My first visit outside Europe

Marton Miklos Jalkoczi (Hungary, AC 09-11)

Last summer I took part in the 3-week-long Malaysia Summer Project in Borneo, Sarawak which involved one week living deep in the jungle, in a small village called Ulu Mongkos with the Bidajuh indigenous tribe. The remaining two weeks were spent in the Twintech College Sarawak as part of a student exchange program with Malay students, many of whom joined us to live with the Bidajuh tribe to see their everyday life in the jungle.

The whole project was set in an entirely different culture, from the one I am accustomed to. I do not really know whether this feeling culminated in the jungle or in the College. On the day we arrived I was introduced to my student partner, Aline a 19-year-old female student at the Twintech College.

The first challenge came just right at the beginning of my stay. I brought several European bars of chocolate to give my student partner as a present. She was happy but in a few minutes she turned very sad. She was looking at me as if she had been about to commit the greatest crime against me. She gave me back the finest European bar of chocolate, which had helped me put on some weight when I was going to nursery. I did not understand her. Maybe it had melted? That should not be a preventing factor. The expiry date? No way, I always check everything… Then she said “Sorry, they used, they used animal fat… it is not Halal-food”. All of a sudden I wanted to feel all of my efforts to carry food as presents – even in the threatening shade of the so-called weight-limit, – had been rendered useless. But that did not happen, because I had read about this thing, but I just forgot it. Something which is so natural for me, it is not necessarily the same for someone else who lives 13000 miles away. By putting on another “pair of glasses”, because we also see the world through different lenses, which is not a matter of an optimist but where we come from and how we were brought up, I could overcome this challenge easily and entirely understood her argument.

Another challenge occurred in the jungle, where went to live together with the Christian Bidajuh tribe, this was a new experience for both of us. One night, in the evening they had a festival called Gawai when I was offered some rice wine, which I refused to accept since I do not drink alcohol. They got angry, I tried to explain my reasons but they did not understand it. Instead of leaving them and their famous rice wine in the state of confusion, I asked Aline to translate my arguments and after that their frowning turned into an understanding, but still slightly suspicious smile. I was pleased with the way Aline and I dealt with this incident.

Another shock came when we started walking in the small settlement, amidst hovels. Then I asked a random question after which people started staring at me uncomprehendingly. “Was Borneo ever a German colony?” Because I saw swastika signs painted on the hootches. Back at home they are taboo and forbidden. I was not accusing them of respecting any extremist ideas because no one of them has ever heard of Hitler. For them, this sign meant an entirely different thing, for which they could not imagine that at other places they would be put into prison because of its public display. Being calm and understanding helped us, again, to deal with this issue.

 Are clashes always unavoidable? Unfortunately not… a few days later we disagreed on another point of view – the definition of paradise… For me, it was her country, the land of nice people, marvelous food and paradise-like seasides, for Aline it was Europe, where “it is always snowing and only rich people live”… I did not know what to answer. Instead of saying “the most convincing” “it is not true” I explained to her that wealth is not equally distributed in Europe. You can see here in Borneo, there are more opulent people and poorer ones as well. The same pertains to Europe… So, through sitting down and talking, we managed to sort out this issue – until our meaningful talk was interrupted by the time for Muslim prayers. She only said “I have to go, now“ and she left. Situations where you leave your comfort zone make you contemplate yourself. Am I boring? Do I smell? The feeling of ambiguity faded away when next time he took me to prayers, for which I still feel very privileged. Just this one experience I learnt more about her and her culture than before just by reading from travel books. By being open-minded, you can learn a lot more about other cultures, in order to do so, however, you have to face challenges.

Language is essential to understand each other. I can easily challenge this view by saying that sometimes we do not understand those people who speak the same language. At least it has happened to me quite few times… In Borneo I learnt that language can confuse you – even more. We are together with many other people, and they start talking in their languages, and I do not understand anything. Maybe they are talking about me? – arises the question. I told them very politely (Please talk in English in Malay, which I learnt from my travel book. Their response was “why don`t you learn our language, then? Fair enough. The global ‘lingua franca’ will only take you so far. I did not know what to say against this… In a way I knew he was not really right, nor was I. I heard that Borneo has such diverse ethnicity, that people speak English as their 4th language, since many of them speak their indigenous tribe language, besides that they speak the Sarawak dialect, and of course the official language of the country, Bahasa Malay so people might not be comfortable in expressing themselves in English, which I had to understand.

I would not say since then I am fluent in any of the myriad of languages spoken in Borneo, but I think I understood that if you want to be understood you have to understand other people as well. After having spent a year at the United World College of the Atlantic with more than 80 nationalities and 3 weeks in Malaysia I dare to say that… What do you expect me, dear reader to tell you? I still have a lot to learn from and about different cultures. A lot more. By being open-mined and simply treating people as you would expect them to treat you, you can only gain. Still, the challenges emerging from the fertile soil of countries, continents, cultures makes the Earth a better place, by the mere fact that people do not think in the same way, diversity is indeed a virtue. I am really happy and eager to face these challenges. If only it were so easy to solve all the problems on our planet that have got to do with cultural differences!

-United World Colleges Student Magazine-

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