An Openness and A Willingness To Learn

An Openness and A Willingness To Learn

There was a time a few years back when I followed my grandmother into her little backdoor kebun. Bones crackling, she was holding a basket with as many vegetables in it as she had years in her life. Fast forward and I’m in Bario, seeing my assigned lady knee deep in sawah padi water. As we worked together, we chatted about random things. Sometimes, I would slip in some English words we had already learnt and we would repeat it together a few times.
One thing that never ceased to amaze me was how human and personal these people we were working with were. They could have simply shut us off but they instead chose to open up their lives to us. They were no longer just people from a distant land that I could have easily been detached from. They were people I truly came to care for. Faces as real as my own grandmothers’. Their culture and lives may have differed from ours but in the end, they were still people.
On the first day I spent with Tepu’ Uloh, my assigned lady, she brought me to sit with her below the longhouse to ‘buat kerja raut-raut’, which basically means doing something for the fun of it.  She poured out a bunch of rocks that she told me her ‘cucuk’ had collected from the hydroelectric dam. We proceeded to hammering them into tiny pieces. Sounds silly but it’s a pretty therapeutic activity. It’s definitely something to keep your hands busy over a conversation.
It being our first day, I figured that it would be better for us to speak in BM and get to know each other before actually teaching anything. To my surprise, she started teaching me Kelabit words and then asking me how to say things in English. I taught her ‘stone’ and joked that if you ever want to call anyone “kepala batu”, just point to their head and say “stone”. When we had the pleasant surprise of Dan joining us, I pointed to his head and asked “Tepu’, ini apa?”. He seemed understandably confused when we both burst into laughter after she answered “Stone! Stone!”.
That’s how our lessons often went from then on. I would tell her a word and make a joke about it. We’d laugh and repeat the words to each other. Sometimes, we’d even bring the joke back up days later to laugh at it again. To be honest, I was a poor learner compared to her. There were plenty of Kelabit words she taught me that I couldn’t get a grasp of.

Me, Tepu’ Uloh and Jess in Bario Airport

That didn’t matter though. It didn’t matter that we sometimes forgot the words we learnt. It didn’t matter that we weren’t picking up all that many words a day. In the end, we wanted to learn. We wanted to share. We would remind each other and we would talk. That’s what I believe was the most important thing. That willingness to learn.

It wouldn’t have worked at all if I had assumed the role of the ‘teacher’ and only ever wanted to teach her English, as if English was any better than Kelabit. It wouldn’t have worked if she had refused to learn. 

Tepu Sinah Rang, Tepu Uloh and me

When we started out on this project, we came with a goal to teach but I’ve realized that can’t be all. Don’t just teach because that’s not all you have to offer. If you walk in with a ready set plan or a curriculum, you won’t get the best of it. I found out by pure coincidence that the best way to teach this woman was through humor and a light on life. From there, I was blessed with a relationship that grew so deep, she told me she would be more ‘senang hati’ knowing I went home with someone who ‘doesn’t smoke, doesn’t drink and takes care of’ me. She really cared for me like her own granddaughter.
For the future batches, I know it seems like a ‘level up’ when you get your ‘Kelabit name’ or if you get loads of Kelabit jewellery. It was pretty cool when Tepu Uloh gave me her own name and I didn’t want to let go of her after she gave me my first Kelabit bead necklace but really, it’s the bond between us that really matters.When she told me to sit and rest after seeing me coughing the whole day. When she asked me how to say “I Love You” in Mandarin so she could say it to me. When she playfully pulled me into a dance during cultural night. Those were the things that really stayed on with me. 


Me, Tepu Uloh and Jess on Cultural Night

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