In every classroom, whether you are teacher or a student or an invited guest as I was yesterday, everyone should learn something. I learned one new skill, how to Google Meet, and two new words, membawang and kay poh chee!
I was invited by Nazima Versay Kudus into her on-line classroom, Integrated Language Skills II, at Universiti Teknologi MARA or UiTM—Penang (Bertam campus) via Google Meet to answer questions about my short story “Neighbours”, from my collection Lovers and Strangers Revisited, which they were studying. The sixty students were from the Faculty of Health Sciences.
This was my first time on Google Meet or any on-line forum during this Covid-19 MCO (Malaysian movement control order). In 2012 I did speak to students from Ohio University via Skype for their class on Exploring Malaysia’s Diversity through Film and Fiction, answering questions about two other stories from the same collection, “Only in Malaysia” and “Home for Hari Raya”. “Home for Hari Rara” was later filmed by Ohio University students who came all the way to Malaysia.
Membawang, by the way, is a Malaysian slang for gossiping…like peeling layers of an onion, getting to the core of the truth, perhaps….Kay poh chee is a busybody. Both words are appropriate for “Neighbours” a story about a bunch of neighbors gossiping about the suicide of Johnny Leong. Mrs. Koh, who was once featured in a New Straits Times article, “Are You Mrs. Koh?” is your typical kay poh chee—a know-it-all busybody!
The students and I first talked about the neighborhood, how it was not typical of Malaysia for most Malaysians. Having lived in a new housing area that had recently opened to all Malaysians, I was given a unique perspective of Malaysia. Over time, as I found out, new neighborhoods start to skew in one direction or another. As more of one race move in, others start moving out. Eventually, it became a “Malay” area long after I moved away to a “Chinese” area closer to where I was teaching at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang.
Had I lived in a predominantly Malay neighborhood or a Chinese one or even an Indian one, my perspective of Malaysia would have been totally different...as it is now that I'm living in Sarawak! Fortunately, being new to Malaysia, I was not biased against one race or another. I judged them as I saw them, as we interacted—they were my neighbors!
The question-and-answer session lasted one hour and the first two questions were, “Is the story real?” “Did it really take place?” I briefly talked about my neighbor committing suicide and my personal involvement and the choices I had to make, as I had written about in an earlier blog and later reprinted in Tropical Affairs: Episodes from an Expat’s Life in Malaysia.
Several questions veered away from the story, about writing in general, how to overcome writing slumps, what books I would recommend, what project am I working on now, and even how to be a good neighbor, but I would steer the conversation back to the story by pointing out aspects of “Neighbours” that they may have overlooked. I kept several questions handy just in case…like how did they interpret the story or what conclusions could they draw about the neighbors? (They really didn’t know each other very well.) How would someone who had never been to Malaysia perceive Malaysia, based on the story? (It’s multi-racial and the various races appeared to mix freely.)
What is the relevance of each character and what are their main concerns? Each character was, in fact, selfish in his own ways, concerned about their own ‘loss’ if the family moved away. The dentist would lose two more clients, the teacher would lose her ‘best’ student…
When I asked about Koh’s main concern, they merely compared him to his wife, so he seemed ok, but as an insurance salesman, he was upset that, if Johnny had bought life insurance, he didn’t buy it from him! He had asked Johnny several times!
I asked them, what was the significance of that last line by Mrs. Koh, when Tan asked “Who’s going to tell Veronica?” and she replied, “Not me! It’s none of my business!”
This was after she had made it very much her business, making sure that each neighbor, as they joined the group, knew exactly what had happened (according to her), why it had happened (according to her), and what was wrong with each member of that family (according to her)! She had even insisted that Veronica was out gambling or spending all of her money on her daughter!
Later, one student asked, “Did Veronica actually go gambling or shopping?” Instead of giving the answer, I asked, “What does the evidence say?” Initially the student replied there was no evidence, but when I asked, “What were Veronica and her daughter Lily carrying at the end of the story?” Another student replied, “Shopping bags!” So, I asked, based on the evidence, did she go gambling or shopping? I wanted them to think! To look for clues in the stories that they read and draw their own conclusions.
Another question was, “Why did he kill himself (in the story) and also in real life?” So, I speculated over the financial implications, the fact that he sold his motorcycle and walked home. I also talked about how easy it is for someone to slip into depression when their world suddenly falls apart and drew parallels to the on-going Covid-19 virus, of people losing their jobs and finding themselves unable to pay their bills or to provide for their families. Unable to find a solution, they take the easy way out—easy for them, but painful for their survivors!
I also mentioned that, if they ever get into a difficult situation, that they should always look for a solution, to focus on the good aspects of life not just their current ‘bad’ situation, and that they are stronger than they think, and to never to give up! At times, we all need encouragement...
One of the last questions was “Did any of them tell Veronica?” and “Why did you stop the story short and not wait for Veronica to arrive?” I explained that the real story was about the neighbors themselves, their actions and their harsh words that reflected more on them than on Johnny’s suicide. And based on all of their excuses and their scattering before Veronica arrived, it left only Tan, the conscience of the story, to do the right thing. In the ‘real’ story, that fell to me, the newest neighbor, the foreigner, the white guy, who had to tell Johnny’s wife and daughter what had happened to Johnny.
When the hour was up, we said our goodbyes. Hopefully all of them came away with a deeper appreciation for the story and for the opportunity to pose questions to the author who had written it. (I would have loved to have that opportunity as a student!) I know I appreciated the opportunity of my being asked and sharing my insights on writing and on life itself, especially during this historic event that we are still in the midst of, not knowing how it will all turn out or how our families will be affected (including my own in America).
We can only keep our fingers crossed (or whatever Malaysians do for good luck) and hope that our neighbors remain healthy and safe (if not, they may infect us) and that they are not wasting their time gossiping about each other….The last thing we need during Covid-19 is another kay poh chee! One Mrs. Koh is quite enough!
—Borneo Expat Writer