Friday, September 19, 2008

What Dante's purgatory would be like in the 21st century

Being descendants of Chinese immigrants

I have just returned from a three-week holiday in France and I am presently living in Ethiopia. For the past few years, I have been living in and out of Malaysia, often traveling for job purposes as well as leisure. The more I travel, the more I realize that I don’t belong anywhere. The term “citizens of the world” doesn’t really convince me as such anymore.

For a start, being a descendant of Chinese immigrants, it has been pretty difficult for me to swallow words like, “Jangan mencabar kesabaran UMNO (Don’t challenge the patience of UMNO)”, “Do not question the NEP”, etc. I do have strong political views about this, not only because they are contradicting fundamental human rights principles, but also because I have been a direct victim of racial discrimination when I was in secondary school.

From that moment onwards, I can honestly tell you that I have stopped feeling like a true Malaysian. It was a disappointing revelation. Perhaps, it was also one of the main reasons which has driven me out of the country so many times. I thought I could find a place where I would finally belong and my “yellowness” would actually blend in.

My travel has taken me from living in the United Kingdom for four years, one year in Timor Leste, two years in Afghanistan, several months in France and the United States of America and now five months in Ethiopia.

The British way

When I first arrived in Britain, I was delirious with happiness and excitement. It was the first time that I had ventured so far away from Malaysia. I must confess that I had the occasional homesickness, but mainly for my family, friends and also nasi lemak. It wasn’t because I thought Malaysia is the best place on earth and I could never live without it. I felt mighty proud of myself for being able to travel that far to sit in the same lecture hall with other fellow students from all over the world.

For a long moment of time, I really felt that all of us, Brits, Yankees, Canadians, Nigerians, Pakistanis, Chinese, Spanish, Italianos, Indians, Japanese, Malaysians, etc. were the same and equal. We had all been given the equal opportunity to have a good education and also to rise up to our fullest potential. Everything would be based solely on merits with no preferential treatment whatsoever. However, during the one year that I was living with a bunch of Brits, it sort of woke me up from my reverie or should I say naïveté?

Coming from a developing country did not earn me the equal respect I deserved. I would often find myself in disagreements and debates with my fellow British housemates, even over the most mundane and inconsequential things. I was often told off that I was not doing the dishes the “right way” but in my opinion, what they really meant was the British way.

Most of them did not believe that I could be factually right just because I am from a developing country and they would rather believe their fellow countrymen and women than seeking and accepting the truth. After so many years of independence from the British, the colonialism spirit hasn’t really changed that much.

For one, I detested the fact that my housemates thought that the British way was superior to the chinese way. That, I was made to feel like an uncivilized and ignorant person. For what is worth, when I finally packed my bags and came back after four years, I felt smug for discovering that the Brits are not that superior after all. What we lack, we compensate with our culture of humility, generosity, hospitality and sincerity. All four characteristics which were almost absent from my housemates when I was living there.

Living in a material world

Then I had the privilege of spending three months in New York while doing an internship with the United Nations Headquarters. It was one of the most memorable times of my life as I had the opportunity to meet so many interns from different parts of the world. It was mind blowing just knowing how many of them could speak more than five languages, while I settled for just three. It was indeed a humbling experience to meet and work with top-notch intellectuals, professionals and policy makers. Even the secretaries were top-niveau.

I was hungry for a social life in New York, especially when I was living at the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Life couldn’t be better than this. I can’t remember how but I managed to hook up with a bunch of Malaysian expatriates, little did I know that they were in a completely different league. While my ambitions and aspirations were to help change the world, theirs were how to strike it rich and retire by the age of 40 in some exotic Caribbean islands.

While I am still struggling with my career, I’m sure some of them are already looking for properties at the Bahamas. Most of them were highly qualified professionals either working for the Wall Street or some multi-million dollar American corporations. These Malaysians had big dreams and they were in an elite class of their own, enjoying champagne in every meal, shopping at Park Avenue and driving imported cars. As for me, I was beginning to feel like Cinderella. It was getting hard to keep up because when I looked at them, I realized that this is not the kind of life I am ready for. The bottom line was, I didn’t belong.

Life as a mission junkie

My first début in the kind of lifestyle that I am living now was in Timor Leste, working as a volunteer for the UN. In all respect, I did enjoy my mission immensely despite the common difficulties all aid worker faces in post-conflict countries. But of course, by the end of my mission, there was nothing left to keep me there.

So was Afghanistan. It was so easy to feel lonely and isolated in both countries. People were kind there but I was always looked at as the foreigner who came to “rescue” them or rather at most time, to tell them what to do. Besides, most mission junkies (as many of us are called at that time) know full well that lasting friendships during a mission are hard to come by. Once it ends, you just pack your suitcase and leave. Adios! Sayonara! Au revoir!

If you are lucky enough, you will meet again in another mission. The only thing which might hold you back is if you fall in love and eventually marry a local girl or boy. In Afghanistan, this did not happen to me but I did get married to a Frenchman and we finally left the country together.

“Parlez Francais, s’il vous plait!”

It was then the beginning of yet another long journey of trying to find my own place in this world. Although I am married to a Frenchman, there is nothing French about me at all, except that I love eating croissants and even then, they are not really French. The Austrians just could not be bothered to take up a case against them. If they were Americans, that would be another case altogether since they “invented” the Freedom Fries.

My husband has asked me several times to take up French citizenship which means I have to disown mine. He knows about the whole affirmative action and discrimination hoo-hah in Malaysia. But you know, will I feel more at home in France than in Malaysia? Whether I like it or not, I am borne in Malaysia and to ask me to give up my citizenship for a reason such as marriage, I could not do it. I am not going to disown my country because I am married to a foreigner.

My ultimate handicap is my inability to speak the language of love. It was not that I refuse to learn the language but there was something which was holding me back from trying hard.

In all the occasions which we had been in France together, I always ended up crying my heart out, screaming at my husband and contemplating divorce in my head. As we all know, the French love their language and probably think that it is disloyal to speak any other languages, which explains why they are still possibly one of the monolinguals left.

When we met up with my husband’s friends and family, I felt isolated, small, handicapped and lost. It felt almost as if all of a sudden I didn’t exist anymore or I had the sudden miraculous ability to become invisible. The French has this ability of ignoring your presence completely. They have no discomfort of chatting animatedly and laughing uproariously in the presence of a non-French speaking person, without making the effort to translate or at least to make the person feel welcomed or wanted in the company.

So there I was, sitting hour after hour during meals, feeling even smaller and more insignificant by the minute. My husband would make the occasional effort to translate for me but be rest assured that after a couple of aperitifs, I would be adorned with my invisible cloak. I no longer existed.

Apparently, other Francophiles are not being spared either. A French Canadian friend of ours was once told by a Parisien to “speak in English, please” because his French was incomprehensible. There is this mysterious phenomenon of the French being so proud of their language or perhaps being so afraid of learning another language. They can be highly critical of their government and fellow French countrymen/women, but they can never bring themselves to learn another language. Every single foreign movie is dubbed in French and it is almost a mission impossible to find French movies with English sub-titles in France.

Hence, maybe it is easier to understand my reluctance in learning French. It was my pride and ego which were stopping me from flirting with the language. Whenever I am reminded of how small I am made to feel by the French and also the fact that I speak three languages already while they don’t, I kind of tell myself, “Why should I learn their fucking language? For once, they should learn that they are not alone in this world!”

Africa, (oops!). Ethiopia, here I come!

My recent journey took me to Ethiopia. My husband took a job in Addis Ababa and we are planning to live here for another year or so. I am now entering my fifth month here and perhaps this is what has inspired me to write this.

Ethiopia, by comparison to Timor Leste and Afghanistan is by far more comfortable and acceptable in terms of the living condition. We have a nice house in the city with hot running water all day and a bathtub to enjoy it. I could walk on the street by myself and have a nice continental European breakfast in one of the hundreds of cafes and restaurants in Addis Ababa. We have made a lot of new friends accompanied by their families and sometimes, life does seem to feel normal in the otherwise tribal-conflicted and disaster stricken country.

During my first week here, I took the liberty to explore the city on my own. The weather was sunny, people smiling on the streets and the ambience was one of peace and tranquility.

It was the first time I have set foot in Africa, although the locals will adamantly tell you that Ethiopia is not Africa. You see, it’s the only African country which has never been colonized and has managed to resist foreign occupation. Ethiopia, previously known as Abyssinia, is steeped with a rich culture and was once the cradle of civilization, being mentioned in the Old Testaments numerous times.

Since, the Ethiopians are also “blessed” with finer facial features and fairer skin, they are naturally proud and tend to distinct themselves from the rest of Africa. It is no doubt a unique country, with a unique language (Amharic) and the only one which has just celebrated its second Millennium, following its own calendar.

After a few weeks of being here, I slowly but surely discovered a new side of Ethiopia. I am constantly pointed out by unremorseful local children that I am a foreigner, wherever I go. The farenji (foreigner in Amharic) frenzy became irritating rather than amusing. A lot of the people I met seem to become more rude each day especially the women. It is difficult to expect good services in restaurants, shops, etc.

I was once asked to get out from a shop because I questioned the exorbitant price attached to an ordinary-looking sweater made in Thailand. The concept of bargaining or negotiation does not exist. As a foreigner, I am constantly ripped off by local businesses which make shopping a gruesome exercise.

Women tend to stare at me at a disconcerting way and they do not hide the fact that they are mocking at me. I mean, they would stare and then turn to their friends and start whispering and sniggering. God only knows what they talk about, but I am sure it is not pleasant.

You see, for us women who came here with their working foreign husbands, we are a threat to the local women. It is known that foreign men are being preyed on by the local women, for economic reasons or a free passport to a better life. I have met with several women who are wives to my husband’s colleagues. They all corroborated the same feeling I have, which is, we are not welcomed here.

I revealed my discomfort to my husband and he didn’t believe me in the beginning for very good reasons too. He is a foreign man, holding a relatively high position in an international organization. So, he does not receive the same kind of treatment as I do. Since he spends most of his time in his office while I am the one doing the groceries and handling the domestic affairs of our house, he is not in much contact with the local people outside of the organization.

However, my husband is not a man without good judgment or observation. As time passed by, he slowly understood what I had been going through. There was even one occasion which convinced him further about this when we were waiting at the departure lounge of the airport in Addis Ababa. The waitress at a relatively empty bar refused to serve us despite us waiting for more than 20 minutes. When I finally walked over to catch her attention, she was extremely rude to me.

It was just shocking to see such poor level of service in an international airport. In all of our lives, we have never encountered such audacity, arrogance and disrespect. We ended up walking out of the bar. We believe that if it had only been my husband alone, the treatment would have been different.

Home sweet home….?

So here I am now. In my quest to find a “home”, I have taken a vow to learn French. I guess I have to swallow my pride in order to survive and I will fight hard for it. If I manage to speak in another language, then good for me and shame on them.

The environment does not change just so you can fit in. You have to change yourself to fit in. Besides, I have not in any way felt discriminated in France for reason of my ethnicity but more of linguistic. I was told that the French has a lot of respect for Asians because the latter are industrious, peaceful and keep a low profile. So, I figure that if I master the language, then perhaps I will feel more at home. I would finally get the respect which I deserve. I am not big-headed or egotistical as I may sound. I just don’t want to be made to feel less than I am.

I have became so tired of being considered as a second-class citizen that I just want to belong to a place where nobody would judge me by the colour of my skin, the language that I speak, the gender of my sex and the way I do my dishes. I am sure a lot of people who read this will be tempted to tell me, “Belah ke Cinalah kalau tak suka (Fuck off to China if you don’t like it).”

My answer would be, do you have any idea how it feels like to be stuck in the middle of nowhere? I am a second generation Chinese-Malaysian, which means, I have been brought up the “Malaysian” way. I can’t write or read Chinese nor speak in perfect Mandarin, Hokien or Cantonese. The moment I open my mouth to speak in Chinese to the vendors in China Town of London, New York or Paris, I am always given a look which says, “Not another Banana lady (in reference to the ‘yellowness’ on the outside but ‘whiteness’ on the inside) here, please!”

Besides, why should I be “punished” for a decision taken by my ancestors two generations ago? The same law-abiding ancestors whom have contributed to the economic growth of the country?

I know my life is pretty comfortable in Malaysia. I don’t get attack by the Malays or Indians. We sort of co-exist in a polite and civil manner. But when I am reminded again and again that we don’t share the same rights as Malaysians, then don’t tell me that I should be proud to wave the Jalur Gemilang during Merdeka Day or to proclaim that I love Malaysia.

“Aiyah! Why you complain so much? I’m sure you will never be happy anywhere in the world!!” I hear you say. But this is precisely what I mean when I say from the beginning that the notion of citizens of the world is a farce to me. As long as people truly stop looking at each other based on their ethnicity, gender and nationality, there shall be no globalization of humankind.

We will always have the ability to accept Coca Cola, Pepsi, McDonald’s, The Body Shop, Colgate, Nestle, Knorr, Star Bucks, etc. as household names because they are commercial products which equal to social status, but we can never accept another person of another race, gender and nationality into our lives. For many, human beings have no value, even those who are highly qualified, honest and hard working.

I will always adapt myself to the given circumstances and will be grateful for what I have but I will not stay complacent. I don’t wish for my children to go through what I went through in my own home country, to be told that he or she is not good enough despite working hard, being deprived of a well-deserved award, just because a Malay must be given a fair share of acknowledgement.

My experience has scarred me and it breaks my spirit and I won’t want that for my children. So before I have them, I would like to make sure that they are brought up in a country where they will truly belong.

Being stuck in the middle is purgatory.
Written on 9 October 2007

Published in on 12 (Part I) and 16 (Part II) October 2007, under the title “Stuck in the Middle”.

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