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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
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, May 12, 2019

Excerpt #16: Having A Maid

Excerpt #16:  Having A Maid
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

            Back to our new house in Bungsar, as soon as we moved in, Karen freaked out. She had opened one of the many built-in closets and was met by a blitzkrieg of cockroaches, reminiscent of her experience in our Honolulu hotel room months earlier on our trip home to Malaysia.

            Through our long-time friend from Edmonton days, Zainal Abidin bin Ahmad (Zai to us) who was teaching at UKM, we heard that the university was looking for English instructors. Zai put in a good word for Karen. She too felt good on her subsequent interview. Those good vibes notwithstanding, she never heard back.

            Those few words would not do justice for our friendship with Zai and his wife Rahmah. Zai was a Kirby-trained teacher. When his contract with the Malaysian government was over, he returned to Britain, and from there to Alberta. We met when he was on campus for continuing education. It was hard not to be friendly when meeting another Malay in snow-white Alberta!

            Zai had a beautiful booming voice and a perfect BBC English accent, but he could in an instant and with minimal prompting revert to the typical local Malay, complete with the obligatory “lah” and “mon!” Coming from him, it was hilarious! Zai was once an announcer with Radio Malaya. No surprise that he was a regular emcee for our Malaysian events on campus.

I convinced Zai on one of his visits to campus that he should go for his degree. At that time the university’s Faculty of Education, Canada’s largest, was embarking on the new field of teaching English as a second language. With Zai’s experience he would have a lot to offer on the practical side. Zai did that and went on to get his doctorate from Wisconsin. I used to tease him saying that he was the genuine Dr. Za’aba. The other Za’aba, the famous Malay grammarian, had only an honorary doctorate!

            Zai’s effort on Karen’s behalf whetted her appetite for work in Malaysia. What better way to integrate into a new culture than to work in it? However, with two little kids that meant a maid, Karen’s egalitarian Western ideals notwithstanding.

            Our first was a girl from Perak. Gee was literally just a little girl, a distant niece of one of my brothers-in-law. Karen spent more time teaching her personal hygiene than her helping us. She had difficulty relating to me, a hang-up from her religious instructions back in the village. Nonetheless from my limited conversations with her, I gathered that she did not finish her primary school. She said that she did not learn anything and was bullied often, by her classmates as well as her teachers because of her small size.

            Malaysia then (and now) often bragged about its schools being among the best in the region if not the world, but nothing like hearing directly from the children to know the reality on the (school) ground. Gee was one of those awful statistics personified.

            Soon she was homesick. We paid her way home for a holiday together with some extra cash and a return bus ticket, but she never came back. Our only hope was that whatever Karen and I had taught her about personal cleanliness and taking care of babies in the only-too-brief a time she was with us would help her when she would have her own family.

            Our second maid, Hapsah, was from Sarawak. She had been adopted by one family after another before landing into my uncle’s home. She looked Chinese. The Chinese have been known to disfavor daughters and were wont to give them up for adoption. Malays on the other hand valued girls, so that was a good fit.

            My uncle brought her to our house for a preview. Karen and I had the distinct impression that she was not keen to leave my uncle. He assured us that we were misreading her. When he left her with us, it was not a pretty sight. We swallowed our embarrassment and did our best to make her feel at home. She turned out to be good with the kids. She was also very clean, an excellent cook, and keen to learn English.

            We told her that she would be free from Saturday noon after lunch to late Sunday after dinner. Meaning, she was spared from having to cook us two dinners, a breakfast, and one lunch. For the first few weeks she just stayed with us acting like she did not deserve the break. For our part, we wanted her to leave so we could have some privacy. However, it did not take her long to enjoy her breaks.

            Like the maid before, Hapsah ate with us. We felt better that way. In the beginning she was reluctant and felt uncomfortable. The only way we could convince both maids to eat with us was that we had a rule to finish everything on the table. No leftovers so every meal would be fresh. If she did not eat with us she would have to cook again for herself.

            We did not feel right that Hapsah should be destined to be our maid for the rest of her life. That would be too heavy a responsibility and burden for us. Seeing Karen doing her knitting, Hapsah was keen to learn. She wanted to be a seamstress. Soon with us buying her the materials, she had quite a wardrobe for herself and a collection for our children.

            With time she became comfortable with us; at times too comfortable, availing herself often to our only telephone. Telephones were a scarce commodity in Malaysia then. It took us months to get one, despite the high priority with my being a doctor. Before we had one installed, the hospital used to send the police to get hold of me. That would elicit quite a bit of stares from the neighbors until they found out the reason. The police were just an expensive messenger system, nothing nefarious, we assured our neighbors.

            One night long after we had our phone installed, the police again came to our gate. It was the hospital trying to get hold of me for an emergency but could not break through the busy signals. Hapsah had been tying up the phone all night after we went to bed! I had warned her many times but we still caught her once in a while. Being that I did not want to see the police at my doorsteps again, I put a lock on the rotary dial without our permission so she could not dial out though people could still phone in.

            My uncle was right. We had misread Hapsah. She became attached to us, and we to her. With her in our confidence, Karen began again looking for a job.

From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon in His Native Malaysia(2018.

Next:  Excerpt #17
Life In Bungsar


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