Living in Borneo: Q & A with Author Neill McKee, Part 1
Updated: Mar 8
PART 1: BORNEO Neill McKee is the author of Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah (2019). The book chronicles his experience as a volunteer secondary teacher abroad, in a land very different from his native Canada. The experience became a foundation of an international career, spanning over 80 countries, as a filmmaker and media producer. In Part 1: Borneo, McKee shares some of the experiences included in the book.
As a young man, fresh out of college, what gave you the courage to go on this ambitious trip to volunteer teach in Borneo?
I didn’t know what else I would do at the end of university in 1968. I grew up in a polluted, industrial town in Ontario and didn’t want to follow in my father’s footsteps, working in a farm equipment manufacturing business. I had studied psychology, philosophy and playwriting; and through the people I met I became interested in the East and eastern philosophy. I applied to teach English in Japan with the United Church of Canada, but they rejected me, probably because I said in the interview, “Christ, Buddha and Mohammed are all parts of the same godhead.” They put me through some psychological tests and claimed the results indicated I would experience cultural shock and should not go overseas. But I think they really feared the theological shock I would deliver to a budding Christian school in Japan! I applied to CUSO International and was accepted in about a month to go to Asia. I ended up in Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia (Sabah was formerly British North Borneo).
You were among the first CUSO International volunteers. Can you explain what CUSO is?
CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas, now called “CUSO International”) is an independent, non-governmental organization that was launched in 1961, following Britain’s Voluntary Services Overseas (VSO) that was started in 1958. Unlike the US Peace Corps, which also started in 1961, CUSO is not a part of the Canadian Government but does receive core support from it. The original idea was, and still remains today, to provide expertise that is lacking in many fields in developing countries for a short period of time—usually two years. At the same time, CUSO volunteers expand their knowledge and experience of the world, enrich their lives and contribute more to Canadian society when they return. Besides teachers, CUSO sends out medical and technical workers in numerous fields: agriculture, forestry, engineering, social work, administration, computer programming, refugee settlement—whatever gaps exist in the countries concerned. Jobs have grown more and more specialized over the years.
How did your outlook on life change as a result of your teaching and life experiences in Borneo?
It changed my life forever. I was open for that and was expecting that because I didn’t know what I wanted to do. After the experience, I knew I didn’t want to be a teacher either—too difficult to reform systems and I needed more variety. I saw going to Sabah as the first of many adventures and it led me to become an international filmmaker and media producer, working for a number of agencies in a variety of countries. I traveled hundreds of thousands of miles to about 80 countries on assignments and lived a total of 18 years in Asia, Africa and Russia.
Borneo couldn’t be more different than Canada, where you grew up. What is it about Borneo that really captured you—you went back several times?
I had always dreamed about going to a green sunny land but I never planned to go to Borneo. I was posted to Sabah, Malaysia by CUSO and had to look up its location on a map. I discovered it was on the Island of Borneo, the 3rd largest island in the world, a land with a mysterious sound and reputation, mainly due to what western visitors had written about it, Joseph Conrad one of the first. I had grown up in a small Ontario town with a good deal of chemical pollution. The chemical factory there was making Agent Orange for the American military during the 1960s for the Vietnam War, when I was in high school. From my childhood I had dreamed of escaping to a cleaner, greener world full of sunshine. (I’m completing another memoir on that now.) So, Borneo was no disappointment. But I lived near the coast in a small town—a very different world than that described in most books on Borneo. The jungle was not far off but I lived in a relatively civilized place with sophisticated and ancient cultural and religious traditions. I loved it—not every minute, of course, because there were many challenges and conflicts to face. But that was really part of the fun.
What was the biggest challenge you faced in the first weeks you arrived?
When I arrived, the new secondary school had just been opened: a brand new building but it was like a shell, no library, little equipment. I didn’t even have a set of textbooks for the subjects I was supposed to teach: English grammar, English literature, Geography, History, even Art and PE for the first semester. For a while, I had to beg, borrow, and really “wing it.” As soon as possible, I raised money in Canada for some reference books, a Gestetner copier, a typewriter, a megaphone, a record player, etc.
What were some of the cultural differences you encountered?
I describe in my book that shortly after I arrived, I attended the funeral of our Australian headmaster (principal) who had converted to Islam so he could take on a second native wife. His Australian wife had stayed at home. In fact, he and his new wife journeyed to Mecca so by the time I arrived he was a “Haji,” respected by the Muslim community for his conversion, but gossiped about by everyone else. He continued to play mahjong with Chinese shopkeepers and drink a lot of brandy - both against Islamic law. Sitting beside his body as the Imam washed it and wrapped him in white cloth, burying him without a coffin in an unmarked grave, and then listening to all the stories about him from many cultural perspectives, was an experience I will never forget. I captured how the power vacuum was filled by another foreigner called “Kumar” from South India, who also converted to Islam to ensure a permanent appointment. I think this experience was the greatest lesson for me in learning about other cultures and I hope I captured it in the most entertaining way possible.
Are there any common misperceptions about Borneo, then and now?
Yes. Much of Borneo’s reputation as a place of headhunters and wild men in the jungle is derived from misrepresentation by westerners, beginning with Barnum and Bailey in the 1800s who promoted a couple of “little people” from rural Ohio as “the wild men of Borneo.” This is explained in my book. I lived in a coastal area where the majority of the population live. Few of the people I lived with ever ventured into the jungle, where the descendants of former headhunters lived. This was the stuff of western writers and their fixations. Borneo is home to several cultures and has a complicated colonial history.
How was the food? Are there some favorites you regularly enjoy?
Malaysia food comes from three main cultures: Malay, Chinese and South Indian. One of the main ways of saying hello in Malaysia is “Sudah makan?” (Already eaten?) It was also easy to choose western food for a change in the Chinese shop I ate usually ate in, for about 40 cents US per meal. Due to the variety of food and the fantastic variations, it was hard not to gain weight. I loved the curries, mild and hot, the Chinese quick fried meat and vegetables of infinite variety, and the various breakfasts, such as the South Indian “murtabak,” a flaky pastry cooked with layers of egg, unions and curry. It changed my culinary habits forever. I met my wife, an American, in Japan and she did not know much about cooking so I asked her to start with Asian food. I describe some of the dishes I ate in Malaysia in the book. Eating was also a great way to get to know Malaysians and Asian cultures. The two things are inseparable.
In the book you wrote about the deforestation you saw on your later travels through the country. What was that like then, and what is happening now? Was that experience part of the reason you decided to become a filmmaking?
When I was in Sabah, the deforestation had just begun and I never lived near it. I heard stories about it. But it wasn’t until I returned to do a film on rattan in 1987 that I saw with my own eyes how much destruction there was. I filmed some of it but my film was not directly about that. It was about how to culture rattan as a renewable resource. Still, I was shocked how political-economic forces were “raping” the land of my childhood dreams and youthful experiences.
Can you explain how you got into filmmaking?
It was in a humorous way. I hardly knew anything about it. I had only ever made a short, Super 8mm film on my little brother. But my Peace Corps buddy, Peter, had bought a 16mm movie camera from Chinese tailor in the capital city of Sabah, Kota Kinabalu. He was making a film for his agency. I asked if I could borrow it if CUSO took up my offer to make a volunteer recruitment film for them. Surprisingly, they funded me to do so after I sent them a proposal. I exaggerated my experience (just a little bit!). I was surprised how easy it was - they must have been desperate for recruitment material. At any rate, the experience I gained led me to do a whole series of films for them in Asia and Africa after my first stint in Sabah was over, and it led me into a new career.
The book's glossary of Malay words and phrases helps readers appreciate your language learning experience. Can you still speak Malay? Was it difficult to learn the language?
I was never good in learning languages but I think it was the poor methods of learning at the time. Being thrown into a small town where few in the community could speak English, except teachers, government supervisors and a few of the shopkeepers, was the best way for me to learn (in addition to a love affair!). Added to that is the basic ease with which one can learn “market Malay,” a common language used throughout Malaysia and Indonesia with some variations. It’s verbs have no tenses—just add “sudah” for the past and “akan” for the future before the present tense. There’s also no verb conjugation by person and no genders for noun and adjectives, nor tonal differences in meaning. I can still speak basic Malay, especially when I go back to Malaysia. The brain synopses continue to connect in such situations.
The seventies was a decade marked by social change and social freedom—sex, drugs, rock-and-roll, right? Did you experience some of these freedoms in Borneo?
Drugs were and still are outlawed in Malaysia and you can be severely punished for possession and even executed for trafficking. Still, ganga (marijuana) was pretty easy to obtain. I had never tried the stuff until I arrived in Asia. I had a great experience with LSD, which I describe in the book. It helped with the creation of the North Borneo Frodo Society, which J.R.R. Tolkien actually joined. But I was very careful about the use of drugs and avoided sharing with my local friends. It was more a way to broaden my perception and break down some of the barriers within myself. But lots of volunteers used ganga, and some overdid it. I describe my experience in dealing with that when I returned as a supervisor for the CUSO program in Sabah, my second two-year stint.
You got around North Borneo by motorcycle. What was that like?
At the time I lived in Sabah, the main roads were already paved, so it was possible to speed off into the countryside. But in the evening, cattle and goats would populate the roads for their warmth and sleep there through the night. So often you had to steer around these beasts. My old motorcycle is a great part of the story—an instrument of mobility and exploration and a way to connect with new communities. I also recount scaring the hell out of a Kadazan farmer in a rural area when I came quietly up on him on a muddy road while dressed in my North Borneo Frodo Society garb. When I asked him if he wanted a ride, he was so scared he jumped up and over a mud bank and slid down the other side.
What were your students like?
They were a fantastic multi-ethnic mixture of native Kadazan, Bajau and Iranun people, as well as overseas Chinese who had settled there in the first half of the 20th Century. They were only about five to seven years younger than me but were very respectful of the new “Che-gu”—the short form for “Enche Guru,” meaning “Mr. Teacher.” At first they were very shy and would hardly say a word or answer a question. It was difficult learning and remembering all their names and getting to know them and their various cultures and religions. In a very short time, I was exposed to so many “do’s and don’ts” that my head was spinning.
You met some of your students again, on a trip in the late 80s. What was that experience like?
I returned to Kota Belud a few times in the early 1970s during my second stint and then in 1987 while making the film on rattan and seeing all the destruction of the forest. But the most memorable return was New Year’s 2006 when they held a party for me. I describe this return in the book. The students I met had succeeded in life and some had even retired before me. It was wonderful to hear their stories and my two years of teaching seemed worth every drop of sweat.
Q & A with Neill McKee continues in Part 2: Memoir Writing. To learn more about the book, reading events, or to contact the author, visit NeillMcKeeAuthor.com.