The Dustbin Baby and Other Bedtime Stories
My parents told me that they had picked me up from a rubbish heap. Did yours as well?
My parents found me in a dustbin. At least, that’s what I was told, until I was about four and could toddle around with the express intent of checking the veracity of the story for myself. It turns out that I couldn’t have sprung forth from a dustbin, for the simple fact that we didn’t have one – we collected our daily rubbish in a large plastic bag, which was then tied and put into a pail. Such was growing up in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in the 1970s.
As the years passed, and I started getting into heavy discussions with my primary school mates – about whether I had last left off the five-stones game at Number Nine or Number Ten, about the egregious price of Twisties, about the proper length of a rubber-band skipping rope – we discovered that we had all been told the same story by our fathers and mothers. We had all been found, it seems, in dustbins. Not only that, but our parents had conveyed the story with the kind of nod-nod-wink-wink and barely suppressed laughter that indicate they thought their yarn was a highly original one.
So many narratives swirl around us when we are young. Alongside the accepted canon of fairy tales – those by Hans Christian Andersen and the Brothers Grimm, themselves a very weird collection – there are also stories particular to where we live, and what culture we come from. Growing up in an ethnic Chinese household in Malaysia, I was fed equal amounts of Cinderella, Malay fables such as the adventures of Sang Kancil the clever mousedeer, strange Chinese folk rhymes that my grandmother could barely remember, and anything-the-grownups-could-say-to-get-me-to-sleep.
In a Chinese household, the latter kind of stories tends to be heavy with drama, bordering on full-blown hysteria. Fear is a constant element, as is danger, all aimed at transmitting the message that if you don’t behave, such-and-such will come and get you. Come 9 p.m. for instance, if I was still restlessly fretting in bed, my mother, grandmother or aunt would pull out from her vast arsenal of scary sagas, the truly terrifying tale of the Momok.
The Momok can be anywhere and everywhere and is probably behind you, right now.
The Momok is – was! – a dark monster who can take on any conceivable shape, any horrifying form you can think of. He lurks in the shadows, in the corners of rooms, in the toilet cistern, on the roof, anywhere you can imagine – and thus, by extension, in your mind. If you don’t go to sleep, the Momok will pop up in all its ghastly glory. If you don’t eat your vegetables, well, the Momok will jump out and eat you.
As an invention, the Momok – and I’m fairly certain variants of similar beasts haunted other Chinese and Asian households – was pure genius. Shapeless, it could morph into your very worst fear. Lurking, it could pounce on you at any moment, anywhere. Huge, it could envelope you in total darkness, or total nothingness, or total ickiness, whichever is your preferred form for being scared out of your wits. This is the kind of stuff that, when we grow older, makes people stock up on nuclear warheads, in defence against enemies both real and unreal. The Momok, in short, is a politician’s dream instrument.
War, in fact, crept into my bedtime stories too. My mother, who was an adolescent during the years of the Japanese Occupation, can remember the fleeing, the killing, the hiding, the hunger. She grew up amid news and rumours of torture. And then, in the 1970s, there was the long period of the Insurgency, with guerrillas encamped in the jungles. Thus, when it came to story-time, and especially when the Momok was no longer having its desired effect, she could improvise wildly.
“Something else will get you,” she said once.
“What?” I asked, in half-horror, half-anticipation.
“Communists,” she said, and started describing a whole tribe of savages that came in from the wilds to shoot at people with their rifles.
“Ko-mu-nis,” I repeated wonderingly, as a host of new creatures grew in my mind, khaki-clad, bearded, armed with blazing guns, helmeted in the manner of the American GIs I could see flickering from time to time on our black-and-white TV screen. My misery was complete.
A Malaysian Communist guerilla waits to launch child disciplinary action.
What made our parents tell these stories? Is it because they had been brought up that way themselves, and knew of no other means to convey sternness – and yes, a dose of affection – to their offspring? And what on earth made them think that stories that petrified us would help lull us to sleep?
As the arc of history goes, I suppose we Malaysian babies can be glad of the dustbin story, because it was told in half-jest, in the manner of “Look, this story is so ridiculous that we know that even you, young as you are, cannot believe it.” At a time when lots of babies in China were actually being dumped out with the garbage (and still are), I suppose it shows some kind of progress. (Not to mention the oddly comforting fact that our parents would have been willing to pick us up and care for us, had they indeed found us on a compost heap).
Did these stories harm us psychologically? On the whole, I think not. Babies and young children are remarkably resilient and intelligent, probably being able to guess when an adult is hamming it up, grasping at straws or just plain lying. No, I’m afraid that whatever neuroses I currently have, are my own.
However, I do believe that these ghoulish stories may have coated everything we now see and experience with a layer of paranoia. Perhaps we get scared easily, always looking over our shoulders for the bogeyman. Perhaps we must have the approval of all around us, to keep the monsters at bay. Perhaps we go through life with far greater caution than life requires. Perhaps we always prefer to go on the defensive rather than the offensive.