I share stories from my childhood growing up in Brunei and what it was like growing up in Brunei.


Hi! My name is Alena and you’re listening to the second episode of the Along Came English Podcast.

Hey. How are you? How’re you going? I’m doing okay myself. It’s very hot today. It’s going to be a top of 42°C. It was 39 degrees yesterday. So probably not the best time to record a podcast episode, but we’ll see how we go. I’ve a glass of cold water next to me and yea, we’ll see… we’ll see if that helps.

But anyway… firstly, I want to thank you for clicking on this podcast. I managed to get this podcast on iTunes, so I’m really happy about that. It’s kind of weird being on iTunes but it’s cool.

So today I’ll be talking about growing up in Brunei. I lived there until I was 16 and then I moved to Melbourne. I also lived in Singapore for a few years during my childhood. But today I’ll focus on Brunei. Maybe I’ll talk about Singapore in another episode, we’ll see.

But I’ll explain and clarify some relevant vocabulary and I managed to squeeze in some grammar as well. So because I grew up in South East Asia, I’ll do my best to explain some of the cultural differences.

Vocabulary about childhood

But let’s start with some vocabulary first.

So “childhood” is the state of being a child, So when it’s used in general English, it is usually assumed the child would be between 3 to about 11-12 years of age. If however, you move into legal terms, there is an age, a defined age, depending on the country – where childhood legally ends and adulthood begins.

So “child” is the singular. “Children” is the plural. I’m sure you… you know that already. So a “child” not only refers to a person in that age range – between 3 to about 12… 11-12 – but can also refers to a son or daughter of any age of a parent.

Another word you may have heard related to growing up is “upbringing.” So this refers to how you were raised, how you were treated or educated when you were young. So this is a noun that you would often use it with an adjective. So for example I would… I can say, “I had a good upbringing.” Or “I had a strict upbringing.”

To grow up” is a phrasal verb and should not be separated when used in a sentence. So you would say, “Sarah grew up in New York.” Not “Sarah grew in New York up.” So that’s not…that’s not natural at all.

So the thing about this phrasal verb is that when I’m talking about my childhood, I can’t use it in the present perfect tense – “I have grown up in Brunei.” So… simply… the simple reason is that, you know, because I’m an adult and my childhood has already happened in the past. So you can only say this in the simple past tense, which is “I grew up in Brunei.”


So there is an exception however when using the present perfect with this phrasal verb. So an example is when my sister sends me pictures of her son that I haven’t seen for several months and I’ll say, “Gosh, he’s grown up quickly!” So in this case, because I just noticed or I just realised something, this is a new information to me from my perspective, I can use the present perfect tense.

So if you’re talking about childhood, you use the simple past tense. If you’re commenting how fast someone is growing or developing, then you can use present perfect.

Teenage years” refers to the ages of 13-19, simply because the age ends with the word “teen.” So that’s straightforward. A “teenager” is someone whose age falls in that age range.

Adolescence” is associated with puberty, which is the physical and psychological transition stage into adulthood. So this occurs between the ages of 10 and 19.

An “adolescent” is someone who is in that process of development. So quite often an “adolescent” and a “teenager” are used interchangeably.

Youth” is the state of being young and generally refers to that period between childhood and adult age. So this is often associated with teenage years and adolescence.

The word “youth” can refer to this period of time, but can also refer to a young person, or a group of them.

So in conversational English, “childhood” and “youth” are not always so clearly defined. So quite often, from the perspective of the speaker, they might talk about their childhood according to when they felt they were a child. And similarly, one may talk about their youth according to when they felt young, which, you know, for some people, sometimes extends into their early 20s.

Malaysian citizenship

So… as I mentioned in the last episode, I’m actually Malaysian by descent but grew up in Brunei and I’m now currently living in Melbourne, Australia.

So when I say I’m Malaysian by descent, it means that I inherited my citizenship because one of my parents is a citizen. My dad is Malaysian, he grew up in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, and moved to Brunei for employment opportunities. He then met my mother and settled down in Brunei.

So this situation, you know, where you inherit citizenship from one of your… from one of your parents is pretty common… is a pretty common situation in Australia. So even if a child is born in Australia, if one of the parents comes from a different country, then they can apply for that citizenship for that child. So you know… it sounds a bit unusual, this situation, but it’s pretty common – I think.

Brunei Darussalam

So Brunei Darussalam is the full name, the proper name of Brunei. It is an Islamic country with a population of just over 400,000. It has a monarchy with a royal family. We have a Sultan – which is equivalent to a king.

A lot of people confuse it to be part of Malaysia, but it’s not. It is an independent country right next to East Malaysia and is a part of Borneo island in South East Asia.

So when I’ve told people about Brunei, most people don’t know where it is. You know, I mean, they might have heard of it, but they don’t know where. And they’ll quite often mention that, you know, they know it as a rich country because of its oil, or that the Sultan of the country is one of the richest man in the world.

So it’s actually a developed country according to Wikipedia. I say this with some surprise because it’s kind of on a spectrum. So it has one of the highest quality of life in South East Asia, but lacks in infrastructure and the economy is highly dependent on its oil industry.

So yea… and I guess, you know, among other countries in South East Asia that’s quite an achievement. I think the only other developed country or… that could be considered developed, is Singapore and maybe Malaysia. So yea, so it’s actually a pretty good achievement in that way.

So I grew up in the capital city, which is called Bandar Seri Begawan – we call it Bandar for short.

So we lived in a house that was near the national stadium in Brunei. At that time, we were right next to a forest. It’s gone now, but over 20 years ago, it was a forest. So we would see wild animals come into our property, and sometimes into the house.

So I remember we had a snake that came into the house once. It wasn’t very big, but it definitely wasn’t small either.

Wild animals & insects

We also had squirrels on the property. We would see them quite often. And I remember we had a squirrel that got into our house once. And on its way out through the balcony, it climbed along the doorframe. And the door was actually opened. And then it went up to the top of the doorframe, it slipped, dropped back down onto the floor and then scrambled on through the balcony door.

So yea, that was a pretty amusing event – very vivid memory for some reason.

They used to help themselves to the fruit trees too. So we had a papaya tree. We had several banana trees. We also had a durian tree, which apparently, I think, took a really long time to finally fruit. And yea… if you don’t know what a “durian” is, so it’s a type of tropical fruit with spikes all over it and its’s notorious for its smell, and yet it’s a delicacy in Asia. So I don’t quite understand it myself, but people genuinely love it. I’m not a huge fan, but you know, it’s something I grew up with of course.

And then we had monkeys. So yea… well I’m not sure what species they were, I mean it could have been chimpanzees for all I know, but I couldn’t tell. Look I’ll just refer to them as monkeys. So they were pretty harmless, but yea, they were… they were monkeys.

So our house had 2 floors, and my room overlooked the roof of an extension on the first floor. And sometimes I would open my curtains and I would see a monkey eating a banana. So you know, it was a… it didn’t happen often, but it was a… you know, pretty regular occurrence.

So there was this one time I entered my room with the curtains closed during the day. And I saw this shadow through the curtains. So I kind of… I went up to my curtains, I opened it and there was this monkey perched on the window sill just staring back at me. Looking back at me through the window.

And it was a pretty sizeable monkey too, and it just freaked me out. Like I couldn’t… I can’t remember what happened, but I’m sure it got freaked out as well and ran away. And I think I pretty much just did the same thing.


And then we had a lot of insects and other small critters.

Geckos,” which are house lizards. So they would make these sounds in the house and they would leave poo everywhere – I guess you would call them “lizard droppings.” And sometimes their eggs, you would find their eggs around the place. Anyway, so they weren’t like, you know, annoying or anything. Again, it’s something that we grew up with and they were just in the house.

Kind of like spiders. So we had spiders of course. We had a lot of daddy long legs, which is a small spider with very thin legs.

We had millipedes. And sometimes they would creep into the shoes. So I used… Before I put my shoes on, I used to knock them first just to check if they got… if any millipedes got into them before I put them on. ‘Cause sometimes they would crawl in there.

We had mosquitos, which were pretty nasty. I’m sure a lot of you would know. So I would wake up with mosquito bites all over my face, and they would itch for days.

We also had flying ants. So yea, so when I was a kid… when I was a child… like I would remember that, you now, they would swarm during their mating season and they would come into the house after the sun had set because they were attracted to the light.

And the whole house would sort of get infested with these flying ants for the night. And we would sit in the dark trying to watch tv and this random ant would crawl across the screen. And pretty much the next day, it was all over. And then there would be discarded wings where they were flying around the lights.

But yea, look, it sounds like I really lived out in the jungle. But look, you know, I lived in a 2-floor house, with flushable toilets. It was on a housing estate, which is a group of identical houses. And if I remember correctly, there were about 8 or 9 of them in this place.

My parents had the master bedroom with the ensuite bathroom – “ensuite bathroom” is a private bathroom connected to a bedroom – which is different to a shared bathroom for several rooms or for a specific floor. So I would share a bedroom with my sister, and my brothers shared a bedroom.

Having a maid/nanny

And then we had another bedroom downstairs with an ensuite for the maid – so a “maid” is a female servant. Again this is… this is pretty common in countries like Brunei, Singapore and Malaysia. Our maid’s mother-in-law worked in Hong Kong, and some of my friends from Indonesia also had maids growing up.

Look it’s possible it’s a reflection of the middle class in these countries, but I can’t really say this with any kind of certainty. That’s just my personal assumption. This was something that I grew up with and I knew for certain my family wasn’t high-class and crazy rich. They were an affordable service in these countries and a lot of foreigners who came to live in Brunei also used these services.

So yea… and you know, they also play a vital role in society. And I didn’t realise this until recently actually. So for example, “maternity leave,” which is, I guess, your work leave or your time off when you’ve just recently given birth to a baby. So in Australia, maternity leave can be up to a year. In South East Asia, a month? Maybe up to 3 months?

So people would either, you know, leave the baby with the grandparents if they weren’t working or retired. Or they would have a maid to help look after them.

So I understand this is considered a luxury in many countries, but, you know, this is a way of life in many other countries. Of course, it’s nothing like Downton Abbey with a fleet of servants looking after an entire estate. Definitely that was not the kind of upbringing I had.

So… you know, when I came along, with the 4 kids under one roof, it’s when my parents hired a filipino maid. And she was pretty much my nanny in all my years living in Brunei.

Chinese kindergarten

Yea. So I went to a Chinese kindergarten. So I should explain, so even though it has a letter “t” in it, it’s not pronounced kin-der-gar-ten, according to how it’s spelt. Look I don’t know if you can hear it as I’m saying this right now. So I actually checked both the British and American pronunciations – which you can find on online dictionaries these days and it’s a pretty helpful tool to help you with your pronunciation. So it’s kin-der-gar-den, not kin-der-gar-ten. Okay.

So “kindergarten” is a type of preschool, which is… “preschool” meaning before elementary school or we would say primary school in South East Asia. And “kindergarten” is a proper classroom program for children usually from about 3 to 5 years of age.

So there I studied different subjects. I had homework – which is almost foreign to me now, giving a preschooler homework. I can’t imagine how much effort I put into my academic studies at that time when I was 3.

Also, going to a Chinese kindergarten is kind of funny to me, because I have no confidence whatsoever in speaking Mandarin now. Yet I actually went to one as a child. Like I would go as far as to say that my current level of Mandarin is probably the same level as my early Chinese education. And I vaguely remember, like I was speaking this mix of English and Mandarin. And I remember moments where I struggled with expressing myself clearly. So yea… so you know the struggle is real and I was 3.

Multilingual environment

So part of the reason, you know, why I was having this language difficultly was because I spoke mostly English at home. My parents actually spoke Cantonese to each other, which is a type of … which is a Chinese dialect. I preferred to speak English because my nanny/maid spoke English to me and I spoke English to the rest of my family as well. So I would speak Mandarin at kindergarten because it was a Chinese school. I also studied Malay because that was the standard language in Brunei – it’s compulsory in most schools.

My relatives on my mum’s side spoke another Chinese dialect called Hakka. And then the common Chinese dialect in the area, in the capital of Brunei, was Hokkien – which I never really picked up. And Chinese dialects are actually quite distinct from each other, so you can’t just speak one dialect fluently and then understand the other dialects somehow.

So you know, until recently, I never fully processed how multilingual the environment I grew up in was. My mom can actually speak 4 different Chinese dialects. She can speak English and Malay. And I don’t think she is at an advanced level in any of these languages, but she does speak them with a level of proficiency. So she is a product or result of her upbringing.

But for me, you know, learning all of these languages was never really enforced or encouraged – it was just part of the environment that I grew up in. And yea… I guess for some reason, I’ve never really been talented in languages to just pick it up easily. And this may seem a bit disappointing but I guess the reality is that, you know, my current environment doesn’t necessitate the use of any of these languages as well, now that I’m currently living in Australia.

Brunei diversity

I should explain a bit about the different ethnic groups in Brunei.

So “ethnicity” and “race” are quite often used to mean the same thing, but are actually slightly different.

So “ethnicity” relates to common national or cultural tradition. “Race” relates to your biology or genetic inheritance. So, ethnically you can be affiliated with different cultures; race is to do with your skin colour, physical features etc. So again, you can pretty much use them interchangeably.

So the Wikipedia page on ethnic groups pretty much lumps the 2 definitions together. So yea, so if someone asks you about your ethnic background, they’re quite often asking about you about your race as well.

So I should also mention quickly that asking about someone’s background, can often be considered rude or offensive and there are many web articles and forums that go at length about the reasons why.

So personally I don’t have a problem with it and a lot of people get a bit curious when I say I grew up in Brunei, so I’m more than happy to talk about it if people are genuinely curious and polite about the whole thing. So anyway, just bear in mind that sometimes asking questions about someone else’s ethnicity can be considered impolite and possibly lead to something negative. So this is just a polite warning here.

So yea, Brunei.

It’s actually quite diverse. Majority of the population is made up of Malays. And there are also different communities of Chinese, Indian people – I mean people from India or descendants from India because the word “Indian“, as you may have encountered, can mean native or indigenous people.

And there actually are indigenous communities in Brunei as well.

There’s a pretty large expatriate community – so “expatriate” or “expat” for short refers to a foreigner who has moved to the country for work reasons. And there was a pretty big enough expat community to have an international school there. And just before I moved to Australia, a second one opened. So there are 2 international schools in a country with a population of over 400,000. So yea.

So after I finished kindergarten, our family moved to Singapore and I was there for 3 years. And after that, my family… sorry, my siblings actually, not my family, my siblings went on to study in Australia, and I returned to Brunei because I was too young. So I was only 9 at that time. And when I moved back to Brunei, I got enrolled into an international school.

So when I studied in Singapore, which was at a public English school, you could choose between Chinese or Malay as your 2nd language. So for 3 years, that’s what I studied.

So when I went back to Brunei, my parents thought it was better to enrol me in an international school so I had the choice not to study Malay – ’cause they thought I couldn’t… I wouldn’t be able to keep up. Malay was a compulsory subject in all schools except at this international school.

I studied French

Which, looking back, was not really necessary. I actually studied French as a second language there, which I was able to pick up at the time and was able to keep up with the work. So I studied that all the way through high school.

And now, because I haven’t used it at all, I mean I’ve just lost it completely. This is the power of not using and speaking the language, you can literally lose it completely. So yea, 7 years of work all down the drain. Great.

So yea, so this international school I went to had a British curriculum. We had teachers from the UK, Australia, New Zealand and so on. And because they started the new class year in September, I was able to skip a grade. And the education in Singapore was like 2 years ahead, I pretty much breezed through the next 2 years.

My bookworm days

And it was at this school that I was introduced to books. I read a lot, you know, I was a bookworm, a serious bookworm.

So I started with Roald Dahl, which is a very famous children’s author – a lot of his books became movies. Family movies like MatildaJames and the Giant Peach – which is a mix of stop-motion capture and live acting. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory that stars Johnny DeppBig Friendly Giant – so that came out recently. Fantastic Mr FoxThe Witches – I think that came out maybe like 20 years ago now, which Roald Dahl unfortunately regarded as “utterly appalling.” Anyway but yea, his books are just a lot of fun.

I also read Sweet Valley Twins, which is a book series about the lives of these twins. And then I got into thriller books through them ’cause they had a small series where the twins encountered ghosts and curses and stuff.

I read a lot of Enid Blyton books, which is another children’s author. I got into the Nancy Drew series. Famous Five, which is another series by Enid Blyton. Secret Seven. So whatever I could get my hands on…

And then I went into high school at the same international school and then they had a different library. I reckon by the time I graduated, I had read most of the fiction books there. And for some reason, looking back now, this is like, you know, more than 15 years ago now, I don’t remember what I read.

Like I know I read a lot of thrillers. I read a lot of Christopher Pike, which was famous for young adult fiction and teen thrillers.

I continued with Sweet Valley High, which is the older version of the twins.

And yea, I got to know the librarian really well – Mrs Fletcher. And I was going in and out of the library every few days and I would read whatever she recommended me and she was awesome.

It’s funny looking back now because the last time I actually finished a book was several years ago. And I’ve tried to get into it again recently, but I could not get past the third chapter. So hopefully that will change soon. I might just have to force myself to get into it.

And you know, my housemates have a whole wall of books that I can help myself to and I haven’t touched any of them yet. So yea, hopefully, eventually… I don’t know, you’ll know… I’ll let you know.

Anyway, so yea, I think that’s the end of this episode. Well, you know, me reminiscing about my childhood. So yea… I hope you were able to pick up some vocabulary and phrases and that some of the explanations were useful and… you know, maybe they cleared some things up.

So please subscribe to this podcast. Find me on Facebook. I hope you have a lovely day and an even lovelier week. And I’ll catch you next episode. Bye!