Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Foreigners in a familiar land

It is disheartening to see people treated as foreigners when they are not meant to be, and it is disappointing to know how much of it is of our own making.

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“Hoi pelancong, masuk dalam.”

My father can be quite sassy sometimes. I have been into taking pictures lately and accompanying him to his kebun is another chance to keep my film from collecting dust. But it also means stopping the car every once in a while to take random pictures of the surrounding kampung, of cows running with billowing dewlaps, of sheep with unkempt and matted wool because their meat is all the villagers care for, and of fallen trees and the dry ground on which they rot.

I have been here countless times, but this time, I am a tourist, much to my dad’s playful annoyance.

My dad has been making a life out of his kebun for a while now. Actually, “a while” would be an understatement because I can remember the first time he uttered the word “kebin”, way back when I was still in school. All around the kebun is a stretch of land populated by people, and dirt roads leading deeper into the unknowable abyss of a lot more people, fittingly called a kampung. Nietzsche might have had the abyss staring back at him, but here you might find a monkey or two returning your gaze – more if you have some chow with you.

But monkeys are not the only lifeforms you can find here. The kampung also provides a life for people who can cut by you in a narrow dirt road better than Grand Prix champions while their entire families chills at the back of their motorcycles. It is a place for people who finish their chores for the day before even the warung opens because they know better than to do anything when the sun can scorch you the most. Here, people can name the scandal of their neighbour’s fourth cousin’s great-grandaunt back when they arrived on the same boat.

This is the kampung where my father’s kebun is located. And this is where I can still see my father as a foreigner in a place where he has been routinely toiling for his post-retirement life.

Nothing ever succeeded in dampening his enthusiasm, planted deep beneath the soil of his kebun and his dream. But as his son, it was never easy to see that the strongest bond he could create with the kampung people was occasional small waves to those who passed by his kebun, waves that were seldom returned.

What could earn him a place in the kampung community? The craft and labour involved in making something out of a piece of land is his life, as it is for the people here. The sun scorches him and them all the same, and the ground they till is shared no matter how many fences mark the borders. The palms that are cracked and worn out do not belong to only certain masters as they afflict everyone who holds a hoe. Yet, he is still not one of them.

Maybe my father was not there to be invited to a kenduri to celebrate a birth or commemorate a death in the community. Or perhaps he woke up a little too late to enjoy the endless cups of teh tarik in the warung with the others while waiting for a breeze to blow away the heat. Or could it be that the mosque, always empty when he is there, is a sign for him to wait for the others instead of praying alone?

I cannot help but wonder why, in a land where he has put in so much effort for so long, he is still a foreigner. And I can imagine that he is not alone in being perceived this way.

Each August, when we celebrate our independence, the migrant security guards at my campus wave the Jalur Gemilang to greet visitors as part of their duty. But as soon as they assemble for the daily roll call, I sometimes see them being berated solely over their inability to navigate the language barriers in order to understand instructions. Just moments earlier, they were made to hold up our flag and wave it as if this country were theirs. Now, they are reminded that it will never be.

I have met asylum seekers who have lived here for so long that the Malay language rolls off their tongues better than it does for those born and bred right in the centre of Kuala Lumpur. Yet they mourn the fact that they are eternally foreigners in a familiar land. No place is ever home for them, and we are more than happy to play a role in making sure that it stays that way.

We also enjoy casual ridicule as part of our welcoming gestures. When rural folk attempting a life in the city fall victim to culture shock, they become a laughing stock and a stereotype which we choose to use for all such people. Yet when they decide to flock together in response to our lack of effort in making them feel welcome, we are the ones most annoyed by this natural sequence of events.

Perhaps we have never been made to feel what it’s like to be the “other”. I certainly do not wish it upon anyone. But it is disheartening to see people treated as foreigners when they are not meant to be, and it is disappointing to know how much of it is of our own making.

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