Tag Archives: petite

The Malay Experience

In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.

My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes.  Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.

A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.

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I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.42

The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.

The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.

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I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was.  They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was  Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.

Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.

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The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.

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Be Your Own Yardstick

I will start by admitting that I, like most other people, did not like the way I looked for a long time. More accurately, I had insecurities about some parts of my body, some of which remain to date albeit in a very passive way. So I understand that as humans, we always want what we don’t or can’t have. I have worked very hard not to measure myself against people who bear no resemblance to me. I realised very early on that my genetics are out of my control so wanting to be someone completely different was a futile aspiration.

I have always been skinny or more politically correctly slim. I used to hate the word skinny when I was a teenager because to me, it represented a person who was gawky, awkward, boy-like and unattractive as a young woman. I realise that most girls put on weight around puberty and looking at the stick-thin waifs gracing runways, magazines and Hollywood movies, it is easy to see why they would aspire to be skinny like I was. I was completely oblivious to this as I was quite the tomboy and did not have any time for magazines when I was around puberty. The movies I loved were mostly animation and even if the girls/women portrayed in most Disney movies were on the smaller side, they all had the beautiful curves I adored. My mother has lovely feminine curves and so does my glamorous older sister. Perhaps being African where the culture predominantly celebrates curvaceous women had a bigger influence than I was conscious of too. My celebrity role models were Halle Berry, Julia Roberts, Jennifer Lopez and later Beyoncé and Alicia Keys all of whom have (and celebrate their) curves. All of those things meant that instead of the usual Western ideals of being a size 6, I was self-conscious. I wanted to be bootylicious and packaged in a short petite perfectly proportion frame.

The worse part for me was having to go shopping. Again, another aspect where I differ from the norm. It probably started out because I used to accompany my grandmother to the market in Lagos and she used to take her time visiting stall after stall finding the best quality food for the best price. I would follow impatiently, wishing she would speed up and within an hour, I would develop a painful ‘stitch’ in my side, making me want to sit on the ground (a massive no-no as it was rather murky in Lagos markets).

As I grew older and had to start participating in shopping for my own clothes, it was okay because my mama like me is impatient with shopping and she used to be quite military with it. When I became an adolescent, my mama decided to give me money for clothes shopping and it became my responsibility. The shoes, underwear and bags were easy enough because it was just a matter of looking to see what caught my eye. Clothes on the other hand was a nightmare! I vividly remember days coming back dejectedly after 6 hours on Oxford Street in London and trying on top after top and jeans after jeans and none of them fitting well. I would look in the mirror and see this anorexic figure staring back at me. Some of those days, I would be so demoralised that I would cry. Thankfully, although I haven’t put on much weight over the years, I have acquired some (slight) curves which means that I am now a proud standard size 6 or 8 depending on the shop. I can confidently go out to buy new clothes knowing now I will find things that fit. It is just a matter of finding the style I want for the price I am willing to pay for it.

The lesson I taught myself early on was that there is no use aspiring to become curvaceous like J-Lo overnight. Rationally I knew I was going through puberty and it would take time before I developed curves. Also I had seen pictures of my mama in her 20s (pre-children) and she didn’t have much in the way of curves back then. I also looked around my family and realised that most of the young girls were rather skinny. Fulanis in general are skinny folk anyway (think Masai-like physique, same ancestry). I would tell myself that just because Britain was predominantly British and it catered to the genetic makeup of that population did not make me unattractive. Many of my friends and family told me countless times that they would rather have my body than theirs but I thought they were lying to boost my confidence. I only started to believe them once I grew my curves and became more body-confident and got strangers complimenting the way I looked.

I am still not a massive fan of the mirror and often forget to look at myself in it. I still find some of my features surprising and often when someone mentions something about my facial features, I have to go and look in the mirror to work out what they are talking about. I’ll give you a classic example of my lack of self-awareness. I was 14 years old when my sister and I went into a shop I had never been too. I turned a corner and caught sight of a girl who I thought looked vaguely familiar and I mentioned that to my sister casually. It probably didn’t help that at that age, I was still in denial about my short-sightedness so did not have perfect vision. My sister looked at with a smile like I had made one of my endless jests. I was confused. It dawned on her in seconds that I genuinely had seen myself and did not realise it was me staring back from the mirror. Oh well!

In general, I guess it is a good thing that I am not self-conscious about what others see when they look at me. I care more about presenting a professional look when I am at work and a ‘nice’ look outside of that. All my adult life, I have chosen an extra 5 minutes in bed over putting on makeup in the morning. Thankfully, being sexy or desirable are not issues I care about. My dear husband assures me that I have those characteristics in abundance anyway and it is only in his eyes that it is important I am those. To anyone else, it really doesn’t matter to me what they think of how I look as long as they see that I am a decent and caring girl inside.

My message is simple – I value what sort of a person I am inside more than out and because of that I do not compare my ‘beauty’ to others. I have simply learnt to embrace and even love the body I was blessed with. I see beauty in all body sizes and shapes, colour, height etcetera. As Christina Aguilera says in her song Beautiful and I paraphrase – ‘I am beautiful, no matter what they say. Yes, words can’t bring me down. I am beautiful in every single way. Yes, words can’t bring me down…Oh no! So don’t you bring me down today…And everywhere I go, the sun will always shine.’ Preach! Belief in your beauty, regardless of what people say because there will always be critics but that is their problem, not yours my friend.