Malaysia, Truly Asia

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Ifirst went to Malaysia in 2003 after I got a one-year fel­low­ship from the Asian Schol­ar­ship Foun­da­tion to do re­search on Malaysian Po­etry in English. I went there after I had stud­ied at the United King­dom and the United States, and in Malaysia, I felt no sense of alien­ation.

The Univer­siti Ke­bangsaan Malaysia (UKM), or the National Univer­sity of Malaysia, served as my aca­demic base. Twice a week I took the KTM train from the gleam­ing KL Sen­tral and trav­eled for 40 min­utes, got at the sta­tion in Bangi, and took a taxi that brought me to Pusat Pen­ga­jian Ba­hasa Dan Lin­guis­tik (School of Lan­guage Stud­ies and Lin­guis­tics), nes­tled in a curve of hill after the masjid (mosque).

My ad­viser was a tall pro­fes­sor who just fin­ished his Ph.D. from the United King­dom a few years ago. He lent me his books (30 ti­tles), told me to read vo­ra­ciously, and not to give public lec­tures with­out his knowl­edge. I did fol­low him. When I was not in my fac­ulty room, I stayed at Mega­mall. Yes, there was a Mega­mall five min­utes away from my condo unit in Ta­man Desa. And in the hal­lowed halls of this mall, I read the dif­fi­cult po­ems of Wong Phui Nam and the earth­bound paeans of Muham­mad Ha­jji Salleh, as well as the lyri­cal po­ems of Shirley Geok Lin Lim and the clever works of Salleh Ben Joned.

I also took lan­guage classes in Ba­hasa Me­layu, watched Malaysian films to prac­tice my Ba­hasa, and ate five times a day. Malaysia is such a gas­tro­nomic won­der that I could eat roti chen­nai and teh tarik for break­fast, bak kuh teh or pork hor­fan for lunch, and fried lapu-lapu (grouper) in fra­grant sauce that my grand­mother could have pre­pared her­self. The mélange of cul­tures and cui­sine was amaz­ing. My In­dian friends also brought me to their houses for Dep­pavali (Fes­ti­val of Lights), while my Chi­nese friends and I pigged out on steamed chicken and other won­ders of the Hainanese kitchen on Chi­nese New Year.

One day on my way to KL Sen­tral a long, black Mercedes Benz stopped be­side my cab. The driver look at the car and its oc­cu­pant, and promptly hung his head. I looked at the car and saw its oc­cu­pant, who stared back at me. The oc­cu­pant was vaguely fa­mil­iar that I was sure I had seen him be­fore, but I did not re­mem­ber where. When the Benz left the driver told me in Ba­hasa that the oc­cu­pant was Prime Min­is­ter Mo­hamed Ma­hatir. “But why was his car not tinted?” I asked. “Be­cause it is against the law to do so,” said the driver. And why did he not have a gag­gle of es­corts with wang-wang enough to deafen your ears for ten life­times, as politi­cians do in the Philip­pines? I wanted to add, but my driver had al­ready stepped on the gas and we zoomed in the smooth high­way.

The Malaysians thought I was Chi­nese and spoke to me in the dif­fer­ent Chi­nese lan­guages. I told them that the only Chi­nese words I knew were the bad words that were taught to me in Ate­neo by my class­mates from Xavier High School and St. Jude. Th­ese crisp curses, I was de­lighted to note, flew across the mar­ket stalls in Petaling Jaya when two women quar­reled about this cus­tomer or that ar­ti­cle for sale. The Malaysians also asked me about our te­len­ov­e­las. An old cou­ple told me in for­mal Ba­hasa how they adored Rico Yan, and asked how is the ac­tor do­ing. It al­ways pained me to tell them in for­mal Ba­hasa that Mr. Yan “had al­ready joined the Cre­ator in the Great Be­yond.” The men would shake their heads (“so young,” they would say), while the women’s faces sagged with sad­ness.

When I was in Malaysia, I also fin­ished all the grad­u­ate-school pa­pers that were pending for my Ph.D. in English classes at the Univer­sity of the Philip­pines. I was at Ki­noku­niya Book­store and MPH ev­ery week, or buy­ing clothes in their many and won­der­ful sales, such that when I came back after a year, my fa­ther noted that, fi­nally, I had as many boxes of clothes as I had of books. “Be­fore,” he said, sniff­ing, “all you brought home were boxes filled with books.”

Dur­ing school breaks, I went to Malacca, this won­der­ful city that was an en­tre­pot of trade by the Por­tuguese, Bri­tish, Chi­nese, Malays, and In­di­ans many cen­turies ago. In the hot sun we walked and gawked at the stores dis­play­ing the tiny shoes that the Chi­nese women wear – if they wanted to have a suitor and get mar­ried. I re­mem­bered The Woman War­rior by the great Maxine Hong Kingston, and won­dered how the bones of the feet must have been bro­ken so they could fit in those very small shoes.

I also flew to Sabah to meet the poet-scholar Arnold Molina Azurin and Goo­goo de Je­sus. The mo­ment I landed in Sabah I thought I was in Davao or in Zamboanga. I saw crates of spiky durian as well as large prawns and fresh sea­weeds, and heard some peo­ple talk­ing in Ba­hasa mixed with Bisaya and Ta­ga­log. Arnold was do­ing re­search at the Univer­siti Sabah Malaysia, and I ac­com­pa­nied him to the univer­sity, where the peo­ple said he looked like the Malaysian di­rec­tor Ram­lee. On the way back to the ho­tel, we passed by a blue mosque glit­ter­ing in the sun.

I met many Filipinos, some of whom would talk to me in bro­ken Ta­ga­log, ask­ing me when did I leave the Philip­pines, “and what boat did you take?”

I would just look at them and take no of­fense, for in my mind swam the im­ages of peo­ple flee­ing from a terrible war, run­ning away from the burn­ing city of Jolo, and tak­ing the wooden boats on per­ilous trips across the sea, to an­other coun­try. They tell me they still miss the Philip­pines but Malaysia is now home, for them as well as for their chil­dren, who now swarm around us, speak­ing in Ba­hasa slid­ing from their lips, liq­uid as the sea be­fore us.

This es­say is for my friend, Malachi Ed­win Vethamani.

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