Clare traded in the dancing, parties and music of her childhood for the life of a foreign student: four years long, seven thousand kilometers away. It was also awfully quiet. Then, she found her voice. This is the second part of the story.
Clare is celebrating the end of a seven-hour Immigration debacle with a brief round of shoe shopping in Mid Valley. We were meeting for first time. The only thing I knew about her was that she was 24, like me.
I called to ask where she was exactly. “Look for the girl in purple!” her voice rang out bright and happy over the phone. “I’m in lime green hippie pants,” I replied, and she laughs like she likes me already. Clare’s younger sister Noela was in bright pink, so I found them pretty easily. Since I wasn’t sure how to begin the only meeting we were ever likely to have — she was leaving for Kampala that same night — I asked her how her day was.
“Maybe everybody at Immigration hates their job,” she says with a frustrated laugh. “They don’t care. There are long queues. There are people from different walks of life.” We brisk-walked into the nearest coffee franchise. “I’m sure you’re being paid to reject and maybe accept, but if someone is old and frail, you shouldn’t treat them like crap. They deserve a bit of respect from younger people which I feel is what Immigration lacks.” I wanted to ask her more about this, but we were already ordering our coffee, and I only had a few hours to catch up on four years of her life as a foreign student in Malaysia.
According to our Higher Education Deputy Minister, as of March 2011, there were 86,000 foreign students studying in Malaysia (6,000 more than last year) from 150 countries. I guess in perspective if you were to invite them all to meet, they would equal the stadium crowd of the recent Harimau vs Singa match in July – with faces hailing mostly from Indonesia, China, Iran, and various parts of Africa.
The Malaysian Ugandan Consulate approximates that 500 of these students are Ugandan: certainly a long way from the initial 30 students registered when the Consulate first opened eight years ago. Uganda’s Education Ministry entered into a partnership with Malaysian universities due to an increasing influx of high school leavers who could not be admitted to local universities over there.
Clare’s parents admitted her into a university in Malaysia at about the same time, trading in the dancing, parties and music of her childhood for the life of a foreign student: four years long, seven thousand kilometers away. It was also awfully quiet.
“The first year we all come doe eyed…but well, in a nutshell? We were shut down. The Middle Eastern students try really hard to integrate, but the rest of us— and I can speak for the East Africans at least— it’s not easy being obviously foreign. “You’re shut down. So most of the time you huddle and wait for this to pass, do the thing that my parents sent me here to do, and move out. That’s all.”
In Uganda, Clare was constantly surrounded by people. As she puts it, “being lonely didn’t exist much.” She liked solitude whenever she could find it. But what she found in Malaysia was either too much quiet or awkward.
“Everyone treated me like a token buddy, so I acted like one. By token buddy I mean… Like, the only black girl in the group so we looked cool, from an inter-racial point of view, but we’d never really be friends five years from now.”
Clare also pointed out that local students didn’t really want to get into groups with foreign students, something I also see in my university. “They think we’re lazy. So most of the time I did my work alone.” In spite (or because) of that, Clare adopted the most communal of Malaysian habits — eating her way through the day.
“Ugandans aren’t as keen on eating as much as Malaysians are. We have three straightforward meals a day, heavy food so you don’t have to eat all the time. Malaysians eat, WHENEVER. Every hour of the day is eating time for you guys.”
She tried out garlic naan and tandoori chicken. She had satay and Chinese food. She ate Indian briyani when she craved Indian briyani back home. And of course, she tried nasi lemak. “For some reason, I was by myself, ‘80% of the time’. I had way too much time to myself; it was swallowing me whole.”
Eventually, Clare couldn’t bear to have more than one meal out a day by herself. She had to turn to healthy snacking to remedy the fact that she was losing weight.
She stayed in her room for the first two years.
Clare meets Summertime, things change
When Clare first told me this story, she ended it with excitement that squeezed her sentences tight. It sounded a lot like how it looks: “And I decided I’m going to play that, I… want to be able-to-play-that. Then I got on the Internet-looked for a teacher. Found-a-teacher-called-a-teacher-asked-her-if-she-was-okay-with-it. She-said okay!”
Then a pause.
“Most teachers don’t take to adult students very kindly, because you’re already developed. Your hands are going to be tougher than a child’s. But she was okay with it.“
She said this with sunshine in her voice, as if she was talking about her home in Kampala.
The violin, though one of Europe’s most important instruments, is fairly uncommon in both Uganda and Malaysia, the former more so than the latter. I was also told that it is also a very solitary instrument by nature. Clare would finish the first grade in three months.
Her first violin teacher was also a foreigner and eventually had to leave, but not before taking Clare through her first violin purchase, posture, and recommending she start second grade with another violin teacher, Eileen, a Malaysian.
“(Eileen) welcomed me into her family. A really, really, great teacher and a great friend. She doesn’t only talk about the aspects of school, like violin playing and everything. She asks about how I’m doing, whether I need help, whether I need anything, if I’m broke, stuff like that.
“Her whole family was so accommodating, always worried about me and wanting to take me out with them to places. It was like having an extended family and a family again. Her son is half-Filipino and is a very sweet kid. Unfortunately, [since I had to leave], ‘Aunty Clare’ won’t be coming over anymore…”
As that last sentence hung in the air, I asked Clare what else she learned from her first experience of feeling part of a family in Malaysia.
“I learned that she has grievances, like many Malaysians do. And she wishes that her son doesn’t have to go through some of the discrimination she went through. She just wants her son to grow up in a nation where everybody treats each other the same.”
“If you have somebody who is equally interested to see where you can progress to and encourages you as much as possible, before you know it, you’re pretty good at what you do. The violin has always been a personal favourite. I just never thought…as an adult, I didn’t think I could start.”
Clare met another violinist on a bus, a foreigner too, and also a late starter. “Meeting new people with ease by my own volition isn’t in my nature.” It turned out they both picked up the violin at the same time, but for different reasons.
He could have ended up being just another stranger, but they became friends. She could have been the dreaded token buddy, but they decided to practice together, share their learning progress (“as well as rosin when one of us was out”), even violin bows. He went on to date a friend of hers from Melaka, and at the first taste of how small Malaysia could be, Clare felt optimism for the first time under our country’s eternal summertime.
“When I started playing the violin, I crawled out of my comfort zone and put myself out there. Eventually, playing the violin unlocked my character and attracted people who were just as lonely as I was. One of them, she’s a mix of Indian and Malay, so people never know. She wears a tudung, so people think she’s Malay. But her sister doesn’t wear one. So when they stand together and say they’re sisters, people tend to ask either one of them: What are you?”
More and more genuine friendships came flooding in during her third year in university, “when I made the most friends in a year… Malaysians who were outsiders among other Malaysians.”
Clare won over the family of her ‘BFF, Syaz!’ (ed: ‘BFF, Syaz’ being the official title) with the ‘Malaysian stomach’ she cultivated in her first solitary year. “No one in that family can beat me in an eating contest.”
She described a friendship with her friend Ganaesh as one where “we could say nothing to each other, rant a little, eat, say nothing and still have the best day of our lives.”
Every time Clare found herself alone in her room, she would pick up the violin and practice for hours. Blisters would be promptly soaked in ice water for a few days until they recovered so that she could resume working on “[her] little voice.”
When her mother said she wouldn’t increase her allowance for another violin, Clare sold off a few of her shoes (her shoes!) and wore her current ones out in order to afford her second, a much pricier electric one.
“I’m grade four now, and Eileen’s family thinks I’ll be able to teach. Her mother says I could take grade one and grade two students already, but if I keep on practicing, I could take on anybody in no time.”
This series was commissioned as an exploration of music and migrant diaspora, first published in August 2011 by Poskod.my for Serambi, a capsule project for Malaysia’s 48th anniversary. In Projek Serambi, several young Malaysians imagine the country’s shifting landscapes in 2061. This piece was edited by Grace Chin.