I grew up in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. At school, my male classmates play-fighted as headhunters, collecting locks of hair from the losers of this game to signify their “kills”. Every boy wanted to be Monsopiad, a KadazanDusun warrior who was so powerful that he was said to be a veritable one-man army.

“We used to be warriors,” these boys told me, while demanding that I surrender a part of my hair.

My father is from the KadazanDusun tribe. Legends say that our people emerged from Nunuk Ragang, an ancient banyan tree that stands between the two rivers of Liwagu and Galibang. This is a tribe with a history of headhunters, and the skulls that used to decorate the homes of their ancestors are now displayed proudly in our state museum.

My mother is a Bajau, a tribe that is most comfortable at sea. They are known as sea gypsies, and more notoriously as pirates. Those that have not left the old ways do not step foot on land, and have evolved as free-divers so that they can dive to the depth of 20 metres and can see underwater like sea mammals.

Zara by the sea in Kota Kinabalu.

To be honest I only became really aware of my cultural heritage after becoming an adult. Growing up in KK, we spoke to each other in English and Malay, and not in our native tongues. We were urban folk, “budak KK”. Our culture was a mishmash of many cultures, so that I learned what it meant to be what I am in bits and pieces.

My introduction to the Bajaus came from reading a short story from a book given to me by my mother. The tale that I remember most distinctly is that of a Bajau woman who had just given birth and had to go through the ritual of letting her baby float in the sea. If her child could swim naturally, it would be accepted as a member of the tribe.

I found these stories fascinating and would seek clarification from my parents. But my parents were not very interested in teaching us about our heritage. My mother was an orphan, while my father had been sent away from his village to study in the city from the age of nine.

Perhaps since they themselves had not experienced a formal passing down of knowledge on the way of our tribes, this facet of life seemed unimportant. Or perhaps since it came naturally to them, without any formal learning, they assumed their children would come naturally into it as well – in the way children of sea gypsies take to the water.

Zara (left) with her paternal grandmother and cousin.

My parents chose to speak to us in English, and read us storybooks written by people from foreign countries. They were focused on our educational development, which is understandable considering that Sabah is a poor state and they themselves came from poor families.

They wanted us to succeed and escape the fate of poverty that befalls many Sabahans.

I did catch glimpses of their tribal ways now and then. My mother would receive calls from her friends and speak her tribe’s brand of expletive-filled Bajau, and my father would get excited when Proton Saga Kelabu played during weddings and join the Sumazau-dancing.

My father’s parents, who have both passed away, were the ones who gave me a clearer picture of who KadazanDusuns were. They spoke predominantly in our native tongue, and my grandfather was the village headman and witch doctor.

My grandfather was awesome.

He taught me about the jungle and the spirits surrounding the village, how to roll up sirih and how to tell him I loved him in our native tongue (oupus oku dika). He explained the intricacies of our weddings, what a Bobohizan does, and let me have my fill of ice cream at his little sundry shop.

More importantly he told me stories about my father, how he used to run away to the forest for days at a time, how he was a serious child since the day he was born, and how he suffered as the child of a poor farmer in a school made for rich city kids.

Zara’s paternal grandparents.

 

Since my mother was an orphan, I couldn’t gain much insight into her tribe and her personal history. Her life had been one fraught with difficulties, as her father had abandoned her mother when she was at an age when she could barely walk.

All I know of my mother’s family is that her mother, my grandmother, became mindless with grief and spent years wandering the village aimlessly before finally disappearing into the sea.

For a sea gypsy, perhaps this was her way of returning home.

As much as I wanted to learn about my roots, I wasn’t all that serious about it until I moved to the Peninsula to continue my education. When surrounded by people who aren’t like you, the need to define yourself becomes stronger.

Most folks I meet in the Peninsula assume I am Malay. There are many awkward moments when some person or other says “Kita orang Melayu,” and I will have to politely correct them and state my exact ethnicity.

“Sama saja, Melayu juga,” some Malays say, and every time it feels as if something is being taken away from me, slowly but surely. It feels as if I am expected to accept this new label and shed my old ones without a fuss.

It is as if my true identity doesn’t matter: Monsopiad, sea gypsies, my father’s happy Sumazau-dancing, my grandmother’s grief and my love for my grandfather: everything doesn’t matter because my ethnicity has been assimilated into the system.

I am told repeatedly, when filling in banking forms, that I am “Dan Lain-Lain”, a box below the other ethnicities, lumped into other tribes and people who do not deserve a space to be named properly.

Scientifically, you wouldn’t be able to tell the genetic difference between any Malay and myself. But ethnicity isn’t a skin, muscle and bone thing. It is a series of experiences, stories and sentiments, a baseline that reminds you where you came from and the people who helped you make sense of the world.

Some of my Peninsula friends tell me that Sabahans can get a bit too rabid when asserting their ethnicity. I believe it is a struggle to retain these precious things that have defined us, and for such a vital battle we find it necessary to assert our differences, to take back the narrative of our lives. We must remind ourselves that we were once warriors.

Zara Kahan is a writer and civil servant. Her father made her write a long essay about biscuits once and this is part of her elaborate plan for revenge. She’s on twitter at @zarakahan.