Our columnist recalls her early teaching years in Sabah and how she was charmed by its people, their warmth and way of life.
WHEN you teach long enough in a Malaysian town, you will find a strong cultural, emotional and psychological attachment to it.
This happened to me when I taught in Sandakan, Sabah. My first stint in Sabah, dubbed the Land Below The Wind, was in 1986.
I was then a young bride and a fresh graduate teacher. The second stint was between 1997 and 2002 when I was already a mother of two young daughters.
When I look back, I remember the responsibilities that came with the job, but I also remember the way my students spoke using their typical Sabah sing-song style and how the girls in the convent school I taught, would plead with me to wear a saree to school.
Not only was I the first Indian lady teacher they had, but I was probably their closest “thing” to Bollywood!
Well, I did surprise them when I wore a pink saree to school and needless to say, I was showered with many compliments.
In 1986, there was only one Indian student in the school I taught. I remember her for she took the trouble to bring me home-made Indianthosais.
The students I taught had Kadazan, Orang Sungai, Murut, Filipino, Chinese and even Indonesian origins but there were not many Indians then.
The only time my husband and I met Indians was at the Hindu temple in Sandakan.
To me, Sabah was unique in many ways including the way its people communicated.
If I asked my students a question like “Who teaches you History?” and if they did not know the teacher’s name, they would all chorus, “Cikguanu-bah”.
The term anu was their way out of any conundrum and their bah suffix was so Sabahan that teachers from the Semenanjung (Peninsular Malaysia) who were posted there would drop their own familiar ‘lah’ to succumb to their bah.
I know of teachers who have settl-ed in towns like Setiu (Terengganu), Mentakab (Pahang), Paloh (Johor), Grik (Perak), Sarikei (Sarawak) or Tambunan (Sabah) because they began to feel at home in the very towns they disliked in the first place, but in the end, chose to stay.
One of my closest friends, suffered from pangs of doubt when she followed her husband to Sandakan in 1997. Today, she’s still in Sabah and has been awarded the Pengetua Cemerlang (excellent school principal) in a place 80km from Sandakan!
She does talk about “coming home” but I doubt if she ever will.
That’s life — most of us teachers have a store of memories which are closely interlinked with the towns and villages we have served in.
I don’t think I will ever forget the time I delivered my first daughter in the Duchess of Kent Hospital in Sandakan. My school was just opposite the road on which the hospital stood!
When I screamed in the labour room, Susan Pang, the midwife in attendance actually joked, “Hey! I think your students can hear you!”
I still smile when I recall my time in the hospital and how I enjoyed listening to Pang as she held court in the nurses’ station speaking to her colleagues in Cantonese. I understood what she said — thanks to my Chinese friends who spoke in the dialect during my schooling years in Ipoh, Perak.
In the days following my daughter’s delivery, students would arrive unannounced at my apartment to “ooh” and “aah” at my baby girl.
In the oil palm estates my husband managed in Sabah, the local women and their children were just as eager to catch a glimpse of my baby and I.
In turn, I was always drawn to see how they lived their lives. When they were not looking, my eyes would take in their countenance, dress, manner, speech and gesticulations.
In 1997, my husband was stationed in an oil palm plantation across the Sandakan Bay.
Over land, the journey would take two and a half hours but a speed boat, churning the waves rapidly across an expanse of open sea, would take about 30 minutes.
Most Fridays, when school was over, I would take a bus or hitch a lift from my school to the Sandakan town jetty.
Here, the smell of the fish and the caged chickens in the wet market would mix with the salty tang of the sea as I awaited the arrival of the speed boat.
When the boat arrived, the first to get off were a couple of local school teachers who served in outlying villages by the sea.
They always looked relieved to finally get ashore for their weekend reprieve in town!
On my own journey out, the boat would swoosh down an inlet and stop at a village to pick up some primary schoolchildren whose parents worked at the same plantation my husband managed.
These children went home only during the weekends.
The boat’s next stop was at “our” plantation and we all got off there.
The boatman often used my name to discipline the children by shouting out his instructions all in one breath “KamusemuadudukdiamkalautidakCikguiniakan
I usually obliged by looking stern — not to scare them but to deter them from leaning precariously out to dip their hands into the water.
Sometimes, I would go through their exercise books to see how well they could write and it would keep them quiet for a short while.
But once the boat was truly on its way, we were usually silent, enjoying the wind in our hair and the sight of the open sea and the ships in the distance.
However, the minute the boat meandered into a river estuary to approach our destination, the boys would start to excitedly take off their school shirts while I would take in the beauty of the mangrove trees and their prop roots.
Occasionally, I would catch sight of proboscis monkeys, white cranes, wild ducks and a hornbill or two.
The boat would have barely stopped before the boys would plunge into the river to swim with delighted whoops.
It didn’t matter how muddy or dirty the river was. They dove in all the same. On hot, sweltering days, even the girls kicked off their shoes and jumped in school uniform and all.
If my husband was late in picking me up, I would sit there on the make-shift jetty and watch their antics in the water.
For their sake, I worried about crocodiles but they swam without a care.
Nothing bad ever happened on the days I kept watch. But to this day, I can still remember the fear whenever a floating log headed their way.
These are some of the memories I have of my time in Sabah.
When we left after the second stint in 2002, both my daughters cried.
They were aged nine and fifteen then, but when we talk about our Sandakan days, we each carry our own memories of the cheer and charm of the Sabahans who came into our lives.
I know that the Land Below The Wind has made me appreciate the fact that I am Malaysian even more.
I have taught in both city and remote schools in the state and have felt the warmth and hospitality of the locals.
They don’t form opinions or judge others because of their race or background.
All they’ve wanted and want is a cikgu (teacher) who cares for their children.