Before I met CS Lim, I would click naturally and immediately with the people that eventually became my close friends; our conversations, though the first, would feel familiar, comforting and engaging. Friendships bloom easily in such soil. He was the first amongst my friends to whom I took an instant and potent dislike to when we first met.
We stayed in halls in our first year of university in England. I stayed in the block furthest away from the carpark; the best thing about it was the tennis courts were close by. His block was on the other side of the carpark; it was a three to four minute walk from mine.
In our first week there, the tutors of the halls arranged an introductory session for the international students one evening. There were a few international students in our halls. I think there were about twenty of us – Singaporeans, Malaysians, Dutch, Africans, Greek and a couple of Norwegian beauties – in the room.
When I arrived the room buzzed with light, polite chatter. Everybody was standing and chatting casually about except for a short, stocky, spectacled Chinese guy with a coconut haircut who was going about the room in an efficient manner. His voice rose above the common chatter. He would introduce himself, shake hands, ask a few perfunctory question, spend two or three minutes talking about himself before moving on to the next person.
I disliked him the moment I saw him. There was a calculatedness, callousness and brusqueness about his manner that irked me. My impressions were confirmed when he finally came my way. I received the same treatment. In that, he was fair. He came, we met, and he left. If I didn’t like him when I saw him, I loathed him after I met him. Bloody kiasu and callous Singaporean, was my first impression of him.
After that, I took care to avoid him. That, however, proved difficult since I sometimes sat with the other Malaysians and Singaporeans whom he joined. Although they were not fond of him, they tolerated him. At our lunch or dinner conversations, he frequently found opportunity to boast about his many and varied accomplishments, the money he spent, and the places he had been to.
If you played the piano, he had three diplomas in music after completing his Grade 8, performed public piano recitals, 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 that on top of studying for his ACCA exams and trading commodities on the side. If you were rich, he was richer. Everything was competition to him. It was tedious.
One lunch time, I erred in talking about tennis. I did not know he, too, loved playing tennis. When he heard that, he immediately demanded a game. “We have to play,” he declared. Since I fancied myself a decent player, having represented my secondary school for a few district tournaments, I thought I could beat him. So, I accepted the invitation. We agreed to play the next morning.
It was a typical English morning when we met on the tennis court: overcast, cold, windy and a little wet after a light drizzle earlier that morning. I wore shorts with a shirt, sweater, a jacket because it was that cold and windy. CS Lim was wearing just a shorts and a short sleeved t-shirt. I would come to discover later that was his outfit whether it was the blaze of summer or the dead of winter.
Our halls courts were tar courts; slippery when wet, rough when you fell down. I was not comfortable with the surface because the ball tended to slide. I was used to hardcourts and top spin. If he played flat shots, he would have destroyed me. Thankfully once we warmed up it was clear we had similar strokes – a versatile single backhand and a heavy top spin forehand. I thought I had an advantage with my height, reach and serve. The uppermost thought in my mind was that I was not going to lose to this bastard and would kill myself for every shot.
I served first and won the first game easily. Back then, I had a big serve that could win my service games easily. I overwhelmed him in my first few service games. His serve was much better than I expected considering his height. Although it was not powerful, his serves were well-placed and quick. I was not troubled with it though.
Once the game got going it was obvious we were baseline counterpunchers that only volleyed when forced to. As the set wore on, his service returns came back better and better. He adapted fast. I had no more easy games on my serve. He was returning them with interest. Each point quickly descended into furious rallies. Each point was hard fought; no quarter was expected or given; each shot was chased down and retrieved; neither of us dropped serve. Each set was close and a seeming Kinabalu to surmount.
I don’t know when it happened. But somewhere towards the end of the set, we dropped the false friendly banter and stopped acknowledging each other’s impressively won point. To hell with all that! I was not going to lose to him and he had no plans to lose to me, either. Even when the drizzle turned to rain, we continued to slug it out. It did not occur to us to stop. We had seemingly endless rounds of game tie-breakers because neither relented. On we played; in chasing the ball, we slipped and fell, crashed into the fence on one side, slammed into wall on the other. A draw was not on the cards. At that moment, nothing else mattered except not losing. The battle of wills had us facing off with a set tie-breaker at 6-6.
Finally, finally, I lost. I don’t remember how it happened now but I recall the game ended up with him giving a short yell of triumph and a fist pump in the rain. I don’t remember the exact score but I do remember losing after we levelled at 7 points in the tie-break. It must have been something like 10-8 or 9-7. It was a double blow because I loathed him and now I lost to him. We thanked each other perfunctorily for the game and hurried back to our own rooms because it started to hail. He did not call me back for another game. I did not ask him for a replay. I figured, too bad I lost, but hopefully his victory would purchase time and space from him; he seemed the sort that only hung around winners.
I did not encounter him for a few weeks after and it made for pleasant days. That came to an end when I went for a trip organized by the Malaysian Singaporean Student Association in my university to go for a sports meet in Nottingham. I went for it and did my part. CS Lim went for it too. He was not an easy person to miss but easy to avoid in massive crowd of strangers.
When they sent us back in the evening, the bus insisted on stopping only at one of the halls. This meant those not staying at that particular halls would have to walk back to their respective halls. I was one of them. I quickly got off the bus and set off for my halls intending to avoid him. After a few footsteps I heard someone call my name asking me to wait. I knew the sound of the voice and dreaded it. I turned around and saw him waddling towards me. Crap, I thought, now I have to make small talk with him. I didn’t have to worry though, he did most of the talking.
The walk was mercifully short. After dropping him outside his block, I headed back to mine. Once I got back to my room, I set about getting comfortable. I put on some music and put a cup of hot chocolate on the boil. Soon after I heard a knock at my door. I was a surprised because hardly anyone knocked on my door, and not that late either. The last guy that did so was one of my corridor mates who decided that 4am and being completely drunk was the best moment to introduce himself to me. I opened the door and lo, and behold, CS Lim was there standing just as I had left him. Apparently, he left his key in his room and locked himself out. Of course, he would, I thought.
He immediately put me in a tight spot by asking if he could crash the night because his tutor was not around to open the door for him. That was the furthest thing from my mind at the time. 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.
But, I also suggested that I could try and help him get into his room. I confess I did this not out of goodwill but because I wanted him out of my room. He accepted my suggestion and we went back to his block to pry his window open. That failed. We were running through our other options when by a stroke of luck the tutor for his block passed us on his way back to his room. He had the master key with him as well so CS Lim could return to his room. I gratefully returned alone to mine. I thought that was it with him. I was pleased with myself for behaving in an impartial, civilized and even helpful fashion to someone I did not like.
The next day, he came over in the morning and thanked me so profusely and genuinely for my offer the night before that I felt pangs of guilt for thinking so poorly of him. We went for breakfast together that morning. He was changed from the brusque, boastful, and annoying person I first met. Though I didn’t immediately get over my early dislike for him, his sincerity, thoughtfulness, and generosity over the next few weeks eventually melted away my wariness and dislike for him. We discovered we had much in common despite our vastly different journeys and circumstances. He sought out my company often and before long we became fast friends; for a time, we were inseparable; if you found one, you found the other.
Although he still possessed those kiasu traits and inflicted his usual behaviour on others, I was exempt and in time that allowed me the opportunity to understand him better. Whatever he had, he shared. He would use whatever at his disposal to our mutual advantage. He was kind, thoughtful and generous with me sharing almost everything he had. I experienced a completely different side to him, one I could never even imagine.
His sensitivity was rare; so it was surprising as it was endearing. He showed that one day when I was particularly down after a nasty fight with the girlfriend. I was moping in my room and he came over. He must have heard about our fight because he did not enter in his usual boisterous and noisy way. Usually he would slam my room door open, hurl himself at my bed and then play with whatever was not nailed down while talking to me; whenever he left the room, it would be a mess. This time, he rapped softly at the door, came in meekly, and patiently cajoled me to go out for some fresh air and perhaps a movie? He lured me into his car. Bribed me in to a movie with promises of my favourite popcorn. He did not mess with my popcorn by mixing it with the salty ones, which he was in the habit of doing. After that we hit the video games and bowling alley like truant schoolkids on a day out. By the end of the day I was in an excellent mood and all was right with the world again.
There were many fantastic moments and memories that followed after that fateful evening.
I used to wonder at how things turned out but I now think these are matters beyond me. I never asked. He never explained it. It is what it is. More importantly, I learned a great lesson since befriending him – that we should be slow to judge others conclusively and act on it; we should keep our minds open. People take time to reveal themselves to us. Human beings are complex creatures with varying degrees of depths. There is a universe within each of us and so, so many facets – some complementary, some contradictory – that it is impossible to truly know someone quickly or intimately. That person we show society is always less than the person we show our close friends, family and lovers; and that too is less than the person we know ourselves to be.
Though first impressions are important, they are not definitive, at best tentative. If we do not give someone some benefit of doubt of our judgment, we may have turned ourselves away from a great friendship or a life changing experience.
Though we seldom talk or meet up these days, CS Lim is always counted amongst my best of friends. Great friendships are not necessarily the oldest or most regular but they always are the most meaningful.
3 thoughts on “First Impressions Are Something But Not Everything”
Thank you for sharing this beautiful story. I haven’t read such a well written piece for awhile by folks that could write with sincerity. I miss sharing of this sort, and I miss having to read life experiences that warms the soul. I think offlate and more so now with this pandemic, the connection and conversations are all lost.
So yeah Fahri, thanks for such a lovely write. I appreciate it… I read every word and I followed you till the end, something I don’t do much these days because 99% of the content and writing are pure crap, bullshit, topped with “soulless” words…
and lastly i forgot to add, keep writing!
That temporary resident of Malaysia – Somerset Maugham – would have loved your story about deceiving first impressions.
See his short story “Mr Know-it-All”, about Mr Max Kelada, the Levantine gentleman with a British passport, who is hail-fellow – well-met with his cruise ship fellow passengers, but perhaps a touch over-bearing with his savoir-faire…