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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, June 18, 2023

Cast From The Herd Excerpt No: 83: Settling Into Boarding School Routine

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt  # 83: Settling Into Boarding School Routine

Despite the hazing and anxiety over “Introduction Night” I settled into my new routine with minimal hiccups, or so I thought. One day I was staring out from the verandah of my dorm looking at nothing in particular. The sun was setting behind the giant raintree and the heat of the day was giving way to the cool of the evening, with the cicadas tuning up their vocals. I kept reminding myself that I had it good here at the college. When the bell rang, food would be served: hearty breakfast, full lunch, and substantial dinner, with mid-morning snacks and late afternoon tea thrown in. What a life! 

            For showers all I had to do was turn on the tap. Yes, if I were late, the tap would be dry. Back in the kampung I had to drag water up in a bucket from a deep well, hauling up extra for my younger brother and sisters. At dusk I had to light up the kerosene lamp, a routine I never enjoyed as I would end up smelling of the fuel. Before my mother could cook dinner, I would have to bring her water and firewood. 

            Then the thought struck me. Who would be doing those chores in my absence? With that came a sudden sadness, and as my tears began welling up someone tapped my shoulder. 

            “Bakri, you are homesick, aren’t you?” It was Nazuddin. 

            I protested that I was just gazing out, as I blinked fast, desperate to dry up my tears. 

            “Yes you are!” he teased me as he too leaned on the banister. “Funny, I never get homesick here,” he said more in envy than pride. Soon he too was staring out in the distance. “Perhaps when I leave here for good, then I’ll be homesick!” he rued.

            Raja Nazuddin, being a “thoroughbred,” knew of only one place as home – the college – where he and the others like him had any sense of belonging. They had entered at the tender age of six or seven in primary one. Family was an abstraction if not aberration to them. 

            Nazuddin was right. I was homesick although I did not recognize the feeling. Now I had to endure at least another two months before the first term break in March. So far away! 

            That episode of homesickness notwithstanding, I soon settled down. Much to my surprise and still beyond my comprehension, my earlier sadistic tormentors now seemed like the other students as we all fell into the school’s rigid routine. They had played the role expected of them, though they relished every moment of the agony they had inflicted upon their victims. A couple of my tormentors turned out to be very pious, regularly performing their prayers. Only days earlier they were brute animals! They must have compartmentalized their roles. Compartmentalized or not, I had great difficulty reconciling my competing emotions.

            I had been away from home now for a full two weeks. The bar of soap I had bought on my first day was now just a thin sliver and soon I would have to buy a new one. A bar of soap lasted me two weeks, and there were eight more weeks to the first-term break. So I went out and bought four new bars. When I used up the last one, then it would be time to go home. Now I had a personal calendar of sorts. So every time I showered, I lathered myself generously so the soap would be used up faster. 

            I had plenty of time after class. Back at Kuala Pilah I would not be home till two or three. After a late lunch I would have at most an hour to study, and during the hottest part of the day. In the cool of the late afternoon I would take a break, cycling around the village. It would be too dark in the house to study as my eyes had been used to the bright afternoon glare. At dusk I had to haul water and firewood. Here at college I was spared those chores; even my school uniforms were cleaned at the laundry. 

            I now had time for sports and took up tennis; I was no good for any team sports. My partner Yusof Sidek, another new Sixth Former, had also never participated in any sports, being from the small town of Sitiawan and, like me, also living far away from school. He and I had the unbridled enthusiasm of a beginner and the brashness of an upperclassman. Not a good combination. We would barge onto the tennis court and impose our senior status, failing to notice that whenever we played, the adjacent courts would soon be empty. We took that as a license to further indulge ourselves. Had we not been so full of ourselves we would have realized that those courts were empty for a reason. The other players were fed up with our balls landing on their courts and interrupting their volleys. 

            We were indulging ourselves on a deserted court one day when our classmate Syed Ridzwan stepped in. He was a genial scholar-athlete who had earned colors in rugby and track. He was also superb at tennis. 

            “Let me show you guys something,” unable to restrain himself, and proceeded to give us an impromptu clinic, demonstrating how to grip the racket, plant our feet, and hit the ball. With anyone else doing that, more so uninvited, we would have been offended, but with Ridzwan and his easy smile we were grateful. He went further and reminded us ever so gently on such things as court etiquette and not hitting our balls onto the other courts. And yes, we had to reserve our time and not just barge into an apparently empty court as the booked players could be late. 

Excerpt  # 84:  Chanced Learning Deep In The Tropical Jungle


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