THE Kelabits’ first contact with the outside world was a rather rude awakening for them.
It came at a turbulent time when Tom Harrison and his team landed in the Bario Highlands as a covet force to resist the Japanese occupation of Sarawak during the Second World War.
It was equally a cultural shock – and language barrier – for Tom Harrison even after spending time learning about the traditions and customs of the Kelabits and picking up their vocabularies before he made the landing.
Tom Harrison wrote in his book World Within: A Borneo Story:
“The effect of my verbal attempts upon the good man were entirely negative. Indeed, less that that. For instance:
Me: Kita Kelabit?
Me: (Tapping his chest and looking winsome) Kelabit-kau Kelabit?
He: Ekor? (meaning you).
Me: (getting over-excited, thumping him and pointing all around) Kelabit? Kelabit? KELABIT?
We had a lot of that Bah, which I could not grasp was attached to several words – to mean the longhouse in which he lived, the plain on which we stood, the people around.
The BAT team also had a cultural shock – albeit of the occidental variety – while sharing a meal with a Belgian couple who checked into the Ngimat Homestay on the second day of our arrival.
It was a five-dish meal served with rice. Two steamed fish in the menu was brought out in a fish-shaped plate.
The Belgian husband was quick to scoop a whole fish onto his plate – much to amusement of the BAT team.
Perhaps, the man was thinking the fish was the main dish. If so, and it looked pretty much like it, we didn’t really mind his apparent lack of meal-time etiquette as perhaps an infrequent traveller to this part of the world.
In fact, we were more concerned about the Belgian diner getting bogged down by the drudgery of dodging the small sharp bones in the Semah fish he was eating. After all, he could end up picking bones and missing out on what should be a delicious meal.
As he started to eat, his wife realised the fish was meant to be shared and began nagging him in their language but from the body language, we knew she was “teaching” her man a lesson in table manners.
Red as lobster, the man tried to put the fish back onto the plate. We quickly assured him it was completely all right for him to have the whole fish.
Then came the cultural shock! After he was almost done, the man put the near skeletal remains of the whole fish – head, tail and bones – back into the main serving dish!
Continue reading (Incl. Pics) at: Never a dull moment in the Kelabit highlands.