Tuesday, May 13, 2008

On The Outside Looking In

My sisters and I, still orang luor after all these years. From left: Hanizah, Me, Zaridah, Zanariah. Pix taken depan rumah mak in Dungun.

Hey orang luor, gi balek ah orang luor! (Hey outsider, go back from where you came!). The taunts flowed fast and furious and hit me like a ton of bricks each time.

I was seven, had just started school, and desperate to belong. But I didn't speak right (the Terengganu twang had yet to develop), didn't even eat right (breakfast was bread, not lempeng or pulut pagi), certainly not by the standard of Bukit Besi children of the '60s.

I was also taller than most boys my age, and to top it all, I could muster basic English, which qualified me as tunjuk ek (show-off) as well. Frankly, none of these were my deliberate doing.

Grandpa was an avid reader, subscribing to "Reader's Digest" and "Popular Mechanic", and I learned early to appreciate the beauty of the written word.

And so it was. For a long time I couldn't understand their resistance to my efforts at friendship. Orang luor? I was no outsider, you twit! I was Bukit Besi born and bred!

My grandma had a plausible explanation as to why they were reluctant to accept us as one of their own. It was territorial, she said. We were seen as interlopers.

Sadly for my family and a few others in the same predicament, we remained orang luor until the day the mine closed in the late '60s.

Bukit Besi, 22 miles into the interior from the seaside town of Dungun, was once a very important place, not only in Terengganu but also in the world. For three decades from the '30s to the '60s, Bukit Besi operated the world's largest open-cast iron mine.

It was then a cosmopolitan enclave where orang putih geologists (mostly Scandinavians, Australians and British) lorded over a coterie of local administrators (of which Grandpa was one), Malay mine workers and Chinese and Indian labourers.

There were many non-Terengganuese in that thriving community, people like my maternal grandparents and my own parents who left the comfort of their hometowns to make a better life for their respective families. They blended with the locals and stayed on, never to leave.

There were also many children like me, born and bred in Bukit Besi to such parents, comfortable in our identity as Orang 'Tranu even though at home we conversed in our parents' colloquial dialects (Kelantanese and Perakian, in my case).

I managed to master Terengganu-speak, hard "g" and all, in primary school, proudly proclaiming Jek Peleng (Jack Palance) and Jess Bong (James Bond) as my movie idols, much to the horror of my articulate Grandpa.

But acceptance was hard to come by. It was as though these kids had an in-built resistance to us local migrants. Once an outsider, always an outsider.

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