Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Malaysiana: Shifting Goal-Posts

In high school, I was asked, "[Jha], are you a Christian?" and I would say, no, why? "Because you speak such good English."

In Canada, I was frequently mistaken for a Canadian local, or an American.

I was told, however, on a trip to England, with a few other students on a course on Shakespeare (wherein we had two weeks of seminars on Shakespearean plays which we would then watch in Stratford-on-Avon, and every day was a flurry of lectures, discussion groups, and plays, with afternoons off), that my Malaysian accent came out once in a while, "whenever [I] discuss difficult concepts".

I didn't know I even had a Malaysian accent. It's very slight, my professor told me, but it's there, because otherwise I have a rather powerful command of English (which only makes sense, seeing as it's the only language I have so I really ought to make the best of it).

But there are other things I hide when I'm among Canadians, just as there are things I hide among Malaysians.

My Canadian friends, for example, do not get to hear me speak very often in my Malaysian accent. It's a gluttural accent. It sounds like I'm talking from the back of my throat. The grammar is mangled to match the Malay syntax. There are certain words I do not even get to use around people who aren't Malaysians.

Among Canadians, I speak the Queen's English, and I'm proud of my command of it. I share what I know of grammar. I get teasingly called the grammar nazi, but in an affectionate manner.

Among Malaysians, I tone down the Queen's English. Even among my family, I stop using "bombastic words", because otherwise no one understands what I'm talking about.

Among Canadians, I am friendly. I am open. To be honest, I am more comfortable among Canadians, or at least, Haligonians, than I am among Malaysians that I meet, on a casual level. Among Haligonians, I know the news and the weather is always safe. Thus is the fuse lit for more personal conversations.

It was only recently that I even got to be friendly with neighbours here. When I greeted random people on the street, they would look affronted, or puzzled, like I was out of line. (However, with the spat of crime in my neighbourhood, my family has become part of the neighbourhood watch, which is useful for helping people get to know each other.)

Among Canadians, and most of my Canadian friends are white, I teach people how to use chopsticks. I drag them to expensive Asian restaurants because cheap Chinese restaurants do not have proper food, and I pay for their meals so they understand what good food is. Among Canadians, I ignore advice that McDonald's is bad for you, an idea which has been exported from North America to everywhere else in the world, so now I have to put up with that bullshit in Malaysia, too.

Among Malaysians, I can take for granted that what I eat will be perfectly normal, even if it's not quite exactly how we are supposed to eat it. Even if I have to deal with folks telling me to eat certain foods I don't like. Did you know you're not Malaysian if you don't eat durian? Or cendol? Or rojak? Or [insert quintessentially Malaysian food of choice here]?

Among Canadians, I don't talk politics, because their race politics are not the race politics I grew up with. I still grapple to understand that Canada treats its Aboriginals abominably, does not realize how biased towards whites are, and still touts itself as multicultural when it is clearly monocultural with bursts of racial activity.

Among Malaysians, I listen intently to the politics but I have been away for so long, I don't think I understand what's going on anymore.

In Canada, I bitch and moan about how I don't get days off for cultural holidays unless they are (Gregorian) New Year, Christmas, and other such Christian holidays. This is the greatest hint I have that Canada is not as multicultural as it likes to say it is, because if it was, we wouldn't get holidays just for these specific celebrations - we'd have holidays across the board, or we'd have no public holidays at all and just let people take their cultural holidays off with pay.

In Malaysia, the holidays are what we get right. I also like how things are open even on such holidays, because if a Chinese person cannot be arsed to work during Chinese New Year, a Malay or an Indian will. And this, to me, is fantastic. We need to be flexible with people's cultures like that.

The thing about both spheres, though, is that I cannot have an honest discussion of most things, unless I am on the Internet. This is where both spheres disperse, dilute and collide with each other. It is where I can find people to say, "folks are being stupid" without having to go into a 101 on why, whether they are Malaysian or Canadian. I can find other Malaysians closer to me in spirit than anyone else close to me could ever be, and I can find Canadians who understand me.

But for a general audience?

I think Malaysians are excessively cruel to each other, and I think Canadians are excessively polite, both to the detriment of themselves. I can see how both strategies exist as shields in order to protect themselves from, well, themselves. But they're both kinda annoying!

I find clueless white people annoying, particularly those who pretend to be ingenuous and ask questions non-fucking-stop and I want to scream at them to shut up and go away, do their own goddamn research. I find clueless any-visible-minority annoying, but in a different way, and instead I sigh heavily and pull a facepalm.

I am generally quiet and reticent among strangers of a certain sort - the sort who are non-geeks, who do not read the same books I do, who do not care about the same issues, who believe that men are biologically inclined to be rapist assholes when given the chance, who assume evolutionary psychology is valid, who think all of humanity is, well, human, and thus are not very different from each other. I might take a chance and try to offend them. I'm less likely to if they are Malaysian, because as cruel and nasty to each other as Malaysians are, they don't handle confrontation very well. But Canadians are likely to get awkward, or patronizing. Why would I inflict that on them, eh?

But I am more awkward among Malaysians, especially Malaysian-Chinese of an older generation, because they assume I should be able to understand them when they speak Chinese, and they never know what to make of me besides a wayward child who has been in a Western country too long. Not only just a wayward child, but a wayward daughter, too outspoken, too romantic.

In Canada, I'm fortunate enough to be surrounded by people who don't think Asians are nifty and awesome and so cute. No one has said this to my face either. But this is because I'm apparently intimidating. I also run in circles where asshole behaviour is disapproved in general.

In Malaysia, I'n unfortunate enough to meet and encounter people such as the cashier processing my bras who told me that men like women who wear colourful underwear, and folks telling a nurse taking a man's blood pressure that a certain number is so high because she's a woman touching the patient. I can't keep calling these people out, because it would be a tremendous waste of energy.

In Canada, the men I know do not assume entitlement to sex, know that they are not exceptions to the rule for good behaviour, and understand respect for women isn't merely limited to the women he knows, but women in general.

In Malaysia, the man who understands that is apparently the exception, only one out of ten men are apparently beholden to good behaviour and the rest are manipulative bastards who will take advantage of any woman. (I cannot test the veracity of this, as I am rarely in the country for long enough to meet a lot of men.)

In the little city of Halifax, I can leave my door open while I mosey out to the laundry room outside, or during the summer, or while I cook, and I am relatively safe. Even when I go downtown, where crime is slightly on the rise, I am relatively safe. Part of it is because everyone around me also feels safe. It is easier to feel safe when everyone else has that same confidence in the goodness of everyone else.

In my large suburban hometown, we get a dog just to guard the house, so no one will come to our garden to steal our drying jeans.

Around Canadians, I talk about Malaysia. Around Malaysians, I talk about Canada.

But you can trust, that when I am around you, I am as myself as I can possibly be. But you will not ever see every aspect of me, unless you shadow me. Like the Digi Yellow Man. And you better be as adorable as him if you do.


6 comments:

  1. wow.nice one.i have been following your blog for about half of year.

    most malaysians thinks the locals who speaks English in accent are snob people.well,it depends.but,i always love to listen to local who speaks English in accent.

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  2. Funny story about bombastic English:

    I've suddenly found myself as my department's unofficial "writer". One of the results for that is that a cubicle neighbour of mine will always ask me to help her with her emails, either to announce to the people who send her data to do something, or to notify them when an application isn't available or whatever.

    It almost always goes like this on my side.

    "Yeah, okay. What's the sentence?"
    "..."
    "What are you trying to say?"
    "So say that."
    "I don't see a problem with it! That's what you're trying to say. Everyone will get that."
    "Yeah! That's right. Awesome. Go for it!"

    The thing is, the first draft of whatever she's trying to say has a tendency of being remarkably bombastic to the point of unintelligibility; I'm like, "No, no, simplify."

    It's like Malaysians don't get the concept; if you want to write good, the language needs to be simpler, not more complicated.

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  3. i like your post. :o)

    (does the awc tag mean you're submitting it for the awc? because i would love to include it!)

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  4. Hey Jha, the Yellow Digi guy is indeed cute! (though I think he may have a yellow condom on his head).

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  5. I have a tendency to want to sound bombastic for some reason. I don't really know what it is, maybe there's one side of me who thinks that bombastic language is like a gambit I use to make me *sound* right and more knowledgeable.

    Though I do get totally annoyed with people who use bombastic language BADLY. Badly is totally subjective of course, but for me it usually means lots of unnecessary big words but very thin on content.

    I just settle with speaking mostly Malay when I'm back in Malaysia, just so that I won't confuse anyone. I'm already (an unwilling) snob on so many levels!

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  6. ili akmal: Haha, thanks! Nice to see you here!

    T-Boy: I had to help students do that at the Writing Center too. Even had a (Canadian local) student tell me, "I want my paper to sound more ACADEMIC! Because it's going to be PUBLISHED so it needs to sound ACADEMIC! Help me think of ways to make this sentence sound better" and everyone and I who helped her were like "... why? It already communicates what you want to say, and it's not informal."

    Steph: Yep, it's for the AWC =) Yoink at will!

    DeviantE: He is, isn't he? I'm going to dedicate an entire post to him soon.

    cycads: LOL! I feel the same way sometimes!! Some people older than me don't take me seriously because of my age so I tend to speak more formally and "bombastically".

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