Sunday, August 11, 2013

Published on Minority Dreams: Being Asian in the Gulf Middle East

Originally published in 2009 in Minority Dreams

When I was 8 years old I watched my mom get pushed into a kitchen at an Arab wedding and ordered to serve drinks to the guests. The mother of the bride didn’t realize that my mom was a guest. She was, in fact, personally invited by the bride (a former student of my mom's), who wanted her favourite teacher to be there on her special day. The reason my mom's sequined scarf and make-up went ignored is because my mom is Malaysian.

This is a story of being Asian in the gulf Middle East.

The years my family spent in Kuwait are littered with uncomfortable incidents like the one described above. We moved to Kuwait about a year after the Iraqi invasion was over, and shaken from the war, Kuwait was hugely xenophobic in the early ‘90's. My parents were working in a village called Ugly Stones (Batu Buruk, Terengganu) on the east coast of Malaysia before they were offered better-paying jobs as instructors in the Middle East, and as Muslims with a romanticised idea of the region that gave the world the Prophet (PBUH) and the Quran, my parents were excited that their kids would grow up in such a privileged environment. They packed up their three girls (ages 1-5) and flew to Kuwait University, Shuwaikh.

My village Malay gave way to a gulf Arabic accent in school, and one of the first teases I got was for being “yabaneezy” (Japanese). When my mom came for PTA meetings the teachers would give surprised looks and tell my mom her English was good. My mom’s first couple of months as an instructor at the Sharia’ College for Girls was rocky with repeated explanations that she was the teacher. No she wasn’t the tea lady, no she wasn’t the cleaner; she was the teacher. “Mudarasah/ Teacher” my mom would say in Arabic and the students would continue to give her wary looks. Luckily my mom was a great teacher, because it would only take a couple of weeks for those same wary students to become enthralled by her classes and her zany humor. “Miss wallah I love you, you must meet my family!” On days when I visited the office with my sisters, a hail of black abaya robes would descend on us and leave lipstick streaks across our cheeks. “Ya Allah Ms. Jenifah you have many children and you are still so small mashallah!” They’d look at my almost-five-feet mother, mousy in her own baggy abaya and wonder how they started out with such different assumptions. It was unfortunate that not all Kuwaitis could be in my mom’s classes.

The same could not be said for my dad. At 6-feet-6-inches, blue eyes and as white bread as Iowa makes them, my dad was regarded as the big American hero who fought the Iraqis (which, as an instructor from Ugly Stones, he hadn’t). Kuwaitis didn’t trust any foreigners or other Arabs, but if you were American you were given rockstar treatment. Shop clerks would smile at you, people on the street would go up to you, and if you were an instructor at the University, the women would swoon.

And swoon they did. My dad would come back after teaching to his office and find that love letters had  been stuffed under the door and a few giggly girl in abayas waiting outside. My dad received offers for a second or third wife on a regular basis. At first my parents would laugh at these gestures, but the overwhelming attention bolstered my dad’s ego while the tactless prejudice bogged down my mom’s confidence and self esteem, setting what was once a stable marriage onto a rocky patch of misunderstanding and injured feelings.

Eventually the racial attitudes towards our family and the lack of affordable good schools drove my family to move back to Malaysia. After a couple of years of settling down, my parents received job offers from the Middle East again, but this time in the Emirates. My siblings and I refused to go back, but after being assured that we’d be going to international schools this time, we relented. We were happy to find that racial attitudes in the Emirates are much improved from the ones in Kuwait. For one thing the Emirates is more cosmopolitan, and the university my parents teach at is a hodge-podge mix of local and expatriate students. As American-Malaysians we found our niche among the other halfsies (3rd culture kids) of Emirati-Iranian, Polish-Greek, Egyptian-Philippina, and the Lebanese-Cypriot types. We were finally not weird: we were just like everyone else.

My mom still encounters a few awkward situations in the Emirates, but nowhere near the scale that she had in Kuwait. Recently with Obama’s election we can see the racial attitudes shifting in the US as they do in my mom’s classroom. Justice Sonia Sotomayor once said that “stereotyping is perhaps the most insidious of all problems in society today,” and we found that to be true, but it’s also true that this insidious problem can be eradicated—from the students in my mom’s classroom to the attendees of President Obama’s speeches. It’s not enough that anyone can be a good teacher or president in theory: Sometimes a country needs to see the black president at the White House leading, and sometimes people need to see the Malaysian woman in hijab standing at the white board teaching. And it’s not only about leading and teaching, it is also about leading and teaching with the heart.

My mom continues to teach in the Middle East, only this time she’s armed with experience, that same zany humor, and hundreds of students and friends that love, respect and admire her.

Published in the Malaysian Insider: Rest in Peace, Yasmin Ahmad

Originally published in 2009 in the Malaysian Insider

The first Yasmin Ahmad movie I watched was “Mukhsin,” curled up on my couch with my

friends in the Middle East. Seeing the old Malaysian school buildings and the green padi field

scenery made me homesick for the comfort of yellow gluttonous rice and chicken curry, the

smell of earth right before it rains, and the bustle of cousins and grandparents all around me.

Yasmin Ahmad pierced right through the new life I surrounded myself with abroad, away from

the warmth and humidity of Malaysia.


One of the first things I did when I returned to Kuala Lumpur this summer was watch another

movie by Yasmin Ahmad. “Sepet” had me all choked up and contemplating the ethnic divides

and unity of Malaysians. With a Chinese grandmother and a Malay grandfather, I was partly

sepet myself, and wholly besotted with Yasmin Ahmad’s directing and heart-wrenching thematic

story lines. It became a new obsession with me, finding all her movies and exploring the themes

she addresses in them.


“Gubra” was a more mature and darker movie with a closer look at relationships. Still capturing

the essence of what made “Mukhsin” and “Sepet” great hits, “Gubra” took the complexities of

marriage and human emotions and weaved them into a masterpiece that tightens the heart for the

people around you. By then, I was asking my friends and family to keep a look out for anything

Yasmin Ahmad, be it movies, commercials, or even a radio jingle. Soon, she became the topic of

any discussion I had, and before long people were suggesting me more movies, videos, and even

youtube clips.

Tan HOng Ming in Love

I think it was one of those moments where life imitates art when I heard about her stroke. I

reacted to the news of her stroke the way Sharifah Amani reacted to the news of her father

having a heart-attack in the movie “Gubra.” I was panicked and worried.  I followed the news of

her stroke avidly, hoping that she would make it. I felt like I had just found her, it’s completely

unfair that we should lose her when there are so many movies left to do, so many issues left to


“KUALA LUMPUR, July 25 (Bernama) -- Renowned film and advertising director Yasmin Ahmad died

here at about 11.25 pm Saturday night.”

The words resounded in my head. Just like that, she slipped away. For the next week the papers

will be splashing her smiling image on their front pages, and the politicians whose policies

she poked fun at will express their deepest condolences for losing one of Malaysia’s top film

directors. I feel like her death is resonant of the somber tone of her movies, quite poetic in its

anticlimax. There was no rain or lightening on Saturday night near the Damansara Specialists

Hospital. She passed away quietly. They fold the hospital sheets in “Gubra.” Orkid climbs into

her father’s car to the airport. The leaves rustle in Mukhsin’s dream.

Rest in peace Yasmin Ahmad. You took the heart of what makes Malaysia unique and gave it

back to the world through your talented film directing and your unabashed way of tackling social

issues. You blazed the way for Malaysian filmmaking and left some big shoes to fill for the next

generation of Malaysian filmmakers. I think that I can speak for all the fans when I say that we

will miss you dearly.

Published on Yahoo Maktoob: My Ramadhan

Originally published on Yahoo Maktoob 
I peered into my empty wallet and imagined a small dusty moth fluttering out from the dark folds. I needed to get to an ATM before sunset, but with an hour left to go the roads were jammed with hungry cranky people making their way to iftar buffets in Dubai. I wouldn’t be able to get to my own iftar buffet commitment with my colleagues and friends unless I filled up my wallet first, but from my office window all I could see were gridlocks in the roads and parking lots. In moments like these I missed the simple iftars that I used to have with my family back in Sharjah.
I’ve been in the UAE for the last 11 years, but have spent Ramadan without my family only for the last couple of years. We moved to Sharjah in 2002 and in an effort to retain our Malaysian culture, my mom and I would cook traditional food for iftar and attendance was mandatory for the whole family. For most of those years I was a teenager, helping my mom chop tofu and vegetables while my siblings fought or watched TV in the living room. We used to leave Sharjah TV running in the last half hour before sunset to watch the police at Quran Roundabout fire a blank cannon, signifying the official moment of breakfast. Even though sometimes we could hear the local mosques give the call to Maghrib prayers, we still wouldn’t take our first sips until that cannon sounded.
We had started out with the usual rice with curries and fried noodles, but as the years passed we began to incorporate different types of food: fatayers, samosas, parathas, mixing in other culture’s cuisine into our Malaysian one. It was only when I moved out to work in Dubai did these family dinners stop, and the Dubai buffets began. By then Ramadan had shifted towards summer, and my family could travel back to Malaysia for summer vacation to fast with our cousins and uncles and grandparents. Meanwhile I started my career, and all the inflexible work commitments and hours that came with it.
Dubai in Ramadan is a sight to see, especially in your 20s with all your crazy friends. The countless number of deals and offers at exotic locations – the Atlantis! The Burj al Arab! The Burj Khalifa! – had me giddy with excitement. Imagine watching the sun set while you’re on a dhow cruise, sipping on some date juice! And while I couldn’t get out of work, the hours were shortened to end at 3pm, so after spending a few hours agonising over hunger, I could choose practically any cuisine to break my fast with (Turkish Iskandaria! Pad Thai noodles! Lobsters at Danny’s for AED 60 at Mazaya center!). The only thing that really suffers is your bank account, which doesn’t feel bad at first but destroying your budget is usually the topic of discussion following the end of Ramadan. 
About a year or so of these Dubai Ramadans, it became a little harder being away from family. One of my younger siblings Amani started working as well and we were both in Dubai while the rest of our family was breaking fast over chicken satay in Kuala Lumpur. One quiet afternoon Amani called me and asked if I could come back to our mother’s house in Sharjah and cook something traditional at home for iftar. I was surprised that the nostalgia got to her so fast, especially when her social calendar is usually packed with seven or eight groups of friends looking to try the next crazy iftar event. But I was happy to take her up on her offer.

I went shopping at the local Sharjah co-op and picked up some fresh chicken and curry spices, said hello to the butcher and dropped some money at one of the charity counters that lined the outside of the co-op. The old man working at the charity counter gave me a sweet, just like he had during all those Ramadans when I was a kid, and reminded me to have it for iftar.
At my mother’s empty house my sister was waiting for me, and she set about getting the table ready while I cooked the simple chicken curry. We sat down just as the cannon went off on TV and I was surprised to see that it wasn’t just the police anymore - the cannon had turned into a local event, and a huge crowd of families were standing around a fence waving at the cameras, holding their babies up above the police’s heads so that their kids get some airtime. The police handed out dates after the cannon went off and Amani and I laughed over how some eager fathers raced with their babies in the air to follow the camera’s movement.

That moment was perfect, and exactly what Ramadan should be.

The last of the native English speakers

Growing up with two English teachers as parents was an assault at every spoken and written word. I was a little verbally abused you could say, and every request was an argument in semantics. "I don't know, can you go to the bathroom? Why can't you? What's stopping you?" and I couldn't leave the dinner table until I asked if I may use the bathroom. My childish handwritten diaries were subject to a red pen, correcting "my mom maks me sad" to "makes me, and we already talked about this -- you can't wear your Eid dress to bed."

Despite all that I still can't tell my dangling modifiers from my participals and other grammar constructs (just like any other native speaker!), but I would gander that my grasp of English will just do for my parents (which means it may be above average). I know how to correctly use a colon and its slightly more confusing semi-colon significant other; I even know when to spell "its" without an apostrophe, imagine that.

Now, my parents tortured poor little me and teased my pronunciation of "silhouette" until I reached a level where I could catch them speaking unawares and tease them back. What we all didn't realize is that my parents were also turning me into a little English snob.

The only reason why my snobbery didn't run full-fledged out into the wild to pull the pigtails of second-language speakers is because English is a really hard language. When my Malaysian classmates ask me a question or say a sentence that makes perfect sense in Malay, I can't explain why it doesn't translate into English (and vice versa). Then I read Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson (from Iowa, represent) and decided that English is truly awful and its evolutionary path makes no sense whatsoever.

When I find myself to be the only native speaker in a room, I allow minor (very teeny weeny) little errors (which aren't errors when you think about how English started) pass over my head peacefully, so that conversation may resume unhindered, and people are left unoffended (a word I just made up purely because its use was necessary).

Why yes I think I really could use a messes, I feel so tense.

But in the last couple of years I have found myself to be one of the few (if not the only) native speaker in entire departments and companies. While I learned and worked, made friends and laughed, sometimes I feel a little alone when I catch these glorious gems of almost English. Like that time someone claimed that another colleague didn't know jackpot about their task, or how someone insulted another colleague on their face.

One of my previous managers was the best. She would run through all her expressions and proverbs unfettered and only occasionally glanced at me for an imperceptible nod or shake of the head. Once she was giving a pep talk and told us to win our customers over "with your sweet teeth" with a decided nod and casual glance at me. At the slight shake she went on, "with your sweet mouth. Your sweet lips? Your sweet tongue." Finally I coughed "sweet talk" and she exclaimed "Precisely! You will win them with your sweet talk, that's what I've been saying this whole time!" and we would whoopah and get on with it.

At another job a British vendor made the mistake of accusing a colleague's diligent follow-up to be "harassment." The Brit reported it to our HR and regional managers. What he didn't realize is that this company is predominantly second-to-third language English speakers who mostly understood harassment in the context of sexual harassment and just filed that complaint away quietly and confusedly. When that same British vendor came after me the managers waved it off as a mad mans' ranting. "Don't worry, we know this guy, he's crazy. Last year he accused us of sexual molestation even though we only emailed him, he doesn't know what he is saying." I nodded in appreciation and kept my laughter stifled until I got home and cackled till the neighbors complained. Harassment! Hah!

Maybe all those years my parents teased me growing up was because they couldn't tease their students in the same way (and they sure as hell couldn't tease their colleagues or managers either). Maybe one day when I have my own bilingual kids and I'll language-bully them to death too.

The links aren't working

2009 was a good writing year for me. I co-wrote a series of articles about my summer internship in Malaysia with a friend, and I used that momentum to write about my mom's racist encounters in Kuwait and an obituary/homage about Yasmin Ahmed's sudden death.

My writing petered out, and I didn't keep track of these things. A few years later I get an email saying that those summer internship articles (and the one about my mom) disappeared when the online magazine they were featured on crashed. Then my Yasmin Ahmed article gets shuffled out of existence on that Malaysian news/blog website that it was featured on.

I'm sure if I devoted enough time I could dig out these articles from my inbox or call that friend who co-wrote some of those articles with me. But that's not the point. The point is that for some reason I have a finite amount of published writing even though it isn't considered to be a finite skill. Furthermore, it just plain old sucks when your work disappears like that and you have no backup!

I have learned my lesson, and now I think I will just re-publish my articles here on my blog and cite where it was originally published.

All this frustration is interfering with my creative mojo.