soon realized he was born and bred in Indonesia. He was also a product of the Sindhi tradition, with his familial ancestry closely knit to Karachi (the city of my birth and current domicile). The world seemed to have come around full-circle.

Siddharshan Nair (AKA ‘Sid’): Sid was the poster-boy for South Asia and part of the glorious Sanskrit tradition. However, hearing his accent prompted an immediate reassessment of initial postulations: he was born and bred in Singapore, and just like all others who hail from Temasek, had given 2 years of his life to the army and was on-call to validate the vision of the late Lee Kuan Yew. This history didn't stop distinctly South Asian values edging into his DNA though - namely a lack of formality and great warmth. 

Laksamana Udayana (AKA ‘Kiki’ or ‘Kikimana Bumiputera’): the term ‘bumiputera’ means ‘people of the soil’. It’s loosely used for people of the Malaysian archipelago. Kiki was our resident ‘bumi'. He hailed from the island of Bali in Indonesia, where the fascinating blend of Hindu and Pagan traditions define the locals. Kiki was all of these things and more, personifying calmness and tranquillity even at the onset of the most potent baptism of fire.

Those 4 years of high school were (against the odds) the most enriching in my 25 years to date. 

At the end of high school, I did what all others did. I applied exclusively to Universities in Perth and ignored other parts of Australia and the rest of the world. I sailed through my first year, riding on the coat-tails of my high school friends and the new mates I had made. As my second semester came to a close, I felt there was more to life than just this - there were supposed greener pastures, bigger cities, smarter people, and larger dreams to chase elsewhere. I started to look upon people in Perth (including my friends) as small-towners and village-degenerates with nothing to strive for but mediocrity. I wasn’t put on this earth to live in Perth my whole life, even though they might be. I applied for a transfer interstate headed to Melbourne - the most liveable city in the world. I thought to myself: the stars have aligned. This was my ticket to the big leagues.

As enriching as the 4 years of high-school in Perth may have been, the 6 years I had in Melbourne were the most humbling. As much as I grew as a person, the grass wasn’t even a different shade on the other side - I learned it was greener wherever you watered it. My move was propelled by my conviction that I knew what I wanted in life while others didn’t have the foresight to know so themselves, and the irony wasn’t lost on me when I packed my bags from Melbourne and moved back to Perth in 2014.

The Hale Boys' response to my bigoted perceptions filled me with gratitude for the friendships we had cultivated: even though I had wronged them, they wouldn’t hold it against me. I was given a place to stay by Sid, our resident Tollywood heartthrob, and after I found my own place, I was re-enlisted back into their regiment - where we religiously met, made memories and kicked back to reminiscing about simpler days. 

Miku, Cheev, and Kiki had moved back to their respective hometowns, but they frequented Perth so we could all maintain the sanctuary of each other’s company as we encountered the trials and tribulations that life threw at us. A year went by, and my curiosity meter ticked over once again. I wanted something else from life, and it still wasn't in Perth. This time, I was armed with two paradigm shifts:

1) Your purpose in life isn’t just found in big cities, away from supposed intellectual backwaters. It’s found wherever you feel the most alive and the most genuine and such a place isn't often tacked to a specific postcode.

2) The Hale Boys are my friends for life. In the face of condescension and patronization, these men not only turned the other cheek but saw positive intent in my actions. They knew I had a burning desire to traverse the four corners of the globe and even after being derailed and humbly returning home, they took me back in like I had never left. They even saw all my shortcomings as pieces of the greater puzzle.

We were all strangers to Australia, so maybe we understood and empathized with each other’s struggle more. Our foundations in Perth weren’t so sturdy, so maybe we were more open to alternative perspectives. Our cultural differences might have brought to light the impermanence of our situation - so our shared experiences rang more potent and memorable than others. Whatever the reason for our bond, I am glad my errant actions didn’t drive a wedge between us but served instead to realise what we meant to each other.

By December 2015 all of the Hale Boys have significant others in their lives (dare I say, they are all punching above their weight) and it was Miku who tied the knot first. There was a graceful Chinese afternoon tea ceremony followed by a beautiful wedding reception that evening in Genting, (on the hills, just outside Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia) and us Hale Boys flew in from our respective locations to celebrate the coming of age of one of our own. Since high-school, we had all gone our separate ways and were individually chasing our dreams, but our unwritten agreement to celebrate the most important days of each other’s lives stood true that day. These gatherings allowed us to reflect on our shared experiences: the front row seats we had into each other’s lives and the blessing of each other's love, support and company.

This was our friendship in a nutshell; a Pan-Asian sensory delight. An orgy of cultures. These men helped me recognise (in due time, and through the bitter taste of failure) that the more things are different, the more they are the same. Shared experiences (sometimes through different eyes) are what make this life worth living.

May we all find our respective Hale Boys, in whatever shape and form, they may be.

First published 14 September 2016