Peace Corps – Letter 2

Peace Corps

Letter from Malaysia 2

Jan. 5, 1964

Merry Christmas, Happy New Year, Happy Easter etc.

I started a letter last Nov. 17 which was intended to be a Christmas letter, but the happenings of November affected my morale so much that I wasn’t fit to write. I apologize for no Xmas letter or cards and hope that this will put me back in your good graces.

Your letters after Kennedy’s death really helped. I had gone to work (Sat., Nov. 23rd here at the University and was told of the assassination. I thought that it was some sort of joke. Suddenly it registered that they were in earnest.  My first reaction was of a tremendous homesickness–I wanted to go home and be among my own people.

The people here were wonderful, but I felt that if I were home, things would be different somehow. It was difficult to stay on the job that morning but somehow, I made it and very glad that I did because I felt that I found out more that morning about the Malaysian attitude to the U.S. than I had before or since. Americans were seeking Americans for comfort. Malayans were also seeking Americans to talk to. I had many phone calls and visits from friends. as well as people I didn’t even know.  I doubt that many more tears were shed in the US than were shed by the Malayans. They looked upon Kennedy almost as a god and they look upon the states as the leader of the free world.

Shortly after I heard the news, a note with following appeared on my desk:

“This is a grief that is common to all of us

And came unexpected

Many the tears that now will be falling

Since for great men mourning voices

Still last longer”


Now my morale is about back to normal, and life is back in the general swing. The tremendous excitement of discovery has worn off but I “m still enjoying Malaya and my stay here.

If you ask me what I’m accomplishing, I ‘would have to give you a mixed answer.

My University Library job is less than rewarding. I’ve now turned over the Public Services job to a Malaysian who returned from his. library training in England.  I was given the job of organizing the small microfilm collection and the Atomic Energy Commission Reports (micro cards).  Not terribly exciting and not rewarding since the need for the AEC reports is nil and even the use of them here in the next few years is very dubious.

I am no longer teaching at MTC except for my choir one night a week. I am now planning to teach at the Language Institute (another teachers’ College).   The music job at MTC was very rewarding and I hope it will continue to be so at the Language Institute.

I have been collecting Malay and Indonesian folk songs on my tape recorder from anyone who will sing them for me, writing them down and using them to teach in the classes.  I have also made simple choral arrangements of some of them for my choirs.  At the risk of sounding egotistical, I will say that the response has been tremendous.  The students appreciate being taught in their on cultural medium, rather than primarily a Western medium.  After leaving MTC, I got a call from them one day telling me that the Agong and the Raja Permaisuri Agong (King and Queen) were going to visit and asked me if I could return and demonstrate teaching Malay songs for them.  I did and the King and Queen were impressed.  They asked for copies of the music and took all the copies I had so now I have to reproduce them all over again.

My choir shared a concert with a physical education dance program in mid-December.  On the program we sang an American song, an Indian (in English), two Chinese songs (in English), and 4 Malay song in Malay.  The audience response was tremendous.  There were shouts for encores, but we had sung all the songs that we knew.  Since half of my choir graduated as well as my accompanist, I must start all over again.

As I think I told you, I haven’t used my Mallay language much at all since I arrived in Malaya, so I have forgotten nearly all I knew.

In my previous letter, I mentioned my roommate, Al Pond.  I now have an added roommate who was also mentioned in the last letter.  His name is Sjafiroeddin, and it is wonderful to have him around.  Mr. Pond is very nice but is not very exciting.  Sjafi is a political refugee from Indonesia – having been very active in the Sumatran rebellion against Sukarno.  He plays the guitar and has been a wonderful help with my folk songs.  We hope to publish them some day.

Social life is still wonderful.  I have made many friends and am constantly being invited out.  Have found, as others in the Peace Corps, that there is always the nagging problem of trying to entertain your friends who have been so nice to you – on no money.

Have been doing a lot of my own cooking lately – mostly hamburgers and stew – out of expensive but wonderful New Zealand beef.  Occasionally Sjafi cooks curry and I’m will learn how.

I now have a Chinese dhobi (laundry woman).  She picks up my clothes and returns them twice a week.  She charges US$4 a month for all that I can get dirty. She speaks only Cantonese so had quite a problem telling her that I didn’t want my underwear starched.

January 28

The latter part of December I had a marvelous vacation to Penang and Thailand.

Two friends and I left KL by 2nd class train the night of 20 December going to Penang, a lovely jewel of an island off to the northwest coast of Malaya.  We had a sleeper on the train (Malayan trains have sleepers in 2nd class buy as you will see, the Thai trains don’t.  Spent 2 days in Penang which wasn’t enough.  I must go back some day.  It is a luscious island with an impressive hill in the center, up which you can take a vermicular and have a glorious view of the island and the straits of Malacca on all sides.  Later we took a trip around the island by bus, and taxi. We had traveled about halfway around the island to where we were supposed to change buses to find that the last bus had already left.  Soon, we had about a hundred people around observing our plight and finally with the help of all of them chasing all over town, we were able to get a taxi to the next bus stop – about 15 miles.  When we arrived at the next bus stop, we had dinner at a lovely motel-hotel on the beach.  I was here that I saw my first “Soth Sea Island type sunset” and it was breathtaking.  Regretted that we didn’t have our swimming suits.

We left Penang the morning of the 23rd on our way to Bangkok.  The countryside was beautifully green with padi (rice) fields everywhere.  Made quite a few friends on the train because everyone could speak English or Malay, so time passed rapidly until evening when we had to sit up all night leaning on friends (we had picked up another PC Volunteer at Penang).

At all the stops along the way – and there were many – many vendors met the train selling all kinds of interesting foods.  It was great fun to lean out the windows bargaining for all kinds of foods.

Before arriving in Bangkok, all four of us had decided that we wouldn’t stay in Bangkok but would get the next train to Chieng-Mai, a city in Northern Thailand.  We were fascinated by what we had been reading about this city.  So-o-oo, after arriving in Bangkok at 11:00 AM on Christmas Eve, we rented a shower (much needed) and after walking around the streets for about 2 hours, caught the train of Chieng-Mai.  By the way, we had gotten cold in the night on the way to Bangkok, so I had bought a cheap coat.  Thank goodness because we nearly froze that night on the way to Chieng-Mai.

The Thais are wonderfully friendly people and somehow, we managed to make friends even if they didn’t speak English and my Thai is about as good as you Urdu.  They kept feeding us and it got to be sort of a game with them to buy strange food for us to sample.  I ate a lot of strange things – some good, some bad.  Because of their eagerness to be friendly, I really couldn’t’ afford to turn any of it down.  Around midnight, with our having almost forgotten that it was Christmas Eve, and with my not being able to sleep sitting up, one fellow who perhaps knew twenty English words came up to me and said, “Merry Christmas.”  Others appeared, nodding, and smiling – fruit appeared from everywhere and we had a small Christmas party.  Being Buddhist, I’m sure that most of them didn’t even know what Christmas is, but it will a Christmas that I’ll always remember.

The next day, I met an English-speaking Thai with the typically difficult Thai name, transliterated from their alphabet, Sertbhandhu Bhandbularp.  He is an architect from Bangkok who was going to northern Thailand to transact some business with his brother.  A fascinating person.  He invited us to his home when we got back to Bangkok.  More about this later.  We arrived in Chieng-Mail around noon and had an icy Christmas shower (no hot water – but I haven’t had hot water since I arrived in Malaya) – and then Christmas dinner.

We rented bicycles for the three days that we were there and went all over the town on them – a wonderful way to see things and a wonderful way to be curiosity pieces to the Thais.

Chieng-Mai is not the place for night life of any kind, but it is wonderful for its unspoiled atmosphere, beautiful women, and its cottage industries.  The last two are not connected!  We saw the Thais making silk and cotton cloth, teak bowls and carvings, silver items, pottery, etc.

Leaving Chieng-Mai, we had another all-night journey back to Bangkok.  The weather wasn’t quite as cold as it was on the way up, so we were a little more comfortable.  In Bangkok we contacted our architect friend, and he insisted on taking a day off his work to show us around the city.  We saw many of the fantastic “Wats” of Bangkok and from Sert, learned a little bout Buddhist religion and customs.  We spent the evening in his home with him and his lovely “non-English speaking” wife.  She had cooked a wonder Thai meal for us.

Bangkok is a lovely city, but after having enjoyed Chieng-Mai so much, Bangkok was a bit of a letdown.

After a two-day train trip, we arrived in KL unbelievably dirty and tired, but happy.

Since arriving back in KL, the weather has been much hotter.  The rainy season is ending (early this year) and the heat has hit.  I’m afraid that I’m falling into a lethargic state.  Hope it doesn’t last too long.

I almost forgot that the most outstanding thing that has happened since I last wrote has been the birth of Malaysia.  It was very interesting to be here and observe the feelings and moods of the people.  I was a great deal more excited about it than most of the Malaysians.  They showed sympathy for the idea but were not tremendously excited about it.

3 February

I never seem to make much progress with this letter but will see how far I can get tonight.  There are many things that I would like to write about, but I don’t have the time or energy.  The weather is getting hotter and I’m getting slower and lazier.  In training we were told that we would probably have trouble adjusting to a new culture, temp, etc.  Being in a big, sophisticated city, the adjustment has been negligible except for the pace.  I’m beginning to think that the big adjustment will be when I get back to the States because I’m getting lazy.  Since the weather is hotter, I am perfectly happy to sit under the fan looking at the wall for as much as 30 minutes at a time -thinking of nothing.

We are in the middle of the month of Ramadan (Muslim calendar).  Ramadan is the moth of Puasa or the month of fasting.  All Malays (Muslims) fast from daybreak to sunset.  They are not able to eat or drink anything during the daylight hours.  I really don’t know how they do it!  I might be able to give up for one day, but I would be a raving maniac if I had to give up water for even half a day.

Recently we have had two Hindu – Pongal and Thaipusam.  Pongal is the harvest festival which was very interesting because I was able to look out my window and see my Hindu neighbors chanting, praying, and cooking the food outside their front door in a prescribed fashion.

Thaipusam is supposed to be a very fantastic festival because this is the time that the KL Hindus go to Batu caves (limestone caves outside KL) on a pilgrimage.  I didn’t get to see this because I had to work.  It really must be interesting because many devout Hindus, because of a vow given for a cure that has happened to them, are stuck with metal spikes with no sign of blood when they are taken out – and with no ill effects.  Very similar to the penitintes of New Mexico – only there, there is blood.  Next year I’m going even if I must take off work to do so.

Speaking of Hindus, I was invited to my neighbors the other day for the 1st birthday of their daughter.  The first birthday is a very important occasion to them.  The party was uneventful except that this was the occasion for my first betel nut chewing.  After coffee and cakes the betel nut necessities were passed around.  Since I know the people well, I thought I could politely refuse until a man across the table for from me asked if I would like to chew some.  I couldn’t say no very well, so he proceeded to fix one for me.  He took the leaf (about 2” x 1”) and smeared a little lime paste on it, sprinkled it with shavings from the betel nut, folded it up and gave it to me.  The object is to put it all in your mouth and chew, not swallowing anything but the juice, till it is gone.  Being the only orang puteh (white man) there, my betel nut and I were the object of considerable attention.  I would chew awhile and when I thought that no one was looking I would tuck it in my jaw and let it rest.  Much to my dismay, they kept reminding me that I must chew it – so I would try the cycle all over again – again to be reminded.  It is not too bad, but it is rather bitter.  I left the party a little earlier than expected to get rid of it.  It was a fun experience now that it is over.  Opium next?  However, that is illegal.

I must comment on the English spoken here because it is interesting.  When I first came to Malaya, I had trouble understanding the English of many people and to some extent still do.  After returning from Thailand, I can really appreciate the good quality of English spoken here now.  The Malayans have all been taught British English.   That is really something to try to understand when it is spoken with either a Malay, Chinese or Tamil accent.  It is delightful.

That have developed their own individual expressions that are delightful.  I think that the one I enjoy most is the use of “lah”.  I even find myself using it sometimes.  “Lah” in the Malay language is an expression used to add emphasis, or to show politeness, lessening the impact. The will say “diam” which means “shut up”, but if they way “diam-lah”,  it means “please don’t talk”.  A mother might say to her baby “jangan menangis” which is a very strong “don’t cry” but in putting the baby to sleep would say “janan menangis-lah”.  This expression you hear transferred to English in such phrases as “To long of an assignment-lah”, “Come-lah”, don’t-lah”.  The other day one of my library attendants said” I need to go pass water-lah”.  It was all I could do to keep a straight face.  To them this expression is very effective and very necessary.

Another phrase that you hear a great deal is “isn’t it” – used in various ways.  Not only do hey say “that’s a new book, isn’t it?’ but they also say “They are going to town, isn’t it?’  And “You have a new shirt, isn’t it?”  I’ve gotten so used to it now that I hardly ever notice it anymore.

Most of the people here must speak 3 different languages, starting in childhood.  I really admire them.

My barber is a 19-year-old Indian boy who asks one question after the other for a solid hour.  Haircuts here take an hour.  I swear that they cut each hair individually.  I often wonder how long it would take for a haircut for someone who had hair.  For $1.00 (US 33 cents) you not only get a haircut, but you get your neck and head massaged.  When I go into the shop, they find all of the English language magazines they can find – mostly about Indian movie stars.  However, not long ago they brought me a Time magazine.  I was delighted to notice that it was a November issue until I found that it was November of 1959!  Last week, my barber asked me about hamburgers and hot dogs – what they looked and tasted like.  Result:  He is coming over tomorrow night to try a hamburger.  It will be interesting since most Malayans are not adventurous when it comes to food.

I really am having a marvelous time, primarily because the people are so wonderful and friendly.  Next Sunday a bus load of Indian boys are taking to Port Dickson for an all day swim in the Malacca Straits.  The ages range from 18-22, My advanced age doesn’t seem to bother them.

If I seem to talk more about the Indians than any other race, it is because I live in a neighborhood that is primarily Indian.

My transportation problem is a little better than it was because Peace Corps has issued a motor scooter to another PCV and me.  He gets it one day and I get it the next.  It is a godsend.  Now I only must walk a mile uphill in the 1 PM blazing sun every other day.  For a while the combination of driving on the left side of the road plus the KL traffic was rather frightening, but now I’m flipping around on it and loving it.  It’s marvelous ride about 10 PM at which time I can cool off and sometimes even feel a bit chilly – oh glorious feeling!

I’ve rattled on for many pages not having said much but will stop anyway and wish you all a Happy Hari Raya (end of Puasa and fasting) and a Happy Chinese New Year (which is coming up also the middle of this month).

Thanks for all your letters.