I arrived late at night. The flight was altogether 22 hours long, including a four-hour stopover at Hong Kong. I took a taxi to the Shah Village Motel, in Petaling Jaya. It was hot and humid. I watched the palm trees from the taxi on the way.
“So, this is the tropics,” I said to myself. I used to read about the tropics in various adventure stories. Now I was here in person.
I checked into the Motel. It was beside a football field, in the heart of PJ. They were expecting me. I went upstairs to and unwound. The next day I went to the College. There I met Stan MacFarlane, the Director. He appeared to be a gentleman, conservative and cheerful. Retired but definitely not tired.
I later found that in Canada he used to be the principal of a private school in Peterborough, that was rated as the number one private institution in Canada, from six hundred schools, by the conservative think tank, the Fraser Institute. It did not surprise me. Stan had high standards. He expected – and rightly so – the same from his staff.
The school was in a shop lot. I went to class the day after arrival. I taught economics, which was my minor in the university. I already had experience teaching it from Canada. The students were polite. They had “Asian values,” I guess. During the break, I went to get a newspaper. To my surprise, there were no newspapers.
“This is strange,” I thought to myself. “No newspapers?” There was a problem and the papers were not delivered that day.
“Oh well,” I thought to myself. I went back.
I found out later that there was a plan to hire non-Mandarin speakers as administrators in Chinese schools. Apparently, this did not go down well with a few people. Chinese people in particular were unhappy, as they wanted to preserve the ethnic character of the education of their children. This required, among other things, Mandarin-speaking administrators. Of course, at that time I did not know any of this. I only learned about this later.
City College was a private school, located in PJ. It was started by an Australian fellow. A Malaysian businessman bought it afterwards for four million Malaysian ringgits. The school offered a Canadian Matriculation program, recognized by the Ministry of Education in Ontario, Canada.
The program had two hundred students when I joined. When I left four years on, the enrolment was up to six hundred. It was profitable. In 1988 it was purchased by another party for twenty-two million Malaysian ringgits, payable in shares.
Students were well behaved. There were no disciplinary problems, like I used to have in Canada. I guess it was those “Asian values.” They respected their teachers. It reminded me of a song by Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee.” It’s a song about being traditional. The lyrics mentioned that “the kids still respect the college dean” in Oklahoma.
I could relate to this way of thinking. It wasn’t right for students to address teachers by their first names. I was discovering tradition. There was a sense of rank in Asia. None of this western egalitarianism. I think Allan Bloom would have approved.
I took a room, with an air conditioner, near the Sri Aman School, in Section 14 Petaling Jaya. I rented a place nearby. The landlady was Chinese. There was an air conditioner in the room. I paid RM 250 per month.
I would take a taxi to work every day. I would flag it down at the roundabout near the house. The fare was just about three ringgits one way. The taxis that were used in those days were little diesel vehicles, made in Germany. On the way back, I would also use a taxi.
The old landlady would make me a flask of hot water every morning. There was another tenant living there, a Chinese fellow by the name of Vincent. He worked nearby. He told me that the foreign workers in factories were earning two hundred and twenty ringgits a month. That seemed to be a modest income.
“How can anyone survive on so little money?” I thought to myself.
There were not many unions in Asia. There was a different understanding of human rights. It is a different culture.
I want to go back
I noticed that I sweated a lot. One morning on the way to school, I realized that by the time I reached the outside gate, which was less than ten meters from the house, I had already worked up a sweat.
“I don’t think I can take this heat,” I said to myself. I resolved to tell Stan that I wanted to go back to Canada. I was preparing a little speech to him in my mind.
“Stan,” went the speech, “I’m very sorry, but I don’t think I can take this tropical heat. I think I need to go back to Canada.” I was rephrasing the speech in different ways, trying to minimize the shock for him. After a while, on the way to the College, a thought popped into mi mind:
“Oh, come on, don’t give up so easily. Try a little harder…” a little voice as it were said to me.
“OK, I’ll try harder,” I replied to the voice.
Then I realized that among the reasons I was sweating so much was that I had not adjusted my diet to the tropical climate. I continued to eat pretty much the same food as I consumed in Canada. I took milk, cheese, butter and similar foods, all of which produced a lot of heat. After I changed my diet, I did not sweat as much anymore. I finished the semester.
The accounting teacher was a person from Canada by the name of Dan. Before coming to Malaysia, Dan taught for nine years in the Bahamas. He had all kinds of tales to tell. The most appalling were bar fights. It was worse than what you generally see in movies. Very violent.
Dan was a ladies’ man. He always had a girlfriend. He would take out his girlfriend on the weekends to KL. He was renting a bungalow in section 14, PJ. He would then rent out rooms to various tenants, mostly expats. I think he made enough on the rentals that he himself did not have to pay any rent.
I bought a bar of chocolate and ate it. That evening I developed stomach cramps. I started to feel hot and cold alternatively. The cramps were increasing in both intensity and frequency. I knew something was not right. I kept putting the blanket on myself when the cold spell came. A few minutes later, when I started to feel hot again, I removed the blanket.
This went on until the early morning hour. At a point I thought that I might not make it. At about 4:30 am I realized that the cramps were getting less frequent and less painful, I realized that I would make it after all. Now it was just a matter of waiting it out.
Dan told me later that worms of a specific got into the chocolate during processing. The worms in the chocolate would be dead when the product was finished. But it was not the worms that made you sick.
This particular type of worms, according to a scientist reporting on the matter, produced a particular substance in their bodies, which would protect them against being eaten. Birds would not eat these worms because of this substance. The substance is strychnine. It looks I had strychnine poisoning without realizing it. After that I was extra cautious about buying or eating chocolates.
The first summer, in June 1987, Harry the biology teacher was going for a holiday in Koh Samui. I asked him if I could tag along.
“Sure, no problem,” he said.
So, we went by train together. The train trudged out of KL. It was an extended ride, a night train. When we woke up in the morning we were at the border. It took about forty minutes to get through the border. Afterwards it was an additional four hours or so to Surat thani. There we took a boat to the island. It was my introduction to Koh Samui.
Koh Samui is a big island with a ring road approximately fifty kilometres long. There were many resorts on the island. We stayed at the Weekender, run by a retired military officer. Harry drank Thai whisky at night, and had trouble getting up the following day. He had a bad headache. I did not drink the night before, so I was fine.
Finally, he came out. We rented a motorbike each and went on a ride. It was great. Few people on Samui wear helmets. We didn’t either. One got an exhilarating feeling from the fresh air, a feeling of freedom, blue skies above and the lush greenery all around. I call it the Koh Samui feeling. I think many people experience it, and that’s why they keep going back. But Samui also has a darker side.
I saw that the students would memorize the notes I wrote for them, and later regurgitate almost verbatim what I wrote. I thought I would try a different approach. I gave no notes and told them to write point form notes of what I said.
I guess this did not work very well, because Stan got an irate message from the proprietor, saying the students were unhappy because I did not give notes. Stan, however, defended me. In any case, I went back to giving them notes, but I put them in point form. I would eventually develop a method where I would write the question in full sentence form but would give the answer to it in point form below. I would also use peer tutoring as a teaching method.
This was not something I learned in teacher’s college. Rather it happened from a kind of desperation. I noticed that after explaining a certain topic, a few students would understand it, but most of them did not. I explained it again, in a somewhat different way, and the same thing would happen. A few more students would understand it, but the majority still did not get the point.
One of the students in front who looked as if he had understood it from the beginning started to look a little bored. So, after my third explanation, I turned to him and said,
“Here, why don’t you explain it to them,” and I passed him the whiteboard marker.
The student did an excellent job. After he finished, I asked him to pick another student to go through the material. This went on a few times more until after about five or six different explanations by four or five different people it finally seemed that practically everyone understood the lesson.
It looked a bit like a marathon session where each runner would pass the Olympic torch (pen) to the next person. It was very dynamic. It was also entertaining, because the students made a few jokes along the way. They paid extra attention when a friend of theirs did the explaining, rather than the teacher. I merely observed the entire proceedings from the back. The class became lively. It was a spectacle. Who says learning is no fun?
I used this method ever since afterwards in my work as a teacher. An inspector from Ontario who witnessed it complimented me and gave me a rating of “good. Later, Stan also gave me an excellent reference.
After a while I wanted a little more privacy. I rented an apartment – a flat – in section six, in Shah Alam. I bought a motorcycle for the purpose of transportation. The flat was fully furnished and air conditioned. The owner was some Indian fellow. The Chines lady was not happy to see me go. So, I would commute every day from Shah Alam to the College.
I remember one time a friend from Canada came to see me in Shah Alam. One night I heard loud banging on my door, with someone shouting my name. I opened the door and it was my friend. He was of Korean background. He told me that in South Korea, at least at that time, you could not buy a house with a bank loan. Either you had the money, or you had to go without a house.
He stayed in Malaysia for a day or two. We had an evening meal in Damansara Utama. Then he flew on to Canada. He was on his way back to from a trip to South Korea and made a stopover in Malaysia. It was good to see him.
Shah Alam Club
After I finished my first year at the College, I was thinking whether to stay or not. I kind of felt isolated in Shah Alam. I did not know anyone there, except a Chinese lady who was selling flowers at the PKNS complex in Shah Alam. I asked her if she could help me get a membership in the Shah Alam Club. The Club had good facilities, several restaurants, a library and an Olympic-sized swimming pool. I made my decision whether to remain in Malaysia contingent on being accepted into the Club.
I was accepted. The lady’s husband recommended me to become a member. This way, I was able to go for a swim in the mornings before heading to PJ to teach. I purchased a second-hand motorbike for the purpose of transportation back and forth.
One weekend evening a friend of mine called me from KL.
“Hey Leslie, what are you doing?” Steve said.
“Ah, just relaxing at home. Watching TV,” I said.
“Why don’t you join us in KL?” he said. I thought about it for a moment. Then I said:
“OK, I’m on the way.” I hopped on the bike and started riding to KL. It was eight pm. As I was riding along the Batu Tiga Road, the skyline of KL emerged in the distance.
“What a beautiful sight,” I thought to myself.
Before I even finished this thought, I felt that the bike began to descend into the ground.
“How can this be?” I thought to myself.
I felt a major jolt. The bike ran into a barrier. I flew off the bike into the air. I realized that I had hit a pothole. In fact, I knew which pothole it was, as I have seen it before and always managed to avoid it. This time, in the dark, I just forgot about it.
I flew in the air, expecting the inevitable. It wasn’t long in coming. I hit the road and bounced on it several times until I slowly came to a stop. I was shocked. My first reaction was to deny what was happening.
“This is not happening to me,” I said to myself.
As I said this, I felt as it were a dark shadow emerging from behind and gradually covering whatever was visible. In about two or three seconds, the darkness would hide everything.
I realized that I was about to fall unconscious. Being in the center of the road, it was not a good idea to fall unconscious. I also realized – in a matter of split seconds – that it was the unwillingness to face reality that was about to make me fall unconscious. I knew that to remain conscious, I had to accept reality.
“No,” I contradicted myself, “This is happening to me.” As I said that, the dark edge that was just forty degrees from the ground, stopped, and began to recede. I knew at that moment I would remain conscious.
I gathered myself together, bleeding, and dragged the bike to the side of the road. A security guard from a place nearby helped me with the bike. I left it with him for a few days. I said I would come back for it later, and that in the meantime he could use it.
He called me a taxi. I went to a “clinic” where I received first aid. This particular lady, however, placed the bandages directly on the wounds with the sand still in them. I could not believe my eyes but said nothing. In a few hours I would go to a proper hospital.
I went back to sleep, as I was exhausted. The following morning, I called Stan telling him what happened and that I would be late for work. I then took a taxi to a hospital. It was Assunta, in PJ. There I finally received proper treatment.
There was a nurse, in her early twenties, working in Assunta. She replaced my dressings for about a week or so. I would drop by at the hospital on the way to work. The hospital appeared to have decent facilities.
After a few days, I no longer had to have my arm in a sling. I improved. After this experience, I changed the bike for a car. It was a second-hand Renault 1.0. I had it fixed up a by a mechanic in PJ. Raj the mechanic was a cheerful fellow and overhauled my car for a reasonable price.
Going to Samui
After two years at the College, I thought I would write a book. I would do it in Samui. I did not quite know what book I would write. It was April, 1989. I handed in my resignation and prepared to go to Samui. I would drive up there with the Renault. It turned out to be quite an adventure. Stay tuned.