Living among different cultures is great material for a memoir

Our Choices guest today, Neill McKee, writes about living in and learning about a very different culture, in his new memoir, Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah. His description of how he chose to find work in a world of more sunshine reminds me of my family’s adventures living in the South Pacific in the mid 1970s. We lived on a tiny Marshall Island, called Kwajalein, for nineteen months, and it was definitely a life-changing experience – exactly the way Neill feels about his sojourns.

Thank you, Neill, for stopping by Choices on your WOW!Women on Writing book tour. We are very interested in knowing about your successful and long career that all started in Borneo.

About  Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah

by Neill McKee

I grew up in Ontario, Canada. As a kid, I dreamed of escaping my industrially polluted hometown for a cleaner, greener world full of sunshine—possibly in Asia or Africa.

In college I studied psychology, philosophy and playwriting, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. Through the people I had met on campus, I became interested in the East and eastern philosophy. Before graduating in 1968, I applied to teach English in Japan with the United Church of Canada, but they rejected me, probably because I said in the interview, “Christ, Buddha and Mohammed are all parts of the same godhead.” They put me through some psychological tests and claimed the results revealed I would be surely stricken with cultural shock and should not go overseas. What they really feared, I think, was the theological shock I would deliver to a budding Christian school in Japan! Next, I applied to CUSO and was accepted to go to Asia within a month.

CUSO (Canadian University Service Overseas, now called “CUSO International”) is a non-governmental organization that was launched in 1961. Unlike the US Peace Corps, which also started in 1961, CUSO is not a part of the Canadian Government but does receive core support from it. It provides expertise that is lacking in many fields in developing countries for a short period of time—usually two years. CUSO volunteers have the opportunity to expand their knowledge of the world, enrich their lives, and in turn contribute more to Canadian society when they return. Besides teachers, CUSO sends out medical and technical workers in numerous fields: agriculture, forestry, engineering, social work, administration, computer programming, refugee settlement—whatever gaps exist in the countries concerned. Jobs have grown more and more specialized over the years.

About four months after graduation, I found myself in Kota Belud, Sabah, Malaysia (formerly British North Borneo)—a small town near the South China Sea. The jungle, filled with head-hunter lore and myths, was about 30 miles from my town, but my new home was a surprisingly civilized place with unfamiliar, varied, and fascinating cultural and religious traditions.

When I arrived, the new secondary school where I was assigned to teach had just been opened. It was a shell—no library, and little equipment. I didn’t even have a set of textbooks for the subjects I was supposed to teach: English grammar, English literature, Geography, History, even Art and PE for the first semester. I had to beg, borrow, and really “wing it” with any teaching materials I could find. In time, I raised money in Canada to buy reference books, a Gestetner copier, a typewriter, a megaphone, a record player, etc.

My students were a multi-ethnic mix of native Kadazan, Bajau and Iranun people, as well as overseas Chinese who had settled there in the first half of the 20th Century. They were only about five to seven years younger than me. They were very respectful of the new “Che-gu”—the short form for “Enche Guru,” meaning “Mr. Teacher.” Teaching was a challenge in that hot climate and I had to learn on the job.

Off hours, I made many friends both locals as well as colleagues, including two Peace Corps volunteers. They were my co-conspirators in creating the North Borneo Frodo Society, which J. R. R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, joined. We claimed that North Borneo was Middle Earth! We often traveled into the countryside by motorcycle, a great part of the story—an instrument of mobility and exploration and a way to connect with new communities. In my vacation time, I produced a documentary film for CUSO, climbed the highest mountain in Southeast Asia, had a love affair, and jumped on ocean freighters to other exotic destinations—all documented in my book.

After completing my two years stint, I returned to Malaysia as CUSO field staff, supervising volunteers during 1973-74 (a tough but maturing job!), but then went back to filmmaking. I returned in 1987 while making the film on rattan. That’s when I saw the destruction of the rainforest for vast tracks of oil palm plantations—a troubling site. My most memorable return was New Year’s Day 2006 when some of my former students held a party for me. I also describe this return in the book. They had succeeded in life and some had even retired before me. It was wonderful to hear their stories. My two years of teaching seemed worth every drop of sweat.

In Borneo I really found myself. My CUSO experience changed my life forever. I loved it—not every minute, of course. There were challenges and conflicts, but that was really part of the fun that I detail in the book. What I gained led me to a new and exciting career, living 18 years overseas and traveling to over 80 countries in my 45-year career in international development as a teacher, filmmaker, media producer, and project manager. I hope my story piques your curiosity and inspires others to volunteer, live and work abroad.


WOW! Living and working in Borneo sure sounds interesting. Hope you’re all excited to know more about Neill’s adventures. Here’s more about his memoir to get you started.

Finding Myself in Borneo is an honest and buoyant chronicle of a young Canadian man’s adventures during 1968-70, while teaching secondary school as a CUSO volunteer in Sabah, Malaysia (North Borneo). Travel with Neill McKee on his unique journey through vibrant Asian cultures as he learns the craft of teaching, the Malay language and local customs, and gains many friends in his small community. He climbs the highest peak in Southeast Asia—Mount Kinabalu, has a love affair, and navigates Borneo’s backwaters to make his first of many documentary films. McKee travels by freighter to Indonesia, where he discovers the scars of that country’s recent genocide, a contrast to his hilarious motorcycle journeys in Sabah with his American Peace Corps buddy. They make a hallucinogenic discovery—North Borneo is, indeed, J. R. R. Tolkien’s famed Middle-Earth of The Lord of the Rings! The enterprising duo establish the North Borneo Frodo Society, an organization Tolkien joins.

McKee’s second Sabah sojourn and other return trips offer the reader the opportunity to match the early anecdotes to what in fact happened to the land and people who touched his life, and he theirs.

  • Paperback: 260 pages
  • Publisher: NBFS Creations LLC (January 8, 2019)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1732945705
  • ISBN-13: 978-1732945708

Amazon Link:

About the Author:
Neill McKee is a creative nonfiction writer based in Albuquerque, New Mexico. McKee, who holds a B.A. degree from the University of Calgary and a masters in communication from Florida State University.Neill lived and worked internationally for 45 years and became an expert in communication for social change. He directed and produced a number of award-winning documentary films/videos and multi-media initiatives and authored numerous articles and books on development communication. During his international career, McKee worked for Canadian University Service Overseas (CUSO), the International Development Research Centre (IDRC), Canada, UNICEF, Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore; Academy for Educational Development, Washington, D.C. and FHI 360, Washington, D.C. He worked and lived in Malaysia, Bangladesh, Kenya, Uganda and Russia for a total of 18 years and traveled to over 80 countries on short-term assignments.

Finding Myself in Borneo: Sojourns in Sabah is Neill’s first Memoir.

Find Neill Online:

Speak Your Mind