Posted: 06 Feb 2012 12:20 AM PST
Almost half a century ago (45 years to be exact, in 1967), I acquired non-Malay friends for the first time in my life, upon entering secondary school in Dungun, Terengganu.
Born and raised in the one-time mining enclave of Bukit Besi some 22 miles to the interior of Dungun, my childhood had previously revolved around just Malay kids.
It wasn't by design, far from it; the opportunity just wasn't there. Bukit Besi's population was overwhelmingly Malay and almost all kids from the community, myself included, went to the national-type school i.e. sekolah melayu.
Of non-Malay families there were only a handful, probably no more than 20 households, and their children attended the English primary school adjoining ours.
As for me, an elder brother and a younger sister also attended the aforesaid sekolah melayu; we later joined Remove Class for one full year of English studies before entering Form One.
My subsequent three siblings, however, had a headstart in the English language since they were enrolled in sekolah omputih from the very beginning.
Having non-Malay friends opened my eyes to new, interesting possibilities. Suddenly I was surrounded by pimply boys and giggly girls who taught me to swear colourful words in dialects alien to my Melayu tongue.
I got to celebrate festivals other than the Muslim Raya. I learned to light up firecrackers, appreciate dragon dance, develop a taste for yee sang, throw oranges at Chap Goh Meh and, best of all, collect angpows from friends' parents during Chinese New Year.
I was living the life of a small-town girl surrounded by Chinese and Indian friends with nothing more than friendship in their heart, to complement the Malay kids who formed my coterie of kawan.
It's true what they say about life back then; we were less concerned about the colour of our skin and the language we spoke at our dining table. We embraced friendship like it was the most natural thing in the world.
It was from those Chinese girls that I discovered the mellifluous voice of Taiwanese songstress, Teresa Teng. Thus began my love story with Chinese music, one that has endured until this day.
Teresa Teng was THE voice of the era. Almost every song she sang climbed the charts and I would be the beneficiary of sheaf upon sheaf of lyrics, written in Pinyin of course, courtesy of those Chinese classmates of mine.
They knew how much I loved to sing and how handicapped I felt for not knowing Mandarin. So they took turns to write out the lyrics and to coach me on how to properly pronounce the words.
I can still recall, and sing well too, the very first Chinese song that I was taught, a melancholic number called Nan Wang De Chu Lian Qing Ren (Unforgettable First Love).
Today I have some 30 Chinese songs old and new (mostly Mandarin and Cantonese, with a few Hokkien) in my repertoire. And I have not stopped learning.
I don't have to understand Mandarin to love Chinese melodies and appreciate Chinese culture, one of the most ancient in the world.
I don't have to understand Mandarin to rest my freezing derriere on the stone slabs of the awesome Great Wall of China in the depths of winter, just so I could appreciate with my own eyes the incomparable beauty of this land.
Reading of today's politics already divided along racial lines, I feel sad and defeated. How I yearn for yesterday, when life was filled less with hatred and more with understanding and compassion...
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