12 November 2008

Same country, yet utterly different... How True!

Thanks to a friend of mine, I get to read this strange yet a true article. It is a strange but a comforting feeling to have someone acknowledging their feeling truthfully and not hiding it behind a stupid friendly smile. A smiling face but with thoughts of awkwardness and weirdness to relate to us, the Sarawakians…

The Star, Sunday September 14, 2008
Same country, yet utterly different

East is East, West is West and though they be as one together, each is not the other.
Each in his place, By right, not grace, Shall rule his heritage. –Rudyard Kipling

Thus began the introduction to a fashion spread contrasting past and present, modern and traditional, East and West.

Unexpectedly, Kuching emerged as the perfect location for this unique heritage narrative.
That season’s scorching summer clothes and accessories blended seamlessly into the exteriors of magnificent colonial edifices such as the Sarawak Museum, General Post Office, the Court House and the Charles Brooke Memorial.

The result? Spectacular, thought-provoking images.
Sarawak is in some ways an absorbing aberration of the British Empire and the Brooke family’s private realm.

Steeped in an incomparable history that still irrevocably binds the state’s people with their culture and land, it is an entity that others sometimes find unfathomable.
Which is why, whenever I’m there, I feel as if I’m in a foreign land.

I find it hard to relate to Sarawakians (and, by extension, Sabahans) as fellow Malaysians. Though just the other side of the South China Sea and less than two hours by air, the Land of the Hornbill seems a world away.

It is not just the resort-style, laid-back languor or the strident patriotic pride in their lands. Nor is this unfamiliar feeling due to their impossible-to-place accents or their often unusual names.
Even the people’s general behaviour can be quite different, if you know what I mean.

For instance, I found myself in a private club at the end of a rather pleasant late-night dinner. The club had been established so that friends could drink, talk and enjoy an evening together in the company of like-minded people and not complete strangers.

“Come on, have a drink,” someone entreated me shortly after I got there.

Before I could turn around to see who it was, there was a bottle of whisky in front of me. My colleague and I could only look on aghast; we were expected to drink straight out of the bottle. Just like everyone else around the bar that night, merrily swigging from the bottle, with not a mixer in sight.

No standard rules apply here, I thought, as we hastily beat a retreat before the fast-emptying bottle headed in our direction.

Strolling through the dusty streets, peeking into century-old traders’ shops, talking to people, you get an intriguing insight into the culture of this remarkable land.

I found it bizarre that I could not neatly categorise each one of them into the tidy little ticked boxes that we Peninsularites are so used to.

Their names don’t necessarily tally with religion, and their skin colour gives not many clues to their race.

And, with everyone celebrating every cultural and religious festival, it’s a real rojak. You can never tell who worships where by just looking at them or talking to them. This is very disconcerting to the Peninsularite.

Even more galling, their lives do not revolve around Kuala Lumpur and what goes on in West Malaysia. They don’t even attempt to disguise this dismissiveness with polite small-talk enquiries.

They prefer to shop in Hong Kong, visit family in Sydney or bank in Singapore, if I may relate a few tales I’ve heard.

I continuously marvel at these degrees of separation. We are tied together in a federation but that frequently seems to be the only link.

As regards behaviour, their riotous individuality stands out and an independent streak colours every strand of their multi-ethnic lives.

Surely these recalcitrant citizens must be taught to become true Malaysians? Or do they already inherently possess an unquenchable spirit woven into their heritage and patriotic pride, resembling an exquisite piece of ikat?

It can’t be a simple task when Malaysia’s largest state cradles 27 ethnic groups and 45 languages.

Yet they celebrate their diversity with as much equanimity as sheer unadulterated joy.
Heritage naturally draws on the past, but should also make the present meaningful and pave a path for the future. Could that be their secret?

Or could it be that, as Kipling meant, they know their place, their rights and their heritage and revel in them, rather than perpetuating the prejudices that still stultify us in the Peninsula?

People, places and perceptions inspire writer Jacqueline Pereira. In this column, she rummages through cultural differences and revels in discovering similarities.

Like I had mentioned before, it is weird for them to be that way after many years together. We really need to work on that happy peaceful multiracial country thingy if we want a peaceful Malaysia starting with respecting and understanding each other…

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