The White Iban Man

I met him in the fall of 2008. It was Sunday and I was on-call in a hospital with my fellow intern. We marched together from ward to ward, trying our best clearing mundane jobs like inserting intravenous cannulas, taking bloods, charting pain killers, the list goes on. We were on our feet all day, barely sit to rest our gluteus maximus -just so we could feel worthy of our dinner. This job does not only require the highest of physical and mental endurance but worse still, of pride.

On the second floor, my colleague attempted a cannula but failed. Hence I have to try my luck. Truthfully, I wasn’t sure of how much help could I be. I was just a medical student sixty days ago. I fake a brave front, knocked on the door and opened it. Inside, there was a young man perhaps in his late twenties and next to him, lying on a bed, was Frank.

I put a tourniquet around his right upper arm and started my series of questions to distract him. Where is he from? How long he has been in the hospital? How many children he has? And without him knowing, I already secured a bandage around his cannula and quickly flushed it with normal saline to make sure it is ready for use. I smiled and said ‘It’s done’.

Frank nodded gently and I could tell he was quite pleased. He then, like many other, asked me, ‘where are you from?’ To which I always reply ‘where do you think, I am from?’ For me, it was like a screening question –to know if someone is genuinely interested about my origin or merely asked so that they could judge whether I’m good enough (or not). I clearly have Asian features with my petite silhouette, small eyes, dark hair and yes, fake American accent.


I raised my eyes to meet his and I replied politely, ‘Well done!’ I quickly cleaned up my tray and about to leave his room when he asked again, ‘Which part of Malaysia?’ Anxious to end the conversation, I answered short and sweet, ‘Borneo’. He quickly bounced with another question, ‘Which part of Borneo?’ This time I could feel my impatience was ready to swallow me whole. I don’t have the luxury to –just talk.


‘It is called Sarawak. You probably never heard of it,’ I sensed sarcasm in my own voice. I continued, ‘I am an Iban –one out of 36 tribes in Borneo. You probably never heard of it either.’ Silent.

He then gestured for me to come near him. Now, at his bedside, I could really see Frank. He was probably 75 years old and his hairs were all white. He might look just like his son when he was young with thick ginger hair. His skin was rather thin and pale but his smile was bright. When he looked at me, I thought his eyes were green but when he turned away, I could see hues of blue.

Next to my ears, he whispered, ‘I’m an Iban too!’

Frank was an Irish soldier serving the WWII. He was only 21 years old. He never left Ireland his whole life but now, about to set foot at this place he never heard of and will call it home for the next 4 years –Borneo Island.

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Iban people are the scariest people I have ever seen, he said. When I first arrived, I was introduced to Ranjer Badau, who will help us tracking the Japanese. Badau has a very fierce look, he rarely smiled and his body was full of tattoos. His sharp ‘parang’ was tucked on his waist, at all times, even when he was sleeping. And no matter where we were or what time of the day it was, Badau always managed to catch some food. Because no bullets are faster than Badau’s ‘parang’.

I looked at Frank with my left elbow anchoring on my lap. His wife was sitting quietly behind him, knitting. I suppose to be gone 15 minutes ago, but how could I resist? Frank was reading his bedtime story to me –about my people. My Iban people. And the funny thing was, I think he enjoyed it just a little bit more than I do.

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One day, Frank called me to the ward and he said ‘I have a special delivery for you.’ Spread across his bed, I saw a bunch of black and white photos. There was an Iban woman, dressed from waist down only, carrying her child in a woven basket. Another was a picture of small children learning how to swim on the river. And there was also a picture of their workshop, where the Ibans showing the soldiers on how to make Iban’s tattoos. There were a lot of silly grin and warm eyes. I was floored to the ground. My heart was heavy. I wasn’t entirely sure how the colorless photos could paint so much emotion in me. I went home that day, felt more Iban than I have ever been before.

I have a present for you –I told Frank. I pulled a neatly folded paper and slipped it onto his hand. I asked him to read it only after I left and he smiled. Frank was still tied up with his rigorous antibiotics regime. Some day, he could hold a bowl of porridge and sometimes, none at all. And during those days, his wife would call me and said, ‘Maybe, he will feel better after talking to you.’ I will sit obediently, next to him, and he knows exactly where he left it last.

You know, Sophia –he continued- I have my own long house. I live in County Clare and everybody else has the same boring farmer’s cottage. But I, have a long house! I built it after I returned from WWII. I contracted the deadly tuberculosis and they had to send me home. But everyday, I remembered my brothers who treated me like their own. So, I decided to make my own long house. I even labeled everything I owned with Iban names –it’s my own secret world. And now, you’re a part of it too.

Frank was discharged 3 weeks later and he came up to the outpatient for his follow-up. He asked the reception to call me however I was assisting my consultant doing a medical procedure. He left me a postcard and it says: ‘Dear Sophia, my beloved Iban girl. I am proud to have met you and through you, I found my young self again. From time to time, I read your beautifully written poem, which is safely tucked in my wallet. You reminded me of how much pride I have being an Iban, thank you!’

I read it over and over again. But I wish he knew, it was him –who reminded me of being a an Iban! Thank you, Frank!

Disclaimer: Frank is not his real name. All photos are for illustration purposes only. Frank was awarded several medals after WWII, one of which for donating a huge amount of his personal photos collection to the Sarawak Museum. I believe he is no longer with us, after losing his battle with cancer. RIP Frank.


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