Halo Hek?: My weekend with the Orang Asli

Guest Article by James Greisler
Hamilton College
I was climbing a ladder into a kitchen made of sticks. The floor shook. With my weight, I feared it might collapse. As I crossed my legs on the bamboo floor, fingering the bits of hay sticking out through the cracks, I became acutely aware of the 20+ children staring at me from every nook and cranny of the room.
Five minutes later.
HEEEAD—SHOULDERS—knees and toes—KNEES and TOES!
HEEEAD –- SHOULDERS—knees and toes—KNEES and TOOOEEESSS and
Eyes and ears and lips and nose….
HEEEAD — SHOULDERS — knees and toes—KNEES and TOES.
The village chief nodded in approval. The man I guessed to be the vice village chief also nodded in approval. The children giggled in glee. “BOR!” they screamed, the Orang Asli word for good, as the chief’s brother’s wife offered me a BBQ bird, fresh from the jungle, skewered through the mouth.
ETA James Greisler with host family
These were just a few of the extraordinary moments I had while visiting Pos Tenau, an Orang Asli village about 30km outside my home in Slim River, Perak.
Over the past five months I’ve had a challenging time with my Orang Asli students (Orang Asli is a general term for the indigenous people of Malaysia). They are the youngest and quietest in a school of nearly eight hundred, and out of the many groups living here in Malaysia, I know the least about them.  Every time I try to speak to my Orang Asli students, they usually go silent, sometimes giggle, and always run away. Most come from a small village called Pos Tenau, a 30km journey up a winding mountain road. The trip is so difficult to make that they either stay in the school’s hostel or catch the bus each day for a two-hour journey to school.
I needed a better way to reach these students. Plus I was looking for a new perspective on Malaysia. What if I spent the weekend in Pos Tenau? On a Monday morning I bounced these ideas off some teachers at my school and to my surprise, in under an hour, they had arranged a homestay with a student’s family for that very weekend. My mind flooded with questions about culture and customs, but after asking around, the only thing I could find out for certain was that there would be no phone coverage where I was going. I couldn’t believe I was going forward with this.
My ride came at two o’clock on Friday afternoon. Two smiling men greeted me, Hasan and Yeong. Minutes later we were off. Over the next three hours the road grew narrow and the jungle canopied thick over my head. The geography was like a page out of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Where was I going? And what would I find when I got there?
My first sight of the village was unforgettable. Lime green mountains terraced with rubber trees, overlooking a chasm dropping deep into the heart of the jungle. We drove down into the village and slowly crossed a log bridge. Terrified we might fall into the creek, I gripped the metal piping under my seat and mouthed oh my god over and over again.
We entered Hasan’s house. It was modern with plaster walls, a tin roof, electricity, and running water. Adjacent to the house was a kitchen built of sticks, bamboo bark, and grass — one tradition, Hasan explained, that will not be lost to modernity. As I pulled out a gift of Rotunda chocolate wafers, I noticed the 20-30 children silently staring at me through the slits in the windows. It felt like I was in a fishbowl. Time to break the ice. I brought my backpack into the kitchen, followed by twenty shy children. Photos and postcards, UNO and checkers, and twenty minutes later, the kids had opened up and it became clear they knew a lot more English than I had thought.
People were so curious about English. Later the next day I was napping when I suddenly woke to a crowd outside my door: children, teenagers, fathers with babies, mothers with babies, curious village elders, all interested in learning English. Before long we were playing Simon Says by candlelight. We ran through Head Shoulders Knees and Toes, Shake Shake the Mango Tree, Old Macdonald Had a Farm, Duck Duck Goose, and just about everything else I could think of. That night I sat down with the village pastor and we read through Dr. Seuss’s The Foot Book while he wore my sunglasses (It was 11pm). English became one way to form a meaningful relationship with many of the people I met.
Left foot. Right foot. Feet feet feet. Oh how many, many feet you meet.
The same crowd followed me everywhere I went. Brushing my teeth down by the river, taking out my contact lenses, eating – I always had an audience. Life is very communal in the village and everyone does everything together, including house visits. At each house I was greeted with tea, tapioca (a kind of yam), bananas, fried vegetables, or if I was lucky, fried bird.
A note on the birds and hunting – The villagers of Pos Tenau go hunting every day. For most animals they shoot poison tipped darts out of a blowpipe (I gave it a try on a wooden target – that dart packs a punch!). For birds, they apply a natural kind of glue to a tree branch. The birds land on the branch, get stuck in the glue, and voila, you have caught yourself dinner.
I picked up a little Bahasa Asli (or to be more accurate, Bahasa Senoi — the people of Pos Tenau are members of the Senoi tribe).
I – Eng
You – Hek
How are you? – Halo hek?
I am fine  – Eng bor
What is your name? – Melek meh hek?
My name is __ – Meh eng __
Happy – gengereng
Hungry – chemes
Sleepy – bedbed
I am from America – Eng ru America
Food – chaknak
No – ngek
Yes – hauh
The chief asked me some interesting questions. He wanted to know if there are Orang Asli in America (I told him about Native Americans). He was surprised to learn that I have only one sibling – he has nine! From the chief I learned that he was chosen by a vote and approved by the local district government. Recently the government has encouraged the villagers to start a rubber tree plantation.
On Saturday I discovered I was not the only visitor in the village. Methodist missionaries from East Malaysia had come for the weekend. Their guitar band planned to perform two services on Saturday night and Sunday morning. Hasan invited me to both. It turned out to be a euphoric evening filled with clapping, dancing, and singing.
I will never forget the moment on walked into the church. The room was about the size of a Malaysian classroom with about 150 villagers squeezed onto the floor. I stepped inside, everyone turned around, and the room went dead silent. I was suddenly very aware of how tall I must seem. I took a seat and let the evening continue. Before long they pulled me onstage to dance as the congregation sang away.
Sunday afternoon was time to go. I handed out presents for the kids, including a rubric cube which I suspect by now has passed through the hands of half the people in the village. As I took off on motorbike, family after family rushed out of their house to say goodbye. I must have shaken 200 hands before we finally left.
It was an extraordinary experience, but the greatest reward was yet to come. Upon my return to school I ran into my Orang Asli students. Hearing bits of anecdotes from their parents, they begged to see photos from the weekend. After carefully looking over each photo again and again, they suddenly became very sad. These were the first photos they had ever seen of their village. They missed their home. They wanted me to visit Pos Tenau again, marry an Orang Asli woman, and stay there forever. And they said all of this in English.
Stumbling upon this village has brought me closer to my students and an entire community I never knew existed. It’s a relationship I hope to build. Cultural exchange is hard work, but an adventure, and worth it.

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