Archives For Malaysia

The Backstory

September 3, 2022 — 11 Comments

I am often asked how ideas for a book emerge. Have You Eaten Rice Today? has been fermenting for years, probably way before I decided I wanted to write books. So how far back shall I go? That’s the question. I suppose to when memories are mine and not those of others nudged to the surface by others, or photos, or books.

I’ve had a most fortunate life.

Snapshots flicker through of being a little girl in Nigeria. I remember being woken in the middle of the night by my mother because we had to evacuate the house as the one next door was a blazing pyre. I remember the smell and infernal noise. Our house did not burn. I also have happy memories, mostly centered around our last home, in Aba, our animals and the men who made our lives infinitely easier — Ali and Sam, the cook and houseboy who spoilt me and from whom I learnt much.

There were brief interludes in England where I resented being sent to a village school – an outsider in the country of my birth.

And then Malaysia.

The excitement when the P&O ship, SS Chitral, docked at Port Swettenham and Dad waving from the wharf as Mum and I waited to disembark after three weeks at sea. The warmth, the smells, the clutter of people, whilst not Africa, felt so much more me than the cool damp of a rural England. Even at six.
As the years in both Singapore and Malaysia — ten in total — added up and I reached adolescence, the stories of my parents’ meeting in the jungles of Pahang during the communist uprising known as the Emergency of the late 1940’s and ’50s, became the romantic backdrop to the country I then considered home.

My parents met on a road deep in bandit country. My father’s Jeep had broken down. My mother’s ran smoothly. He, an officer seconded to the Malay Regiment from the British Army, refused to leave his pistol. She a tall, attractive and very pragmatic Australian nurse working for the Red Cross refused to allow a weapon in her vehicle. So she left him stranded, although did leave word of his whereabouts at the next military post. Perhaps that meeting should have warned them of a volatile life ahead. As well as being a soldier, Dad was a poet, a dreamer, a man who loved to be in love. My mother was the opposite, a realist who nonetheless fell in love with the much younger man.

They left Malaya, as it still was, in 1955 and returned in 1964 with me in tow. Dad no longer a soldier, but a businessman; Mum no longer a nurse but deeply involved with the Malaysian Red Cross.
School was a melange of colours, creeds and cultures. What better way to learn about the world? Then in 1969, it was decided educational stability was needed and so I went to boarding school in Australia – an outsider in the country of my mother’s birth.

But I adapted and enjoyed the benefits of an Australian education, not just at school. And as an impressionable teenager home for the holidays, my parents’ story fascinated me. It emerged, not in one fell swoop but in dribs and drabs. I remember going to the Port Dickson Club where the manager knew Dad from his army days. We stayed at the Rest House in Raub, the village in which Mum ran a clinic — a detour on the way to the Cameroon Highlands to pick strawberries during a week’s local leave. During the Emergency, Mum also set up a clinic on the west coast of Malaya just north of Port Dickson in Tanjong Sepat – about the only place in Have You Eaten Rice Today? that is not mentioned. But it was from the townsfolk there she received the medallion with the words I stole for Dee’s present from the people of Raub.

Fire came again into my life when, one sultry night in December 1970, standing on the padang across from the Dog — The Royal Selangor Club — we watched it burn down. We had been there for dinner and carol singing. I remember the smell and the infernal noise.

After seven years in Kuala Lumpur, a slice of my heart will always be in Malaysia. The last time I visited I stood on where I calculated our house had been. A lovely old black and white torn down to make way for the Petronas Towers. I cried.


So many memories. Mine interwoven with those of my parents. But Have You Eaten Rice Today? is not my parents’ story, although I have stolen freely from their anecdotes, their papers and photographs which merged into the book of my imagination.

Dee, a delightful sprite of a character, did not come from Armidale – the town of my mother’s birth — but from Townsville in Queensland. Simon, an ex-soldier and retired rubber planter, is not my father although I have drawn from him as far as speech and a partiality to whisky is concerned. Dad did not know one end of a hoe from the other but did speak multiple languages, including Malay and Cantonese. Max. What can I say about Max? A young man searching for his own story.

London, and Dorset in the south west of England, are places I know well. I have been to Hell, and had a delicious pub lunch in Chetnole. I’ve climbed Bubb Down, and visited the church at Melbury Bubb to marvel at the rather extraordinary font with a frieze of a stag, a lion and a wolf carved from an upturned base of an Anglo-Saxon cross.

Research is a delight. The tricky part for any writer is to know when to stop adding the fascinating tidbits we come across as we delve into the past.

Or just when to stop!

There are websites galore devoted to the expatriate life and how to make the most of it. How to choose the right school. How to recreate oneself as an accompanying spouse. How to make friends in a foreign land. How to have a baby overseas – that one always makes smile. I believe the answer is the same anywhere in the world – you push. 

Living a life abroad is not difficult. And as the world shrinks with the ease of travel and the omnipresence of the internet it has without doubt become easier. In some ways though the very ease of communication and the ability to see films and TV shows from any country,  has created a belief that we are one giant homogenous world with little separating us – a sort of Bollywood comes to Hollywood. And that can lead to unrealistic expectations, to a lack of cultural awareness, a lack of willingness to accept and, mostly, embrace our differences.

It is a privilege to be invited to share in someone else’s customs and traditions. To travel, and to spend significant time in another country encourages us to become more compassionate, more open to inevitable differences, to understand that there is no single way to do many things. It is also too easy to forget issues that may arise whilst living in a foreign country might well have arisen when living in the village of one’s birth, surrounded by family. It is easy to blame external factors for internal problems though like everything there are exceptions.

I think a global perspective helps make us more accepting and in some ways kinder.

What travel most certainly does is introduce new words and phrases into our lexicon that are used without thought in our daily speech, without remembering those to whom we are speaking might be utterly confused.

My 60th birthday was shared with seven girlfriends with whom I have celebrated for over ten years and who, last week, flew in to St Croix from mainland USA and Britain. Sitting on the gallery one evening I looked at these wonderful women who I had met around the world and wondered how many countries had been lived in. A quick tally was 24 countries, and that wasn’t counting overlaps where some of us had lived in the same country. Had we included those the total would have been 42.

Not surprisingly those multiple countries and languages have spawned many phrases in our personal dictionaries. Growing up in Malaysia the word cukup and tidak were daily admonitions from, it sometimes seemed, most adults in my life. Meaning “enough” and “no”. Makan siap called us to the table – the bahasa melayu equivalent of “grub’s up”. Papua New Guinea added em tasol and means “that’s all”. Genoeg and tot ziens came from Holland, another “enough”, and “see you later”. My children, raised initially in Thailand, were quick to learn mai pen rai – “it doesn’t matter”. 

But the phrase I had completely forgotten from my childhood was huggery buggery!

I had left the house early to go and prepare the table at Cafe Christine’s for 14 lovely ladies joining me for lunch. Unbeknownst to me, those staying with me had plans to decorate the house in my absence. (I later understood why everyone kept asking me “when are you going?”, or “what time do you want us there?” I had also been mildly surprised to note my Cruzan friends, who often work to a Caribbean clock, arrived on time and my houseguests all late.)

But back to huggery buggery.

Apparently whilst hustling to decorate the house with all manner of glitzy banners, streamers and balloons proclaiming my advanced age, my multi-lingual pals were searching for sellotape.

“Well she must have a huggery-buggery drawer somewhere!” said Trish, continuing to pull open cupboard doors and tug recalcitrant drawers swollen by humidity.

“What?” The query came from five women.

“The huggery buggery drawer. You know, bits and bobs, odds and ends. Everyone has one.”

Relating this to me later over yet more bubbles, I laughed. It was a phrase used by my paternal grandmother and my father, learned from their days in India. Sometimes it is best not look too deeply into the etymology of a word but goodness it is descriptive. And whilst Trish has never lived in India, she learnt it from an Indian ayah whilst living in Dubai.

Writing this blog brought to mind the teenage glee with which a friend and I, then living in Papua New Guinea, would call her dog to heel. Her travel history included South Africa and her amusingly non-pc parents had named the mutt who appeared one day at their door, Voetsek. Voetsek in Afrikaans is a not terribly polite way of saying, “get lost”.

And so along with kindness comes humour. Two things necessary wherever we live but which is sometimes needed in larger doses when living a global life. Some of the things we build into big events or issues are really very unimportant in the greater scheme of life, and we need a take a kecil out of the huggery-buggery drawer and learn to realize that for most things, mai pen rai!

Now I wonder if there’s an expat website for that!

Note: I’ve just been told that huggery-muggery is listed in a 1700 Scottish dictionary so it seems India borrowed and adapted from the Scots!

Distance Perceived

October 4, 2016 — 1 Comment

Distance has never been an object.

Sharing the back seat of a station wagon with Cottage, a dog of varied parentage, was the norm. None of the occupants wore seat belts, and cigarette smoke curlicued around the interior before finding its way out the open windows. The roads we travelled were mainly dirt and emerging many hours later at either a rest house or our destination, we must often have looked like the Asaro mudmen of the Papua New Guinea highlands. We were though in Nigeria.

My father always took the pre-dawn shift behind the wheel and would last until sun up when my mother, a hardy Australian, would take over and drive the majority of the trip. We sang – I’m pretty sure some songs would not be considered suitable for a little girl – songs from the hill stations of India where my father had been stationed prior to Partition in 1947. One still floats into my head when I’m in the car sometimes. The chorus ends with the stirring words “Queen Victoria very fine man” – which rather dates it. The back seat of that car, and others in my childhood, is where I also learnt Australian ballads – Waltzing Mathilda and The Wild Colonial Boy are two I remember.

Singing passed the time. It was difficult to gauge, even for my parents, just how far we travelled unless close attention was paid to the odometer. Mile signs were non-existent. Instead directions were given by poles. Eighteen poles to the dead tree with a crooked branch. Seven poles to the hut with a broken door. And so on. All very well, but it took a certain amount of concentration to count telegraph poles, spaced randomly, along a dusty road. It was on those interminable journeys to Kano, or Jos, or Enugu that I learnt to count – poles, camels, goats.

The trip would be broken up with coffee, warm juice and sandwich breaks, often on the outskirts of a village so we could refill water bottles from the standpipe. The car would be surrounded by children and I would have new friends to play with for fifteen minutes or so before we piled back into the car and continued on. Distance was no object.

A few years later and on the other side of the world, we relocated from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore. Two dogs and a cat were also be transported. We had two cars by then and my father opted to take the cat, a decision he bitterly regretted a couple of miles into the, in those days, seven hour trip. Pusscat yowled the entire time. It was a toss up as to who was more stressed on arrival at our new, temporary, home – I do remember Dad pouring whisky from his hip flask not long after unpacking the cars. Many other road trips followed up and down the Malay peninsula. Dodging vast lorries hauling logs, we drove through lines of regimented rubber trees or jungle so thick the possibility of carving a way through it seemed inconceivable – visiting places my parents had lived during their courting days in the 1950s, during the euphemistically called Malay Emergency.

Then Australia and boarding school. Vast distances travelled for half-terms and holidays when I did not return to whichever country was currently home. We thought nothing of driving a hundred miles for a woolshed party and be home for breakfast. Roos and emus waking those of us slumbering in the back seat.

Papua New Guinea was my next stop. Ahh, youth! My boyfriend and I would leave Lae, on the Huon Gulf on Saturday to drive along the world’s most uncomfortable road – miles and miles of corrugated dirt which rattled the teeth and nerves. Lalang grass threatening the shred any unwary arm hanging out of a window. Air conditioning was not a luxury we had.
Our reward would be breakfast of coffee and egg and bacon sandwiches at the Kassam Pass – if they hadn’t been forgotten on the kitchen counter. Views stretching to the edge of the world before we advanced through Chimbu territory. Many Chimbu are delightful but I would hold my breath hoping we would not break down amongst these stocky, tough men wearing little more than an arse-grass, a penis sheath and carrying a spear. We’d arrive in Mount Hagen or Mendi in time for a party and drive ten hours back the next day in time for work on Monday morning. We were young, and distance was no object.

Based in The Netherlands, we criss-crossed Europe either in a not always reliable, shamrock green VW Variant named Murphy, or by train. A few more countries in between, wherein we continued our road tripping with our own children in the back seat – belted in of course – and we found ourselves in Texas. It takes a long time to get out of a state 900 miles wide but Los Angeles, Baja California, Florida Keys called – places not to be ignored.

All adventures which have formed the backbone of our family memories – the songs sung, the games played, the middle-of-the-night stops in strange places. All have continued our theme of ‘distance, who cares?’ And the wonderful thrill of going somewhere.

So why, now I spend a quarter of each year on a 28 mile long island in the Caribbean, do I quibble about driving 15 miles from my home in Christiansted to Frederiksted, nestled on the western shore?

Distance, it’s a funny thing. I guess we fit our perceptions to our surroundings!