Hope and approval.

Hope and approval.

It is
less likely for a regular person who lives in the city to wonder what it would
be like to live in a small town and live life on a day-to-day basis instead of
literally sketching out plans for the future.
I for once, did not. Adding
ignorance into the fact thinking that I anyway grew up in a small town. Bario was a pleasant surprise in so many aspects. But, if I had to choose one particular
aspect that always had my heart touched and my mind wondering; it would be the endless
blessings we received over our course of stay.
I remember that hot Saturday
afternoon when I walked into the long house being the new member that was
missing for the past 10 days. I questioned my acceptance into the residents of
this home, I was anxious if the first impression I bring would be counted, I
was engulfed in fear not knowing where I stand; not knowing if my presence was
accepted. I was first greeted by the homestay host’s daughter, Aunty Su who
very willingly gave me a warm hug even before knowing who I was. This hug made me feel a whole lot calmer. 
Aunty Su, the first person to welcome me into the long house.
However, the moment that really touched my inner self was when the homestay host, Tepuq Sinah Rang and all the
other Tepuqs came over to the kitchen to welcome my other team member and I.
Each and every one of them greeted me with so much warmth, hugs, wide smiles,
and excitements. Besides all of that positive vibe I received at my first introduction,
I was genuinely touched and moved at the fact how some of these
lovely Tepuqs said, ‘Semoga Tuhan memberkati kamu. (May God bless you)’ when they gave me a hug.  
I’m not sure what was it that got
me, but there was a sense of genuineness and acceptance that I honestly have
not felt anywhere else. At least not in the first hours of my presence in a new environment. This thought is often followed by the fact that I am
nobody to them, literally nobody. I have just met them minutes ago, and at the
next meal I am referred and accepted as someone’s grandchild.

I remember two days before flying home,  my team member and I who had both our Tepuqs ( Tepuq Uloh & Tepuq Ribet ) working together for that whole week decide to
take them out for a meal. As they were emotional at
the fact that the journey for all four of us together was coming to an end,
they never forgot to give their blessings to us. With tears in their eyes, we were
blessed with good health, to excel in our studies and to always remember that
being humble and having a good heart will give life the meaning we need and a
journey worth remembering.

There was a lot of hope and approval
in their blessings. I am not sure if anyone else would have felt the same, but
how often does one hug you and give you their blessings; so genuine and heartfelt? In a day and age where everyone seems to be a little self centered, voluntary well wishes like these should always be cherished and taken to heart.
Count your blessings. They don’t
come by as often. 

Wise Wishes.

takes me two trains and one bus to transport me to university, every day. On
some days, I find myself being very reluctant to drag myself out of bed two
hours earlier only to reach my class on time. On some other days, I reach home
with just adequate energy to walk myself to shower and crawl myself into bed.
While I was in Bario, Sarawak, I
count myself fortunate to have witnessed not only the lives of the elderly
folks, but also the lives of the school going children. Over the couple of days
I have experienced at the schools, I have all my admiration towards how
respectful they have been. To us, complete strangers at first and friends, at
the end of the trip; I hope.
There was an interesting mix of
enthusiasm and a care free nature I saw in these children that had me thinking
of how much I spent most of my schooling years feeling rather pressured to
perform academically better and only that. I remember not liking to stay back
extra hours in the afternoon at school for classes and here I was, teaching
English to a class of Form 1 students during after school hours, with an
initial assumption that they were probably going to be napping in class and
completely ignore my existence.
However, to my pleasant surprise, I
had a great two hours teaching this bunch of excited and enthusiastic kids! I
felt like I was doing something right when the students were so appreciative
when I corrected their mistakes on their written essays. Getting them to
interact in the beginning was a tad bit difficult, but the class got so much
pleasurable when the awkwardness broke. Class ended abruptly one day, when the
teacher made an announcement requesting all students to make their way to the
hydro dam to have their bath as there was water rationing around Bario Asal.
Yet again I was amazed at how these
kids did not rant a single bit or heaved a sigh at the thought of hiking up to
the dam after a long day at school. They quickly got their towels and soaps,
grouped up and headed to the dam while some boys sang songs and some girls had
giggly chatters. At that moment in time, watching that sight; I had a hit of
realization towards an aspect of myself. I came to terms that I should really
reduce on focusing about my end of day exhaustion and simply try to look beyond
and continue the walk.
Sometimes, I give in too much,
simply too much towards my tiredness that the rest of my day goes to waste.
These children too, have reminded me to be a little carefree. To always add the
element of fun whenever possible. When I think about it, a little ease to the
mind doesn’t really kill anyway. I have learnt to look beyond the situation
and twist it into a little fun adventure. I would like to believe that these
children had great fun bathing at the dam, might I also add how fast these
children are at hiking!
More often than not, we all wanted
to be adults as soon as possible while we were still in school. Through these
children, I saw what schooling years and being young meant through a different
lens. Carefree, enthusiastic, they have fun and they are focused whenever

days into coming back home and returning back to my everyday routine, I have
these children at the back of my mind as a reminder that giving up really isn’t
an option. Sometimes, all I really need is to embrace the journey and celebrate
whatever it is the day presents to you; whether it is welcoming a complete
stranger to teach you an academic lesson or taking a hike to have a bath after
a long day at school.

Either way, life gives you a million
parachutes, board it or end up watching it go by.

In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find
the fun, and – SNAP – the job’s a game!

 Mary Poppins, A Spoonful of Sugar
Anak Saya, Anna

Anak Saya, Anna

When I was first
introduced to Tepuq Sina Doh Ayu, the woman I was assigned to, I was nervous. To
be honest, nervous doesn’t even begin to describe how I was feeling but somehow,
over the course of two weeks, she became my family. To this day, I still
wouldn’t know how to describe our funny little bond that formed through Lendra,
her grandaughter. Tepuq was a little shy at first but Lendra certainly wasn’t. By
the end of the first day, Lendra and I had became fast friends, chasing and
poking fun at each other while Tepuq watched us from her favourite spot by the
window, occasionally smiling to herself at our antics. After a while, she would
join in our conversations and slowly but surely, we grew comfortable in each
other’s presence.
Lendra and I outside the longhouse
Eventually, Tepuq and I fell into a rhythm where I would
teach her some English in the mornings over coffee and biscuits.  Later, we’d go out to her little fish pond or
pineapple farm to work. She was reluctant at first to let me into her fish pond.
I was, after all, a ‘budak bandar’ (city kid) and not used to dirt and mud. But
after some convincing, she told me that I could catch the fish and put them into
the bucket placed between the two of us. Just like that, no instructions or
tutorials, she gave me the freedom of figuring out how I would catch the fish. After
what felt like 20 or so failed attempts, I caught my first fish, named him
Fishy, and walked (waddled) over to her through the mud to show her my first
catch. My excitement must have amused her because she stopped working for a
few seconds to laugh at me. That day was one of many milestones in Bario when
for the first time since I met her, she said her first English sentence to me
with a shy smile : “Tomorrow catch again”
Catching fish with
Tepuq and her family
At about 11
am, we would stop what we were doing, clean ourselves up and start the walk
towards SK Bario to pick Lendra up from school. The walk to and from school was
something I looked forward to because Tepuq would teach us both simple Christian
songs that she had learnt over time. One of my favourites was ‘Jalan Dalam
Terang Tuhan’ which she sang almost every day. Along the way, I would point out
a few objects and teach her their English names and in exchange, she would teach
me their Kelabit names.
Walking home from school
However, there was nothing I could teach her that could even
come close to what she taught me. Tepuq showed me what selflessness truly meant
by the way she lived her life. From the way she walked to school each day for
her granddaughter despite her aching knees to the way she offered me her hat when
the sun shone down on us while we worked.  “ Ini anak saya, Anna”, she would say to her
friends when they asked her who I was. Thank you, Tepuq for making me feel so
loved.  Uih lian ngen iko.( I love you)


Bario, you blew me away (no pun intended)

Bario, you blew me away (no pun intended)

“A place is only as
good as the people in it.” – Pittacus Lore
There is a great degree of truth in that quote – and
Bario is a prime example.
The warmth and hospitality of the wonderful Bario folk
intertwined with the breath-taking natural beauty of Bario, along with its
hilly landscape, misty mornings, and starry nights, is what makes Bario such a
special place.
Upon arrival, some of us were told that we had to walk from
the Bario airport to the Bario Asal longhouse. We gladly agreed to walk and as
we made our way to the longhouse, we immediately realised how visibly beautiful Bario was.
The clear blue sky, the view of hills and mountains (some fully visible, some
hidden behind puffy clouds), the many paddy fields, the clean and fresh air –
we were captivated.

Sadly, it started to rain and so, we had to be picked up, which
meant that we jumped onto the back of a truck headed towards the Bario Asal
longhouse. When we arrived at the longhouse, we were welcomed by Tepuq Sina
Rang who hugged us and called us her “susu’” (grandchildren in Kelabit). It was
my first hour in Bario, but I had a feeling that I was in a place “as good as the people in it”.

Fast forward to my second last day in Bario, when I was in
church, I realised something: I have never felt so much as being part of a
community – not in the way I did in Bario. I knew many of my neighbours and having
taught at the primary school and secondary school twice, I also knew many of
the younger people – and for the first time, I was on the receiving end of awkward
hello waves students give to “teachers”.
That realisation was setting in when the Pastor called all
of us, Project WHEE! participants to come on stage. I was not sure what it was
all about and not being a Christian myself, I could not have been more
clueless. As I stood in line with my friends on stage, I realised what was going on:
they were praying for us individually, one by one. I was so touched.
In retrospect, I think that perhaps, to some extent, I felt this sense of community more than ever
because I felt as if I have fulfilled some of my responsibilities as a fellow member of
the community. Adding a twist to Stephen Chbosky’s famous quote, I guess I can
say that perhaps, we accept the sense of community we think we deserve.

As I bade farewell, I said my goodbyes not to a place, but to people – and in the wise words of Winnie the Pooh, “How lucky I am to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard.”

So, thank you, Bario, for you have blown me away – and I will never be the same again.

Kan Wai Min aka Lian

PS: Bario in Kelabit means wind – I hope this explains the “no pun intended”.

Are you culturally (in)sensitive?

How would you feel if somebody stuck a camera in your face and took multiple photos of it without asking for your permission beforehand? Angry? Irritated? Is it a violation of your personal space?

Often times, many people -including me-, do certain things that might hurt somebody else’s feelings, and we are unaware of the consequences of our actions. And sometimes, we simply do not realize that those actions could possibly offend other people. Now, although Bario is located in the same country as Kuala Lumpur, Johor Bharu and Kota Kinabalu, there are many distinct differences between them. The most obvious one being the environment, followed by food, and most importantly, culture. How does this relate to one another, you ask?

Some of the older generation of Kelabit women have tattoos on their bodies, and others have elongated earlobes, a tradition passed on from generation to generation. The tattoos symbolize strength, and this increases the ‘value’ of a woman when getting married, while women with long earlobes were perceived to be highly attractive.  I found this to be incredibly fascinating, and I wanted to know more. Today, many of the women have their earlobes surgically removed due to gawking and staring by other people who are not aware of this culture and tradition.

One incident that irritated me quite a bit was when a large group of tourists visited Bario. Two women with traditional tattoos and long earlobes were present at a welcoming ceremony for them. When they started shoving their multiple cameras and iPhones in their faces to capture an image of the infamous long earlobes, I was amazed at how insensitive these tourists were. These women were not zoo animals on display, and they were definitely not there for anybody’s amusement. We are talking about humans- women; women who are already self- conscious about their appearance, and treating them like a photo opportunity does not help the situation.

Living in Bario for 16 days, I have had my fair share of moments where I just did not know if what I was doing was considered culturally insensitive or not. Living beside Tepu’ Sinah Rang (our homestay host) is a woman with the said tattoos on her legs. While greeting her every morning, I have a debate with myself in my head: Should I ask her about her tattoos? What if she gets offended by the questions? Is there a taboo that prohibits others from asking about it?! And so, this internal debate went on for about 10 days… until one day curiosity took over and a few friends and I decided to ask our Bario Asal coordinator, Aunty Nicole about it.

Coming from a different cultural background, it is very easy to do or say something that might be considered disrespectful to another person who is of a different cultural upbringing. If there was one thing I learnt, it is that it is okay to make mistakes and to ask questions about something that you want to know more about. If we did not have the courage to ask the questions that were lingering in our minds, we would have never found out the meaning and symbolism behind the tradition of tattoos and long earlobes.

There is a lot more to the Kelabit culture than what I have mentioned above; tattoos and long earlobes are just the tip of the iceberg, really. If you ever find yourself in a situation where you are unsure of what to do or say, don’t panic! Being in a place where the local culture is so foreign to you, these incidences are bound to happen, and that is okay.

A little cultural sensitivity goes a long way, and if you are not one to stick your camera in another person’s face without asking, you’ll probably do quite alright.

Rachel Khoo

A Dying Culture: A Dire Concern

A Dying Culture: A Dire Concern

As time goes by, things around us change; they evolve or disappear, and often times the process is so slow that these changes go unnoticed. This applies to many things in our daily lives- friendships, money, your mobile data limit (hah), culture.

Coming into Bario, we were told that the younger generation of Kelabits were leaving Bario in search for education in the city. Often times, they remain in the city, leaving their ‘kampungs’ behind in search for a job and financial stability. The reality of this never truly hit me until I saw it for myself. The huge age gap of the Kelabit population in Bario was shocking- on one end of the spectrum were people who qualified to be my grandparents, and on the other, children so young they could pass of as my own children. And these children will also most likely one day leave Bario in the name of education. Should this trend continue, Bario will one day be left with only the older generation, and their beautiful culture might die along with them.

During a welcoming ceremony for some media representatives from all over Malaysia, the gravity of the problem that the Kelabits are facing was never so apparent. Except for a few middle aged women, 90% of the people who participated in the traditional Kelabit ceremony were my “grandmothers”. I recall of this one woman who was the only living person who knew how to sing a very old song in ancient Kelabit language. This made me realise how things as small as a song play an important role in making up a culture, and how their absence affects a dying tradition.

Singing a traditional Kelabit song during the welcoming ceremony. 

Growing up, the lantern festival was a celebration that I looked forward to every year. Lighting lanterns and candles while savouring mooncakes was a family tradition, and that never failed to make my 8-year-old self happy. Chinese New Year was THE biggest event of the year, as my mother would ensure that my family got their brand new red clothes 5 months before the celebration. Over the past few years, the importance and value of the celebrations decreased. Today, I won’t even be able to tell you when the mooncake/lantern festival is and brand new red clothes are a thing of the past during Chinese New Year.

In many ways, observing how the Kelabit culture is slowly losing bits and pieces of itself  has made me realise how important preserving one’s culture is. Me not knowing how to use chopsticks the right way, I am very detached from my Chinese culture, and this is not something that I am proud of at all. I have never realised how important it is for us, Generation Y, to carry out our responsibility in ensuring that our cultures do not disappear over time, but now I do.

Your typical Tourism Malaysia poster

Malaysia prides itself in being a multiracial and multicultural country. Every Tourism Malaysia billboard you see has different people wearing their traditional outfits plastered all over them. Every culture is different and beautiful in its own way, and we should all play out part in ensuring that they don’t become a thing of the past.

And for me, I will start by learning how to use chopsticks- the right way.

Rachel Khoo

Postcards from Bario

Postcards from Bario

If you mentioned the name ‘Bario’ to me 1
year ago, I would have asked you what Bario
is, and to be completely honest, I will have to admit that the word ‘Kelabit’
only ever registered to me as an ‘ethnic group’ in East Malaysia. Today, I
not only know where Bario is, but I
also have 16 days’ worth of priceless memories and experiences that come along
with it. 
Bario landscape- as green as meets the eye.
Undoubtedly, Bario is a very beautiful
place. An image of all those paddy fields, longhouses and pineapple plantations
tucked into the valleys of lush rolling hills make a pretty laptop wallpaper.
But Bario is so much more than a photo opportunity. This place is rich with
culture, has a great community and people who would take great measures to make
sure that their home feels a little bit like your home too.
I fondly remember the first day when the 9
of us Project WHEE participants arrived at Tepu’ Sinah Rang’s homestay (for
those who do not know, Tepu’ Sinah Rang is our homestay host). Upon seeing us,
her face lit up and she gave all of us huge hugs, calling us her ‘susuks’
(grandchildren in Kelabit). I felt extremely touched by this woman who didn’t
even know us but was so joyed by our presence; this woman who was so warm to us
strangers on our first day in a foreign environment. The hospitality amazed me
to no end and I felt honoured to be welcomed into her home.
Women dancing to a Kelabit song during church service. 

Having lived in the city the whole 20 years
of my life, I don’t think I have ever felt such a great sense of community and
care before. During church services and social events, you could see the camaraderie
shared and formed between members of the community through warm smiles and
engaging conversations. Watching the longhouse neighbours sit by the fireplace
one night, just talking and sharing with each other, it made me reflect on my
own life back in Kuala Lumpur. Most of us ‘budak bandar’ get so caught up in
our daily lives; school, Internet, shopping, watching the latest episode of
Game of Thrones, that we don’t take the time of day to get to know the people
who live literally beside us. Speaking of which, I didn’t even know the name of
my neighbours. Do you?

Here’s to everyone, and all the memories that follow.
moment’s insight is sometimes worth a life’s experience”- Oliver Wendall
Holmes. The 16 days spent in Bario consisted of many worthy moments that I will
carry with me for a long long time. I was blessed to have shared this amazing
experience with equally amazing people. The people that I have worked with and
met complemented our project goals and aims perfectly like salt and pepper. Living
together with 10 other people -people you have never met in your life- under
the same roof for 16 days could have driven anybody up the wall. But to have batch
mates (people whom I now proudly call my close friends) who share similar sentiments,
mind-set and project goals … now that’s what made the Project WHEE experience
and those insightful moments complete. And for that, I am thankful. 

Rachel Khoo

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
That Is Okay

That Is Okay

For those of you who do not
know, the main objective of Project WHEE! is to teach selected local Bario women
who are in one way or another, involved in tourism such as homestay hosts and
eco-tourism guides. To achieve this objective, every participant will be
assigned to a lady. We adopted the method of shadowing; teaching our respective
Tepu’ English while we were at it.
I was assigned to Tepu’ Sina
Rang, who is the homestay host for all the participants of Project WHEE!. This
meant that unlike most of the other participants, I was based where I stayed.
Sometimes, during our debriefing sessions (they were sessions for all of us to share what we did, accomplished and learnt that day)
which were held every night, I would feel myself getting frustrated for not
doing a good enough job (by the standards I have set for myself) and sometimes,
a wee bit jealous for not having the experiences that others were having.
This is when I realised that my personal experiences should not be compared with other people’s. I reminded myself of this constantly and now when I look
back, I am glad I did so. I learnt so
much from Tepu’ than I could have possibly taught her – I learnt immensely just
from the way she lived her life.
My “teaching” days usually
started with me asking Tepu’ what we were going to do for the day. Sometimes, she would tell me specifically
what we were going to do and sometimes, she would not give a specific answer.
The latter is because she does not usually have a set schedule and that some of what we do depended on the weather.
On my first day, it rained. I saw life pausing for a bit – a couple (neighbours) pulled some chairs,
sat by the window and watched the rain fall. It was beautiful.
Anyway, more about my Tepu’. She is older than me but she has more energy, stamina and strength than I
do. Once, when we were working to level a heap of ground, I
was so worn out but Tepu’ just kept going. There have been other times
when I asked Tepu’ to take a break just so I can catch my breath!
I guess what I enjoyed (and
miss) most were my conversations with Tepu’; about her life in Miri, her
children, her homestay, and her life in general. Tepu’ Sina Rang, in a few
words, is a very lovely and loving woman who loves to laugh and make others laugh – she lives her life simply with boundless joy and shares this joy with others.
Oftentimes, I would ask her if
there’s anything else to do or if something I did was done properly, she
would tell me, “That is okay.”
She said that often. The words
were simple, but the effect was powerful.
A timely reminder to live life
more slowly, more simply, and less seriously because really, that is okay.

Kan Wai Min
You Are What You Experience

You Are What You Experience

I have to admit, I definitely underestimated the amount and value of
learning I was going to gain through my 16-day Project WHEE! experience.
On and off electricity, limited internet connection, and very
cold showers.
Pre-WHEE!, I was that budak
(“city kid”) who would dread and be deterred by all of the above.
Post-WHEE!, I have a better grasp of needs, wants, the huge
difference between the two, and also,  I
have  realised how unhealthy and damaging
it is to mistake certain wants as needs.
Before sharing too much of my Project WHEE! experience, I
shall explain why I decided to be part of Project WHEE.
Primarily, I wanted to give back to the community and Project WHEE! provided
that opportunity with very appealing and unique circumstances. I was particularly
attracted to the idea of being placed in a different community in an unfamiliar
culture. This has been a part of Malaysia I have always wanted to discover.
Frankly, I did not know anything about Bario or the
Kelabit community before applying for this. But after this project, as cheesy as
this will sound, the Bario folk will always have a special place in my heart. 
I went to Bario as a participant/”teacher” to an assigned
lady, but I learnt so much more than I could have taught. In my next few blog
posts, I hope to share as much as possible about my experience and all that I
have learnt.
But if there’s one thing I can say for now is that the
vicarious experience is nothing like first-hand experience, which has led me to
this: You are what you experience. 

So, put yourself out there and experience.

As for all the experiences I’ve gained through Project WHEE! which have (hopefully) shaped me to become a better person, I have to thank the
wonderful Bario folk and of course, my fellow WHEE! comrades.
Kan Wai Min