Thursday, November 24, 2016

Racism: a collection of 'negative' views.

The topic of International Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam came up at lunch at work, so I raved about Miguel Peres Dos Santos's film 'Voices' and how some of the things you see in the film in the 70s/80s are still uncannily being seen and heard in the media of contemporary Dutch society.

For example, the film has excerpts from news interviews of a White Dutch man in the streets, saying that he doesn't think it's fair that "Mr Foreigner [from Curacao]" should get a house before him.

A White Spanish colleague (married to White Dutch) at the lunch table starts getting agitated. 

WSC: You cannot say 'Wow, things like that are being said in the 70s', this is how we are brought up in society and this is what we learn from our parents".

[Right about here I'm hoping she meant that therefore it's an unconscious narrative that should be changed]
Me [confused]: "No, my point is that these things are still being said today. They still talk about immigrants like this."
WSC [getting agitated and getting up to put her things away, ready to leave the room]: You keep saying "they", "they", who do you mean??
Me: The White Dutch! And the media.
WSC: Well you seem to have a very negative view of White Dutch people.
[Nope, I was wrong! Racism is something natural, socialised, and merely a faulty perception of a POC.]
WSC refuses to believe that I have heard White people say these things to my face. Woman, you are White. It's impossible for you to see this 'negative' side and hear such 'negative' comments directed to you or people that share your religion, skin colour, hair colour or dress code.

Just a couple of days ago, I was also describing an incident that happened when I was at the film screening in Amsterdam. I had no choice but to bring Nootje along (and just hoping for the best). He ended up sitting through the 20-minute film just about okay, but he was getting restless and needed to sit on the floor with his toys during the Q&A. I wasn't too optimistic about being able to stay the whole way, so I was ready to leave -- having already picked a seat close to the exit and given weary smiles to the kind-faced host who wished me luck when I walked in with Nootje -- if he needed to.
Nootje started to talk ("Airplane is taking off!") during the Q&A, prompting a series of Very Dirty Looks from 3-4 White women just in front of him. One old woman made a big fuss, after turning around pointedly to stare at Nootje, of moving to a different seat. It wasn't loud (a 2-year-old talking, seriously) but I left the theatre after that.

When I described the incident on Facebook, an acquaintance commented that the same would have happened even if I were white, since the problem, according to her, is that Dutch people don't like playful kids.
That's the two main issues right there: she spoke of "Dutch people" when she really meant White Dutch, because Dutch POC are usually friendly to kids. And then there's the obvious thing, I'm NOT White, am I?

While I don't expect her to be able to empathise that I faced such a hostile situation, she expected that I would know what it feels like to be White/the norm. And with one sentence she had managed to turn the whole situation upside down: now I was supposed to feel sorry for her and her unappreciated playful child too.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Openseam - "Teacher, are you Chinese or Malay?"

This article was first published on Openseam.

Happy Teachers' Day!

Today's post comes from Aliya Yeoh, an English teacher in Penang, Malaysia. She previously wrote about how she celebrated Chinese New Year. A Chinese Muslim, she reverted at the age of 35, after postponing her earlier plan to do so for 10 years. You can read more of her experiences and thoughts in her blog, Musings of a Mualaf.

"Teacher, do you understand Tamil?" asked Revathi.

I was with a small group of Indian students, on relief duty for an absent teacher.

"No, I don't understand Tamil," I smiled. I knew they just wanted reassurance that I would not eavesdrop on their conversation.

"Would you understand if I speak Chinese?" I asked. Revathi's turn to smile.

"Teacher, you can speak Chinese?" 

"Teacher is Chinese la," Ramanan answered for me.

"Really? I thought you're a Malay."

"I am a Chinese," my smile grew wider. She looked puzzled.

"But... you are wearing tudung?"

"I am a Chinese Muslim... born in Malaysia. I grew up as a Chinese and later..."

"You converted?" Shanti chipped in.

"That's right. I wear the tudung because I am a Muslim woman. But I am still a Chinese and I can speak and understand Chinese." I explained slowly.

"Ohhh..." Revathi nodded slowly.

I've been in this school since 2010. I taught these same students two years ago and strangely, they have not realised that I am a Chinese lady. The reason? I am wearing a hijab, or tudung.

Students, like most Malaysians, associate this garb with Islam and being Malay. In many minds, if you wear a tudung, then you must be a Malay.

And in their minds, if you happen to wear a long tudung, then you must be an especially religious Malay. They associate our clothing with religion.

It's bad enough that Muslim and non-Muslim students are always separated during religious activities. It would be havoc among other non-Muslim teachers if a non-Muslim student were to sit in the hall with other Muslim students, listening to a ceramah (sermon) by an ustaz.

So I can't blame them for their lack of understanding of Islam. They don't know much because we, the Muslims, don't do much. Sometimes we, as adults, are not allowed to.
Students learn best when they mix with their own friends. Which is why our teenagers need to be exposed to doing Islamic dakwah work, and not be scolded nor discouraged just because they 'lack knowledge'.

I wouldn't be surprised if non-Muslim students think that China is made up of only Buddhist people. I used to think that way too, when in reality there are more Chinese Muslims in China than there are Malay Muslims in Malaysia.

Once, I was told, in hushed tones, that there was a Chinese student who was interested in Islam. The ustazah didn't know what to do. Till today, I'm still waiting for her to approach me.

It's always fun watching how Chinese students react when I speak Chinese dialects or Mandarin to them. One day when I scolded a sleepy Chinese lad in Hokkien, his mother tongue, and he was so surprised that he actually sat up straight.
And the Malay students?

They might suddenly realise that it's a fact that there are other Muslims in this country who are not Malay or Mamak.* That there are other once-kafir (non-Muslim) people who have embraced Islam and are now their brothers and sisters in Islam. Because I'm living and walking proof among them.

"So teacher, are you a Malay or a Chinese now?"

"I am a Chinese... and my religion is Islam. There are more than 60,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia today, did you know?"

Ahhh, life is never boring as a Chinese Muslim. Xie xie, wo ai ni,** Allah.

*Mamak: local slang to refer to people of Indian ethnicity.
** Mandarin for 'Thank you, I love you'.


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