Kuching, Malaysia – “Sir! Sir!” the voice pealed behind me. I turned around and there was a very pretty young Malay girl trying to hail me. I was on a busy shopping street that had been closed to traffic and reverted into a pedestrian walk way in downtown Kuching.
“I want you to teach me English” she said in perfect English. I tried to place her and realized she sold cloth in a Batik shop that I had visited a couple of times. I agreed and said we could meet at the James Brooke Café on Sundays at 5:30. She informed that some friends would join her and I replied that was fine.
I purchased three Malay-English dictionaries, some notebooks and pens for them to use. We began by having conversations in English with homework having to look up 10 words and we would discuss their meaning.
But it became much more than that. They were interested in gaining confidence in speaking the language to an orang puith (white person) and to learn more about my culture. The western tourists around this town act like the locals aren’t even there; and they try to ignore them staying in their safe world of ignorance.
The majority of Malays dress in the Islamic tradition of scarves and long dresses that hide their shape and hang to their feet. I had forgotten this when I brought back 15 M.R. Ducks t-shirts. I had guessed their size as medium and purchased the majority in that size. But, the ladies wanted the oversize ones to conform to the Islamic dress code. I didn’t have any left for the larger men and the smalls and mediums would not fit. There are some very disappointed guys.
One of the assignments was to practice their English on the western customers that came into the cloth store. They came back the following week and stated it was difficult, that the white tourists seemed to want to avoid them. I explained that many were afraid of their dress because of 9/11, and the fear that they may have a bomb hiding in their clothes. We both agreed that was a tragedy.
One Sunday, one of the ladies seemed depressed and I asked what was wrong. She said her mother would not let her go to college even though she had earned a full scholarship to the university. Mom wanted her to stay in the kampung. The family unit is very, very strong and to break this bond is very, very difficult.
Yes, I did open my big mouth. I told her to talk to her mom and tell her she was going anyway. I informed her she needed to make Malaysia and her kampung proud and to do what she wanted to. I quoted the Helen Reddy song “I am Woman.”
I worried the whole week what would happen. I had visions of the kampung people coming after me with parangs (machetes). I realized that maybe I went too far. Who was I to encourage this young girl to go against her culture?
The following Sunday came and she had a smile on her face. Her mom would let her go to college but only to the local one about two hours down the road instead of over to the peninsula. I high-fived her and said it was a wonderful compromise.
I cannot take full credit for this. My friend Jan from the Museum of Natural History, London, taught one lesson and the girls told me they would like to be like her. She is a strong professional woman who imparted her love of biology to these students and set an example for them to follow.
The young ladies have now gone off to their various colleges and are entering the exciting new world of independence and moving forward – as life should. In some ways, I am glad I was part of their future while in others, like affecting the culture, I am not so sure.
Life is good.