Undo the Balan

Undo the Balan

Before leaving for Bario, I was told that to be given a
Kelabit name is something special and that it has to be given without
one asking for it. I was also told that when you have been given a name, you
have to live up to it.
What I did not know was that the Kelabits do
take their names very seriously. For those of you who do not know,
Kelabits change their names twice in life; when they become parents and when
they become grandparents.
Anyway, here’s the story of how I got my Kelabit name.
One afternoon, Daniel (one of the two project
coordinators) and I were sitting at the dining table, chatting while waiting
for lunch. One Tepu’ walked towards us and started a conversation with
Daniel. She saw me and asked him what my name was.
I introduced myself as Wai Min. She said it once, repeated it, and
then said it again. Then she said, “Balan, saya bagi Balan.” (Balan, I’ll give
you (the name) Balan)
Daniel and I looked at each other, not really sure what to
do. Aunty Nicole (Bario Asal coordinator) who was sitting a few seats away from us heard the Kelabit
name that I was given and immediately rushed into the kitchen to find the lady
I was assigned to, Tepu’ Sina Rang.  Within seconds, Tepu’ Sina Rang was out of the kitchen. While buckling her waist pouch, she walked very quickly towards us.  It was an unfamiliar sight because Tepu’ is usually “super chill”.

Immediately, she undid the name Balan and named me ‘Lian’
instead, after her late husband. Aunty Nicole told me that I should accept and take the name given by Tepu’ Sina Rang because she knows me better – and that I should not just accept and take the name given by a “passerby”.

I was and still am so touched to have been given a
name that means so much to my Tepu’ and her family.
So here’s to you, Tepu’ – thank you very much for giving me
such a meaningful name. 

Lian will strive to live up to his name.

Kan Wai Min aka Lian
The Story of Callen, Tepuq and Dayang

The Story of Callen, Tepuq and Dayang

  One evening, as I was lounging in the living room and chatting with the others, Kimberly exited the kitchen and made a beeline for me.

  ‘Tepuq wants to buy your guitar,’ she deadpanned.

My guitar is a cheap acoustic guitar with 5.5 years worth of sweat, tears and love.

  Everyone in Batch 1 knows how much I love my guitar. My father got it for me on my 13th birthday, and that was when I started learning how to play the guitar. Having had it for almost six years, I had developed a strong bond with my guitar. I knew all its curves and edges, all its perfect imperfections (thumbs up for including John Legend’s song? :P). I even named it Callen. Okay, so maybe I’m being a little bit dramatic here, but I really do love Callen. And because everyone, including Kimberly, knows that, I got a shock when she joked about it, or so I thought…

  ‘I’m not even joking.’

  The moment she dropped this bombshell on me, a thousand things ran through my mind at the same time. Why would Tepuq want my guitar? Am I able to leave it behind? What would my parents say? Is this the time to let go? I settled on the question that seemed to be the root question of every other question: Why would Tepuq want an old, defective guitar like mine?

  Inwardly shaking, I strode into the kitchen and talked to Tepuq Sinah Rang, our homestay host that we all affectionately call ‘Tepuq’, which means ‘grandmother’. Without beating around the bush, I told her, ‘Tepuq, gitar saya ini sudah lama. Kalau Tepuq nak, saya boleh beli gitar baru untuk Tepuq letak dalam homestay Tepuq (Tepuq, my guitar is old. If you want one, I can get a new guitar for you to put in your homestay).’

Worshiping with Tepuq by the fireplace

  Somewhere during my short speech above, Tepuq reached out and held my arm gently. After I was done, speaking partially in Malay and in English, Tepuq told me that Callen is the first ever guitar to enter her homestay. To add to that, he is the first ever guitar with which she worshiped God in her homestay. She offered to buy Callen from me, and in that split-second, I made up my mind.

  ‘I can give it to you.’

  As the words flew out of my mouth, my brain immediately doubted the decision. While carrying on the conversation with her, my brain had an inner war with me. It reminded me how Callen was my companion on my worst nights; he accompanied me through assignments and work. Would I be able to let go of him? But I had said it already, and I was determined to stick to my decision. Tepuq insisted on paying me, but I can be quite persuasive and she accepted him as a gift, but not before hugging me and saying, ‘God bless you.’

Tepuq sings with more than her voice:
She sings with her heart

  Flashback to when we were worshiping together by the fireplace, Tepuq told me how she once learnt how to play the guitar. However, she dropped it because it just wasn’t something women did. Being a person who believes that humans have the right to do what they want, as long as it doesn’t directly hurt others, I felt sad. Tepuq loves music, and she is constantly singing. I could see how much she wanted to learn. When I offered to teach her, she then said that she had forgotten all the basic chords and was too old to pick it up again. By leaving my guitar there, I also hope that she will somehow learn how to play, maybe from her son, Parir, maybe from the tourists that come under her roof.

Tepuq pinning on the sash for me

  Later on, Tepuq gave me a Kelabit name, Dayang. Dayang is the heroine of the Kelabit folklore and it is quite a popular name amongst the Kelabits. Names are of extreme importance to Kelabits, so curious little me decided to ask Tepuq why she gave me the name Dayang (most of the other participants got their tepuq’s first name. To know more about Kelabit names and the name-changing tradition, click here). According to her, one of the reasons why she named me Dayang was because I brought my guitar to her homestay and gave it to her. The name wasn’t the only gift she gave to me. On our last night, she presented to me a beaded sash, which we suspect to be really pricey. I was taken aback (horrified, almost) at the thought of accepting something so priceless, but I accepted it nonetheless.

From left to right: A message from me to Tepuq, written on my guitar; my last picture with Callen; leaving Callen next to Tepuq’s photos on the wall.
The message says: To Tepu’ Sina Rang, thank you for having us here! I hope that this guitar will be a part of the joy and happiness that happens here. <3 Gloria, May ’14

   In a sense, I guess this exchange of gifts symbolizes our relationship, just like how newlyweds exchange rings, or how people in the olden days would exchange locks of hair. Till today, I have not and I will not feel any regret about leaving Callen in Bario. Some people have jokingly said, ‘You ditched your husband!’ but my answer is always the same. ‘It’s like a long-distance relationship. Besides, with Callen being there, there’s one more reason for me to go back to Bario!’ In my heart, I am also assured by the fact that Tepuq will take care of Callen and use him to worship God.

  On a side note, the Batch 2 participants got to use Callen! Here is a photo of Kan Wai Min (read one of his blogs here!) with Callen!

Written by
Gloria Dayang Ngu

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