This article was previously posted on The Malaysian Insider under the title Trying to Bridge the Social and Communication Gap on 28 July.
Many Hong Kong People had at some point in time considered immigration before the island was returned to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997. Immigration to developed Western countries was a hot topic of conversation then. If you were rich, it would seem that immigration was the only wise and most fashionable decision to take.
I suppose the reason for this was partly due to the fear of being governed by a less developed and even less liberal country such as China. I assume the Chinese in Hong Kong felt that they had a higher standard of living; they were more sophisticated and ultimately, they were modern. The Chinese in mainland China were regarded as country bumpkins; people who considered spittoons in public places as a matter of practicality, rather than a hygiene faux pas.
Picture above on the left: Christian Orthodox paintings from one of the churches in Bahir Dar, Ethiopia
Many Hong Kong movies at that time not only made fun of immigration but also the backwardness of mainland Chinese. Now, it is a matter of the past and as China becomes more developed and already one of the economic superpowers of 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 as result of economic inequality, it is understandably more so for people of different genetic makeup who live in countries with huge socio-economic gap. Consider someone from Western Europe and another from Sub-Saharan Africa. Culture will not be the only thing which sets them apart. Education, lifestyle, standard of living and social norms will all conspire to further separate them.
I find that as the world becomes smaller due to the impact of globalisation, advancement of information technology and tourism, we no longer fear the unknown and become less and less fascinated with what is known. In many ways, it has helped to reduce the level of xenophobia amongst many of us.
Nevertheless, I realise that there are still certain notions of lifestyles and socio-cultural practices which will remain a puzzle. For instance, in some countries, the practice of corruption is considered normal while in others, completely unacceptable. Individual privacy is better appreciated in more developed country while it is more common here for others 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 years ago. While travelling in Bahir Dar, I met two young Ethiopian students at a local cultural bar. One of them was graduating from a local university and was out celebrating the occasion. They showed my friend and I places to go to in Bahir Dar and we all became friends eventually.
Picture above: Pelicans floating on Lake Tana in Bahir Dar
One night, while we were walking on a dim but busy street, I decided to send a SMS on my phone. While I was keying in the text message, a man appeared abruptly from my side and snatched my phone away. It all happened so quickly that I was left in a momentary catatonic state. The next thing I knew it, my Ethiopian friend had given chase to the thief and together they disappeared into the darkness of the night.
I regained my composure quickly and shouted after my friend to stop the chase. He returned completely crestfallen and was extremely apologetic. I suppose he felt ashamed that this should happen to me in his country.
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 police 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.
After a few minutes, I sensed there was a problem since the police officers didn’t look too sympathetic. From their expression, they behaved as if we were the culprits. My friend then explained that the police wouldn’t believe him and instead, accused him of conspiring with the thief.
I was baffled and stunned. He told me that since I was 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 ridiculous things I had ever heard in my life. Believe it or not, this incident actually made it to the top of my list of human absurdities.
I insisted on talking to the officers but when my friend told me that he would be placed as a scapegoat, I decided to let it go. The thought that perhaps my friend might have played a role in the incident did come across my mind but it didn’t matter. Even if he was, how could the police deny him the right to be presumed innocent until proven otherwise?
I left the scene feeling extremely upset and sorry for my friend who is forced to live with irrational stereotypes and injustices. When I conveyed the incident to my other friend, I was so infuriated that tears came to my eyes.
When we returned to Addis Ababa, we continued to stay in touch. One day, the same friend offered to show me around a shopping area in Piazza, notoriously known for pick pockets and snatch thieves. Compared to Bole where most expatriate lives, the Piazza is predominantly inhabited by locals but still a popular place amongst tourists for cheap souvenirs and gold jewelleries.
When I finished shopping, he took me to the bus station to get a ride back to Bole. Feeling slightly embarrassed, I told him that I was not allowed to take the mini-bus and could only take taxis. Out of curiosity, he asked me why.
I explained to him that as an expatriate and also a wife of an international organisation delegate, we were prohibited from taking mini-buses due to the bombing incident in front of the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa which killed 3 and injured 9 in May 2008.
Picture left: A young child selling souvenirs in Bahir Dar
He told me not to worry as mini-buses are usually safe and it is after all the cheapest mode of public transportation in Addis Ababa. (A taxi usually cost about 50 birr from Piazza to Bole while a minibus cost only about 1.90 birr). In order not to appear too “precious”, 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.
He looked at me as if I was from Mars. He didn’t have to speak for me to understand the incredulity of what must had appeared so petty in a country where millions are suffering from famine every single year. Most Ethiopians don’t even own insurance policies, much less trying to understand the exclusion clauses that come with it. This probably topped his list of absurdities.
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 trying to speak and defend our choices or positions and it would still be futile and meaningless.
However, since we all have highly developed capacity to learn, we can look to many other means of helping us to communicate. With the aid of information technology, education and sometimes even a translator, we can learn how to speak the same human language. If this doesn’t work, then we should know that we’re not the only human beings living in this planet.
Finally, let’s not forget that there is also the chicken and the duck.