Malaysia, Truly Asia

LODESTAR By Danton Remoto

I first 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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