I grew up in Malaysia and spoke Malay, an island language related to Hawaiian. Malaysia was a British colony and became independent in 1957. Everyone born before 1957, I was born in 56,’ went to British schools. There we were on the equator, 90 degrees all day, every day, and we read poems about daffodils and stories with snow, and no one explained what they were, we read as if were in England.
The first week of school was terrifying. My mom and dad had maybe 5 years of school between them. School was not warm and fuzzy, school was foreign, cold, unknowable, suspect. So my parents sent my aunt with me.
The classroom had French doors that opened to a veranda, my aunt stood where I could see her. My eyes were glued to her, I begged her not to leave me, not even to go to the ladies room and she didn’t, she went when I went.
At the end of that first day the teacher said to ask our parents to draw something on the left hand side of every page in our exercise book. And between my aunt and I, we were sure it was kittens. My father on the other hand was not so sure but I was beside myself and my aunt was only a little calmer. So my father sat down and drew a kitten on page after page after page, in the only style he knew: real life.
The next morning, my aunt and I showed it to the teacher. Turned out, we were to draw margins! Those days margins did not come pre-drawn.
I was in dire straits. Lucky for me we had a neighbor, Auntie Annie, whose grandfather was British. Not only did she speak English, she was teaching her grandchildren after school. I joined them and thanks to her I caught up with school. Slowly but surely I started reading, writing and speaking English, or rather Manglish.
Around this time, 1962, television began entering homes. Malaysia was a young nation with one TV station and no TV studios. All the entertainment programs came directly from USA. There were a few British programs but mostly they were American. It thrills me that we were 10,000 miles apart and we were watching the same shows!
I Love Lucy, The Andy Griffith Show, Bonanza, Get Smart! I remember an episode of The Beverly Hill Billies, Jethro falls in love with a certain young lady who kept a radio in her bra. Granny, Jed and Elly Mae did not approve and the romance ended at the end of that episode but I learned “music in her heart.”
Another medium that helped me learn English was radio. There was an Australian air force base in my town and the Royal Australian Air Force, R double A F radio station played the same hit songs fifteen times a day. Which was heaven sent. My aunt and I with pencil and paper ready, frantically copied lyrics, or what we thought were lyrics. When we were happy with the “lyrics” we copied them in our song book. For years we sang nonsense.
Instead of you’re a devil in disguise, we sang, you’re a devil in the sky.
My aunt was a teenager and she was in love with her cousin. We were a conservative family, we did not get to meet or even see boys, other than our cousins during family gatherings, and even then, it was a you can look, I can look but cannot touch.
She was love sick, songs by Neil Sedaka spoke to her.
You are the answer to my lonely prayer, you were an angel from above
I was so lonely till you came to me, with the answers of your love
I was six when I sang this song.
My aunt decided to put me in a singing contest. At the time her favorite song was Constantly by Cliff Richard. Neither of us knew what constantly meant, and it was a bitch of a song to sing:
All day, I’m walking in a dream, I think about you constantly
Just like, an ever flowing stream, your memory haunts me constantly
And here’s the hard part
Just as sure as each star, keeps burning in the sky
Your love will stay a flame in me
A flame that burns so bright
not only through the night
I got consolation prize: a box of prunes
mahani believes stories connect us to our inner self and to each other and sharing stories creates a caring community. She started StorySistas and would love to hear your story.