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.


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