Guest post by Jonathan Hall, associate teaching professor of physics
Penn State Behrend
Forty years ago, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Malaysia, teaching students in the only secondary school in the district of Sipitang, Sabah (formerly known as North Borneo). This summer, I returned to visit my former students and fellow teachers. I brought along my daughter, Liz Hall, who was a student at Behrend in 2003-04 before attending the U.S. Naval Academy.
Our trip started with a fourteen-hour flight from the United States to China, and then to Kota Kinabalu (“KK”), the capital of Sabah. We arrived late in the evening, and checked into the hotel. When the receptionist found out that I had been a teacher in Sipitang, which was near her hometown of Beaufort, it resulted in all of the staff wanting to have their picture taken with the “guru from Sipitang.” It was a warm welcome back to Sabah.
After a recovery day on the beaches of the South China Sea, we headed to a downtown hotel for a reunion dinner with some of my former students who live and work in KK.
It was Ramadan, a month-long religious observation during which Muslims fast each day from dawn to sunset, so we joined them for their evening meal when they broke the day’s fast. It was a buffet offering a wide variety of dishes, from curries to satay, which was an excellent introduction to Malaysian cuisine for Liz.
After eating, we went around the table, telling our stories from the past forty years. A friendly competition emerged regarding the number of grandchildren each person at the table had. The person with the most had seven.
First, a little history
Malaysia was formed from a collection of colonies in the early 1960s. In order to develop as a nation, expanding education from the few to the many was the number one priority of the government.
To accomplish this, Malaysia “imported” teachers from other countries to teach, especially topics such as math and science, in rural areas. This is how Peace Corps volunteers came to be in Malaysia from the early 1960s until the early 1980s, helping until Malaysia was able to train enough of their own teachers.
As is common in other nations in Asia, your academic success, and your future career, is largely determined by the results of national standardized exams. The exams are given at the end of Form 3 and Form 5 (ninth and eleventh grade). Math is a mandatory pass. If you fail the math exam, that is the end of your education.
The parents of many of my students were subsistence farmers or fishermen, but they knew that education was the key to a brighter future for their children. Unfortunately, because they lived in a remote area, many of my students did not have teachers who were qualified in math during their early years in school. We had a year or two to catch up through practice in class, daily homework, and extra classes after school and on Saturdays when necessary.
At the reunion dinner, several of my students said that they came to high school unprepared in math, but learned and became proficient enough at it to pass their exams, which enabled them to move on to careers in teaching, nursing, banking, business and law. It was very gratifying to hear that.
I don’t think that I did anything special or was a particularly good teacher as I’d just graduated from college, but it was enough for me to volunteer to be present where I was needed. In that place and time, it was critical to have a qualified teacher who was willing and able to help them prepare for their exams.
Mountain climbing with former student
On day three, Liz and I went to Mount Kinabalu to meet up with my former student, Daring Laban.
When I taught Daring, he lived in a remote village, Long Pa Sia, close to the Indonesian border. Students from his village traveled five days on foot through the rain forest to attend secondary school, where they lived in a dormitory.
Liz, myself, and Daring
Today, Daring is the manager of Sabah State Parks. Sabah Parks administers several state and national parks, including Kinabalu Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Center, and the Danum Valley Conservation Area, a mostly undisturbed rainforest that is the home of orangutans, Sumatran rhinoceros, pygmy elephants, and more. Sabah Parks host 1.3 million visitors a year, playing a major role in tourism, the second largest sector of the state economy. While much of the rainforest has been lost over the past forty years, ecotourism has replaced timber as a mainstay of the economy and is helping to preserve the remaining rain forest.
On Mount Kinabalu, we traveled through four climate zones as we climbed—lowland dipterocarp rain forest, montane forest, cloud forest, and sub-apline vegetation—before reaching bare rock and the peak at 13,400 feet.
Daring, me, and Liz on Mt. Kinabalu
Climbing Mt. Kinabalu
Mt. Kinabalu peak
The park was formed to preserve its great biodiversity, including some of the world’s largest pitcher plants, and the Rafflesia, said to be the world’s largest flower. During the 8.5-kilometer hike, we climbed 2 kilometers in altitude.
In June 2015, there was an earthquake at the mountain. Rockslides killed eighteen climbers; most of those killed were students visiting from Singapore. The trail was closed for six months for repairs. The violence of the earthquake was still very evident, with large areas of newly exposed white granite where the rockslides occurred instead of dark, weathered rock seen elsewhere.
Rockslide damage on Mt. Kinabalu
We celebrated a successful climb by stopping at an open-air restaurant specializing in wild boar, which are hunted in the oil palm plantations.
Visiting Long Pa Sia
After hiking, it was on to the interior village of Long Pa Sia. Back then, it was a 50-mile trek. Now, it is accessible by four-wheel drive vehicles over a logging road.
The village is named by the native Lun Dayeh people1. Long = mouth, Pa = river, and Sia = red. In traditional Borneo, the river was the lifeblood of the community and was used for transportation, water, food, and bathing.
We spent a day hunting and fishing with another of my former students, Lukas. Lukas retired from banking in the city to hunt, a traditional way of life in the interior. We caught several small fish in the river. Lukas and his hunting dogs brought back a barking deer.
The village of Long Pa Sia
Liz at the Pa Sia river
Lukas and Daring after hunting
Many changes, but friends remain
Sipitang was my home far away from home when I was in the Peace Corps. All of the towns and cities in Sabah have grown and developed so much over the last forty years, that they were nearly unrecognizable to me. (In Long Pa Sia, which was known very being remote, there is now excellent cell phone reception!) Sipitang was no exception.
In Sipitang, changes included a hospital, paved roads, enough cars to have traffic jams, new schools, factories and industries, and many more people. Gone is the old open-air fish market where fishermen off-loaded from small praus their catch of prawns, squid, fish, and rays. Also gone is the fruit and vegetable market where farmers brought baskets of bananas, durians, rambutans, and other tropical fruits. Now there are two supermarkets instead.
Taking a walk down memory lane, I showed Liz the school where I taught.
Next it was on to a “Hari Raya” dinner, celebrating the end of Ramadan. The dinner was hosted by Ramawi, another former student. Ramawi’s family happens to include Wan Musa, a fellow science teacher. We worked closely together forty years ago and became dear friends. I attended Wan Musa’s wedding, where I was the Malay equivalent of his best man, which included having the groom’s face and mine smeared with rice flour.
It was great to see him again, however briefly.
Me and Wan Musa
Weddings, coffee, and longhouses
Speaking of weddings, the next day we traveled to Sarawak, the other Malaysian state on Borneo, crossing the Lawas River by ferry to attend a Lun Dayeh wedding.
Ishak and Liz at the Lawas river ferry
After a Christian wedding ceremony, there was a reception for the entire community, which included traditional songs and dance, and the giving of baskets of gifts by the bride to members of both families.
Lun Dayeh wedding in Sarawak
The next day, was a road trip to Tenom, to drink the locally grown coffee and visit the Sabah Murut Cultural Center. Built as a traditional longhouse, but on a much larger scale, the center includes displays of traditional dress, baskets, musical instruments (gongs), and other aspects of the culture and history of the local native people.
On the way back, we stopped at two longhouses—a traditional wooden longhouse and a new one made with modern materials. Regardless of the building materials, the basic design is the same. Longhouses are an elevated building in which each family has an “apartment” consisting of a living room, bedroom, and kitchen. All of the apartments open onto a verandah, which runs the length of the longhouse and serves as a common area.
At a longhouse
Stock photo of a typical Borneo longhouse
Math teacher turned voice coach?
After visiting Sarawak, we returned to KK to prepare for our 3 a.m. flight home the next day. But, before leaving, we met up with other former students for the most sumptuous Chinese dinner I’ve ever had.
In my three years in Sabah, I taught one English class. Being a math/science teacher, and learning TESL (Teaching English as a Second Language) on the fly, I decided to incorporate singing in the lessons. Albert, one of my former students who was at dinner that night, was in my English class and said that I inspired him to become a pretty decent karaoke singer. (As a teacher, you plant a seed and…)
What has changed in Sabah over the past forty years? Every town has a KFC. Also, there are McDonald’s restaurants and they serve Durian McFlurrys. This is a flavor that would not go over big in the United States.
While many Asians love the taste of durian, as do I, others have been known to object to the scent of durian. One writer described durian as “eating a delicious raspberry sorbet in a revolting public lavatory.”
Durian smells so bad, that it is banned in many public places. Upscale hotels charge large cleaning fees if it is brought into a guest room.
In Malaysia, one is struck by the hospitality of people. It is part of a way of life, of forming relationships with others, and strengthening those relationships is valuable and important to them. My students thanked me for teaching them. I thanked them for welcoming me into their lives.
While I taught students science, math, geography, and English, they taught me something of great value that I have kept close to my heart. The students in my class came from a wide variety of diverse backgrounds, with different cultures, languages, and religions, but they were all classmates together. They worked and learned together and respected one other.
In the classes I taught, I never witnessed anyone being left out or excluded because of differences. The class was only successful if every student was, so students helped each other.
Forty years later, that has not changed. It is normal and natural for Muslims celebrating the end of Ramadan to invite Christian and Chinese classmates to their home to share a meal. They don’t let their differences divide them, they respect and celebrate those differences2. This was particularly striking to me now because in our current times, there are some who openly advocate that if people are different, they should be kept separate.
The native people of central Borneo; the Lun Dayeh (also known as Lun Bawang), Kelabit and Sa’ban, are involved in the Heart of Borneo Project, dedicated to the conservation of the remaining rain forest in central Borneo. Preserving the environment impacts the preservation of traditions, languages, culture, and a way of life for the people there. Their slogan is: “Serurum. Selawe. Meruked.” This translates from Lun Dayeh as: “Friends. One way (united). Forever.”
Thanks and terima kasih3to the students of Sipitang for teaching this “guru” the most important of lessons.
1. Though we live on opposite sides of the globe, the Lun Dayeh people have a history of friendship with Americans. Before World War II, American missionaries with the Borneo Evangelical Mission lived in Lun Dayeh communities. When Borneo was occupied early in WWII, these missionaries and their families were executed. Later in the war, two American bombers crashed in the interior. Surviving crew members were found by the Lun Dayeh, who recognized them as Americans. The Lun Dayeh leaders, then made the decision to shelter, protect, and defend the American crewmen, at the risk of their own lives and communities. The Americans were guided to a location where British special forces established a small airfield to return the crewman to safety. For the full story, read The Airmen and the Headhunters by Judith M. Heimann, or watch the PBS Secrets of the Dead episode of the same name as the book title.
2. If you like holidays, Malaysia is the place to be. You can celebrate Muslim, Christian, Chinese, Hindu, Buddhist, national and harvest festival holidays!
3. While terima kasih is how you say thank you in Malay, I prefer it’s literal meaning, which is “receive love.” The response, sama sama, means “the same to you”!