Headnote : My reference to a particular animal in this post is not intended to offend any persons or that animal.
Talking about the UK in the previous post brought back some memories of life as a student in a far away land. We sure did a lot of dumb things back then but hey, it's all part of the learning process. You can call us naive or, to use a current Malay word, poyo.
In the 1980s, a lot of Malaysian students were sent to the UK for further studies because it was still relatively cheap. The monetary exchange rate was less than half of today's rate. The students who scored good results in the MCE/SPM exams were offered scholarships. Year after year, hundreds of wide-eyed boys and girls, most of whom never set foot outside Malaysia, were packed off onto airplanes to land at Heathrow Airport in London.
We were barely 17-years old at the time and almost every one of us had to face the culture shock. We were about to enter adulthood in an unfamiliar country with nobody to guide us except ourselves. We had to learn how to manage our money, cook our own meals, pay bills, make new friends, take care of our health, suppress the feeling of homesickness while at the same time, not forget the main objective of being there, and that is to study. For Muslim students, even eating can become a problem. At some of the towns, getting halal meat was not easy. We were also warned to read the ingredients label of most basic foodstuff such bread and biscuits. I hadn't known what lard was until I lived in the UK.
Most coped with the situation fair enough but there were a few who get swept away by the currents of change. Hanyut is the Malay term for it.
While living away from parents has its difficulties, the freedom from supervision and control is very exciting. It is the time for adventure and opportunities. No adult to tell us not to do this or not to do that. It is the time to rebel, if that happens to be your fancy. For the boys, keeping long hair is the `in' thing. Sporting short and neatly-trimmed hair is simply not cool. From the photos of overseas students that I now see in local newspapers during Hari Raya time, the situation is still the same I guess.
With the absence of parental control, the behavioural standard of us boys vary a great deal. The very pious amongst us are strict and reserved. They also do the good deed of reminding friends and fellow countrymen to obey the rules and not go astray. Then there's the middle-of-the-road guys who take things easy. There were also, of course, the other extreme of guys with the couldn't-care-less attitude.
Perhaps to illustrate the varying degrees, I use the example of food. The pious group will always ensure that the food they eat is 100% halal. Meat products like chicken or beef must come from animals slaughtered according to Muslim rites. Some of the guys in the easy-going group have no qualms about eating non-halal chicken, beef or mutton. The don't-care-about-it guys never bother to read the labels for the doubtful ingredients although they will avoid eating pork or the other porcine products.
You may observe that the not-too-good Malay men can be caught committing all the sins you care to name except one. They would steal, drink liquor, gamble away their money and sleep around... but even the worst-behaved among them would stop short of eating pork, at least not knowingly. Such is the cultural taboo since very young.
But once in a while, there comes along certain individuals who break convention. And this now leads me to the story that I want to tell...
My second year of A-levels was spent at the small town of Wrexham in North Wales. There were around 40 Malaysian students at the time, quite a sizeable number. There were no halal meat shops in Wrexham and we had to buy our chicken, beef and mutton from the largest nearby city, Liverpool which was more than an hour's train ride away. Because of this distance, we cannot be eating meat as often as we like.
When I first arrived at Wrexham in the autumn of 1980, there was a shortage of available accommodation. For the first few months, I had to share a small flat with 6 other Malaysian students. Our flat is located next door to a Chinese Takeaway shop. For those unfamiliar, the Chinese Takeaway is a food outlet that can be found almost anywhere in Britian, even in small towns. It sells a variety of Chinese dishes listed in a numbered menu displayed at the front of the shop. You place your order at the counter, wait for a few minutes while your order is being cooked and then packed for you to take home. If you have a copy of the menu at home, you can also call the shop and simply quote the number on the menu if you find the name of the dish difficult to pronounce. You then walk in, say 20 minutes later, to pick up the package. Very convenient.
Being next door to such an outlet meant that it was convenient for us too. Sometimes we were lazy to cook and the takeaway food was cheap. So we simply ordered. Our dish of choice was egg fried rice. Yes, I know what some of you are thinking... halal ke? Did I not mention something about naivety in the early part of this post? I did check with the cook that the fried rice contained only eggs and no meat and that only vegetable oil was used. Lame excuse, I know... but that's the way it was.
From a simple egg fried rice dish, some of my housemates later progressed to ordering dishes with chicken or beef. Then they got bolder by ordering weird-sounding dishes as long as it does not contain pork.
One evening, I got home from class just in time to see my roomate finish eating his takeaway dinner sitting in the living room in front of the TV. He had finished munching on some meat on a thin bone and was tastily licking the juices off his fingers. The following is what I recall of my conversation with him... it was in Malay and I'm not putting up the English translation because the impact would be lost. We'll identify this friend of mine as `F'.
Me : Engkau makan apa tu?
F : BBQ spare ribs. First time aku order dari kedai sebelah.
Me (looking puzzled) : Engkau tahu tak spare ribs tu daging apa?
F (slightly surprised) : Eh... bukan daging lembu ke?
Me : Engkau tak tanya?
F : Kalau bukan lembu, daging apa?
Me : Babi.
F : Eh... tak lah!
At this point, another housemate by the name of Gabriel, an Iban from Sarawak, walked into the room.
Me : Kalau kau tak caya, kau tanya Gabe.
F : Gabe, BBQ spare ribs daging apa?
Gabe : Wei... itu daging babi la brader.
A short moment of silence.
F : Nak buat macamana... dah termakan.
Me : So, apa rasanya BBQ spare ribs yang kau makan tu?
F (grinning) : Heheheh.... sedaaaap!
Adeh, hampeh betul kawan aku seorang ni.