Saturday, January 23, 2010

30 years later -- how the world has changed

In 1979, a bunch of us girls, left school, Convent Klang, a highly popular school in our neighbourhood started by the Catholics. I had little knowledge of the world around me, having at that stage never been 30km outside of my precint, Jalan Meru. It was the last year for those of us in 5th Form. We took our major exams -- the one that would mark us for life -- the MCE or Malaysian Certificate Examination. A good aggreggate would mean access into Lower Six (6th Form) while a not-so-good result would relegate us to find other alternatives. For some, 5th Form marks the end of school to find a job, either as a secretary or typist, or whatever it was that came up. Most of us haven't seen each other since 1979.

KFC came to Klang in the 70s
Up until the 5th Form exams, life was of little concern to us girls. We were self-absorbed teenagers, soaking in the Americanisation of the world. In the 1970s, I remember, Colonel Sanders and his red strippy bucket of chicken, first came to Klang. Kentucky Fried Chicken was a treat!

In the 1970s, we girls at school swooned over Donny Osmand. The Beatles were still breaking girls' hearts all over the world. In Klang, Bollywood was already a phenomena way before the word Bollywood came to symbolise Indian prowess in movie making. My friends and I went to watch Bobby, and left the cinema much in love with Rishi Kapoor. I watched Haathi Meere Sathi (a story of friendship between a boy and his elephant) and learnt to sing the first few lines of the song Chal Chal Chal, Meere Sathi, Oh Meere Hathi... Farrah Fawcett was a rave as one of Charlie's Angels, so was the 6 Million Dollar Man.

Bell bottoms and high-handle bars
The 70s came with high handle bars on our bicycles, hippie-inspired dresses, and bell-bottom pants. Then came the platform shoes, and Afro hairstyles. A lot of the fashion didn't make sense to me -- a teenager coping with outrageous growth spurt, pimples and weight issues. Mom seems to be always in a stress mode, and the best times were still the times at school.

I looked forward to school as the school ground is a place to destress. Of course back then, in the 70s, we girls didn't think the word stress even existed. Our teachers were mostly dragon ladies who told us we were useless; and the authority at school was something to be feared at all times. We had tests and report cards to bring home to our parents. Mimicking today's global world, our school had its fair bit of competition -- some girls were always studying. Others like me did what I could get away with -- which meant the barest minimum. Some girls were so talented, everything they touch became magical in a short time. Others were born scholars while others had little chance to show they too can excel.

How to bake with no ovens
I remember well the Indian girls in the lower classes (we were streamed, yes). Poor things. What were the teachers thinking, asking for white shoes and white socks, when they had to walk through muddy estates to get to school during the monsoon season? What were they thinking, asking for ingredients for cookery class when most people were struggling to keep mouths fed in their households. What were they thinking, teaching us to bake when most of us didn't have ovens.

Troubling 70s
The 70s was a testy period in world history. Richard Nixon was trying to end the Vietnam war to no avail and landed himself into hot soup with the Watergate scandal. Vietnam suffered tremendously during the war. It wasn't until 1975 the last of US diplomatic personnel left Vietnam. Shortly after, Cambodia experienced what we now come to know as the Killing Fields, plundered by the Khmer Rouge.

Malaysia was battling Communism in the 70's. We were brought up to feared the name Chin Peng, a Communist guerilla. Communism was loathed. We were told to loath what it represented because of the larger part of the world was still feeling the effects of the Cold War, and the wise men of our time couldn't decide which to fear more -- the Russians' brand of socialism or China's brand.

China was in a bigger mess. Mao's wife and her gang of four was terrorising China. Mao died in the 70s, leaving behind a pit full of vicious vipers to fight it out. Zhou Enlai came into power. I remember his face all over the Chinese newspapers, not that it meant anything to me back then.

Americans, still reeling from the impact of fighting a pointless war that was not theirs to fight, was also facing domestic challenges. The Americans were going through a stockmarket bear phase, and the economy was in the doldrums. Life repeats itself -- or so it seems.

The British government was by then only a shadow of its former self. The coloniser was facing its own challenges at home, massive labour strikes and power shortages. At one stage, Britain had to ask the IMF for funds to keep the country afloat -- sounds familiar?

In the 70s, the world was not a happy place. There was war in the Middle East following the lost of Palestinian land to the Israelis. The Arabic world was up in arms, there was an Arab oil embargo, causing what we know as the oil shock.

Malaysia was then a nation with just over 10 million people (peninsular) and rubber accounted for over 20% of our exports. It was then, still a primary producer. We had Indian friends whose parents worked in the rubber estates. We had Chinese and Malay friends who were rubber smallholders. Tin was by then on the throes of its demise as a lucrative commodity.

Self-centre teenagers
As teenagers in the 70s, these events meant little to us. Our world was was all about us, and our happiness, or the happiness of our parents or immediate and extended families.

I believe school was theraphy for us. We met our friends in the school yard, we traded gossips about the latest episode of Peyton Place, and caught up on the latest hairstyles our posh friends were into (Farah Fawcett was a definite rave for a while).

At the school yard, all the effects of what was happening in the world evaded us. We were with our friends, playing hopscotch, badminton, netball. We were learning about bits of Southeast Asian history. My favourite was the Malacca Sultanate and the Thai Mongkuts and Chulalongkorns. I had little time for Math or Science or Commerce. But I think most of us didn't pay attention because Math and Science were such dry subjects given the way they were taught.

At school, a little bowl of noodles can go a long way. 20 cents was a big deal. We could buy a plate of noodles and a cup of rose-syrup water. And if we saved up enough, we could buy some kerupuk (prawn crackers) or a snack of our choice.

Connected world
Recently, a few of us got connected on Facebook. In the 1970s, the world's vision of computers was there was room for one large computer (IBM's mainframe). The world then progressed to semiconductors, revolutionising processing power. Then the nerds got more clever, and now we have powerful chips that run computers and computer programmers who design super softwares that run fancy algorithms which only, again, nerds can understand. Yet, we thank the nerds for Facebook. Without them, those of us on Facebook wouldn't have got in touch.

I looked for my lost friend Zubaidah on Facebook. And found her to my delight! I couldn't believe my luck. Then I found, our friend Kay, who thanks to her foresight, set up a group on Facebook called Class of 79. First it was her and Anom, then a few of us got hooked up. Now we have caught up with a friend in Adelaide, one in France, one in the US, me in NZ, and a few others. We have over 2 dozens of emails now...what a beauty email is. The girls have had a face-to-face meeting early January, thanks to Zahara Awang, a smiley, can-do gal that she is, who cooked and hosted the lot! I couldn't be there but was watching via Facebook!

We have grown too, from our cocoons. From being self-absorbed, we now have to put up with our kids' self-absorption. Some of my friends have kids in their 20s! Mine is only 11.

Dreams can be built
We learnt over the last 30 years that dreams can be made. We learnt your teachers can't tell you what you cannot be. Your teachers can also give you interest, or the small encouragement that would make a world of difference in how you view your ability. My first real inspiration was Cikgu Zaleha, a fair Malay lady who had class and compassion. We learnt that we can become greater than what our school teachers would have us believe. For some, school wasn't so much a place to learn, but to build character.

I feel so happy just to have reconnected with a part of my life that reflected mostly my self-absorbed teenage years. School was my oasis in many ways. It was at school, amidst the laugher of my friends, that I forgot how hard my parents had to stretch the budget, or how much I was costing them just for school uniform and accessories for school.

At school, we were a vast melting pot -- learning to like what each other eat, and learning how we can be different and yet the same. We all have one basic instict -- that of self-preservation, and that of having a chance to have a go at making life better for ourself, and our family.