Everything Good Happened in Miri
by Bob Lynn, Peace Corps Volunteer, 1964-1967. Posted on June 25, 2012, Monday
Once Upon a Time
ONCE upon a time, a young man began to wonder whether he had chosen a career that he didn’t want. He was at the graduate school of Yale University, but he felt that Yale was not likely to make his life interesting and useful. He had his M.A. in literature, and he, like many people at that time, began to look for ways to find work that would give him something more than money.
I was the young man, the year was 1963, and of course my best possibility was the Peace Corps.
But first, of course, I had to get into the Peace Corps, which was very popular among young graduates at that time. And Peace Corps really wanted to know about the applicants before they sent them. I think I sent in my application in May 1963, and received an answer in two weeks. I really can’t recall the country they wanted to send me to, but I do remember it was one of the countries in West Africa.
I had to turn down that first offer because I had already accepted a teaching job for that summer. Next I was asked if I could go to Sabah or Sarawak, and I thought maybe if I turned them down again they’d never ask me again. So, with no real information, I accepted a position at the secondary school in Sarawak.
So I knew where I’d be going, but first we had to receive training and orientation. We needed to learn many things before we could be sent off for our two-year stint in Sabah or Sarawak. We needed to learn at least enough of the national language to feel that we might soon be at least able to have simple conversations with the people we met.
The training for our group was in Hawaii, and most of the training was quite good. The best training was the practice, practice and practice in leaning and using Malay. The Sarawak government had sent over to Hawaii a few instructors who taught us every morning and evening, and they were such pleasant people that we began to realize that Malaysia was sure to be a fine place to live.
The training in some other matters didn’t go so well. We were supposed to learn all about the history of Malaysia, but that turned out to be quite poor. The trainers were mostly professors from the nearby campus of the University of Hawaii, who talked well but didn’t know much about the two places we wanted to know about, Sabah and Sarawak. Lots of Americans, then and now, have good experiences in a few Asian nations, but they often thought that everything they had learned by studying just one country was certainly going to be the same in all the islands of the South China Sea. My guess is that sort of “the Philippines is just like Malaysia” thinking got the US into the Vietnam War.
Our training started in October and ended just before Christmas. For all of us, it was time to learn from the people we would live with for two years or more, and we would find that it was the most wonderful years of our lives.
We flew first to Hong Kong where I had a chance to sleep, something I’m always eager to do. The first stop in Malaysia for our group was Sabah, where we had just 20 minutes of farewells with the volunteers who would be staying in the state. The rest of us then climbed back into the plane, ready for our first sight of our two-year home.
Miri, and 4 delightful years
I guess I saw Miri during that flight, but I didn’t know what I was looking at as we flew straight down toward Kuching. Eventually I reached Miri where I had tremendous joy teaching and living in the next four years. I am now an old man of 71, but looking back I still think that almost everything good in my life is the result of my four years in the Peace Corps in Sarawak, teaching in the Miri School that was called Tanjong Lobang then, and later carried the name Kolej Tun Datuk Hj. Bujang.
Just living there, high above the sea, was a daily pleasure, but the students, from Form One to the Sixth Form, were the real delight. They worked hard, they were courteous to their classmates and their teachers, and they really wanted to learn as much as they could. At the same time they were always ready for adventure, whether it was physical or mental. I think every teacher at the school knew that he or she might never again have a better place to enjoy teaching.
The Peace Corps had told us that we volunteers would stay for two years, but I and quite a number of others managed to get permission to stay on for a while. I arrived in January 1964 and left in December 1967.
By that time I knew I wanted to stay close to Sarawak, so I applied for a teaching job in Singapore. Soon, though, I was asked if I would like to teach at Nanyang University – Singapore’s only university which conducted most subjects in Chinese. I taught there for five years, and then I had another lucky break: the Singapore Civil Service wanted someone like me to do some of its training so soon I left Nantah, now Nanyang University of Technology.
So now you see why I feel that everything in my life has come from my good luck (which I don’t really consider “luck” but God’s plans for us.)
One of God’s plans turned out to be that Wong Siew Jyu (from Miri) and I were married in 1973.
Singapore was a wonderful place to raise a family. Siew Jyu and I loved our jobs, so we expected to stay forever.
But “forever” brings some surprises. My mother developed a cancer that killed her before we could get to see her, and a few months after that my father was in need of help of many kinds. For that reason we quit our jobs and went off to the U.S. expecting to be there for only a year or so – and yet we’re still here.
Were Peace Corps CIA Spies?
There was a little funny episode in my Peace Corps years I wish to relate.
I have been told that some officers in Kuching began to believe that the Peace Corps people, or at least some of them were made up of trained American spies. At least one Canadian who was teaching at Tanjong seriously thought I was a spy. Why? Well, on Saturday nights we would have films, some boring, so good, and some in foreign languages. One night when I happened to be there, we received a film about Sarawak, all in German. Since I knew some German, I tried to help everyone to get some idea of what was going on.
The odd thing that night was that the Canadian guy, who had never sat in on any of those films, suddenly appeared on my side.
I think a year later while I was teaching in Singapore, that guy got in touch with me. After a few minutes he started asking whether I was a spy. I was astonished, but actually all I could say was that if I was working for Singapore that must indicate I couldn’t be any threat to anyone because Singapore had a very successful record in dealing with troublesome foreigners!!
Okay, my little story is over.
A Note on Marian MacConkey, the school Matron
In May 2012, Chang Yi wrote a wonderful article about Marian McConkey, the matron of Tanjong Lobang in 1964-1966. She was exactly as capable, dependable, kind and sensible as Chang Yi wrote.
I guess she came from an amazing family, or at least she was lucky in having a great brother. Miss McConkey had not seen much of the world, and when the Peace Corps began, she secretly longed to go. Her brother, a couple of years older than Marian, was blind in both eyes, and the brother and her had lived in the same house for years. On his own, with no request from his sister, he told Marian, “You should apply, and I’ll be just fine.” She took his offer, and I think the brother and the sister wrote letters to each other every week- in Braille, I think.
Marian McConkey’s last years weren’t much fun, of course, so Siew Jyu and I tried to go visit her when we could. The trip took about five hours one way. The conversations were usually still quite good. But on one visit we asked where she was, since she wasn’t in her normal room. Instead she was in a treatment room, something that meant she was having a bad time. We had a special something that we wanted to deliver to her, so we asked for special permission to read a poem (or an essay, I’ve forgotten) written by Tanjong’s most prolific writer, Robert Madang. The person working on Marian told us we couldn’t do any harm by reading to her, so we read to her – and she remembered almost all the things that came up in the poem. As I recall, Marian was focused throughout.
Marian died just a week or so after that visit, and we think two relatives of Marian read the poem during the funeral.
We miss Marian McConkey, a truly wonderful person but we are sure many will fondly remember her, the matron of Tanjong Lobang School.