Monday, August 10, 2009

Bananas and 1Malaysia.

I’m a Malaysian who barely knows her history, her culture or her language. Not more than what has been taught in school, and even that I rarely apply that knowledge in my daily life. What good is it knowing something and not sharing or using that knowledge?

In a time not so distant, I was sitting with my old professor, Prof Hashim Hassan, and he was telling me about all the different types of bananas. Pisang Tanduk, Pisang Raja, Pisang Awak, Rastali, Emas, Susu…… are just the few names I could remember from that short conversation. And the thing is I can’t tell which one is which except pisang emas, or so I think. Just last week I was home in Rawang when my bapak brought home these golden round fat juicy bananas that almost looked like mangoes in a sikat/sisir. It tasted ‘kelat’ (sort of like bitter aftertaste). None of us knew what kind of pisang it was. Montel? That’s a brand.

Then I remembered the Maxis ads, a series showing many different kinds of donuts, ice creams, keychains… saying there is a different kind of plan suitable for everyone. I wondered instead of donuts, they could have showed different kinds of kuih from the different races in Malaysia. Kuih lapis, karipap, marukku, lopes, kuih bulan… to name a few that I know… lots more I don’t. What about toys? getah, ceper, batu seremban…. Birds? Plants? The possibilities are endless.

There is a valuable treasure of indigenous knowledge that is untapped, unrecorded or maybe it has been recorded, just not referred to. Just last week, a group of my students presented an art installation based on the artwork seen on tarot cards. I was asking, why Tarot cards? Do we use them? How relevant is Tarot cards to us? In fortune telling or ‘menilik nasib’ in our beloved Malaysia, the Indians use astrological charts, as the Chinese who also do palmistry and the Malays use instruments like eggs, bowl of water, lime and such. Even reading marks from the body such as moles are used to tell someone’s destiny. But in Islam, fortune telling is forbidden as we are to believe in Qada’ and Qadar or preordained fate.

As for the students, I do not blame them, they just did research on the one medium their whole generation lives upon, the Internet. And the Internet’s contents are mostly developed by the Western world. Therefore if they googled “fortune telling”, the probability of hitting “Tarot Cards” is highly likely than say “bomoh”. The key is in getting the students to type in “tilik nasib” in the first place. There lies 2 challenges. First is that, they would have to have at least a little knowledge about it in order to think of what to type in the Google search bar. Secondly, even if they do type a certain word pertaining to local knowledge like “tilik nasib” they would probably get a lot of trashy material and none of what they are looking for.

Reason? So few of us Malaysians who bother to find out, and bother to write about it, much less publish this wee bit of knowledge. How many kinds of pisang do we have? I found a few website describing a few types but with no pictures of the aforementioned bananas. So? I do an artwork based on apples and peaches instead. So much information I can Wiki on apples and peaches than “pisang” in Malaysian context.

We all use the Wikipedia, but how many actually bother to contribute articles to the Wiki? There are I’m sure. MY POINT IS, IT IS NOT ENOUGH!!! I need more information on this country of mine, and it is so scarce on the web, or someone who actually knows something is not sharing. I’m telling myself this too.

Do not blame the young generation for not referring to local based knowledge, we are offering them so little compared to what other countries are contributing to the World Wide Web. Come on people, we need to tell people about our bananas before a “Hermione” from UK did her research and starts telling us about our bananas? Makes sense?

Another example. Imagine this simple scenario. A teacher in Kuala Lumpur asks a pupil to draw a house. She draws it complete with a smoking chimney. Huh? What’s the big deal? My point, our houses don’t have chimneys! The kids draw base on what they see on TV or the internet or imported books. Although I don’t expect the pupil to draw a rumah Melaka with stone steps…. but chimneys? It’d be different if she was from Cameron Highlands. This is a scenario quite usual in my classes, in university. It is no wonder to me if I ask to draw the student to draw a chicken, he/she would draw a KFC drumstick because they don’t know how a real chicken looks like. The power of capitalism ladies and gentlemen. Or they’d draw a turkey. Because that was what Google image told them how a chicken looks. This happened in my illustration class.

This problem is bigger by the day. I myself cannot relate to P Ramlee movies, I didn’t grow up with them, and watching them now, I don’t find it funny because I can’t understand the nuances of the dialogue. There are friends of mine who can re enact the whole entire movie of Bujang Lapuk and I’d just sit there, awed and bewildered, not understanding the hysterical fit of laughter they’re in. I bet my child would probably say Harry Potter as a children’s story rather than Sang Kancil. Sang Kancil who? Those really poor illustrated animations by Filem Negara? Looking back now, it was way better executed than Yokies. I bet you don’t know Yokies. Haha. You have your TV on Disney Channel 24 hours to keep your child entertained. Even Lat had to be animated by the Philippines. My husband relates more to Transformers and GI Joe. Ask him about bananas. He’d go bananas.

As I myself am a child who is so far detached from the knowledge of things around her, who am I to speak of this? But I’m starting slowly, I found the DBP website to be absolutely helpful, type in a word they actually give you ensiklopedia entries, peribahasa, pantun based on the word. My husband just bought me a book by Adibah Amin, collections of writings of Malaysian life. I’m teaching my students how to use Google to better advantage. And I’m sharing what little I know. My journey to find some semblance of identity in an ever-saturated monogamous world of globalization.

Maybe one day, in my class, one student would actually do a campaign promoting tempoyak’s new packaging, or do a series of ads for a telco company using the different types of bananas found in Malaysia. And in Illustration class, a student would produce an artwork entitled House and in it showed a Sarawak Iban Long House. I’m hopeful.

Meanwhile, I’ll find out more about bananas.
P/s: My birthday wish is for the entire set of Ensiklopedia Malaysia… hint, hint! Or you could just get me books about culture in Malaysia or of Malaysians by Malaysians like Adibah Amin, Lat, Amir Muhammad, Farish Noor, Karim Raslan….