We entered my Uncle’s house. The Uncle who’d just passed away the previous evening. My father’s sister-in-law saw us and immediately went to my father, clutched his shoulders and wailed. My mother and I excused ourselves as we walked pass the relatives who were already there, sitting cross-legged, on the kasah that was scattered on the floor of the living room. We sat in a corner of the room furthest away from my Uncle’s body.
I’d gone back to Kuching that weekend to spend time with Auntie Jenny and Uncle Steve, who’d come all the way from England. The possibility that I’d be on the way to Simunjan, a 2.5 hour drive away, that hot and sultry Saturday morning with my parents, was unplanned for. Truthfully, I was reluctant to go. I didn’t know my father’s relatives and the customs. I was afraid that I’d accidentally say or do something inappropriate. After mulling it a bit, I decided not to worry about it though because surely everyone would be busy planning for the funeral and I’d just be another face in the crowd.
Unfortunately, despite trying my hardest to be unobtrusive, relatives descended upon me mainly because…
…of my tattoos. You would think that coming from an ethnic group that prides itself on its tattoos that having them would be commonplace. Apparently not among this group of Ibans. Except for me, no one else had visible tattoos. I kept catching the older relatives glance not too discreetly at my tattoo-adorned wrists and ankles. The younger relatives were just outright staring as they sat on the wooden benches chain-smoking.
…I barely speak the language. Growing up, I learnt the native language my mother spoke, not my father’s. The only thing I knew how to say in my father’s native language is makai (eat), ngirup (drink), jalai (walk) and aku enda mereti (I don’t understand). Thankfully, Iban and Bahasa Malaysia have similar words so when one of the relatives spoke to me in Iban, I tried to catch any Bahasa Malaysia-sounding words and extrapolate the conversation from there. Even then, the relatives tended to speak to me three or four at a time and this made following any conversation difficult. In the end, I smiled and replied au (yes). I had some weird looks when I kept repeating au, but I was overwhelmed.
…I am still unmarried. My relatives (and even strangers, unfortunately) love asking about my marital status. I didn’t think this question would even come up though since it was a wake and the last thing anyone should be talking about is who is married and who isn’t. I was wrong. Again. A grandaunt asked my father how many children he has and was I the oldest, youngest or middle child. She then asked him if I was married and when he replied that I was bujang (single), that’s when my ears perked up. She followed up with asking if my younger siblings were married and when he responded in the affirmative, her eyes widened with surprise (I suppose). This discussion between the grandaunt and my father attracted the attention of the other relatives and the word bujang kept coming up. I inched away from them as stealthily as possible and went outside where no one was talking about my state of singlehood (I hope).
Maybe next time, at another gathering of relatives, I’ll cover up my tattoos and get a quickie marriage so that the relatives will notice someone else instead.