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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

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Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Sunday, July 12, 2020

Excerpt # 69: Nostalgic Visit Home


Excerpt # 69:  Nostalgic Visit Home
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)


            Following that exhausting medical convention, I took an extended week off to visit my parents. As per Karen’s earlier suggestion, I went alone, taking the train so Karen could have the car. At first I wanted to revert to my kampung mode by travelling in the Third Class coach. At the last minute, seeing that it was already hot and stuffy even though still in the morning and I did not want to reach Seremban hot, dirty and exhausted, I opted for the air-conditioned Second Class. I had been up late the night before and needed to sleep during the trip.

            I had never experienced Third Class travel on Malayan Railway. When I went to Malay College Kuala Kangsar, it was always on Second Class even when I did not buy my tickets! Unlike the rest of the students, Sixth Formers had to pay their own way. The train conductors did not know that. They were too lazy to check on every Malay College-looking student, assuming that everyone was on travel vouchers. I hitchhiked my way in Second Class coach to and from Kuala Kangsar many a time.

            The coolness and quietness of the coach, together with its gentle swaying put me to sleep in no time. When I reached Seremban I was rested and invigorated. Reverting to my old village pattern, I took the local bus to my parents’ home. The driver, a Malay, was disheveled with his shirt untucked, and with dirty worn slippers on. The bus was also dirty. I had to wipe the seat before I sat down, an action that warranted the driver’s attention for its oddity. The bus groaned, belching black soot from its exhaust pipe when the driver stepped on the accelerator, jerking my head and neck against the stainless-steel bar that was the headrest. Like the other passengers, I too would have been oblivious of those irritations had I not lived in JB. There the clean and exhaust-free SBS buses from Singapore with their crisply-attired drivers and conductors were too obvious a contrast to their local counterparts not to miss.

            The driver was busy yacking with his conductor trying to solve the country’s myriad problems when he should have been paying attention to the road. His conductor should have at least picked up the obvious garbage littering his coach. It was a nervous twenty-minute ride. Then I realized that was what ordinary Malaysians endured every day. Even those Malaysians in Johor with Singapore next door showing how things could be done better, tolerated those everyday mediocrities and irritations.

            It was a good ten-minute walk from the bus stop to my parents’ house. I felt funny walking through the neighborhood as I had always driven along the way. My parents’ house was in a new suburban neighborhood next to a Malay village. My parents’ backyard however bordered the Seremban International Golf and Country Club, a fancy establishment. My father’s neighborhood was a buffer between the elegant golf club and the slum-like old Malay village with the typical wooden houses on stilts and their outhouses covered with leftover plywood just enough to satisfy their modesty.

            My parents’ neighborhood was new, with detached homes and large (for city lots) yards as well as paved though narrow streets. It was “modern” only up to a point. The roadside ditches were uncovered, the utility lines dangled overhead, and more to the point, there were no central sewer connections despite the density. When I visited my father in 1969 when the house was being built, he told me that his Chinese contractor suggested that the bottom of the cement septic tank be broken after it had passed inspection. There would be an extra fee for that but the contractor assured my father that he would more than recoup the cost from the savings in not having regular pumping out of the tank.

            I was horrified when my father related that. Yes, you would save on the pumping out but at the cost of contaminating the soil and water tables of the entire neighborhood and beyond. Down the street were those Malay village huts which depended on shallow wells for their water supply. Those villagers could die drinking contaminated well water. My father was angry at the contractor for suggesting that and warned the other new neighbors of the risk. No, that contractor did not get his extra fee, at least not from my father. He was the rare exception. Stroll along any exclusive neighborhood in Malaysia, especially after a heavy rainfall, and you could not miss the sight or smell of the telltale green gooey slime seeping through the cracks of retaining walls or along the slopes.

            Back to my trip, when I reached my parents’ home their front gate was locked. My banging on the chain lock brought my mother out. Her first query was on Karen, whether she was alright. I assured her that Karen as well as the kids were fine and repeated that she had prior engagements, what with Mindy being in school, albeit only preschool.

            I had travelled light, no reading materials, no charts to review, and no plans to write anything. I wanted to devote myself totally and exclusively to my parents. It felt odd that first day, like a deer long confined to a small paddock and now released to the familiar wide, open pasture. I did not know what to do. I turned on the television and there was nothing worthwhile to watch. I read my parents’ old Malay newspapers, an exercise more to enhance my jawi reading skills and my Malay than to catch up on the news. I accompanied my parents to the market, indeed wherever they went. I was their unofficial chauffer for that week.

            Karen phoned me that first evening. I talked to the kids; I missed them already! We must have had an animated conversation for my parents were relieved and pleased to see the joy on my face and hear it in my voice.

            They were worried at the beginning seeing that I had arrived alone even though I had apprised them of that fact earlier. There must had been a domestic discord and we wanted time to be away from each other, they presumed. After my animated conversations with Karen and the kids, my parents were reassured.

            My parents had other reasons for their unease about Karen and me. It was their practice that whenever they had a new in-law, he or she would plant a fruit tree in the yard of their Seremban house. When Zainab and Sharif returned from Tasmania (they were married there), she planted a rambutan tree. It blossomed to bless them with a bountiful harvest every season.

            Likewise, the day after we arrived in Seremban from Canada, my parents had Karen plant an apple-mango that they had bought specially for the occasion, and to maintain the family’s tradition. The plant took off and within months we had big, sweet, juicy fruits. Karen had the privilege to pick the first ripe one. It tasted heavenly. To my parents, just like the rambutan planted by their other daughter-in-law, that mango tree was a good omen, reaffirming their good vibes and high hopes for us in Malaysia.

            On this trip however, I noticed that the mango tree was gone. Thinking that it had outgrown its location and had to be transplanted elsewhere, I asked my mother about it. The ants had destroyed the roots, she dismissed my query with uncharacteristic haste. The tree had only two seasons of bountiful fruits.

            My parents, like most Malays, were superstitious, their modern surroundings notwithstanding. That mango tree was their internal or soft antenna, and it was giving them bad signals, rotting after a very promising beginning. That would only make my convincing them of our leaving that much more difficult.

            I ignored the thought. I was just beginning to enjoy their company after all those long homesick years away from them, and the freedom to be back to my carefree kampung childhood days. I refused to let anything interfere with the joy of the moment. I deferred discussing the primary purpose of my visit, to tell them of our decision to leave Malaysia. When you have unpleasant news to deliver, you exploit every opportunity to delay doing so.


Next:  Excerpt # 70: Reliving My Childhood
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned.  A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2018.

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