Honoring The Iban Language At Teachers College of Columbia University

I had the pleasure of sharing a meaningful & wonderfully crafted Iban poem
during the Mother Language Day celebration at Teachers College of Columbia University.

During last year's "(Un)Spoken: A Celebration of Mother Language Day", I dressed up in a red Baju Melayu while my wife rocked a Kebaya &, together, we taught the audience some phrases in the Malay language & shared several Lat comics I found in the Columbia University library. It was my duty as a citizen of my country to show the world where Malaysia was & to expose them to our national language; both of which many in attendance have never heard of prior to the event.

When I was invited to present again during this year's (Un)Spoken, I was torn between my ethnic language, Fu Zhou 福州话, & Jaku Iban, a Sarawakian language I consider as part of my identity, because it was the final semester of my MA program &, probably, my last opportunity to honor a language at an ivy league institution.

I thought of my students back at SMK Katibas, where I taught for more than 6 years prior to my enrollment at Teachers College. At my beloved jungle school, all of the students spoke the Iban language &, over the years, I acquired the language in order to assimilate with the local community, but, if I was being honest, I really loved how effective it was to tell my students off in Jaku Iban. I remembered the countless efforts that we, the teachers at the school, put into our academic year in order to bridge the gap in educational outcomes for our students.

I soon realized that my last opportunity to present should be dedicated to encouraging the young people I worked with & complementing the work of my colleagues. Above all, I wanted to see a child from the rural Iban community I worked with take the stage & share their unique language & beautiful culture with the world. God knows, one of the biggest challenges I faced was finding role models for my students. The buck has to stop here. We need young people in our rural communities to step up & lead.

First, I posted a call for help on my personal Facebook account (where hundreds of my students are currently my friends) asking for assistance in my search for an Iban poem which represents the heart of the people and demonstrates the beauty of the language. Colleagues, friends, & former students joined the search. In the end, a former student of mine, Tracy, found the perfect poem in "Sebana Ati Indai Aku" on a Facebook page, Iban Sarawak - Sea Dayaks. My colleague & awesome ESL teacher, Wesley Naing, translated the poem into English for me. Take a moment to appreciate the beauty & depth of this poem...

===Sebana Ati Indai Aku (My weeping mother)===

Ujan tu tak bangat ngumba
~The rain just won't stop
Ngundang cherita tua indai kelia
~Reminds me of memories of my mother
Bekelansai kuai ngiga belanja
~Life was a struggle
Ingat nuan indai cherita tua menya
~Do u still remember, mother?
Ditagang aku ai mata nangi ke nanya
~I wanted to cry, but I held my tears
Nerusul dagu ngemasah ke dada
~I cried alone
Ujan dilaban tua suba
~Rain or shine
Betangkal getah sebelah temuda
~You were always in the rubber estate
Getah basah dikendas aku ngau gari pua
~I wiped the wet rubber with my only blanket
Nuan merening tuchum ketawa
~You were smiling, laughing
Nemu aku indai nuan bula
~I know you are sincere, mother
Mata berupai mirah dipeda
~Your red eyes
Labuh ai mata indai naya
~A proof of those lonely nights crying
Ditelan ujan labuh ke dunya
~Your tears were swallowed by the earth
Bejalai tua ngembing tebing tanah kerapa
~We were walking on a hilly terrain
Terap indai nyangkut tuga
~A tree root... you tripped... and there goes our rubber
Nuan sebana agai Petara
~You ask God
Ai getah tua ke mimit siuh naya
~Why does He have to take it all? Even that rubber milk?
Bangat merinsa mih tua mayanya
~Why do we have to suffer everyday?
Diansak nuan indai aku besekula
~I still remember, mother. You insisted on the importance of education
Ngambi ke nyadi orang menyana
~So that I will have a better life in the future
Enda ibuh diatu tua labuh ai mata
~It's alright for her to shed tears of blood at that time
Jemah ila ga tua ketawa
~So that I will be happily smiling later
Pia ko jaku nuan besada
~Those were your words that will always be etched in my mind
Terima kasih indai laban udah nempa
~Thank you mother for making me the person I am today
Diatu aku udah teleba
~Now, I am strong
Liat ati enda mudah asa
~To never give up in everything
Enda mudah tekuing mantul ngapa
~To never divert from my path
Liat ati enda mudah asa
~To never give up in everything
Napi penguji enggau pemerinsa
~In any situation
Enda mudah nyerah belua nyawa
~To never surrender ever!
Udah tebal dikarung indai enggau macham chura
~You made me the strong, the successful, the person that I am today
Sinu ngenang cherita tua mayanya suba
~Those old memories of hard living, seems like it was just yesterday
Aku sayau ke nuan indai ari diatu nyentuk ke ila. Oooo Indai...
~Oh mother... I will always you, now and forever!

I had my presentation video-recorded so that I could share it with the people who helped me & supported me during the poem-search. Little did I know that the video would go viral & be featured on a local online news portal, Borneodihati. Here are some of the responses to the video on Facebook...

Most responses were congratulatory or appreciatory, a few of my students reminisced about their experiences with me as their teacher. As you can see, I wasn't always buddy-buddy with my students.
Many people got behind my message.
The video also achieved the desired effect
of inspiring young people to take my place & be the advocates of their own culture.
I was so happy to read these responses.

After reading this response, I realized that my video went viral partly because of a distasteful misappropriation of the Iban culture in a recent comedy sketch.
Finally, I cried when I read these two responses. I felt vindicated & appreciated.
I worked really hard during those years at my jungle school & didn't get to receive much thanks (children being children).
Through the viral video, I think I succeeded to a certain extent in my mission to honor the Iban language & encourage the young in the Iban-speaking community to be ambassadors of their culture. I shall continue my efforts to remind them of the importance of education as a key to success & I wish that every Iban child will pursue education wholeheartedly.

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