Friday, March 18, 2016


By Mansor Puteh

I took a lift from a Malaysian-Melayu friend from Boston called Ibrahim where I was staying at in the 1980, to go to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York for a visit.

I had not been away from New York City or Boston since arriving in America a few months ago, so ii was eager to see the country, to see the small towns and villages without rushing.

And I got the opportunity to do so one winter day, when I was in Ithaca. The best part of it is that it was not planned that I was going on the trip with Wan Burhanuddin and Barjoyai Bardai, two Malaysians who were studying at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Harvard, respectively.

When Ibrahim and I got there two other Malaysian-Melayu friends from Boston had come unannounced and who said they would be driving in an old Volkswagen van to DeKalb in Illinois to meet other Malaysian friends there.

I hoped Ibrahim was not annoyed with me for leaving him alone in Ithaca to return to Boston later and driving alone all the way for a few hours in the middle of winter. He had been in America to study at a university in New Hampshire so he would be fine, I thought.

This was at a time when the cell phones and internet were not heard of yet, so I could not contact him while I was on the trip being driven in the old Volkawagen van heading east towards Chicago which was our first stop and then south to DeKalb, a university town where the Northern Illinois University or NIU is.

This is where there were the second largest number of Malaysians studying with some having their families with them; the largest being the Southern Illinois University or SIU in Carbondale that had the largest number of Malaysians.

But most of them were doing their undergraduate degrees at these two universities.

And at SIU they even had a sepak raga team where they would perform for the students and public.

At Columbia, Harvard and MIT there were so few Malaysian students, and fewer still Melayu ones. I knew three other Melayu at Columbia who were working on their doctorates, Firdaus Abdullah, Badariah and Wan Manan, who were all attached to their respective universities where they would have to return to, to resume their teaching.

But not me; I was on my own and I was studying for my master’s degree in film directing and did not have anywhere to go to when I am done at Columbia. I would have to find my own employment in an industry that had stunted and had not developed.

And I immediately accepted the offer to join them, the three of us Melayu from Malaysia with me who was studying at Columbia, Barjoyai Bardai at Harvard and Wan Burhanuddin at M.I.T., traveling in an old Volkswagen van Wan Burhanuddin had just bought from an American who wanted to dump it at the garbage site, for US$500.

Of course, the van stalled in the middle of a snowfield, but we were not anxious as it managed to come to life and allowed us to drive on halfway across America.

And on the way back, we stopped at a diner to eat and the cashier, an American woman wondered where we were from and what we were doing. I said, we were studying at the three different universities and she froze.

She had not met anyone from Malaysia and did not know where the country was and now she was seeing the three from the universities she would know all her life, and who could not imagine getting into any of them to study. She also probably did not know anyone who was studying there.

It was fun being Malaysians then…

I managed to take some photos on the trip including some from inside it showing Wan Burhanddin at the wheels of his old Volks and Barjoyai sitting beside him.

Barjoyai and I had to sit on the floor and exchanging places with Barjoyai every now and then.

Why didn’t I or the other two try to get an ordinary chair to put in the van for me and Barjoyai to sit on so that the two of us did not have to sit on the floor all the way?

It might not have been too difficult for Barjoyai since he was healthy but not for me who had just been released from the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in Manhattan for the second procedure where Dr George Marcove who headed the tea of surgeons to remove the affected part in my upper left tibia that had been infected with the giant cell tumors, so I had to use two crutches for ambulation.

And sitting on the floor was not easy as I was not able to stretch out my left leg and had to bear the discomfort.

I thought it would be nice if we could find a bean bag to put on the floor inside the van for me and Barjoyai to sit on the trip.

Fortunately, nothing untoward happened along the way to DeKalb and back to Boston and I was the better for it having managed to see a bit more of America that I could not see if I had not got on the trip.  

In Chicago, Wan stopped at the house in the University of Chicago which was built by Buckminster Fuller who I was not aware of then, until much later when another Melayu friend I met in Astoria, Queens in New York City said he was working with him and his colleague, Isamu Nogouchi who had their office and workshop near the place where we were staying at then.  

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