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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, February 18, 2024

Cast From The Herd Excerpt #117: An Unexpected Identity Crisis

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #117:  An Unexpected Identity Crisis

On campus I was assigned to Athabasca Hall, an old three-story wooden building. As my two Malaysian greeters who met me at the airport helped me up with my suitcases, we made quite a ruckus on the old wooden floor. Soon two gentlemen emerged from the end of the hallway. 

            “Hi! I’m Ray, your RA [resident advisor]. You must be Ben, welcome to the U of A,” the first one greeted me. 

            “Ben is that one,” I replied. “I’m . . . .” 

            “I know Ben,” interrupted the second man, “then you must be Mohammad! Hello, I am Branny. Welcome to Athabasca Hall. I’m your other RA, but unlike Ray, never around.” He laughed. 

            “Actually I’m Bakri.” 

            Here I was, not yet unpacked or even in my room, and already there was some confusion over my name. I never realized that even a simple matter of a name could be so confusing when one crossed borders and cultures. I thought I had solved the problem with the changes on my birth certificate earlier. 

            “I bet you Bakri,” Ray concluded as he deliberately and correctly pronounced my name, “folks here will call you Ben, Ben Musa, or Buck, but not Bakri. Canadians are fond of monosyllables. We’ll shorten it or stick you with a nickname.” 

            “That’s not true,” Branny teased. “I have two syllables; they have no problem with that. Bakri is like Branny.” He smiled. “But I agree with Ray, they’ll never call you ‘Mohammad.’ Moe, maybe!” 

            My room, home for the year and perhaps longer, was the size of my old prefect’s cubicle at Malay College. And like there, I did not have to share it with anyone. There was a western-facing window, and the warmth of the setting sun lifted my spirits only to be dampened by the sight of the huge coiled steam heater below the window sill. Winter must be really cold! Across the garden with flowers still in bloom was Pembina Hall, the women’s residence. 

            Later, settled and in the silence and privacy of my new room, I pondered the earlier discussion. I did not want to be called ‘Ben’ as it sounded foreign, or ‘Mohammad,’ even though that was the name of our revered prophet. It is a beautiful name but as many Muslims have it, it has no identifying function; more decorative. I was never called by that name back home. Back there they called me ‘Bakri’ and that was what I wanted to be called here in Canada. 

            The tradition of a surname is alien in my culture. The decorative Mohammad excepted, I have only one name – Bakri. For further differentiation, I have my father’s name, hence Bin (for son of, or “Binte,” daughter of) Musa. To complicate matters, at my requiem I will be introduced to my Lord as Mohammad Bakri Bin Jauhariah (Jauhariah being my mother’s name), in conformity with our matriarchal tradition. 

            What a way to begin my stay in Canada; on a clear fall day I was clouded by a name crisis. I wrote my name in different versions:  M. B. B. Musa, M. B. Bakri, or simply M. Bakri, after the then popular singer back in my homeland. However, none looked or sounded right. I finally settled on ‘M. Bakri Musa.’ ‘Bakri’ will be my first name and ‘Musa,’ last. I would dispense with the ‘Bin.’ When I get married my wife would be Mrs. Musa and my children would have Musa as their last name. As for having a first initial, well, there was J. Edgar Hoover, the famed FBI director. In a new land I would begin with a new tradition. Now all I had to do was educate my new friends as to my new name but same identity. 

            That settled, my mind wandered onto other things. I could not help but compare my warm welcoming reception here at Athabasca Hall to the hell I had endured at Malay College nearly three years earlier. I was deep in thought when there was a knock on my door. It was Ray. 

            “Hi, Buck-ree!” 

            Good, he pronounced it right, emphasizing the last syllable. He told me that the dinner table assignment was displayed downstairs but for that evening it would be open seating. 

            “Oh,” he added, “tomorrow’s dinner will be formal, suit and tie. After dinner, sing-along. Great way to meet the girls from Pembina!” 

            What? A sing-along after dinner? To meet the girls? No hazing? These Canadians were sure civilized! 

Next:  Excerpt #118:  Being Part of the New Land


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