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The voice of race, the voice of difference

March 8, 2010

I remember, about more than three years ago, when I was still living in Malaysia at an apartment located between a suburb and the city of Kuala Lumpur, a friend was to come and visit me. Like more condominiums in that land, there is security at the gate and visitors are expected to sign in and leave behind a form of identification. This is particularly enforced especially if the visitor comes after sundown. However, there is no direct correlation between what is in the rulebook (set by the owners/residents of the units within the condominium and by the managemetn) and the actual enforcement, for the latter depends on who happens to be guarding the gateway, their personal biases, their conscientiousness to the task and even their knowledge of what is in the rulebook. Sometimes, unwritten rules will be pulled out of nowhere if they wish to make life difficult for the visitor, or if they have hostile relations with a resident of a particular unit.

Now, this person who was to visit my place more than 3 years ago, is not the first person to have visited me there in the almost one year I would have been living in that aparment, so it would have been the same as any other visit. As I do not own the apartment, but rather rent a room, I usually have to schedule having guests at my place in a way that does not inconvenience my other housemates (so I do not actually ever hold soirees at that apartment, except for the last fortnight before I was to leave, nor do I have as regular flow of visitors compared to friends who actually have their own pads).

However, unlike most of my other friends, he’s a foreigner. In addition to that, he belongs to a group of foreigners that were lumped together with another race of multiple nationalities that are reviled by a certain demographic segment of the society I lived in, even though he does not belong to that category of race (an interesting story would be why this particular race of people elicit such a strong distaste among the locals of that society but would be a story for another day). On that day of the visit, as I was expecting him to appear at the door of my apartment anytime, I received a phone call asking me to go down, and this friend was yelling at the guard at the background and also at me. His inability to communicate fluently in English (and his ignorance of any local dialect) at that time perhaps led him to compensate by speaking loudly, repeating strings of words that do not always form a coherent, grammatical sentence (and this, in a land where most people do not even speak ‘grammatical’ English), in order to let us know how aggrieved he was. It turned out later that the security has asked that this friend leave behind his drivers license, since he obviously would not have the national ID, and this became a major issue when he refused to do so. His inability to understand the guard(s), most of whom could not speak much of English as some were foreigners hired from neighbouring impoverished nations and others from the smaller villages of Malaysia (though more of the former) and his own linguistic handicap turned an issue that could have been resolved through negotiation or some understanding of each other’s perspective into an all-out-battle. This was not my first acquaintance with my friend’s temper and it would not be the last, during the course of our friendship up to the many months before I left Malaysia. But at that time, what was a small dispute became a larger one when my friend insisted with speaking with going to see the management the next day, where he was issued with a reason for such a rule in a way that incensed him further, because of the racist/nationalist laced tone that was used.

Almost a year and a half later, just before I was due to move out from that place, another friend came to visit. Now, this friend is Malaysian but he is certainly not of the well-heeled visitor usually found in the condominium I live in (even though there were students living there, they were certainly well-heeled students, not unlike the ones in the current university I am at). This friend also tends to visit in the evenings, at sun down, after he gets off work. However, unlike the previous friend, he managed to convince the guards to let him in without leaving behind any ID on most days (and of course having to do so on other times). However, between the time of the visit of the foreign friend and that of this local friend, I have devised way of bringing in visitors who had to visit at night for whatever reason by having them park outside by the highway (if they ride a bike or drive a car) and then driving out to pick them out.

However, this story is not about the people who visited me but about the very racial/national/citizen/alien nexus in which they inhabit. The latter friend is a citizen, and belongs to the majority ethnic group in Malaysia that is itself a constitution of many subgroups. He is Malaysian on the one hand, looks not too different from some of the guards manning the gateway on the other and have less of a language handicap than the first friend. The first friend, perhaps due to the accumulation of frustration of having to navigate a foreign land whose main language he had minimal to no knowledge of, and a culture alien in some ways (I will not even go into the topic of the ghettoization propensity of foreign students at this point, as that will be another topic). Moreover, the fact that this foreign land is not as well-ordered as what one may find in some developed lands, mean that while there is less bureaucracy in some form, there are other problems of knowing what one should do. At the same time, there is also the problem of perceptions of locals to your position as a foreigner; are you that privileged foreigner from a developed country of Europe or East Asia or even South Asia (usually this means India), or are you a migrant worker trying to make desperate living in a foreign soil, a foreign student using the country as a transitory stage with the hope that you may one day end up in your other fantasy land, a student or worker who ‘failed’ to get to the place of their choice or one who goes there to escape the strict laws and troubles of your land (the student/worker potential asylum seeker masquerading as a student/worker).

This comes bearing to me in mind in my own position as an alien, as the racial other (though perhaps less of an other than some) and as not having roots, much in the same way as how the angry friend used to feel. I see that too in the faces of the many, even more multiple immigrants to this land, of them who barely speak a word of the main language of the land (Spanish speakers excepted, but sometimes, included) and who had no means or access to public facillities or healthcare, who had to sneak around sometimes. Now, that foreign friend of mine came from a well-to-do, even if not wealthy, family, so he had at least some financial support. Imagine coming to this land, seeing your savings diminished as you convert them to the mother currency. You see all the toil and hardwork you’ve put in amounting to nothing more than the sum of all the minimal-level wages one can get here. It matter not when you were living in your land, but it matters now that you’ve become an alien of another land that expects that you show proof of financial solvency to remain a welcomed alien.

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