A couple of years back, I rather impulsively wrote a short blog post entitled "Crow's Feet". At that point in time, I had - out of the blue - begun to miss one particular weh from Long Lamai, that was Aunty Uyang, and so I'd decided to write about her to temper my melancholy a little. However, thinking back, it was slightly odd that I should have missed her at all. For during my previous trips to Long Lamai, I'd spent the bulk of my time with the village kids, a little time with the men (who'd occasionally do nice things like bring us out on river picnics and such), and hardly any time with the women. So I'd barely scratched the surface of knowing Aunty Uyang - yet I loved her enough to miss her nine months on. So I posted in my blog:
"She was one of those people who radiated joy. When I talk about joy, I don't mean the smiling-all-the-time kind of joy (although Aunty Uyang did smile a lot of the time). I mean the kind of deep, delicious, indescribable joy that bubbles up from within; the kind of joy that gives you crow's feet at the edges of your eyes although life has given you more than your fair share of wrinkles and frown lines."
Fast forward two years ahead.
I step into the familiar green-walled church the morning after my team's nine-hour journey to the village. I see many faces: many are new, some I vaguely recognize, and others I greet with exuberant familiarity. Then I see Aunty Uyang. We exchange our salam; we touch our hearts. Nothing much has changed about her, and in the best way possible - she is still kind, she still radiates joy. She still has her crow's feet.
The ladies help to cook our meals each day, and today it is Aunty Uyang's and Diana's turn. So they turn up at our house bearing armfuls of leafy, freshly-harvested sayur. At this time of the evening, I usually perch myself on the wooden bench at our verandah, waiting for the sky to explode into a palette of flaming sunset hues. But today, I sit on a tiny handmade stool in the dimly-lit kitchen. I'm too shy to start a real conversation with Aunty Uyang, so I distract myself and play silly games with Nadia instead.
Heacalis and Maureen get married, a celebration of the start of a new family. After the simple service, the whole village merrily troops over to the balai under the starlight to share a community meal. Families are expected to sit together in groups while smoky chunks of barbecued wild boar are doled out from storage boxes. I wonder where I am to sit: Aunty Uyang beckons for me to come next to her and Pr Sammy. I sidle over and stay there for the rest of the night. I tease her about her overuse of "itu-itu"; she threatens to stroke my hair with the hands she just ate her chicken wings with. Sayang, sayang, she tells me.
Many of my Long Lamai kids tell me that they are anak namung. Adopted kids. Yet they tell me about this in as as-a-matter-of-fact way as ever possible. There is - at least, as far as I can detect - little sense of pain or brokenness in their knowledge of this reality. I begin to learn that, perhaps, this is a natural offshoot of the communal Penan culture. Every child is everyone else's child. No child is left behind. Each child is loved: sayang, sayang.
I experience more and more changes the longer I stay in the village. My skin browns - even padengs - and my inner being becomes ever more attuned to the sounds of the forest, to the finer nuances of Penan life, to the whisper of the One who made all things beautiful. I start to think that I may be less Chinese than I believe. Redo Penan. Not yet, but maybe soon.
Heacalis and Maureen's wedding dinner is in full swing. We tuck into wild boar, chicken, vegetables, nasi bungkus. Joli Jengan is singing and being delightfully ridiculous up on the stage. The conversation is lighthearted. I turn to Aunty Uyang and Pr Sammy: Kamu nak ambil saya jadi anak namung tak? I mostly mean it as a joke - but a little part of me secretly, actually, really wants it to happen.
And simultaneously - "Bolehhh." A celebration of the start of a new family.
Nepah. I learn a new word: to nepah is to drop by someone's house, to visit, to spend time with another. Something like what the Chinese do during Chinese New Year. So I begin to nepah Aunty Uyang, or "Er er" (Penan for mom), all the time. She teaches me - hopeless anak bandar that I am - to cook vegetables. We tread barefoot to the stor together and she lets me split rattan for weaving. She regales me with stories of hunting and of Siamese gibbons and of her old life at Ba' Lai.
Along the way, she tells me: she, too, is an anak namung.
What could contain an Er er's love for her child?
"Ah anakku, kamu ambil lah yang ini."
Perhaps a gaweng - an intricately woven rattan bag, well-worn from years of loving use in the ladang, sawah, gereja, everywhere - can.
It is over. Perahu. Airport. Gaweng on my back. The Twin Otter arrives; it is ready not only to bring me home - but also, to tear me away from home.
Rivers of tears, running down her face.
The Twin Otter takes off, and takes me away - it soars over majestic mountains, and over riv—
Rivers of tears, running down my face.
'Til we meet again. Temeu kepéh.