I started having a crush on someone when I was in Primary Five in an upriver school; she was in studying Primary Six in a town school.
During that Christmas of 1966 I was on cloud nine but it was a shortlived flirtatious affair, for when school reopened a week later, she had to go back because her hosts, namely my uncle who was a teacher in her school and my aunty had to leave the longhouse and were bound for St Peter’s Primary School in Saratok town.
“You and the Indian girl seemed to go along well during last Christmas,” said Aunty Agnes when she and the husband were back at the longhouse for the first term school holiday in 1967. I was then studying Primary Six, aged 13.
Yes, the Indian girl and I were still communicating by letters – we corresponded at least twice since January 1967. Actually I was looking forward to meeting her again for the school first term holiday of April 1967 but she did not join Uncle Wilson and Aunty Agnes for the school break to the longhouse, now that she was in Form One in Saratok Secondary School, as her letters indicated.
Our correspondence stopped around September of that year. There had been no exchange of photo or souvenir and the only reminder was the few nicely worded letters.
By the time I enrolled for Form One in the same secondary – it was the sole secondary school in Saratok then – I almost had forgotten about her. And when we first met in the school, now that we were schoolmates, the flame had almost stopped burning. We exchanged a few words in the first month of my Form One days and within the four years together in the school we seemed not to know each anymore. She never seemed to have boyfriend and was one of the school prefects whereas I had a few shortlived flirtations with girls, including two Chinese girls. In Saratok we practised One Malaysia phenomenon long before PM Najib put it into a concept, thanks to Iban language being the lingua franca – it was quite common to hear Chinese or Malay parents scolding their children in Iban. My two Chinese girlfriends spoke Iban better than some city Iban kids. Even the aforesaid Indian girl had a good command of the language as her mom was of mixed Iban and Chinese parentage.
We met again many years later and I was glad she was happily married to a fellow Iban from Saratok and both were attached to a hospital in the state. Then I was still single throughout the years had few girlfriends including an Indian girl from Taiping and a Malay girl from the Kelantan royal family, not to mention one or two Chinese girls from Penang – there were flirtations with Korean and Canadian exchange students in Univesiti Sains Malaysia, Penang too. These were all thanks to my engagements in music and the arts, including painting, drawing and photography.
In my immediate family, I have a niece who is happily married to a Simanggang Malay and a first cousin who is married to an Indian from Johor. Both marriages have produced many offspring. There is a cousin whose wife is an Orang Ulu and few cousins whose husbands are Indians, including one coming all the way from Benares (aka Varanasi), India. These marriages have thrived through the tests of time. All the Indian husbands, including the Benares native, speak fluent Iban. One of them, formerly from Seremban, who was the closest to me, passed on in 2004 aged 55. The children are more Indian than Iban but they speak not a word of Malayalam.
The Johorean husband of my first cousin once knocked at the door of our ‘bilik’ in Kedap, Saratok. It was around 4am but my brother Jon was just back from his fishing trip and wasn’t asleep yet. When he opened the door he didn’t see anyone as the verandah light was off and only knew it was our cousin-in-law Morgan when he addressed my brother in his Indian-Iban slang. His car encountered problem and needed some help, adding that he and the wife (our first cousin) were bound for Bintangor where they were teaching then.
Mixed marriages are very common in Malaysian plural society. Through schools and tertiary institutions, we have been exposed to the multi-racial and multi-cultural facets and fabrics of our society and as such have learnt to accept pluralism as ours to embrace.
Last week I had the privilege to be emcee for a holy matrimony between an Iban from Sibu whose bride is a Dayak Selako from Lundu. In the same hotel a year ago my grandniece also held a marriage reception. Her husband is of mixed Iban-Kedazan parentage. In the same venue in 2014, I also emceed a marriage reception between a groom of mixed parentage (Iban father and Indian-Iban mom) whose bride was an Iban Remun. So these mixed marriages are very common nowadays, thanks to open-minded Malaysian society, especially in Sarawak.
In Saratok I have a cousin fondly called Ujang who has been married to a Filipina for quite sometime. Their eldest son has graduated from a local university, thereby speaking for a marriage which has lasted for at least twenty-four years. Now my Filipino cousin-in-law speaks a typical Saratok Iban, emphasising the ‘o’ sound in the words ending with ‘a’. Ujang’s elder sister is happily settling down in Glasgow, Scotland with her English husband and two grown-up children, one of whom is a medical doctor.
A close friend who graduated from an US varsity brought back an American-African bride to the shock and chagrin of his very conventional and backward Iban parents. The childless marriage lasted more than a decade but the wife sadly left and never came back.
My eldest son is currently dating a girl of mixed of parentage (Chinese father and Filifino mom) but she speaks more English than Tagaloc or Foochow and at times speaks Iban to my wife, thanks to her many Iban friends in her former school.
It is hard to determine who is going to be one’s life partner. I could have been married to any girl in Malaysia, irrespective of their origins. She could have been a rich Foochow whose family owned the first plastic company in Sibu; or a Melanau beauty, whose father became Sarawak Governor twice; a poor soul from one Sibu longhouse; a Kelantanese princess or the Indian crush of Christmas Day 1966 but as fate had it I ended up my own fellow Ibans, firstly with a fifth cousin and later with an ex-student 17 years my junior.
Hereby, I reiterate, despite it having been said zillions of times in the immediate and distant past, love is truly blind to the colours of our skin and many other things, et cetera et cetera.
1 Corinthians 23: “Love is patient, kind, does not envy or boast, not arrogant or rude, does not insist on its own way, not irritable or resentful, bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.”