28 April 2009

A white woman's burden

Never before have I been disgusted at my physical features and had the urge to look different. Living in Chinatown which is actually usurped by the Indians living nearby in the quarter of Brickfields (what is it with Indians and bricks?) though, and following a series of other encounters elsewhere of a sexually molesting nature, my fair skin has become my curse.

Going the five minutes to 7/11 is like walking on a catwalk surrounded by leery spectators who make all kinds of weird sounds with their pursed lips or chat me up directly right away. Lately, I put on a sour face (not very hard) in an attempt to deter attention, dress as local as possible (women's shoes instead of trekkers, casual wear ideally wide, ugly and/or long-sleeved, casual shoulder bag instead of the backpack I left in London anyway). I am so on edge when I pass them that I literally flex my fingers (it's like the twitch Volleyballers have before they smash), ready to strike if anyone should have the guts to even brush me. For every single time these sexist bastards open their mouths, they deserve to have their dicks and tongues chopped into little pieces with a boning knife and stuffed back into their foul mouths. These people are a disgrace to their mothers and wives. The police should patrol undercover through their stalls instead of just having a stationary walk-in van at the entrance of the pedestrian zone. I decided that as long as I can somehow afford it, I'd rather live somewhere expensive with only Malays, Chinese, Westerners and yes, even British people than to have to endure this level of harassment every day when I leave the house and come back. I have already taken to the habit of trying to be back before nightfall and not leaving the house before sunrise (a circumcision of my freedom, it's like being on house arrest for the duration of the night) but how long will I be able to live like that?

I should probably try to get hold of some express high SPF tanning cream, Malaysian attire and learn how Malay women tie their hijab. What the deal is with fair skin, some people among you with less familiarity of Asiana might ask me. The grass is always greener on the other side, and just like in the West it is more fashionable to have a tan, in Asia there are all kinds of whitening products that promise you beauty and success. A tan is sometimes associated with spending too much time in the sun, as you do when you are a farmer. My Southeast Asian face and my voluptuous figure heighten the attention. Therefore, if I dress Malaysian, I might get away as local (at least according to the Rough Guide, Malay and even scantily clad Chinese women receive relatively less attention, claiming there was an agreement between the races how the others behave or dress and as foreigner, you fall outside that frame plus the belief of Western women to be “loose”).

I decided to finally blog about this less glorious part of my reality here in Malaysia after sprinting to the Malay food stall five minutes away last night (I swear I would have lashed back violently had anyone touched me or suggested anything obscene) and today's new heap of sexist experiences.

Wishing to socialise with other students and to use the library of the University of Malaya for some Southeast Asia related personal research and perhaps even learn some Malay, I thought popping onto campus and trying to find some room-mate announcements there and perhaps even get the help of the International Students Office. The UM is a campus university and as such, offers a bus service to get you from A to B. The whole place has a typical KL feel to it (bleak but functional and not very inspiring concrete blocks that remind me of my secondary school times among palm trees and other tropical greenery). Even the bus service reflects KL traffic: While it takes only eight minutes by bus to get to the main library building, it takes 20 back because of a one-way loop that takes you to suburban residential areas nearby that if I am not mistaken, are even already in Selangor, the state that surrounds KL and on whose border the university is located.

After a short but not very enlightening trip to the library (I have to contact the librarians for my areas of interest as the collection is spread among different buildings across campus), I popped into the International Student Office conveniently located a short walk around the corner. In it is a large table on which a Chinese lady discusses an application by a Malay woman who came with her teenage son. I decide to get myself immersed in the huge notice board two metres away and give them some privacy, as the Chinese lady had already taken note of me. Ten minutes later, two boys come barging in, one with unruly locks and the dominant body language of a spoilt son who is used to getting his way and the other darker and more timid one looking slightly miserable. The dominant guy goes straight to the chair next to the woman's son, not so much as looking at me and impatiently makes the Chinese staff lady nervous by moving the queue onto her heels. While she tries to bring the case in front of her to a close, my eyes meet with Locks and we stare at each other for a moment, me daring him to jump the queue so boldly. The silent battle is interrupted by a Somali guy coming in, ignoring me too and running to the seat straight next to them and collapsing onto it into a male slouch. After another five minutes, a Chinese-Malay guy appears, glances me over and before I can ask my question, turns his attention instantly around to the boys with the big brown envelopes who turn out to be two Saudi friends who want to get into the internationally very competitive engineering programme. The quieter one is miserable because he didn't get the min. 80% in Maths recommended. I am furious but before I can interrupt them, I get the chance to talk to the Chinese lady. A short while later, she goes some place to find sth out for me. A black US American or British guy appears in a suit (note for the future: suits in hot places like Malaysia are shirt and trousers only), waits for the Chinese lady too, introduces himself as having just finished his PhD. I throw him a poisonous look and don't want to get involved in a conversation. The Malay/Chinese man follows the exchange on the side and gives me a look. But I am aware of the beauty ideal many men of African origin share: The bigger, the beautiful. He's friendly, reserved and is obviously highly educated but another chat up even if not of a degrading nature is really not what I need after this frustrating week. Chinese lady comes back, he quickly asks her sth, then runs off in a hurry, politely saying bye in passing. My personal comfort comes first now, even if he did his PhD in Public Health (another development perspective I'm highly interested in). The Chinese lady, before disappearing into the back office, suggests I ask her more senior colleague, who is finishing up with the Saudis - and goes straight to the Somali!!! I seethe. Once finished, he was about to disappear too, then suddenly turns around and asks me if I need anything. I tell him the truth with an edge to my voice, he apologises curtly and then starts answering my question as competently as the others'. The whole time I've been wondering if it is really sexism or me being too accustomed to queuing already or at least acknowledging some kind of order. I wonder if it is my heightened sense of sexist behaviour projecting onto every awkward situation with men or if I'm right and there really is sth going on. While I later came to the conclusion that the officer's apology was sincere and that he had thought I was already being served or not quick enough for Malaysian standards, I believe that the two Saudi students and the Somali guy both had an agenda. However, I decide to forget about queuing as quickly as possible and go back to “service to the fittest”.

Still fresh, the situation in that office and the encounters in Chinatown are boiling into a bitter stew in my head and so I decide to go relax through window shopping in the elegant surroundings of Suria. I stroll on the five different levels, treat myself to some cucur (Malaysian desserts, usually different combinations of steamed sticky rice, grated coconut, fruits and egg-white, some wrapped in banana leaf for flavour) and Teh Tarikh (hot tea with condensed milk – so soothing!). I go back to and browse at Kinukuniya, instantly unwinding at the sight of all these books. I can't resist the temptation and of course don't come out without buying a book! – A collection of short stories (I love short stories!) by new and passionate Malay writers! I sip camomile tea in the in-house cafe and gaze out at the mesmerising choreographed fountain play in the park with the skyscrapers of the CBD in the background. The sun is setting, I feel ready to go home.

While I wait for the LRT on the underground platform, staring into the tunnel, I hear a male voice behind me, “Hello”, it coaxes. Then shortly later, a “Miss” and after another couple of seconds where I continue like a statue to stare into the direction the train would come from, “Hello Miss”. I am surprised to find it here, as this is supposed to be an upscale area but I don't have to turn around to know what the guy looks like. I eventually enter the train with a hand behind me, to snatch and turn his wrist should he touch my arse “on accident” with all the people getting in. I spot a single free seat already near the next door. I sprint for it and sit down, noticing at the corner of my eye a searching movement with his head, probably contemplating the tolerance of the audience if he was to continue to harass me. I still refuse to even glance at him but when the train starts moving and he leans against the far glass with his back to me, I flash a look at his reflection in the window just to confirm my what I already know: Apparently, sexual harassment doesn't stop with a higher income bracket. He's in a good suit and wears an expensive watch – and he's Indian.

4 courageous comments!:

Aike said...

There's nothing sexist about jumping the queue, I believe. Queues are simply an alien concept to most of Asia (the notable exception being Japan, of course). I can tell you a nice story about a Japanese man in a Vietnamese department store, who was so shocked by all the people simply passing and ignoring him - so completely in contrast to the way he was conditioned to behave - he couldn't move a single inch, just looked at them in sheer astonishment! ;)

Heidi said...

LOL - I can so imagine that!

While I absolutely agree and know myself that I sighingly need to abandon the comfort of a Q system, I have to point out that in contrast to that experience I had blogged about, I interestingly haven't been "jumped" by any women yet...

Kak Teh said...

Heidi, are youin malaysia? I've been emailing you!

Heidi said...

Hi Kakteh!

Replied to your email just now!
Great to have another person on my blog!