Normin Shah

Normin Shah

Her full name was Normin Shah binti Jamaludin.  Binti means “daughter of” and Jamaludin was her father’s name. 

For a short time, before leaving for the Malaysian diplomatic corps, she was employed by the University of Malaysia Library where I met her.  She had a very pretty smile.  Smiling was something that most Malay girls never did – at least to western men.  Not only was she pretty when she smiled but she was very smart, her English was very good, she was inquisitive, and interested in many things.  I could not say this of any other Malay female that I met in my twenty-one months in Malaysia.  Most were very shy and would not look you in the eye.  For instance, there was a young girl, perhaps 20, whom I saw at the bus stop every morning.  I always greeted her with “selamat pagi” meaning good morning.  I made it my goal over 21 months to get her to speak – or even to look at me.  It was a gallant, if unsuccessful, goal. 

I asked Normin Shah if she would go to the movies with me and, to my surprise she accepted.  It was early in the month and if I were very careful, I felt that I could afford it

The day before the date, she asked, “Could I bring my sister?”  Relunctly, I said “Of course.”  I believe that her sister’s name was Iris.  My budget was going to be ruined.  In my calculations, I didn’t so much see the cost adding up so much as subtracting down.  Surely she knew that a Peace Corps volunteer was paid only US$90 a month.  I had no idea what was in her mind.  There could have been many reasons, ranging from the good to the bad.  It could have been that her sister needed an outing or that she wanted to know about how Americans lived.  Also, she could have wanted protection from what might be a lecherous westerner.

The appointed Friday arrived and I took the bus from my flat in Kuala Lumpur to the satellite town of Petaling Jaya where they lived.  It was perhaps six to seven miles  – which was not far by bus.  On the way back to Kuala Lumpur, Normin Shah decided that they would like to try having a milk shake at the British milk bar.  I have forgotten its name.  Two milk shakes.  I didn’t have one.  Subtract, subtract, subtract.


The movie was forgettable, at least for me.  I wonder if they remember it?   The return bus trip to Petaling Jaya was uneventful.  After dropping them at their house, I found that I had missed the last bus of the evening and I had no money left for a taxi.  I began my 6 to 7 mile walk back to Kuala Lumpur.

After about three miles into my walk, some good Muslim Samaritan, picked me up and gave me a ride back to my distant flat.

My budget for the month was shot.  This date for three almost emptied my bank account.  For the rest of the month, my dinners consisted mostly of chapati (Indian bread) and dal (lentils) and I had to give up my after-work treat of pisang goreng (banana fritters).

Pisang Goreng

The next time I saw Normin Shah was the in U.S. in 1965 – at least a year later.  I have no idea how I found out that she had become Second Secretary in the Malaysian Embassy in Washington, D.C. 

I had just returned from my Peace Corps stay in Malaysia and was traveling around the States interviewing for library positions.

I have already written about the Greyhound Bus program where one could of being able to travel for 99 days, anywhere in the lower 48 states for $99.  I was still poor. 

I had just interviewed at Cornell and at SUNY (Stony Brook).  I had been offered positions that I was not interested in at both institutions and stopped in Washington, DC to interview at American University.  I was invited to have dinner with Normin Shah – and her mother.  The thing that I remember most about that visit was that Normin Shah’s mother, who chewed betel nut, was out of all the necessities and was the midst of withdrawal pains – much like a cigarette smoker being out of cigarettes.  It would be several days before her new supply would arrive by diplomatic pouch from Malaysia.  In desperation, the mother, with Normin Shah interpreting, asked if we had chewing tobacco in the United States.  For sure.  I had sold it in my father’s grocery store in Olustee, Oklahoma.  However, in DC, I had no idea where to buy it.  I went immediately to a nearby Peoples Drugstore to inquire.  Indeed, they had 3 brands and I bought all three – Red Man, Skoal and Beechnut.  As a cigarette smoker myself, I knew about addiction withdrawal pains. I made an elderly Malay woman very happy that day.

Never suspecting that I would hear from Normin Shah again, about a year later in 1966, I was very surprised to get a call from her saying that she and her mother would like to visit me in St. Louis where I was working at Washington University.  By this time, while still relatively poor, I had a one-bedroom apartment in Plaza Square close to Kiel Auditorium, home to the St. Louis Symphony.  I had been starved for classical music.  Beside having a used car, I had bought an upright piano, a bed and a couch, in that order.  I remember that I didn’t even have a lamp yet and, to read at night, I dragged the couch into the entrance hall where there was an overhead light. 

For their visit, I moved into a nearby motel and turned over my sparsely-furnished apartment to Normin Shah and her mother. 


Desperate to find something to entertain them with, I decided to take them to the Climatron in the Missouri Botanical Gardens.  It was a choice made in heaven.  As we were walking through, the mother spied a small tree and squealed for joy.  Opening her purse, she proceeded to fill it with leaves that she picked.  Thank goodness she quit and snapped her purse shut before the tree was naked and before anyone caught us.  She had stumbled on leaves that are used in making curry.  I believe that it must have been a tamarind tree but am not sure.  The leaves that she had taken looked very much like the picture shown here that I copied from the website of the Botanical Garden.  It was called a medicinal plant that was often used in curries. 

I remember very little else about their visit.