Something to Dance About  

Grandma with her brothers, and 7 of her 8 kids, plus a couple of grandkids

Grandma with her brothers, and 7 of her 8 kids, plus a couple of grandkids

By Chloë Lai

Photo courtesy of  Chloë Lai

As I followed Keiko and the volunteers into the Beyond Music meeting space at the Musqueam Cultural Centre, I was greeted by the sound of lively chatter and haphazard violin-string plucking. Then one of the students spotted me and said, “Who’s that?”

Good question. 

It was something I’d spent the past two months (or the past 15 years, if I’m being completely honest) trying to find the answer to. I was fresh from a research trip to Borneo, where I had reached out to my paternal grandmother’s side of the family. She is Kadazandusun, an ethnic group indigenous to Kota Kinabalu in the Malaysian state of Sabah. My father and I drove all over her hometown of Penampang interviewing as many elders as we could find. We learned about cultural taboos, rituals surrounding birth, marriage and death, and hilarious flirtation techniques that involved licking fruit sap from someone’s neck. 

 Grandparents at their wedding

Grandparents at their wedding

Several of the elders we spoke with were related to us by blood or marriage, others were introduced to us by friends. More than half of them had never seen or heard of us. Regardless of whether they knew us or not, our shared ancestral connection meant that we were welcomed with open hearts at every turn. 

As someone who’s spent over a decade in a city known for being aloof, I was overwhelmed at this reception. I was determined to find ways to keep that spirit of connection alive once I came back to Vancouver. 

The Beyond Music students told me that their favourite thing about the program so far was learning to play the violin. One of the students even held her violin case in her arms throughout the entire session. Since music is one of the most entertaining ways to engage with another culture, I offered to teach them a Kadazandusun dance called sumazau. The choreography was simple, inspired by the eagles that flew over our rice fields. Several students piped up at once. 

“We have an eagle dance too!” 

“My dad is a mask dancer!”

“Mine too!” 

Suddenly, we had something very concrete in common. They poured all of their excitement into the dance and fell back into their seats with delighted smiles when it was over. 

We chatted for a while, getting to know each other. They agreed that they would humour my desire to tell them a story if I’d let them show me a new viral dance craze that they loved. It was a YouTube-style take on the classic model of cultural exchange. 

Grandma and I at the family reunion in August this year, at the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Centre in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

Grandma and I at the family reunion in August this year, at the Kadazan Dusun Cultural Centre in Kota Kinabalu, Sabah, Malaysia.

My story began with a strong, beautiful 17-year-old Kadazandusun girl whose mother wanted her to marry someone from their village. The girl refused and fled to an aunt’s house in Brunei. It took her a bus ride, a boat trip and a long walk to get there. Her mother eventually found her, though the girl couldn’t imagine how; as far as she knew, her mother had rarely, if ever, left Sabah. The mother was known for her tenacity (as were many women from that clan), so the girl reluctantly agreed to return home and avoid turning her aunt’s home into a family battleground. The two of them set out for home, arriving at the Brunei-Malaysia border only to learn that the last boat of the day had already left. 

Rather than wallowing in despair on a bench at Brunei Customs and Immigration, the girl decided to ask for help. She approached a customs officer, who informed her that the next boat wasn’t scheduled to leave until Monday. It was Friday evening. She and her mother were stranded. They would have to spend what little money they had on a hotel. The young officer, seeing her distress, invited them both to stay with him. 

(At this point in the story, a loud “eeewww!” rippled through my audience. I was called upon to clarify that the young man had offered his family’s home as a shelter, and was being neither “gross” nor “creepy”.) 

During those two glorious days, the young officer took the girl on bicycle rides, to church and to his cousins’ house to exchange Archie comics. When Monday arrived and the girl was about to leave, the quiet young man asked if he could write to her. She told him she was illiterate. He wrote anyway. 

A while later, the girl returned to Brunei to visit an uncle. The young customs officer showed up and offered to take her to a Chinese kung fu movie. She agreed. Every day for two weeks, he came for her. Then he proposed. 

(Come to think of it, by a 5th-to-8th-grader’s standards, perhaps he was being gross.)

The girl said she’d think about it. 

He continued to write to her after she’d gone home again. Then he reiterated his marriage proposal. The girl, who had been unable to find work in her village and figured this might be her best chance to get married on her own terms, sighed. Then she shrugged and uttered the least romantic version of the words her suitor had been hoping to hear for months: 

“Okay, lah.” 

The Beyond Music students watched me. They’d stopped swivelling around in their chairs, sensing that there was a punch line. “And that’s how my grandparents got married,” I said.

They couldn’t believe it. 


“I thought you made that up!” 

The moment when they recognized the connection between the story and the person in front of them, something clicked.

When I began telling it, there was no handy moral or lesson ready to accompany that particular tale. I’d chosen it because hearing my grandmother tell it had been one of the highlights of my research trip. 

But as I looked into their faces, it occurred to me that these students were like time travelers, simultaneously at the beginning of their own stories and the middle of their culture’s. And that’s when the lesson came. The words were out of my mouth before they’d even crystallized in my mind: That every moment in history, whether it is personal, national or cultural history, begins with the everyday actions of one human being. That things which may seem ordinary or mundane to us, as my grandmother’s marriage once seemed to her, will someday be part of a shared history. 

Once the message had settled in, it was their turn. We formed a circle and laughed helplessly as we tried to keep up with the excessively complicated choreography of an Internet dance craze called “Juju On That Beat”. 

It was mayhem, and it was beautiful. 

In the end, the students and I spent so much time getting to know each other, building a solid ground on which we could stand and dance together, that I didn’t get to tell them everything I’d hoped to. I was finally getting a taste of how my parents, grandparents and other elders must feel when they’re left brimming with things left unsaid. 

Basically what I’m saying is: those kids haven’t seen the last of me. And not just because I’m still trying to figure out their dance moves.