Where the Doors Stay Open

Guest Article by Shayna Citrenbaum
Pomona College

Raya (Eid al-Fitr) is like this: the eighth house of the day all in pink and the whole family matching, pink and shiny, my student with the kind eyes saying “pow pow” and me supplying the wordfireworks,” hearing tambah lagi tambah lagi and Meg’s giggle over how much I can eat, a “Dusun stomach,” ten different types of white rice, eating all of them with peanut sauce, my baju (shirt) digging into my side. The sun going down and the spread of color above the hills. Holding kittens and babies and walking into a house and seeing the surprise and the words orang putih (white person) on everyone’s lips. The cheers when I thank them in Dusun, the local language. It’s always there: white skin and brown skin and language and power, the whir of it in my head, the consequences of my mouth.
I thought Hari Raya would be a time when people would flake and I would be left sitting in my room feeling like an outsider, but no—I was busy, happy, exhausted. I felt like a good ETA. My teachers and students invited me to their houses and took me around, down the kampung(village) roads, and when I left again someone (sometimes many someones) would come out of their house and signal me about how to back out of my dubious parking space.

Form 1 girls beneath Mt. Kinabalu

And some of my form six girls, the ones with the high cheekbones and clear eyes who like to take my hand when we walk, took me to their village. They told me they were more confident because of me. Because of me? When I saw their earnest faces, something bloomed inside of me. I went home aglow, the fireworks going off underneath the hulk of Mt. Kinabalu, pow pow, the Cups Song playing on Trax FM, feeling something like love for this place. The night before, a teacher took me to some other teachers’ houses—the pink house one of them—and the moon arced in a yellow crescent, hanging above Ranau town.

View of Kundasang villages

Meanwhile, outside, the world is bloody and heavy. Baghdad. Philando Castille. Alton Sterling. Dallas. The moon hangs and the doors stay open. My friend writes: kindness slips in. Sometimes it slips and sometimes it gushes. I try to watch it all.
Iwan tells me that the solution to our problems—everything from abrupt, heart-rending loss, to the schedule changes, to the ghosts that the hostel girls say haunt our house—is to ignore them. So there’s a daily practice in surrender here, in letting go but still keeping your fingers crossed.

A quiet moment with a student
One of my form six girls, Fify, told me she had to quit form six and in a week she was leaving everything she knew behind for a job somewhere else. What do you say, to a girl who is one of the millions who has been forced to abandon her education against her wishes? Her family, both Muslim and Christian, was celebrating Rayaand a birthday party on the same night, which resulted in the odd combination of Raya food and Tiger beers.
Fify and I hugged twice. I held her shoulders and we breathed, big and deep, together. I told her that I had left everything behind, too, twice, and I knew a little bit about what she was feeling. There is a particular bravery in a teenage girl doing this: leaving everything she knows. It makes my breath catch, as I felt her ache and wondered who I was six years ago, on a night not dissimilar to this one.
After, I drove to Kota Kinabalu where they have western food—a salad for my Rayabloat!—but my mentor texted me asking if I’d like to get fish soup for breakfast tomorrow. So. Soup tomorrow. We makan lagi.

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