Have You Been to Long Pa’sia?

Guest Article Written by Griffin Kammerer
Swarthmore College

Since week one of school my students have been asking me a question, “Sir, have you been to Long Pa’sia yet?”

Tragically, it would take me another seven months to finally reach the village and understand why they were so eager to ask me such a question. Not only was the place beautifully nestled in the highland rainforest of interior Sabah, but this was the home of a handful of my students and their extended families.

The view from ‘bukit bintang’ overlooking most of the village

I live in Sipitang, the last outpost in western Sabah before the interior begins. An arterial network of dirt roads, all of dubious condition, stretch throughout this region and when it rains hard enough, a four-hour trip to Long Pa’sia can easily turn into a six or seven hour long journey. Fortunately, we got lucky and our trip only took us four hours, but I can now see why so many jacked-up off-road vehicles exist here despite there being no clear reason for them on the paved roads downtown.

Our fog covered drive to Long Pa’sia, once it cleared, mountains covered in rainforest spread out in every direction

Our host for the weekend was Juean Takung, the mother of Grace and Moses, two of my students. Moses decided to come with us for the weekend to visit home while Grace stayed back at school to study for her upcoming SPM exams. Each meal featured rice from the organic rice farm they own and maintain – the first to be certified organic in all of Malaysia. The rice was accompanied by steamed fish, a variety of soy and chili-based sauces, and tempoyak, a spicy durian paste. Wild boar was a staple as well, and on the last night we were treated with a full head of it, cutting off pieces of the jaw meat at will. The skin was crunchy and the meat gamey, like a cross between guanciale and lechon.

Juean, posing with an orchid which she would pan sear and incorporate into a chili sauce for dinner that night

On our way to visit the farm we took the long way through the village. Juean was quick to point out the houses of my students, and more than a few times a family would mosey out to say hello. As is standard procedure in Malaysia, we were greeted with nothing but kindness and warm smiles. With all this happening, I started to feel a strange sense of pride in this place. I felt proud to be there, proud to know them, and proud to know the children and friends of all the people I was meeting. This connection went beyond being their teacher. I was a friend, mentor, even role model, to people who called this place home and as this feeling of being more than a faceless tourist increased, so did the strong sense of community which permeated throughout the village. I felt like I belonged there more than I’ve belonged nearly anywhere else, both as a function of being (tangentially) a part of the community and as a function of the infectious level of the community itself. I felt proud in the same way that my students did, that this place was special, and in this moment, I was a part of it.

Sipitang has been as welcoming and accommodating as I could ever begin to ask for to the point that I genuinely dread leaving, yet this was the most connected I’ve felt to some of my students, and only one of them was there. When I returned to school the following week, I told the Long Pa’sia students about how special I found their home, old news to them I’m sure, but I told them nonetheless. I spoke about how even though I was only there for a few days, I could feel how much everyone cared for and looked after each other. While watching a volleyball game, children and dogs played in the field in front of the church, adults gossiped and ate on their porches, and the sun set behind the arena of mountains which surrounded us. As if this place were just one big family owned public park, people picnicked with the ones they loved and simply enjoyed each other’s company. I told my students that some people go their whole lives trying to find a community like this, where a love of life permeates the air, and while it does still exist organically, it is rarer and rarer each day.

During our stay we visited the organic rice farm and had lunch with Pengiran, Juean’s husband who works to maintain most of the place. We talked for a while about the modernization of communities like Long Pa’sia, as well as the growth mindset and how it conflicts or coalesces with life out in the heart of Borneo. After eight years of activism, Pengiran has positioned himself as a liaison between Long Pa’sia and the Malaysian and Indonesian governments. He now has a voice in the sort of changes and developments that Long Pa’sia, and indigenous people in Borneo, must go through. While he and Juean both want improvements such as a government paved road between Long Pa’sia and Sipitang, they also understand the risks and changes to the community that this development would bring. With a paved road comes improved ambulance transportation times, but it also brings more tourists and an easier way for people to leave the village in search of better work in town or life elsewhere. How do you balance an objective improvement with putting at risk the things that make Long Pa’sia special – especially when the screen of a smartphone is telling you that wherever you are isn’t as good as the places you could be? Is it wrong to make the people stay if they don’t want to?

Juean and Pengiran’s organic rice farm

It’s a difficult problem, balancing growth and improvement while retaining what is dear to you, what makes your life and home special. Pengiran has been wrestling with this for a long time it seems, and one hope he has is to work with investors and start selling his rice in KL to make money and encourage young kids to stay. I’m confident that he knows what’s best for Long Pa’sia, and I’m simultaneously thankful that he’s in a position to have his voice heard. It gives me hope in a world that often seems to devour everything in the name of modernization without a second thought for what it’s destroying.

ETA Laura fishing while Moses prepares my rod, kampung style. This is where we caught the fish for dinner that night – tastier than the pond suggests I promise

The Takung family owns some goats too, and they were very happy when we stopped by to offer some salt as a treat

These ideas of assimilation, change, and appropriation are central to my experience here in Sabah. The multiculturalism is abundantly clear in all facets of life due to the mix of indigenous groups with immigrants from nearby countries, as well as the religious mix of Islam, Christianity, and Buddhism. Just before my trip to Long Pa’sia, most of my students performed in the opening ceremony of the Sipitang Fruit Festival. This involved singing Malaysian songs and performing traditional dances. It was a great ceremony, and I was happy that they got to perform in front of a crowd and show off all the parts of their identity, both ancestral and contemporary, that they were proud to hold. It was a seemingly effortless solution to all of the questions and concerns I had while speaking with Pengiran. Students wearing their traditional indigenous clothing with hi-top Adidas sneakers and bootleg Supreme hats while using Whatsapp to talk to each other in a myriad of languages from Mandarin and Hokkien to Kedayan and Lundayeh. It’s amazing to see how readily they adapt to the blazing pace of the modern world while staying in touch with their heritage. They, like Pengiran, seem ready to adopt the luxuries and comforts that come with growing up nowadays, but not at the expense of the rich cultures with which they identify. I feel that, due to our extreme interconnection via social media, it’s easy to become disillusioned with part of your local identity in favor of what the world is doing, a sort of disintegration of local and regional culture in the name of standardized internet culture. I can’t explain how happy it makes me that in the face of such easy assimilation, my students remain comfortable in their identities and continue to acknowledge all parts of them on a seemingly daily basis.

An excellent cross-section of Sabahan culture, courtesy of some of my students

I love Sabah, I love Sipitang, and I love my students. I feel blessed to be so welcomed and to have learned so much from them. If you had told me back in January how attached to this place and people I would become after several months, I don’t think I would’ve been able to imagine it. And as much as I dread leaving, it’s only a reflection of how well spent my time here has been, and how long lasting my friendships with my students, teachers, and neighbors will be.