Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Candle 26: Yang-May Ooi

Yang-May Ooi is a Malaysian-born writer and blogger (and BBGSian!) based in the UK. Her latest book, International Communications Strategy, co-authored with Silvia Cambie, is out July 2009. She has also published two novels with Hodder & Stoughton, UK. Yang-May blogs and podcasts at her multimedia online “magazine” Fusion View, the cross-cultural blog at www.fusionview.co.uk. She shares her memories with us on Project Kindle.

My childhood friend from KL, Mei W, sent me a link awhile back to a blog all about my old school Bukit Bintang Girls School, Back to BBGS in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

I was at the BBGS Primary School 2, from between 1973-75, after which I left to come to school in the UK. Although I was there for only a short period, I’ve always had fond memories of the place and the friends that I made there.

Sadly, the school is no longer on its original site. In modern KL, the location is prime real estate, right in the middle of the shopping district. It clung on for as long as it could but eventually gave in to commercial pressures around 1999. The site is now the location of the luxury Star Hill development of condos - Bukit means Hill in Malay and Bintang means Star.

Although the primary school building was more modern than the colonial style secondary school, I loved the school building for its open verandahs and I seem to remember giant banyan trees and rain trees in the grounds. There was a very basic canteen near the playing fields selling laksa and fried noodles as well as stinky salted fish satay sticks and bubble gum. I would sometimes buy a bowl of laksa (10 cents, I think) but other times bring in home made sandwiches - chicken, corned beef fried with onions or fried luncheon meat, or home made fried rice.

I can still remember the names of some of my classmates - Gwen, Bek-Ngan, Jia Yee, Latifah, Valencia, Dolly, Helen. My class teacher was Miss Teh and our Malay teacher was Cik Zaleha. Miss Ma, the principal, was a very elegant Chinese lady who always wore a cheong-sam. Her deputy was Mrs Bux, whom we were all scared of because she had a very stern presence.

There were 50 pupils to class and I always came bottom - 49 or 50! - except in English, where I usually got 100% in all the tests. My family despaired that I was a dunce. At best, I was lazy and didn’t study as I should. They tore their hair out that my father was spending all that money to send me to school in the UK - what if it all turned out to be a waste of his hard earned money and I spent my years in England a layabout, good-for-nothing dunce? What if I never amounted to anything?

I think my difficulty at BBGS was that the text books and schoolwork was in Malay and I had previously gone to an English language school. We spoke English at home. I read in English, wrote in English, thought in English. At that point, the medium of instruction was still English and my friends and I also spoke in English. I was finding it hard to deal with the school work in another language, even though it was the national language of Malaysia. Also, I knew I was going to school in England and that I would never need to use Malay there so what was the point of it all?

In the UK, it took me awhile to adjust but as it turned out, this is where I thrived. I was still never top of the class to my extended family’s disappointment but I’d come in at respectable above average ranking. I never matched the string of A’s that my parents and uncles and aunts boasted of in their O’ and A’ levels but trundled solidly along with Bs mostly and the occasional shocking C and even an E! But I think I found that being in England suited me and I felt free to develop those other talents that I had that couldn’t be measured by exams.

But there are many things about Malaysia that I miss - the food, the climate, the warm and friendly Malaysian way of being, Malaysian English, the rain trees, that orange sunlight in the evenings after school. And although I did dismally at BBGS from an academic point of view, I had a happy time there with my class mates and my memories of the school and the sense of place I have about it makes me sad that it is no longer there physically in the location that I remember. Reading through the Back to BBGS blog has made me feel a bit like an old lady, looking back at her young days!

Back to BBGS is the personal blog of an Old Girl, Joanna Yeoh, and collects the memories and stories of BBGSians. It’s a huge undertaking for one person - thank you, Joanna, and all power to you - and all the BBGSian contributors - for creating such a fantastic resource and archive!

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