An incredible few hours with some illegal immigrants at Sandakan Market
In my last few days in Sandakan I planned a short trip back to the modern market building to see the fishing port outside. It’s a small area, and the three-story beige buildings third floor gives a great view of both the Mosque in the background and the boats below.
A good place to sit with cold drink and reflect on the past few months, and the next stage of this journey.
In search of something interesting? Just go with the flow
The ground floor at this modern market is stacked with fruit & vegetable stores all neatly lined up, while further down refrigerators display sides of beef and poultry cuts. The second floor has a selection of clothes, materials, bags and a few places to eat. While the last floor is all dedicated to concrete sections dividing up family run food stalls.
The usual Sabahan smiles greeted me as I made my way up.
Nearly at full circle I cut through a section to get a glimpse of the food on offer. Precooked chicken in black pepper, squid in chilli and a host of other colorful delights were all lined up. I’ve never seen a tourist eat here, other than the German I brought up once, so this was real food at real prices.
Not to mention, a very welcome break from the heat outside.
Meeting a beautiful immigrant smile
A small lady in her 30’s gave me a big welcome. “Hello sir, you want to eat?”
A whole row of older ladies a bit further on noticed the foreigner being greeted and were all smiles and waves. The call to eat at their stalls quickly in full chorus. Call me a typical male, but I turned back to the first lady. The one who greeted me first.
There was something good about her smile that seemed somewhat familiar.
I asked what was fresh today, and in near perfect English she began to list off the two rows of food on her small table. I went for the Squid in chili, and a seaweed called Agar. Seeing that I wasn’t afraid to try local food, she pointed out some tapioca, and beef soup. All small dishes, but lots of choice.
Eating local style in Sandakan
Before I knew it I had about 5 small plates around me. Needless to say, this attracted a crowd. Smiles and small talk over with, I was surprised the girl sat down beside me and began to talk openly.
“You travel so far!”
“Yes, but today I rest.”
“And, eat Sabah food,” she laughed.
And, so began a genuine conversation. And, what a conversation it was.
Understanding the life of an immigrant in Sabah Malaysia
She asked about my journey, and background; with permission. And, with an openness unlike many others I’ve met.
Like most who hear about my background she said that she felt so sad. But then told me of her grandmother who was Filippino. And, so I learned that ‘Tina’ was an illegal immigrant, or sorts.
A Malaysian girl with an immigrant past
Second generation born in Malaysia with a birth certificate to prove so. ‘Tina’ is still without a legal identity card though, and so is deemed an illegal worker.
This is apparently not a good thing in this part of Sabah, Malaysia. The police often raid places searching for illegal Filipino’s and other migrant workers without these identity cards. Bribes have to be given and often things turn quite bad if there’s no money to pay them off.
“This why the market so empty,” ‘Tina’ said looking around. “Everyone afraid to come here.”
Indeed the food stalls looked pretty bare. Especially as it was lunch time. It seemed like only the workers from the dock outside were availing of it.
I will not publish her photo here
As we continued to talk, laugh, and agree on things more; immigrants came out to say hello. But then in typical Indo / Pinoy style disappeared shyly away. I didn’t blame them. I was there photographing; and the reality was I could have been anyone (hence I bring up the ethics of blogging & photography a lot).
The police do show up here, and I learned in Tibet that they will use blog photos to identify people.
I mentioned my website, and ‘Tina’ wanted her photo on it. But when I spoke of who might see it she understood straight away. If one thing was done today, ‘Tina’ realized the dangers of snapshots with tourists and the Facebook style of publishing that goes along with it today.
Sadly, few people seem to comprehend this. So I will repeat it, and repeat it again.
This is also not a post about the virtues of whether illegal immigrants are a good or bad thing. Save the hate for another day. It’s a post about my own realization.
A conversation about living in another country from a different perspective
Having this conversation with ‘Tina’, I found she understood me perfectly. Not just through a language barrier, but she also understood my journey, and about other things in life. Trying to find work. Saving money. Going hungry. The lonesomeness of travel versus the joy of travel.
“These are concepts few people I meet understand.”
‘Tina’s’ co-workers brought over and shared some siopao as we continued talking. 2.5 hours later and, I left.
I’ve met many locals who nod their heads, grunt, say yes, and so on when it comes to hearing my story. But ‘Tina’ is one of the few who ‘got it’ straight away.
What does it all mean?
Well, like I mention in my about section. My story is not so unique. Yes, people do actually try to live in a new country to work. A few less do it for new starts, new ventures,
or better places to live. Fewer still do the same in order to travel in search of a new place to live. Fewer still again seem to do it without the support network of a family to fall back on. Or, so it would seem.
If you translate my story into many cultures across the world you will find thousands if not millions of people who have done, or are doing exactly what I am trying to do in one way or another. They just don’t publish their journeys like this.
Some, because of the very issues ‘Tina’ is facing here. Others because they are too busy literally trying to survive in a world that’s finding it hard to look after its own people; let alone others seeking a better life.
Most of the time a local will just see me as a tourist, or just another walking dollar sign. But sometimes, just sometimes I come across someone like ‘Tina’.
She’s already experienced all this in a way. And, is constantly surrounded by others in similar situations. It’s here, just for a while I feel a deep sense of relief.
“Someone knows what it feels like.”
It a missing part of long-term travel. Finding people who share a common bond.
One world, same dreams, different languages
Humans by nature are social, communal beings. We seek out others that have similar interests. And such things don’t occur much in the world of long-term travel.
The odds of meeting similar people are stacked against you much more in circumstances such as these. Little did I realize, but it was this communal common bond that makes me enjoy visiting slums, and homeless people like I have been.
Yes, there are extremes, and non-relative points. But still, from my perspective it is that communal bond that’s attracted me. What others see is of course something different. It has to be, by instinctive nature.
As strangers we see each other differently, with misconceptions of who or what we are doing based on our cultural and societal understandings. An irony that beats at my heart whenever I see those eyes looking back at me. If only they knew. And, for the love of passionate dreams if only we could easily communicate this to each other.
The answered question
Many people ask me why I keep writing about slums and homeless people. Some think it’s because it highlights their plight, which it does. But there is another valid reason too. The communal connection that often goes only one way.
We are from different parts of the world, from different cultures, but share a similar basic need for a place to live.
It’s as simple as that.
After quite a few months, if not years, of wondering why I am attracted to slums, immigrants and the people who most walk by, I now know why.
Finally it’s time to move on, but never forget.
Back in the big (ish) city for the last time
Note: I changed names and locations for this entry; for obvious reasons.