Thursday, September 25, 2008

Chicken and Duck Talk

Before the United Kingdom’s transfer of sovereignty of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997, many Hong Kong People were concerned and many even considered immigration. The topic of immigration or “yee mun” in Cantonese, to developed countries like the United States of America, Canada, Britain, etc. was much talked about.

The reason was partly due to the fear of being governed by a less developed and liberalised country such as China. I suppose the Chinese in Hong Kong felt that they have a higher standard of living, more sophisticated, fashionable and perhaps more modern. The Chinese in mainland China were regarded as country bumpkins, people who consider spittoons in public places as a matter of practicality, rather than a hygiene disaster.

Many Hong Kong movies at that time not only made fun of immigration issues but also the backwardness of mainland Chinese. Now, it is a matter of the past and as China becomes more developed and soon to be one of the biggest economic powers in the world, guess who is having the last laugh now?

While people from the same ethnic race and culture can feel the disparity of social gap due to the inbalance of economic power, it is understandably even more so for people of different genetic makeup living in countries with huge developmental gap. Consider someone from Western Europe and another from Sub-Saharan Africa. Culture will not be the only difference. Education, lifestyle, standard of living and social norms will all contribute to further separate them.

As a Malaysian, I sometimes find it difficult to define whether Malaysia is considered as a developing country or not, although technically it is. When I inform some foreigners that I am from Malaysia, they immediately think about the Petronas Twin Towers and they would tell me how developed Malaysia is, much to my own amusement. While we are not as developed as Singapore, Hong Kong, Taiwan and South Korea, we are definitely better off than many other countries I have been.

While culturally speaking, I find that as the world becomes smaller as a result of globalisation, advancement of information technology and tourism, people from different parts of the world, whether developed or developing, can begin to understand each other better. With programmes such as National Geographic and Discovery Channel, we are able to learn and understand cultural taboos and social norms. We no longer fear about the unknown and will become less fascinated with what is known. In many ways, it has helped to reduce the level of xenophobia to a great extent.

Nevertheless, I realise that there are still certain notions of lifestyles and soci0-cultural practices which will remain as a boggle. For instance, in some countries, the practice of corruption is considered as normal while unacceptable in others. Individual privacy is highly respected in more developed country while it is common for other to see it as a right to know everything about one’s private life. Taking a pet dog to training school and grooming salon will baffle anyone who treats dog as just another dietary supplement.

I had such an experience while I was in Ethiopia a few months ago. While traveling in Bahir Dar, I met two young Ethiopian students at a local cultural bar. One of them was graduating from University of Bahir Dar and they were out celebrating the occassion. As a gesture of goodwill, they invited my friend and I to attend the graduation ceremony the next day at the university. We were delighted and accepted the invitation gratefully.

Since then, we became friends as one of them studied journalism and writes theatrical plays regularly. They showed us places to go to in Bahir Dar. One night, while we were out and about in town, I excused myself to get something from the grocery kiosk and one of the boys escorted me.

While we were walking on a dim but busy street, I decided to send a SMS to my husband. While messaging, a person appeared very abruptly from my side and snatched my phone away. It all happened so quickly and I was in a state of shock. The next thing I knew, my friend had chased after the thief. Boy, these Ethiopians really can run.

I regained my composure quickly and I shouted after my friend to stop chasing. My concern was for my friend’s safety rather than my old beat up mobile phone, which was not worth killing oneself over. He returned completely crestfallen and very apologetic since he felt embarassed that this should happen to me in his country. He was even more upset than I was.

I told him that I needed to report this to the police since the SIM card belonged to my husband’s organisation and it was procedural to report a theft. We didn’t have to walk far to the police station when we bumped into two uniformed officers on the same street. My friend started explaining to the officers in Amharic. I tried to talk to them but nobody listened to me. I suppose it was cultural that in the presence of a man, a woman should just keep quiet. Anyhow, since I don’t speak Amharic, I let my friend take charge of the conversation.

After a few minutes, I sensed there was a problem since the police officers didn’t seem to take my case seriously. From their expression, they behaved as if we were the culprit, rather than the victim. Initially, I assumed that they probably couldn’t care less about a trivial matter such as a stolen mobile phone. So, I told my friend to explain to them that I didn’t want to make any fuss but I just needed a report.

My friend ignored me much to my chagrin and as I was just about to argue with them, which I am very capable of, he turned to me and explained that the officers wouldn’t believe him and instead accused him of conspiring with the thief.

I was stunned and I told him to tell the officers that we are friends. He then told me that since I am a foreigner and he is Ethiopian, they just assumed that he was trying to take advantage of me.

I didn’t know how to react except that it was one of the most incredulous things I have ever heard in my life. I have worked as a human rights officer in a country like Afghanistan where human rights abuses are ten times more severe than most places in the world, but this baffles me until today.

I insisted on talking to the officers myself but when my friend told me that he would be targetted as a scapegoat and hence, punished severely, I decided to let it go. In a way, perhaps but a very small perhaps, my friend might have played a role in the incident but I trust my instinct enough to know that he wasn’t involved and even if he was, how could the police deal with the matter just like that? What about me, the actual victim? If my friend had conspired against me, should they not help me to lodge a report still? Besides, how could they be so bloody certain that he had anything to do with it?

I returned feeling extremely upset and sorry for my friend who has to live in a country filled with unreasonable stereotypes and injustice. When I conveyed the incident to my other friend, I was so infuriated that tears came to my eyes. As for him, he took it as if it was normal.

When we returned to Addis Ababa, we stayed in touch and one day, he offered to show me around a shopping area in Piazza, notoriously known for pick pockets and snatch thieves. It is always handy to go shopping with a local to avoid being overcharged. Compared to expatriate areas such as Bole, where I lived, Piazza is catered for locals but also popular among tourists for souvenir and gold shopping.

When I finished shopping, he took me to the bus station to get a ride back to Bole. Feeling slightly embarassed, I told him that I was not allowed to take mini-buses and could only take taxis. Out of curiosity, he asked me why.

I explained to him very straightforwardly that as an expatriate and also a wife of an international organisation delegate, we had been advised not to take mini-buses since the bombing incident in front of the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa. You see, a bomb was planted in a minibus which killed 3 and injured 9 back in May 2008.

He told me not to worry as mini-buses are usually safe and it is afterall the cheapest mode of public transportation in Addis Ababa. (A taxi usually costs about 50 birr from Piazza to Bole while a minibus costs only about 1.90 birr). In order not to appear paranoid and overly protective, I explained that if I insisted on taking a mini-bus and something did happen, whether a bomb or just an accident, I would not be covered by my insurance scheme, provided by my husband’s organisation.

He looked at me as if I was from outer space. He didn’t have to explain to me because I do understand the bizarreness of what would appear as petty rules in a country where millions are suffering from famine every single year. Most of the people don’t even own insurance policies, much less trying to understand the exclusion clauses that come with it.

Two such examples tell me that these are the things which we cannot hope to change overnight. We cannot begin to understand each other unless we are or have been in the other’s position. Like a chicken and a duck trying to converse with each other, we could go on and go babbling or defending our choices or position, it would be meaningless. The level of human development (as UNDP refers as) does make a difference towards our perception and understanding of lifestyles and social habits.

The good thing is, as human beings, we are from the same species despite the differences in our genes. Since we are also highly developed compared to other species, we can look to many other means of helping us to communicate. With the aid of media, education and sometimes, translator, we can learn to speak the same language, to think, analyse, explain and eventually to understand.

* The Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. It is used to distinguish whether the country is a developed, a developing or an under-developed country, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life. According to UNDP HDI 2006, Malaysia is ranked at 63 and Ethiopia at 169 out of 177 countries.

Written on 25 September 2008

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