A mum, dad and their three kids from Tasmania, go on an epic adventure in Borneo for 3 weeks in December

Borneo or East Malaysia? The autopsy of an argument.

Nani just slammed me for calling it Borneo. She reckons only ignorant westerners (aka white people) call it Borneo. Apparently she’s only ever heard it called East Malaysia. There’s Malaysia and East Malaysia she assures me.

Well hang on there honey, I think it’s actually called Borneo. Borneo being the name of the entire island made up of two East Malaysian states of Sarawak and Sabah, the kingdom of Brunei and Indonesian Kalimantan. It’s the third largest island in the world. Even Lonely Planet call it Borneo, see this book here? I’m waving exhibit A at her.

Things get heated. She says she doesn’t care what the whole world says. She says no-one over there calls it Borneo, and she’s never heard of it called Borneo.

Let me back up a bit to give you some context. You see, Nani was born over there. There’s this little pokey place called Sibu in Sarawak to which a whole bunch of Foochow dialect Chinese people lobbed over in 1902 and started to make a shit load of money. So having emigrated from China, and starting from the ground up, they’re pretty proud of their achievements. She has a bunch of relatives over there, and according to her, no-one ever uses the word Borneo.

Maybe I hit a nerve when I called her a Borneo girl. I think she heard “jungle girl” and maybe pushed back just a little hard. Whatever. I’m up in arms now. Did you know that it wasn’t even part of the Malaysian federation until the early 70’s after you were born?! Before that, the whole place was known as Borneo because the whole show was run by the British North Borneo Company since the 1800’s. (I’m really emphasising the world Borneo now).

Now she’s all like “I’m not listening to you any more. You listen to me. I don’t care what you say. If you go over there and say ‘Borneo‘ to any of my relatives, they’re going to look at you like you’re stupid ‘Ang Moh’, so you listen to me, because I know what I’m talking about!”

Note – Ang Moh is a nice name that Chinese use for westerners. Okay I lie. It literally means “red haired devil” and it’s never used in a nice context. Like you never hear anyone say “Wow! What a cute Ang Moh”, or “Gee I think that Ang Moh would make a great son-in-law” – something that never passed my late father in law’s lips, let alone cross his mind.

I gave in at that stage. Instead opting for the more subversive plan of just dropping the word “Borneo” into various conversations all casual-like to try and see if I can inoculate her against whatever baggage, cultural aversion, or weird word association she’s suffering from. Obviously these are tactics only honed through an enduring marriage and are tried and tested. When she utters the word Borneo in any context, I’ll be sure to let you know.


Had to have the last say…


2 responses to “Borneo or East Malaysia? The autopsy of an argument.

  1. min li November 29, 2011 at 10:12 pm

    Borneo was the name of the entire island as a British colony. Now it’s plainly called East Malaysia, Brunei and Kalimantan. Insisting on calling it Borneo is like insisting on calling Mumbai Bombay, and Myanmar Burma. Just a tad outdated, politically incorrect and culturally insensitive. (I bet the Lonely Planet was written by stupid ang mohs).

    • John December 4, 2011 at 8:18 am

      It’s amazing how many shops and business incorporate Borneo in their name. Even bottled water is called aire Borneo. Maybe over here colonialisation was less onerous than in other places.

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