Peace Corps Roommates
278G Jalan Brickfields in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, was a fourth story walkup apartment that the Peace Corps rented in 1963. It had three bedrooms (each with a ceiling fan), a bath, a living room (also with a ceiling fan), a kitchen and a balcony – each small.
Its screen-less windows were seldom closed. The windows had decorative metal bars to deter burglars but to allow maximum ventilation. I don’t remember that bugs were much of a problem. I do remember burning a mosquito coil every night in my bedroom. The apartment had running water – cold and cold. Since the water supply was on the roof, the water was somewhat warm in the afternoon. The outside stairs were open to the air but covered.
Al Pond and I were its first inhabitants. Al had come to Malaya in an earlier group and only stayed in the apartment about a month before returning home to the States. I remember very little about him except that he was old, lifeless and dull. He must have been at least 60. I was 32.
After Al left, the Peace Corps office suggested that I get two paying roommates.
Sjafiroeddin was the first. I had met Sjafi though Ruth Daroesman, an American friend who worked at the University of Malaya as the editor of a Malay journal. He and Ruth were important in my life: they were the ones that taught me, by rote, the Malay and Indonesian folk songs that I transcribed, some of which I used in my music teaching and choirs that I directed. Sjafi, originally from Indonesia, was very interesting. As World War II broke out he escaped to Holland as the Japanese invaded Indonesia and it was in Holland where he received his engineering degree. Later, he returned to Sumatra and joined the rebellion in the effort to overthrow Sukarno, in hopes that Indonesian could become a democracy. Sjafi’s life was so interesting and the telling about it deserves a special memoir.
The other bedroom was rented out to Gucharan Singh, a student at the University. He was a Sikh. Sikhs wear a turban to cover their hair which is never cut but twisted on the top of their heads. Gucharan Singh did not want his mother to know that he had cut his hair so when he went home, he would wear a pre-wrapped turban hoping that she wouldn’t know.
Another unusual feature of Sikhism is that all Sikh males share the name “Singh” which means “lion.” Women carry the name of “Kaur” which means “princess.”
He was a good roommate, a good student and studied hard. His friend Ranjit Singh, who was always hanging around, was a happy-go-lucky and wonderful guy who eventually was kicked out of the University for bad grades. I learned a lot from the two of them and they expanded my horizon greatly. No doubt they were part of my changing attitude toward religions other than Christianity.
After Gucharan left at the end of the school year, the Peace Corps placed Sam (not his real name) in the empty bedroom for the 2 or 3 weeks before he – and I – returned home after our two year tour. Sam was someone that I knew and liked from our 10 weeks of Peace Corps training at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois. Somehow my, and I think Peace Corps’ antenna, did not catch on to the fact that he was “gay.”
The way that I found out was as follows: Sam’s lover appeared at 278G hoping to find Sam who happened not to be at home. He was distraught to say the least. Yelling and crying, I was finally able to make out that Sam had refused to see him again. It got so bad that he threatened to throw himself off of the balcony. In my trying to calm him down and keep him from doing something so terrible, I made the statement that should he jump off the balcony, he probably wouldn’t die but that he would hurt himself badly and, furthermore, he would end up in the parking lot of the whorehouse on the ground floor. This seemed to help calm him down and I was able to get rid of him before Sam returned.
I never told Sam.