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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 25, 2024

Cast From The Herd Excerpt # 118: Being Part of the New Land

 Cast From The Herd:  Memories of Matriarchal Malaysia

M. Bakri Musa

Excerpt #118: Being Part of the New Land

After dinner and alone in my room, I pondered that this new land would now be my home for the next six or seven years, Insha’ Allah (God willing). I recalled the advice my grandfather gave me before I left my homeland. Wherever I would be I should always treat the new place as my homeland. It was after all the same God’s universe, he assured me, and thus I must strive to be a part of the new place as soon and as much as possible, and not consider myself a foreigner.

            To symbolize that, he reminded me of an ancient ritual taught to the young men in our culture on the beginning their merantau (wanderings). When you reach your new destination, you should at your first shower recite a verse of the Qur’an that says (approximately translated) the entire universe is Allah’s creation and for all mankind, and then to pray for the new land to accept you. After that smear a clump of the local soil all over your body to symbolize that the new soil and you are now one. Then wash away the dirt. Do that, my grandfather assured me, and I would be accepted in the new land. 

            I wanted to re-enact the ritual, but how on earth would I get the prairie soil? The garden below was well kept. If I were to grab a fistful of soil from there, I would be vandalizing the beauty. Then there was also the logistics of carrying the soil to my room, and then to the communal bathroom down the hallway. If someone were to see me, he would think this foreigner was a weirdo. Try telling him that I was following my grandfather’s advice! 

            I scouted the area. As I walked around I had shocks from static electricity and marveled at this new phenomenon. Branny saw me and showed me his room; it was full of potted ivies. “Keep the air humid and reduce the static,” he said. “The air is dry here. Hang your wet clothes in your room and by morning they’ll be dry.” 

            Branny gave me an idea. So off I went to buy my small pot of ivy at the campus store. It was a ridiculous 99 cents. I wondered why they did not make it a full dollar. Canadians still valued their pennies. 


           On the way back I scoped a fistful of the dark, fertile prairie soil. If caught, I would have a ready excuse – for my plant. Nobody saw me. After depositing the plant in my room I headed for the shower to re-enact my grandfather’s ritual. I prayed to Allah that this new land would accept me. As the dirt washed away from my body, I felt its familiar granularity all over me. I was at home, just as my grandfather had promised. I was now part of this patch of God’s earth, my new roots now grounded in the dark fertile prairie soil. 

            I did not know whether it was the ritual my grandfather had taught me, the generosity of the Canadian government that made possible my scholarship, the helpful strangers I met at Rideau Canal, or the warm welcome I received from Ben, Ray and Branny, whatever it was, I already felt at home on my first day at the University of Alberta. 

            My grandfather’s du’a and advice were right. I would indeed be part of this new land of Canada. Not only did I earn a few coveted academic credentials, but along the way I also acquired some non-academic certificates, the earlier stern warning of the Malaysian Establishment Officer notwithstanding. With great joy I acquired a wedding certificate, and was blessed with two birth certificates – for Melindah and Zachary. I had indeed become part of if not the son of the soil of Canada. (My youngest, Azlan, would come later, when I again pursued my merantau south to Oregon.) 

            I had taken leave of my flock in search of a new pasture and found it in a faraway land. Chairil Anwar’s brashness in his immortal “Aku” poem notwithstanding, it is the nature of humans to want to belong to a herd. My new meadow looked fresh, lush, and incredibly vast. God willing, I would turn it to good use. Chairil Anwar’s rugged brashness and fierce individualism captured in his immortal line in “Aku,” “Aki ini binatang jalang, Dari kumpulannya terbuang,” (I am but a wild beast, cast from its herd!) resonate with me though I am far from being wild, and neither am I cast from my herd.

            Here I was, only a few months shy of my 20th birthday. At that age Chairil Anwar had already penned his famous poem while I was just embarking on my journey. I had not taken exactly after my Muar River. It first flows east following the natural slope of the Main Range, then swings south to the end of the Ridge before turning west, emptying into the Straits of Melaka. I, on the other hand flew east, first to Hong Kong enjoying briefly its luxury, and then on to the Far East, Tokyo. From there I continued eastward, way further east to cross the International Dateline to end up in . . . the West – Edmonton, Canada. 

            Like the seladang (wild buffalo) back home, I had roamed far. I sought Allah’s guidance that I would be at peace and thrive in my new meadow. Please God, spare me the fate of that icon of the Great Plains, venerated and well taken care of but alas still confined within the national parks. 

            Fast forward to two decades later after yet another round of merantau after I returned to Malaysia, I settled, after a brief stay in sparse rural Eastern Oregon, on a ranch south of Silicon Valley, California. A frequent visitor then was a Malaysian graduate student, Captain Shaari, from the nearby Naval Postgraduate School, with his young family. My ranch reminded him of his father’s kampung, and his children loved my lambs. Once, exasperated as his kids fussed about having to leave, he pleaded to me, “Why is it Bakri, when I took my children to their grandparents’ kampung, we had not even arrived yet and my children were already clamoring to leave?”

            Then I remembered the first time I set eyes on this property on a warm October afternoon. Shaded by the massive black oak tree near the creek, memories of my siesta under the huge tamarind tree by the riverbank back at my old village drifted me into nostalgia. Across the road, the neighbor’s Charolais mothers mooed, longing for their just-separated calves, just like my grandfather’s cows in days of yore. I was at my old village again, only this time with modern conveniences of electricity, indoor plumbing, and roof-top satellite dish connecting me to the outside world. However, even without those amenities my children and grandchildren still love hiking the creek and scaling the rocky hills. 

            The most consequential difference between the old village and my ranch in my adopted land is this. Here, my children’s fate (as well as mine) is dependent on their talent and hard work instead of their birth and heritage. That alone made my journey worth it. 

Next:  Final Excerpt:  Acknowledgments


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