When I first inquired about my school’s hostel, I received suspicious shrugs and evasive remarks about visiting the canteen, to “take a breakfast”, instead. And so I took a breakfast, several, in fact, and stopped asking questions, too, but I always maintained interest in the hostel.
Tucked away behind the sports field, beside a looming barbed wire fence and an endless sea of palms, the hostel is camouflaged in a pastel-yellow like so many buildings in the area. There’s nothing particularly telling about its innocuous exterior, but, given my anthropological background and disposition towards rational cultural analysis, I quickly jumped to the conclusion that a nightmarish Dickensonian reality lay inside. Simply heart-wrenching I thought, what a tragic, desolate place this hostel must be, is there no hope for the children inside, those captive orphans groveling over maggot-ridden parcels of rice and gruel? How medieval! I must ameliorate these injustices. Without so much as visiting the site beforehand, I created a mural club and set its sites on the decrepit interior of the hostel, which I could only assume was haunted, too.
Evidently I am a miserable anthropologist. Despite my forecasts, the hostel was gorgeous. And there were no torture chambers either. In fact, there was hardly any space for my soon-to-be-world-class murals! From the inside the space was beautifully partitioned into several outdoor courtyards separated by pillars adorned in wonderful Arabic calligraphy. The dorms were clean and spacious and covered in cheerful paintings of soccer players and astronauts and chemistry equations, and all the students, mostly Orang Asli, seemed truly ecstatic to be there. I was a bit embarrassed by my presumptuousness – clearly they were not in such dire need of aesthetic aid – but we nevertheless sketched out plans for our first project; an erupting volcano belching lava onto a perilous Velociraptor below.
I enlisted the help of June and Zainadi, two excellent form 5 boys that speak English, Malay, and an Orang Asli dialect useful in getting through to the younger hostel residents. Whereas June and Zainadi and their older peers were charmingly brave with me from the get go – bombarding me with questions about my relationship status, my thoughts about life, America, Malaysian food, and the other teachers - the younger hostel boys were much more fearful. Paralyzed, almost, by a mixture of horror, admiration, and genuine confusion about who I was and why I wanted to put a dinosaur in the middle of their beautiful living space. I smiled a lot and made dinosaur gesticulations, though in retrospect I believe this only heightened their suspicions.
I returned to the hostel the following week with tubs of paint and such, set up our work space beneath the giant empty wall that we were about to beautify and or vandalize, and began issuing instructions to the various students who wanted to help. Though nearly a hundred boys emerged from their rooms to watch the spectacle, only a dozen summoned the necessary courage to talk to me and ask for a brush. June and Zainadi translated my broad instructions – that the dinosaur was to be painted in green, the volcano in brown, and the lava in ‘fire colors,’ and from there we went to work. I have never been a fan of delegating tasks that ought to be creative and spontaneous, but fortunately the boys were incredibly intuitive and required little instruction.
The students serenaded me with Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift
while we painted, and despite drenching the entire stairwell in shades of green, brown and red, morale was quite high. Even the ever-skeptical form one boys, eyebrows perpetually raised, seemed pleased with the dinosaur rapidly materializing before them. They taught me the word “Terbaik,” or “best,” and several other words that, despite their insistence, I should not repeat. One colossal accident and three hours later, the enormous mural was complete and I taught the painters and spectators alike how to perform a proper golf clap to signify appreciation.
I asked those involved with the painting if they wanted to sign their names at the bottom, and to my surprise they said no. I couldn’t understand why they didn’t want to indulge in the minor celebrity associated with having one’s name appear beneath an image of a dinosaur, but they told me that it wasn’t their painting, but the hostel’s painting. I thought that was quite admirable, so instead I just signed my name and my name alone on the bottom.
We dined on tea and cakes, not gruel, in the hostel canteen afterwards, and the boys took turns pointing out which girls they liked, which girls they most certainly did not like, and how to best fit four small glutinous-rice-cubes into your mouth at one time. We made plans to illustrate a beautiful waterfall scene for the following week, in stark contrast to the Jurassic carnage we’d just depicted, and parted ways from there.