Peace Corps – Letter 1

Peace Corps

Letter from Malaysia 1

To save money, I made an arrangement with friends Jane & Bill McClellan to send a copy of my letters to them who would duplicate them and mail them to my friends in the U.S.  Only the following survive.

18 July 1963


It seems like an eternity since I left the States because so much has happened so rapidly. I’ve been living in a wonderful dream since the 29th of June.

May and hardly know where to begin. Perhaps a chronological approach would be best.

Our trip started in Seattle from where we flew to Anchorage, Alaska. From the plane, everything is simply beautiful – mountains, glaciers, icebergs, etc.

Didn’t leave the airport but had a long layover waiting for our connection to Tokyo. On the way to Tokyo lost completely the day of May 30 because of the International date line. We therefore arrived in Tokyo on the 31st at 2 AM. By 3AM had arrived at the hotel where I slept for 2 hours before getting up to walk around the streets. Downtown Tokyo is very modern with lovely buildings etc. and not, I think, very indicative of Japanese Culture. Saw the Imperial Hotel that Frank Lloyd Wright designed, and it still is, after about 30 years, a lovely building.

Left Tokyo at 9AM for Hong Kong where we arrived the same afternoon (31st).  Hong Kong is one of the most fantastic, dream-like, unbelievable spots imaginable.  We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel which is on the mainland of Kowloon. Kowloon and the New Territories are on the mainland of China on land leased from the Red Chinese government. The lease expires sometimes toward the end of the century. Hong Kong (or Victoria) is an island off the mainland and is reached by ferry. The whole area is teeming with “millions” of people, many of whom have escaped from Red China and living in unbelievable places–squatters huts, government housing and well as in “lean-tos” on top of bldgs. The one thing that really impressed me was the fact that these people are clean, healthy, and happy even if they don’t have much. There was a terrible water shortage when we were there- the people only getting 2 tins (about 5 gallons each) every 4 days. In the hotel we had water from 7:30-8:30 AM only.

In Hong Kong had my first experience in bargaining for things. This has since come to be a part of daily life. I disliked it very much at first and still dislike it. However, now I am gradually learning that I need to know its value before bargaining.

We left Hong Kong the 1st of June for Kuala Lumpur by Malayan Air Lines.  We were about 30 minutes out of HK when the pilot announced that we were heading back due to trouble in one of the engines. After arriving back in HK, we were welcomed by ambulances and firefighting equipment. We were quite relieved and were delighted to find out that we were to be stranded there until the plane could be repaired. We finally stayed 3 more days at which time the 58 Peace Corps Volunteers flew out in 3 separate planes. The three extra days were spent wandering around the streets as well as taking several tours which included a boat harbor tour and of the New Territories. On this tour of the New Territories, we could see the Red China border in the distance.

Reluctant and broke, my group left HK on June 4 and flew over Formosa. and South Vietnam before landing at the Bangkok airport for about 30 minutes. Next stop was Kuala Lumpur where we arrived at sunset. Couldn’t see much as we rode the bus to our quarters at the Technical Quarters but was able to make out some wonderful, lush vegetation including the beautiful coconut trees. Got into our rooms where were to spend the week of “in-country training”. We ate dinner there and it was real shock–rice, almost raw chicken which was still red in places and some kind of greens–simply awful.

At a meeting later that night found out that I was being assigned with Alice Lage (another librarian) as  librarians at the University of Malaya–quite happy about this. Alice is an interesting and very capable person who is very easy to get along with. A few days later I was invited to tea at the USIS Librarian’s house and was greeted with “Oh, you’re the one who is to teach music at Malayan Teachers College”. Well, I was flabbergasted.

That same night, we were invited to another party at which time I cornered one of the Pease Corps staff and asked him about the rumor. He not only told me about the 2nd job teaching music but about a 3rd job at Victoria Institution (a very fine local high school).  Since then, I’ve managed to talk them out of the VI job because I have the equivalent of two full-time jobs.  Peace Corps has admitted that they have over-scheduled me but haven’t offered any suggestions as to how to get the work done. More about jobs later.

The Honorable and Mrs. Charles Baldwin (American Ambassador) had a cocktail party for us PCV’s. I have been wined and dined nearly every night that I’ve been here. This on top of my two jobs is about to kill me–but back to the plot arranged according to subject.

Socially, I’ve had a simply marvelous time and I can’t possibly tell you all but will mention a few that really stand out.

Some Chinese students at the University took me to see a movie, “The Jade Hairpin”, a Chinese Opera with English subtitles. Any resemblance to Western opera cannot be found. It was a wonderful experience to see this historical film with beautiful costumes and to be told about the Chinese customs by these fellows. They couldn’t understand the Mandarin Chinese as spoken in the movie so they too, were reading subtitles–Chinese.  By the way, they also took me to see “To Kill a Mockingbird and were quite amused when I couldn’t understand the English and had to ask them what was said–they reading the Chinese subtitles.  After this movie we went to a Chinese “steam-boat”. This is a restaurant with tables having  pots of water sitting in a hole in the middle of the table with a fire under it. In this pot you cook the various foods that are brought to you on sticks–prawns(shrimp), liver, gizzard, boiled quail eggs, intestines, pigs’ stomach, jelly fish, cockles etc.  I tried to steer away from you which ones. However, I tried the Cockles and I know I swallowed that damn thing ten times.

The Library Staff had a dinner for Alice and me as well as 2 employees who were leaving. Had a choice between Muslim or Chinese food. I chose Chinese–it was a magnificent 10 course meal and this time I tried pig’s stomach, and it was a darn site better than that cockle. Being brave after having eaten the stomach I tried the pig’s intestine and proceeded to swallow it many times also–with a big broad sickly smile. This evening was embarrassing but also quite rewarding for Alice and me.  The Librarian, in his short speech, said that it was both a sad evening and a joyous evening–sad because of the two that were leaving, at which time there was applause.  He said it was a joyous evening because Mr. Hutchins had come from England to lecture in Library Science –deathly silence (they don’t care for this “chap”).  He then said how happy they were to have the Peace Corps librarians and the place rang with cheers. Perhaps the frustrations that Alice & I have been through at work are worth it–anyway we felt better because until this we weren’t sure whether we had reached any of the staff.

One of the most interesting evenings I have spent was in the home of an American woman who had been married to an Indonesian. She lived in Indonesia for years and now because of political reasons is now living in Malaya.  She had invited an Indonesian friend, Sjafiroeddin, who sang Indonesian and Malay folk songs for us.  Absolutely wonderful!! He is a fantastic fellow and have seen him quite a bit since then.

Mr. Long, the principal at Malayan Teachers College (he is Chinese) has entertained Mary Holm (another PCV at MTC) and me quite a bit.  One evening we had 1,000 yr. eggs (not really that old).  He told us that if we didn’t like them, we could go to the window and “puke”.  I really felt like it but here again I swallowed many times.

Have been taken to Frazier’s Hill which is a lovely cool resort type place 5000 fee up and wonderfully cool.

Have been entertained at the Selangor Club (elegant private club) and it is deathly. Mostly you find the dull “orang puteh (white men) here.

Very few seem to have a sense of humor at all, and they are quite proper.  The Malayans (this term includes Malays, Chinese & Indians) on the contrary are delightful people who enjoy life and have wonderful, relaxed attitudes–this also has its problems.

Now to the food here in Malaya.  I was quite disgusted with myself at the way that reacted to the food when I first arrived because I could hardly eat it and I dreaded meals. In fact, all the Malaya IV PCV’s were reacting the same way.  This was while we were staying at the Technical College in-country training.  Much to my joy I found later that this food was in fact horrible to the Malayans also. After leaving the Technical College I had a wonderful time trying some wonderful food. There is a great variety of food–Malay, Chinese and Indian. The Malay and Indian food is very hot with curry (about like hot Mexican food in heat). I ate curried everything and enjoyed it!  I’ll try anything once and while there are some things I don’t care for, I find that I really am loving the foods. This doesn’t mean that I wouldn’t love some American food right now–especially 2 dozen hamburgers. Oh yes, the fruit is wonderful and there are many differ varieties. The pineapple and bananas are wonderful and well as the mangosteens.  Durian, I have had and not disliked but was not too fond of.  It is a fruit with a horrible smell, and, to the Malayans, is a real delicacy.

I will be moving into permanent housing soon and am anxious to try my cooking skills.