A beautiful immigrant girl, me, and some answers to why …

Boats in dock at Sandakan Market in Sabah, Malaysia
Boats in dock at Sandakan Market in Sabah (click to enlarge)

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.

Buckets of fish at Sandakan Market Malaysia
Buckets of fish at Sandakan Market

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.

Inside the market in Sandakan Malaysia
Clothes section of the market in Sandakan Malaysia

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,

Slums in Malaysia
Do I want to live in a slums or the apartment block? Neither, but I'd rather spend time with people I share a bond with ...

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.

Coming Soon:

Back in the big (ish) city for the last time

Note: I changed names and locations for this entry; for obvious reasons.

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24 Replies to “A beautiful immigrant girl, me, and some answers to why …”

  1. Thank you for sharing. Filipinos who live in foreign places and still retain their distinct character mostly stand out for their warmth and openness. I think it’s one of Asian’s positive traits.

    Have a safe journey always.


    1. Hi Jojie,

      Long time! I hope you are well.

      Yes, I’ve come across many Filipino’s outside of their home country and those traits stay there. And for the most part it’s a positive one. Again, I don’t really like the wealthy Filipino’s I’ve met as the ego’s compared to the everyday Filipino make me cringe.

      1. Haha I won’t disagree with you on that, but I wish you were able to meet the other wealthy low-keyed ones who are so down to earth and well-loved by their employees. These are role models that I would be proud to write about. But they shyly keep their philantrophic lives private from the media. Every now and then we get surprising glimpse from those less fortunate ones they were able to help along the way, without any fanfare and media buzz. :-)

        On a sad side, I’ve known of those in my race who lives in a tight community in a foreign land, who would turn in their own kind, because it fetches a good reward fee per person. :-)

        Oh well.


        1. I’m sure there are some great wealthy people in The Philippines. But as you say, they seem to be very low key. So low key I really couldn’t find any in my time there. Maybe I look too deeply :)

          It only leaves one thing Jojie, you better make a couple of million from your great photos pretty soon! ;)

  2. Sounds like one of those magical travel moments we all hope for.
    I do wish you could have posted her photo because I’m sure she was just lovely (but I understand why you could not).

    1. I have her photo. And, at some later stage, when no one will know the context, will publish it under the guise of something else. She doesn’t have internet, but I gave her my card just in case things change. If she ever get’s in touch, at least, I hope, it will make her smile.

  3. Sad that she is born in Malaysia and considered an illegal immigrant because of her grandmother’s place of birth. In the US some people want to change the definition of a citizen to exclude people whose parents are illegal immigrants. Clearly that isn’t working very well in Malaysia…

    1. Immigration is a cantankerous issue in Malaysia. Hence I wrote the little byline, just in case some haters tried to turn the post around. But yes, no matter the country this issue is a hard one to settle. In countries where immigrants made it so successful it’s even harder. I think is someone has been living a productive life in a country, illegal or not, then they’ve proven their commitment to becoming a resident. Not all would agree, but then I am a little biased.

  4. great post man…. the more i travel the more i see now that despite our cultural and physical differences, (most if not all) people are basically the same… take care on your next trip…

  5. Another deeply-rooted post :-) We understand the loneliness you feel in the search for “home”.
    I’m very grateful for blogs (and the internet) that we can share and connect with like-minded travellers, as well as staying in touch with a precious few who carry our hearts.
    Connections like this (unexpected) one, are the jewels of life.
    Where are you off to next? Bon voyage!

    1. Thanks Victoria. Yes, that communal bond is the answer to loneliness on any journey. I think that’s apart of many people lives who are constantly out there “finding themselves” or “looking for something”.

      It’s strange to be traveling this long, with a purpose, only to figure out some of these things now. Then again, there’s not an instruction guide to this journey either!

      Next … A stopover in Bangkok then, either more humidity or a new wardrobe for a colder climate ;)

  6. It’s a really great point you raise about the photographing of people Dave. I for one are someone that at times likes to photograph people from a distance (many of which I post to my blog). I will continue to do this, and feel that I can capture people in their normal state, every day state.

    I also enjoy (where possible) getting to know a person, whether it be for only a quick chat, before I then take their portrait. The dilemma you faced in Tibet and others like it can raise a few problems when people have what ever type of media that captured the moment.

    By making it public, it (as you point out) could be used by the government to round up any people they believe may have been responsible for what ever insane law may have been broken.

    On the other hand though, if every single piece of media of an incident was withheld then it would to the rest of the world, as if the incident never took place. Catch 22 in a way.

    I suppose it just needs smart decisions by the people who posses the images of video to not release anything that can be used to identify, but still get it out there, for the rest of the world to see.

    On a brighter note, it seems that you made a great connection with the girl you met, and a good feed as well. Safe travels mate….

    1. I agree with you Jason, there’s definitely a boundary between photographing for the sake of art, reportage, personal usage etc. Where quite we draw that line is up to us as people I think. Which realistically means not a lot considering some of the ethics out there.

      If this girl was about to be deported tomorrow, leaving behind her children etc. And, she wanted her story told. I’d have no problems in running with it. The reality is, she wanted to remain working and hidden. One little photo could mean she’d have to go back, and then lose her children.

      I think about this quite often. I took a photo of a man sleeping in boat at the same docks and wondered if he too would get caught. Sleeping on the job. Then again maybe he was on a break. Then again should I be photographing him sleeping?

      Deep breaths of thought!

      What the future holds, I think. Is that slowly big photographic news agencies will close off this area with “model releases” required for everything. And, we the independents will need to do the same. It will cost money though. The price we must pay for respecting people’s privacy, or the price we are paying for a less free society?

  7. By making it public, it (as you point out) could be used by the government to round up any people they believe may have been responsible for what ever insane law may have been broken.

  8. On a brighter note, it seems that you made a great connection with the girl you met, and a good feed as well. Safe travels mate….

  9. what a story..
    u, me, Tina, and the rest 2 million illegal immigrants in Malaysia have our own story. I think the it defines who we are, where we come from and how it shape us to what we become today..
    i always believe that things happened for a reason..:)

    anyway, thanks for sharing your travel stories with us. keep on writing, even if u have found your home..

    1. Not found it yet, just putting the this idea of a communal bond to paper. Well … digital paper at least :)

      You are right about what defines us though. Our stories not only shape us, but I think and hope they shape those around us too!

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