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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, September 22, 2019

Excerpt # 35: Geeting Reacquainted With My Old Culture

Excerpt # 35:  Getting Reacquainted With My Old Culture
M. Bakri Musa (www.bakrimusa.com)

I told my parents about my planned transfer to JB. They were surprised, and disappointed. To them, there must be more to it. As Sharif had earlier noted, nobody would voluntarily seek to be transferred out of KL and be off the radar screen of the decision makers. Even after I explained the quirks of the Malaysian civil service code that a transfer meant a promotion, they were still not convinced.

            My parents remembered only too well their experience early in their careers when they were posted from one remote village to another as punishment for their less-than-deferential attitude towards their superior. This particular superior was several bureaucratic steps above my parents. In the normal scheme of things, he should have had minimal impact on my parents’ careers except for the fact that he happened to be a member of the royalty and resided in our village. Even if he were not to be my parents’ superior, tradition would have required them to pay homage to him.

My father failed to do that. He was brought up in Rantau, a village some forty miles away, tucked amidst the colonial tin mines and rubber estates with their abundant immigrant workers. Paying tributes to local feudal chieftains was alien to those folks, and that rubbed off on my father.

            Remembering that, my parents wondered whether I had transgressed against something or somebody important in KL. I reminded my parents that JB was far from an ulu(remote) posting, in fact, quite the opposite. In the end, they accepted my explanation.

            Busy with my work, I did not have much time to visit my old village or catch up with former high school classmates. After all, I would have a lifetime ahead of me to renew old friendships. I did visit my old village to pay homage to my grandparents’ family. My paternal grandparents in Rantau died when I was young, my maternal in Kampung Tengah while I was in Canada. My maternal grandmother died following a fall and grandfather, of prostate cancer. During his last year of life, he was hospitalized often at the new University of Malaya Hospital for pain relief, a particular burden with that disease. My uncle related to me that my grandfather would never tire of telling his doctors that he had a grandson studying in Canada to be one of them. He died the year I graduated from medical school.

            Terms like “grandparents,” “uncles” and “sisters” are used in a very loose sense in Malay society. My grandparents’ sisters and brothers are all grandparents to me; likewise, those who are or seemed to be a generation older than me (fewer and fewer these days!) are uncles and aunties, and those only slightly older, abang or kakak(brother or sister).

            Once in a fancy restaurant in Malaysia I was addressed as “Abang!” by the Malay waitress. I laughed considering that she was so much younger than me and I had a full crop of grey hair to boot! I responded that since she had addressed me asAbangand not as Pak(Uncle), or worse Tok(grandfather), she would get an extra tip! Perhaps she was angling for that all along.

            Abangis also how a wife addresses her husband; a lady, her lover.

            My two years at Malay College in Kuala Kangsar for my Sixth Form excepted, I left Malaysia straight from my village. My time away also coincided with tremendous changes in the country. I missed all that. Thus when I returned I still had my old Malay village persona, in particular the distinctive Negri Sembilan loghat(dialect). Meanwhile in the villages, that was fast receding together with the rapid development of the country.

            Thus when I visited my old village and began speaking in the old dialect, the villagers took a double look. The incongruity of a modern young man who had travelled the world for years yet still retained the archaic village lingo! Meanwhile those who had spent only a few weeks in KL and on returning back to the village pretended to have forgotten their loghat,. That would be akin to a Southerner who had spent a summer in Boston and on returning had forgotten his Southern drawl, or pretended to!

            I had been away for well over a decade and during the most transformative period of my life. I was very aware that I could have forgotten some of the old village niceties and courtesies. Conscious of that, I had my brother Sharif and his wife Zainab accompany my wife and I whenever we visited the village to make sure that we, especially me, did not create any social and cultural faux pas.

            When we visited my maternal grandmother’s youngest sister, the only surviving member of her generation, I was stunned to see her look so old and bent over. I remembered her as a beautiful youthful lady, with straight posture, very unlike her oldest sister, my grandmother, who was stooped. In fact, that was her nickname, Wan Bongkok (stooped grandma). I asked my granduncle how long my grandaunt had been like that.

            “Like what?” he replied.

            To him the change in her posture had been so slow that he did not notice it. If he did, it was but a normal sequence, the natural attribute of being old. I explained to him the thinning of our bones as we get older (osteoporosis), more so in women, and with that the risk of bone fractures, especially of the hips, which probably caused my grandmother’s demise. The exaggerated stoop in my grand-auntie could be due to compression (wedge) fracture of her spinal bones.

            She showed me all her medications, for diabetes and high blood pressure. Diabetes was a dreaded disease to the villagers, conjuring images of amputated legs, debilitating strokes, and being tethered to a kidney machine for the rest of your life.

            I told them while that was true of a minority, for most they could have a normal lifestyle but for some adjustments. Chronic diseases like diabetes and hypertension are different from acute ones like pneumonia or appendicitis where with antibiotics or surgery you would be cured. Diabetes could be viewed more as our decreased tolerance to sugar (among other things), just as we have decreased tolerance to physical activities as we get older. With such maladies, medications are but only one, albeit a very important component in the overall management.

            I must have given too long a dissertation, for soon my brother nudged me and whispered that what my grandaunt wanted most was not a long lecture but to be examined by me. Prompted by that I took out my blood pressure cuff and stethoscope. I measured her blood pressure, listened to her heart and neck arteries for any bruit to suggest disturbances in the blood flow that could predispose her to a stroke. They were all normal, and she was pleased when I told her of my findings.

            Sharif commented that not often would a villager get such personal attention from a doctor – a specialist at that – and at her home! Only sultans and sultanahs had that rare privilege. My grandaunt laughed; I had made her feel special. Then Sharif teased her to make sure that I did not hand her my professional bill on my way out.

            I always used such occasions less being a doctor and more a teacher, which the word “doctor” meant in its original Latin. When my grandaunt indicated that her current set of medications was the one that finally agreed with her, I used that incident to tell those present that doctors do not always get it right the first time. As such, when something is not quite right, we should not hesitate in going back for a reassessment.

Next:  Excerpt # 36: A Cool Christmas In Hot Malaysia
From the author’s second memoir, The Son Has Not Returned. A Surgeon In His Native Malaysia, 2008.

Excerpt # 36:  A Cool Christmas In Hot Malaysia
M. Bakri Musa www.bakrimusa.com


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