Creative non-fiction / March 2014 (Issue 23)


The Far Country

by Mary J. Breen

My first view of the Sarawak rainforest was from my headmaster's car as we sped along a narrow road the colour of crumbling red brick. Crowding in on both sides were masses of dark, dusty trees. "Jungle," he kept calling it. Pretty disappointing jungle, I thought, not a monkey or exotic flower in sight. But I didn't say that. I was the new CUSO[i] volunteer, just arrived and determined to be polite. What I was waiting to see was the sun-drenched tropical village I was heading for. As soon as I'd learnt I'd be just a few degrees from the equator, I could picture my little cottage under a swaying coconut palm beside a white beach and turquoise water. I'd be tanned like never before, and every day, I'd tuck a hibiscus blossom behind an ear before I strolled to meet my grateful students waiting in their humble schoolhouse. And now it was all just around the corner.

Soon we turned off the road again and stopped beside a sign that read Binatang Government Secondary School. Not a beach or turquoise sea or a single palm tree in sight. And no village either. Ahead of me on a swath of cleared land was a collection of low, wooden buildings, baking in the blazing sun. Binatang village, my headmaster was quick to explain, was nine miles further down the road, but my school was right here, here in the back of beyond, here in the middle of nowhere.

Before I had time to think about any of this, he took me on a tour of the compound, starting with the two blocks of classrooms, each with three rooms joined end-to-end. These classrooms had all the necessities—wooden desks, blackboards, cement floors, overhanging roofs—except for one thing: walls. My headmaster stressed the cleverness of this design since it allowed breezes to blow through while the roofs kept out most of the rain. But I wasn't concerned about the weather. Even though it was only nine in the morning and already hot and sticky, what I was thinking about was the jungle, the one right across the road, the one that surely, despite its bland appearance, was home to hoards of hungry jungle creatures. I asked, as casually as I could, which animals I was likely to run into in those wide-open rooms. "Oh, don't worry, lah!" he said. "It's OK, lah!" Apparently, I could only expect to encounter cicadas, snakes and the occasional scorpion. The monkeys, orangutans, wild boars, deer, hornbills and crocodiles, he said, would be staying put deep in the jungle. And that's exactly what they did.

The lab was more to my liking with its locked door, shiny black tables and four solid walls, although the supply cupboards, I noticed, were mostly empty. The library next door held only some tattered class sets and several old books stamped, "Donated by Lions Club of East Liverpool, Ohio." The dining room/assembly hall was large although it too had only a roof and a floor and no walls. The kitchen adjoined it, and beside it was a pond stocked with enormous fish destined for the cooking pot. Nearby was the school mosque, a squat little building with roof and walls of woven palm fronds. Near the road was a large soccer field with a baseball diamond marked out at one end. Five teachers' houses stood around the periphery. He explained that they were on stilts to keep out snakes and large lizards, and in case of flooding during the monsoons. On a hill behind the houses stood several student hostels. We stopped to visit one, and it looked very much like POW quarters in World War II movies: rows of hard bunks, a light bulb, a cold water tap and a latrine.

We headed back to a small central building that served as the staff room/school office. On one wall was a Chinese calendar, and on another, two framed photos: one of the Malaysian Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, and the other—I had to be told—of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen, whose memory was always invoked with great reverence by anyone Chinese. There I met the seven local teachers—two women and five men—and the four young male volunteers—two VSOs from England and two from the US Peace Corps. The oldest of us volunteers was twenty-three. The local men were immaculate in pressed shirts and black pants; the foreigners were in scruffy, none-too-clean shirts and baggy shorts. The volunteers were chatty; the locals reserved, probably hesitant to welcome yet another young, inexperienced foreigner to a position exactly equivalent to their own.

The next morning, with no further instructions in lesson planning or discipline or anything else, I was handed some curriculum outlines and pointed in the direction of my Forms II and III classes. Just like that, I was transformed into Miss Breen, Science and English teacher. I couldn't help but remember that my friends had said that coming here to work for two years for $100 CDN a month was proof that I'd lost my mind.

***

The best had been saved for last: the students. They ranged in age from twelve to seventeen, about three-quarters boys. They were a mixture of Ibans, Melanaus, Malays and Foochow and Hokkien Chinese. The Ibans were in the majority. Some were Christians, and they came from longhouses deep in the jungle. The Melanaus and Malays were Muslims who lived in the village kampong and in kampongs along the coast. The Chinese were a mix of Catholics, Methodists and Buddhists, and they lived on nearby farms and in shophouses in the village.

Before long, I was given one of the prefab teachers' houses. I became quite comfortable there. I had running water (cold), a few pieces of wooden furniture, a ceiling fan like I'd only read about in Somerset Maugham, a rattan bed, screens in the bedroom, a Western toilet, a kerosene stove and the Peace Corps fridge because—lucky me—the Peace Corps quarters didn't have a hookup to the generator. In fact, when one of the Peace Corps guys arrived, he discovered his rooms were already occupied by a goat. My students were sure I was lonesome there all by myself, and they'd ask, "Do you cry, Miss?" I'd try to assure them I was fine and I even liked time by myself, but still they brought me a white kitten for company.

It didn't take long for me to see that these were spectacular kids—cheerful, warm, helpful, good-hearted, smart, hard-working, generous and fun to be around. Without them, I wouldn't have lasted a month. If ever I was lonely or bored or both—especially during the long, dark days of the monsoons—I wasn't lonely or bored for long. The girls would show up wanting to clean the house, and since I hadn't yet discovered feminism, I let them. The boys were interested in eating and playing my guitar, but what they most wanted to do was avail themselves of access to electricity so they could play—over and over and over—their two precious 45s on a little record player. I never want to hear Who's Sorry Now? or A Hard Day's Night again. I told them that the road engineer who regularly played soccer with them had gone to school with John Lennon in Liverpool, but they weren't nearly as impressed with that as I was.

***

Things went smoothly at first, or so I thought. When a student wrote in a short composition: I saw a bad boat accident. I never see one before. It is a new watch for me, I thought, yes, Sarawak certainly is a land of new watches. What I didn't know was that my enthusiasm for all this newness wasn't going to last. I didn't understand that I was in the first stage of culture shock, the so-called honeymoon phase when everything seems wonderful. I also didn't know that this would be followed by a disenchantment phase, before—if I was lucky—the comfortable phase. True to form, after a month or two, many of those new and wonderful things started to become difficult, tiresome and annoying. The food stopped being quite so good; the work started to seem much harder and the heat much hotter. I started to feel acutely the stranger in a strange land. Canada seemed very far away.

As I began to understand a little of what was going on, I began to see just how little that was. I began to realise that I couldn't necessarily rely on my knowledge or my experience or my instincts. I might offer to help a local teacher with some small thing, and their reaction would suggest I'd done something wrong. I didn't know if perhaps they thought I was questioning their competence, or I was interfering, or I was exposing them to shame for needing the help of an outsider. If I tried to get someone to help me understand where I'd gone wrong, I would be assured there was no problem at all, even though my intuition told me something quite different.

Probably the worst example of not knowing what to do happened when I got onto a small plane and discovered that every seat but one—that is, every seat but mine—was occupied by a bare-chested, tattooed man clutching a wild-eyed fighting cock. The flight attendant kept assuring me that men often travelled with their birds in this way without a problem. She finally coerced me into taking my seat, but I spent the whole flight stiff with fear leaning out into the aisle as far as possible. The birds did stay put, and I was first off the plane. That was a rather extreme example of a hard-to-handle problem, but the more I ran into situations where I didn't have a clue what to do, the more inept I felt—bewildered, nervous, exasperated and embarrassed all at the same time. I wasn't prepared for feeling so much at sea, and I had no idea what to do besides pack up and go home. And I was too proud to do that. My only other choice was to bungle on.

***

On weekends, some of the other volunteers in the district and I would often get together and make odd-but-edible meals from whatever we happened to have: awful tinned Australian Irish stew, awful tinned greasy bacon, tinned mackerel in tomato sauce, Orange Squash, fresh prawns, Singapore beer and delicious little buns from the village called kompia. A few years later, I discovered we have a larger version of these buns in North America. Here they're called bagels. It was also in Sarawak where I had my first lesson in haute cuisine. One of the Peace Corps volunteers was a family friend of Julia Child, and there in the jungle, with an old wok and a sooty, one-burner kerosene stove, he showed me how to make a genuine Julia Child omelette just as he'd learned from the master herself. (The key: "Keep it moving.")

Since the food served in the coffee shops and the market was so much better than anything we made, I decided to try to cook some for myself. I bought the only English Malaysian cookbook I could find, one intended for the amahs [servants] of expats. Problem was I had no idea what most of the ingredients were. I did, however, understand their recipe for toast: "Cut stale bread into slices ¼ inch thick. Toast quickly on each side to dry it without allowing it to brown. This prevents it curling." (Who knew?) "Toast it to a golden brown colour, etc." I laughed out loud. How could anyone not know how to make toast? Then it hit me that exactly this could be said of me. In Sarawak, I could barely do the simplest thing.

Faced with my incompetence, I decided my best approach was to become utterly compliant. I wouldn't question decisions, and I wouldn't suggest "better" ideas. I would teach whichever classes I was asked to teach, and I would coach girls' baseball, and direct student plays, and do anything else asked of me. Since most things in the village shops were unrecognisable and the labels unreadable, I gave up trying to shop on my own and let myself be told what to pick and how much to pay for it. Since I didn't yet understand the buses or the taxis or the system of Chinese launches that travelled up and down the river without signs or posted schedules that I could read, I asked for help every time I wanted to go anywhere. I became like a child again, trusting that most people meant well and would help me find my way home.

I knew I had to be making lots of mistakes, especially outside the school, and probably causing many people to lose face, but no one came out and told me what I was doing wrong. Perhaps this was because they were polite Malaysians, or perhaps because they were too afraid or too uncaring—or too caring—to point out my mistakes. I decided that I'd better start gathering as much information as I could.

One question I really wanted to ask was the same one my students used when I'd explain something in Science class or when I'd tell them about life in Canada: "How can, Miss?" which meant, politely, "Are you nuts? That can't be true." But even if I had tried asking, "How can?", there were two huge obstacles in my way: few people had enough English to answer me very fully, and even fewer were comfortable instructing a supposedly important person like a teacher—not to mention a foreign one—even when asked. I was also too ill-informed to know the best questions to ask, and my students, in turn, too young to know the answers, no more able to explain why people wore white to Chinese funerals than I could have explained why Canadians wore black. "Custom, lah!" was the commonest answer I got.

I'm ashamed that I never learnt to speak even one of the students' native languages, but there were no teachers available, nor did I have much free time as classes, sports and prep kept me very busy. I could say a few things in Bazaar Malay, the pidgin spoken locally, but I couldn't chat with anyone outside the school. I couldn't talk with shopkeepers or taxi drivers or people travelling alongside me on the Chinese launches. I couldn't ask a woman how she was going to cook the food I'd seen her buy, or how many people she cooked for, or if anyone helped her, or if they had enough to eat, or if I knew her children. All I could do was smile, and then they in turn would smile and often burst out laughing, probably at the awkwardness of the situation, as well as the sight of this tall white woman madly smiling back at them.

As much as I would try to be discreet as I watched what people were doing, no one else felt any compunction about staring. My gangly version of Mr. Magoo provided ample entertainment, and they didn't keep their amusement to themselves. Not only was I the first white woman many had ever seen, I was, according to my students, "The Tallest Woman in Malaysia." (I'm 5'11 so they had a point.) Wherever I went, I garnered much too much unwanted attention. It's hard being both conspicuous and irrelevant. Once in a while, someone would yell "Foreign Devil!" in Chinese, but much more often, I was something to be marvelled at. I'd be in a village shop trying to find something among the spices, raw sugar, pressed ducks, dried fish, tinned crackers, oranges, eggs, sweets, rattan mats, cigarettes, tins of fuel and tinned meats—and these were just the things I could identify—when someone would call out in Chinese some version of, "Hey, get a load of this one!" A throng of young and old would rush from the back of the store and circle close about me staring and whispering, "Wa-a-a-a-a-a-ah!" as they waited to see what curiouser and curiouser thing The Tallest Woman in Malaysia was going to do next. I would force a thin smile, and head for the street.

***

As I tried to learn new roles, etiquette, habits, reactions, customs, vocabulary, responsibilities— new just-about-everything—I still missed certain things from home, things like cold milk, libraries, movies, tennis courts and telephones. The few familiar things I did have in Sarawak took on a great significance. One of the biggest was music.

During those years, the tragedy of the Vietnam War was unfolding just six hundred miles north across the South China Sea. Over 300,000 US troops were in country by that time, and disk jockeys were sent to entertain them via Armed Forces Radio Saigon. Remember Good Morning, Vietnam? The disk jockey I loved turned out to be the one who replaced Robin Williams' real-life character in the movie. I'd never heard anything like him with his frenetic, funny patter interspersed with breaks for ultra-serious news reports listing the latest count of "enemy dead" (never US dead) and perky little jingles with messages like, "A dirty machine is a bad scene." I couldn't get enough of this music, even though listening was a guilty pleasure because it was impossible not to remember that some of the same GIs listening to the same songs that night would be dead by the next—those same young GIs we'd regularly meet in Singapore on R&R, where they were buying up anything Singapore had to offer. I remember one guy showing me his arms with a dozen silver watches on each. "Bullet proofing," he called it. Now, even after all these years, whenever I hear Ain't Too Proud to Beg or Nowhere to Run, I am back in the jungle listening to Motown while Americans of my age are killing and dying for a bogus cause in a similar jungle not so far away.

***

Gradually, as time passed, I figured out a few things and gradually came to feel less caught in a kind of no man's land. I learnt never to travel without a sturdy Chinese paper umbrella to protect me from both torrential rains and blistering sun. I learnt always to carry a "torch" at night to show me snakes on the paths. I learnt to burn mosquito coils in the evenings, and not to be quite so unnerved by the cicadas that dive-bombed around in the dark. When the clothes I'd brought from home came apart in the high humidity, I discovered that the seamstress in the village could copy just about anything I showed her. When my supplies of makeup and hair conditioner and nail polish ran out, I discovered I didn't need them. I figured out how to travel by bus and taxi, launch and speedboat, and I usually ended up where I was headed. I learnt to shop so I could often get what I wanted. I even learnt that if I was really desperate, I could use the outhouses that hung off the back of the Chinese launches—one-person, roofless enclosures with very low walls and a hole in the floor a few feet above the churning brown river below. I also learnt to take at least three cold showers a day, and I finally gave in and did what absolutely every other sensible person in the school did during the killing 40°C part of the day: take a nap. Finally, things started to feel easier.

An important turning point came when I began visiting the homes of my students. I had mastered the habit of always taking off my sandals before entering anyone's home, and I'd been taught how to politely turn down certain offers of food. Often, I was given wonderful things—fresh prawns, hot curries with fresh coconut milk, pineapple, rambutans—and sometimes not-so-wonderful things—fiercely potent rice wine, horrid mung bean drink, fish head curry complete with eyeballs, evil-smelling durians, black-encrusted 1000-year-old eggs and dishes made of things no one could identify for me in English. When I didn't want any (or any more) or when I was sure that feeding me would cut into their limited resources, I had to be sure I could decline their offers politely. The rule, I was told, was to just touch the edge of the plate while saying Tidak, terima kasih (no thanks) as this would show that I knew the food wasn't poison, and it would avoid bringing anyone bad luck by turning down good food. I became so accustomed to doing this that, all these years later, I still find myself doing it in unfamiliar settings here in Canada. Of course, it makes my hosts stop and wait for me to take the food that I appear to be reaching for, even though I've just said I didn't want any. Eventually, they move on, rolling their eyes at this odd person they've allowed into their home.

When I first made these visits to my students' homes, I was caught by the exotic: the Buddhist shrines with joss sticks and offerings of rice kernels for ancestor worship; the Iban longhouses with bare-breasted women, men with elongated earlobes and elaborate tattoos and shrunken heads hanging over the fires; the elaborate silk bajus and sarongs worn at a Melanau kampong wedding. However, these visits gave me much more than glimpses into local culture; they were turning points. As I sat chatting while someone interpreted our simple conversation, back and forth, back and forth, I realised what I'd been missing: the rhythms of normal family life. I'd grown up in small towns, and I was used to hearing about the strife and successes of ordinary people, the births and deaths, marriages and divorces. Visiting people in their homes where families cooked and ate and slept and worked and laughed and cried and gave birth and died—where people looked after each other as they lived out their lives—changed everything. It made me part of something outside of myself, and I began to feel much less afloat, much less uprooted.

***

And then there was my teaching job. One of my first tasks was to try to learn how not to give offence in the classroom, especially how to ask questions that wouldn't embarrass the students while at the same time remembering the importance of malu—the great shame that anyone, especially the girls, felt in the face of too much of any kind of attention, good or bad. I also needed to learn the art of polite gesturing. I hadn't realised how much I talk with my hands, especially when I was trying to explain English words. Gestures are very hard to change, and I found it a real challenge to replace my old ones with new. I also found it hard to read the gestures of others. Polite pointing in Malaysia, for example, is never done with the index finger, but with the baby finger, or with the thumb lying flat across the top of the fist, or even with carefully aimed, pursed lips as if inviting a kiss. I never used that one. Waving gestures seemed backwards, too. Polite requests to come closer are never palm-up like ours but are done with what appear to be straight-armed goodbye waves; a proper goodbye wave is done by slowly swinging a raised arm as if you are trying to get someone's attention as you stand stranded on the last patch of dry land.

The students never gave us discipline problems, so I was startled and a bit aggrieved the day some of the boys started popping in and out of the classroom, up and down, one after another. It turned out that they were in fact very self-disciplined; Ramadan had begun, and they were determined to spit rather than swallow their saliva. I also quickly understood that I should be grateful when all the boys in all the classrooms tore out because a cry had gone up that a scorpion had been discovered in the schoolyard. The less brave would watch the brave surround it until someone would leap forward and stomp it to death. It was a reminder that those kids had truly grown up in the jungle where killing swiftly and surely was something they had to be good at.

My biology degree made the Science curriculum pretty easy to work with, and I discovered I liked showing the kids how our bodies work. We were also able to raise some money for lab supplies by collecting bats and flying squirrels for the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto. The boys would trap them in the evenings, and then we'd inject and embottle their creepy little corpses and send them in special containers supplied by the museum. Many weeks later, a cheque would arrive for five Canadian dollars per bat.

Teaching English, however, was another matter. Since anyone who spoke English was expected to teach English, I was assigned Forms IV and V English Composition, English Literature and English as Second Language (ESL). English Composition was challenging, but all those years parsing sentences in school came in handy. Teaching ESL became easier after I learnt to "speak ESL," a version of English involving elaborate pantomiming, repeating, enunciating, defining, illustrating and sometimes translating. The literature curriculum, however, was another matter and trying to teach these classes made it clear to me that I was actually doing more than teaching English.

Just nine years earlier, Malaysia had gained its independence from Britain. Schools were still English-medium and were still using the Cambridge Overseas System. The state-wide exams were difficult, and passing was essential if students wanted to go on to the next level or go for further study abroad. The English curriculum was, of course, based on the Western canon, and that year, the assigned texts for Form V were Shakespeare's Julius Caesar, George Bernard Shaw's Arms and The Man and Nevil Shute's The Far Country. I didn't know where to start. These kids knew nothing about ancient Rome or Victorian England or the Outback. They'd never heard of Caesar or romanticised views of battle. They also had no idea what it meant to have once been a Nazi. And how could they? We were starting from zero.

Then there was the problem of their enormous difficulty reading English, particularly Shakespearean English. As a teenager, I had found Shakespeare daunting; these kids found it well-nigh impossible. At least the plot of Caesar was clear enough; every culture is familiar with jealousy, betrayal and power struggles, but lines like "Set honour in one eye and death i' the other" and "When beggars die, there are no comets seen" completely stumped them. As for Shaw's witty satire of Victorian prudery, it was like trying to describe snow, something the kids were always asking me to do, and something which, as time went by, I just couldn't. It was all too far away.

Around this time, a few of the boys got 007 T-shirts. All they knew about James Bond was that he was cool. They loved their 007 shirts, and I couldn't stand it that they did. Bad enough that this playboy become a model for these gentle, sweet kids whom I had become so fond of; this new fascination of theirs seemed ominous. It occurred to me that perhaps their enthrallment with James Bond and the arrival of young, untrained volunteers bringing only good English and good intentions were part-and-parcel of the same thing: a blatant promotion of Western culture and Western values over their own.

And so I became more and more conflicted. It seemed that I was in a mad world where I was helping decide the futures of these young people not based on their many talents, academic and otherwise, but on their abilities to read impossibly hard, irrelevant texts. And worse, surely there was something very wrong with teaching kids simply in order to provide them with tickets to escape.

I had no idea what to do. I still held the naïve belief that the world was neatly divided into two groups: underdeveloped countries—short on manpower and resources—and developed countries—morally obliged to share their wealth. I hadn't yet heard of cultural imperialism or globalisation, postcolonial theory or sustainability, or the complex relationship between trade and development or any of the other thorny questions that still swirl around discussions of international aid.

There were few people to talk with about my confusion, and I knew these were delicate issues that could definitively lead to making someone lose face. When I did try, I was reminded that the job I agreed to do was teach, not criticise. "After all, you are their guest." So, in the end, I put my questions aside. I knew the exams were soon, and I knew how desperate the kids were to pass, and so, afraid to trust my instincts and not knowing what else to do, I carried on.

They gave me a very old, very thick plate when I left. Its misty indigo bridges and pagodas seem to be fading into the China of long ago, a lovely reminder of that far and distant land.

***

And now, forty-five years later, I'm still not sure.

What I do know is that the students I'm in touch with are still interesting, kind and generous. The best and luckiest did get to study abroad, and several have become prosperous in business and prominent in government.

Sarawak has changed enormously. The rainforest is disappearing at an alarming rate, and with it, the homes of thousands of indigenous people. Those who still live in longhouses deep in the shrinking jungle now watch CNN and will soon have Internet access. My former school has computers; the village has a video store and a bank machine and the bigger centres have McDonald's outlets that sell Prosperity Burgers at Chinese New Year.

I realise that the forces of globalisation were already gathering in the 1960s, and monumental changes were coming regardless of tiny players like me. It's also true that English is a pretty handy thing in today's world. Perhaps I was the patronising Westerner thinking I knew what was best for people I barely knew, no matter how much I liked them. Even so, I am left with the unease that although Sarawak gave me so much, my kind of help might have been the kind of help they could all have done without.

***

In front of my house at the school, pink and blue morning glories curled up the wooden handrail and spread out over the landing. Even though this door was seldom used, I would, like an idiot, regularly take a cleaver and chop away those lovely flowers. Of course, in the steamy heat of Sarawak, the vines would be back within days, and I'd start chopping again. Perhaps I wanted to instill some order on my world, or perhaps I was obeying some primeval urge to keep the jungle at bay. Now, at least, I've got over my impulse to do battle with morning glories. Now I plant them every spring. I fuss over them, watering the little dragonfly seedlings and untangling the tendrils, so they can find their way through the trellis where they bloom until the frost. They're beautiful, but they never flourish like the ones in Sarawak. Even so, I continue to grow them. I grow them to remember.



[i] Canadian University Service Overseas, or CUSO, was a Canadian non-profit international development agency somewhat similar to the US Peace Corps. It is now known as CUSO International.

 

 
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