Bringing people of the state together via WhoAmISabah.com.
VERA Mopilin was getting terribly homesick when she decided to start a website to connect with her fellow Sabahans.
It all began during her stay in Bangkok.
“My husband and I had moved there in 2006, and we stayed on for three years. I got homesick after a while and being homesick makes you want to be among your own people,” the 37-year-old Kadazandusun explained.
“I missed the food, the people and even the sounds from home,” said Mopilin in an interview in Petaling Jaya, Selangor.
Linking up: Vera Mopilin came up with the idea of WhoAmISabah.com to connect Sabahans everywhere.
Mopilin, who grew up in Kota Kinabalu, added that she even tried looking for Sabahans in Bangkok but did not manage to find anyone. “I did find some Malaysians, though, which helped a little.”
Homesickness led to the idea of creating a portal that would allow Sabahans to meet other Sabahans who are living outside the state.
“My husband and I had been talking about the idea for ages but it wasn’t until we moved to Semenanjung (Peninsula) that we started getting serious.”
Mopilin, who moved to Selangor in February last year, said she started bumping into Sabahans in the city wherever she went.
But it wasn’t until last May that she uploaded her first entry on her blog, WhoAmISabah, as a way to record all the Sabahans she had met.
“It started out as a personal blog, but thanks to a friend’s advice, I managed to get a proper website domain for it. It became an official website, WhoAmISabah.com, last July.”
The website introduces Sabahans to the world, hence the name WhoAmISabah, she elaborated. It is also Mopilin’s way of keeping in touch with the people she has met.
But how exactly does she find her subjects?
“That’s the interesting part,” she said. “I actually bump into them in grocery stores, retail stores, at the bakery and markets.”
The mother of one, who lives with her journalist husband in Subang Jaya, said she had even met electricians who are from Sabah. “It’s as if they are everywhere in KL and in every position imaginable.”
Sabahans are easy to spot, she added. “You can tell if someone is from Sabah immediately, from the way he talks.”
Mopilin has spent about 15 years away from Sabah. She left her hometown of Kota Kinabalu when she was in Form 1 for a boarding school in Labuan and then on to Sydney, Australia, to complete high school. She stayed on to study tourism at the University of Canberra and returned home in 1996, five years after she had left. She worked in a luxury hotel in Sabah.
“My husband got a posting in Bangkok so I went there with him shortly after we got married the same year. There, I worked as a freelance tour guide.”
Despite her years abroad, Mopilin said she still practises her native values and way of life.
“It’s the same for most Sabahans I’ve met outside Sabah. Our culture lives on through little things such as our food and the way we raise our children.”
Being a mother herself, Mopilin said she has a tendency to speak to her three-year-old daughter, Apsara, in Sabah slang. “It’s not really a conscious decision,” she admitted. “But because my husband is also a Sabahan, it is only natural for us to converse that way at home.”
“However, we do try to speak like everyone else when we interact with people outside our home here because we need to be understood. Most Malaysians in the peninsula say that Sabahans talk too fast.”
Mopilin misses the familial support in Sabah.
“We have a strong support system back home. For example, when you have kids, your mother will take care of them for you while you’re at work.”
Mopilin, now a stay-at-home mum, looks after her daughter herself. “I don’t have a maid but I wish I had one,” she said with a laugh.
She said Sabahans rarely marry outside their own community. “There is no pressure for us to marry only Sabahans (her sister is married to a Singaporean), but somehow it just happens. I think it has more to do with our circle of friends and the people we hang out with.”
What she finds most inspiring about the Sabahans she’s come into contact with is their willingness to watch out for each other, she said. “They have set up clubs or persatuan (societies) to help raise funds for other Sabahans who are in need.”
However, Mopilin stressed that not all Sabahans are aware of the amenities and facilities that are available to them. “Some of the young Sabahans who come to KL end up being terbiar (neglected) just like that. They have to fend for themselves.”
She aims to forge a better connection among Sabahans with WhoAmISabah.com and through Facebook and Twitter. “I’m trying to connect the dots to (hopefully) bring everyone together.”
Mopilin also discovered that some Sabahans who have settled in the peninsula have no plans to return home.
“I think it’s a pity and it’s not just Sabahans in the Klang Valley but also those living in Johor Baru and Singapore as well. Most will choose not to go home solely because of financial reasons. Also, many of them have brought the rest of their families to live with them.”
Mopilin noted that Sabahans who grew up in rural areas are less inclined to return. “There are better education facilities as well as job opportunities here,” she reasoned. “But I would like to go home when the time is right.”
She also pointed out that Sabahans starting life anew in the peninsula inevitably conform to the local culture over time. “Most Sabahans actually end up losing their accent.”
The assimilation also means that the children of these people will no longer identify with their origins. “They live here and go to school here, so they’ll grow up thinking their home is here. Sabah will become a place to visit.”
However, Mopilin and many other Sabahans feel an intrinsic pride in their homeland. “We’re very proud Malaysians but for me, I see myself as Sabahan first and proud Malaysian second.”
The Malaysia Day celebration, the country’s second since it was officially declared a public holiday last year, is a great opportunity for Sabahans everywhere to get together. And also for aramaiiti (let’s be merry). “Sabahans are good drinkers,” Mopilin said with a laugh.
“Back in Sabah, we go to each other’s houses for barbecue on Sept 16. I’m hoping that Sabahans here will also meet each other and practise that tradition for Malaysia Day. It’ll be good to have a mini-gathering. But minus the drinking.”