Emilia Ong

I’m Sorry, But (2022)

It’s only a small thing, but when I was cycling this afternoon I turned my eyes towards the ground to watch it sliding out from under me as I pedalled, and, as one line on the tarmac gave way to the next, as one dash bowed out to the next and then the next and then the next, I thought about how much the road looked like a video game. It’s a small thing, but when did it start being that way around?

I wish someone would do the Mike Leigh or Ken Loach version of Malaysia. But instead it’s all dawn mists and carmine lips and spices in the air and if you’re lucky, charmingly crotchety hawkers. He said he had to explain to backpackers that going for hor fan on Beach Street did not mean what they thought it did. We all laughed. There’s that writer doing well – getting international attention. Well I took a look, but when I saw that chapter called ‘Wind in the Frangipani’, or something like that, it put me right off. I don’t care what else was in it, that was enough. I knew everything I needed to know.

It’s only a small thing, but when I was reading a book this afternoon I motioned upwards with my thumb, as if to scroll to the next page. It was a paperback.

What is it with Westerners, I know they don’t really like noodles, they can’t even pronounce them right. I suppose it’s because Anthony Bourdain made slurping and perching on stools by the road fashionable. Time was, she wouldn’t even eat outside. Could have been Forster’s India. But later: I love larkser, she’d say. The first time I heard it, I hadn’t the foggiest what she even meant. It makes me feel a little sick to think of her eating laksa, even today.

She wasn’t even really a friend, she just adopted me that time I was being pathetic. I was all woe-is-me because she taught art and I was killing myself over grammar I’d never even thought about till I needed a visa. Only fathers count is what immigration said. Also, I didn’t wear a headscarf, and nor did my mother. Chinese people would whisper this, eyes darting, as if this place were Soviet Russia. Everything was politics. But food was too good, plentiful, and cheap for anyone to bother about a real revolution. And maybe it’s also true that corruption is easier when your populace is not in danger of freezing to death.

I kept whining to her about how I’d been prevented from doing the things I wanted to do by the old white men in my life. I didn’t say they were old white men because to be honest, that correlation has only occurred to me recently. She, she said, was all about empowerment. I said that I didn’t see how anyone could give empowerment to anyone else. That’s not true: I only thought that later, too. At the time, I hungered for her pale luminosity, for that dumpy plenty of flesh.

I used to want to get everything in – you know, explain everything. If I tried to write a story I’d end up with five pages describing the room or the protagonist or the protagonist’s inner reflections regarding what she was about to tell, before even getting started. Even in art class I used to get hung up on the minutiae – I remember that now. Mr Hoult waving his hand over the swathes of empty space left on the A3 page, never mind the ornately rendered patch of bark floating somewhere in the middle. Well, I’m done with all that. No more zooming in, no more intricacies. It’s never paid off. No one cares. No one cares about the detail.

They teach girls to be conscientious, but really they want to encourage us to be boring. Boring people never change the world. No one has the patience to listen to them.

Pronouncements: they need to be practiced.

They say, This is shit.

And we?

Not even: I feel this is shit.

Not even: I think I feel this is shit.

Not even: I think this might not be to my personal taste.

No, what we say is something like: I’m sorry, but it’s not really my thing, it’s probably just me, ignore me [giggle], go ahead [giggle giggle].

I don’t know why people always talk about mixed race people like the whole thing is to do with moreness. What a load of tosh. I suppose they think that hybridity is the same as excess – lazy thinking, that is. Like, they think a cake is more than the sum of its parts or something. I guess it’s common sense to believe that adding two things together yields up more but I tell you, it doesn’t. In fact, when you mix two things together, you end up only with less.

Less! I mean, I’m not some kind of batter. Or if I am, I’m abandoned, uncooked. It’s like flour’s been added to milk and now I don’t know whether I’m meant to live in the cupboard or in fridge. All I am is a lack: neither nor, not enough of this, not enough of that. I don’t get membership to two parties, I’m denied access to both.

Being mixed is to not about having two ingredients at your disposal. In fact you don’t even have one ingredient, composed of two halves. Imagine trying to make a oneness out of a half measure of water and a half measure of oil. You can’t. All you’ll have is oil you can no longer use to fry, and water you can no longer use to drink. You do not have more. You do not have more. You have less.


What you have is a pot full of opposition.

I live in the space between the double glazing, looking out at the worlds either side. It’s like living under the black line on the map. I am of no country. I am nowhereness. I’m not saying I don’t feel fine about it. You gotta live, right?

A country can kill you. The air here is all edges, and the edges are sharp as blades.

Bumper cars in the soul. It happened like this. Every three days or so, four if I was lucky, and it always did seem to be a matter of luck, I had no say in it, I did not feel like I had a say in it, I was assailed, I would need to zone out. Needing to zone out descended upon me like a mist, like a fog, and once it was there I was obliged to move through its opacity as though wading through custard. It sucked at me. To it there was a simultaneous denseness and vacancy; it made unsightly phutting sounds, squelches and fartings. I threw my emotions towards it and, like tiny stones launched with vigour into the distant centre of a twilit lake, they did not make a sound. There was no plop, as they hit the water. On and on I threw pitched hurled, and – it was as though somewhere, during the long arc of their flight, the stones evaporated. Which is to say, the emotions did.

Life gone. Money gone. The perpetual lament.

She thought of her existence as a series of getting-embroileds; possibly, this was all one needed to know.

Hello! I’m just writing to see how you are, hope all’s well, and you’re not working too hard? :​) Just wanted to check in about the project, did you manage to get hold of her? If not, no worries, but it would be great to get an update whenever you can. Thanks and take care! :​) x

I’m sorry, but never trust anyone who wants to tell you something. To tell you, to educate you, whatever, same same, you know what I mean. No? Because the people who really know a thing, who really truly know true things, never bother with any of that teaching-preaching crap. For one thing, they know that the things that they know aren’t like basketballs you can go around passing to people. Do you ever see a Zen monk going around trying to convert people? To bequeath unto them their superior insight? To ply them with the secrets of enlightenment, to which they are smugly privy? I tell you, no you do not. I will not be taught. This is a no-guru zone. Do you hear me? I’ve done enough receiving in my life, and where did it get me? Nowhere. I will not receive you. His lessons were traps.

Don’t mind me, I’m just a little thing, I didn’t mean to bother you, I just wanted to say – but no, after all it’s not important, it doesn’t matter, I’m sure you have far more important things to do, far more pressing things to see, I am whimsy and I am fancy but I’m not the exciting sort, I’m not tantalising, I’m meant to be but really I’m just a wee canapé, I’m not meant to be forgettable or maybe I am, once you get to the main meal all memory of me will after all have evaporated, I excite a desire but I do not fulfil it, I’m there but barely so, that’s the limit of my powers. I’m the doily under the teapot, the waitress serving you drinks; like those party food finger bites the amount of work put into my preparation is disproportionate to the time it takes to incorporate me, to the attention allocated me, blink and you’ll miss me, all that pizzazz and for what, in the end for what, all that hard labour and in the end –

And so don’t mind me, I’m making a sound but not really, I think I meant to but now I don’t mean to, I’ve thought the better of it, I don’t even recall now what I meant originally to say, perhaps all I wanted to say was that I was making a sound, that I wanted to, but after all I’m not. And after all that really must be rather perilous, all that making of sounds, after all I don’t wish to disturb, don’t wish to be blamed, and so forget it, I take it back, it’s dangerous to be out there, I don’t want to be out there, sometimes I think I do but no, after all I don’t, will I ever be, will I ever want to. Sound, what sound, there was no sound, sound’s gone fishing, sound’s out to lunch, excuse me sir, don’t mind me, I didn’t mean it, I’m not really there.

About this work

I’m Sorry, But is about secret thoughts, small thoughts: the thoughts we are not supposed to think, not supposed to say. The phrase itself arose from Ong’s observation of her own tendency to present her opinions in an apologetic manner. A series of fragments written across several months and two continents, the work contemplates issues of race, femininity, and the sly expression of modern cultural colonialism—inviting us all to become aware of our own propensities to turn down the volume on ourselves.

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