One of my friends lives in an apartment unit directly opposite the stairway for the whole building. It is not unusual to hear bustling outside the door when residents choose not to use the elevator.
And it is not unusual either for we Malaysians to see non-locals on their phones, video-calling their mates in their home towns. Whether they are on a walk or squatting by walkways and drains, the sight of foreigners is a common fixture in the Malaysian landscape now.
One night, I was at my friend’s place. A foreigner, a migrant, decided to sit at the stairway and video-call someone. I might not have minded it any time or anywhere else, but that particular night, I was annoyed. I was not in a good mood, and to hear someone else laughing and talking loudly when I needed some peace did nothing to improve it. All I could think of was how the guy might have found any other place to have his chit-chat – just not right outside this space that was not even mine but which I felt I had a right to.
I cursed this person silently until I heard him sing Happy Birthday to the person on the other end of the call.
And boy oh boy, did I not feel like the biggest anal orifice on the planet.
There I was, feeding my annoyance with bad thoughts and bad wishes at a stranger for disturbing my peace – peace that I could have found anywhere else – while he was just celebrating a moment with someone who might not have been in the country with him.
I had not even allowed myself a second to consider the possibility that he was there at the stairs so that he would not disturb his housemates who could have been asleep after a long day of labour at a nearby construction site. Or maybe he was there because that was the spot with the most stable internet connection. Perhaps he was there to catch a glimpse of the same sky that he shared with the person at the other end of the call, to reminisce the times they might have viewed it together before he came here.
He could have had any and every reason to be there but to intentionally annoy selfish little me was not one of them.
It made me think of how much we have been annoyed as locals at strangers over the simplest things. We see migrants flocked together together at city centres, and we are overwhelmed with annoyance as if we ourselves do not gather with our friends and communities.
We hear them speak unfamiliar languages among themselves and we become annoyed. We shout at them to use our language as if ours is easily understood by them and they have the same access to learn our language as we do.
We see them talking loudly on their phones, and we are annoyed, as if they could summon the people on the other end of their calls to this country like how we see our friends and talk loudly at mamaks.
We are so easily annoyed at people that are not us for something they cannot help. Here in Malaysia, we have the things they do not – familiar faces and loved ones – and we punish them with our annoyance for not being on our level.
I cannot generalise and say that the rest of Malaysians share the same annoyance I had, but if they do, how selfish can I get? How selfish can we get?
There is always another building to be built, and with rapid development, demand for labourers is steadily increasing as well. It seems that the influx of migrants will not end anytime soon and neither will our annoyance.
But I believe we have so much more to offer to them than our annoyance. After all, they could be annoyed at us as much as we are annoyed at them for the way we have been treating them, and they are not even that different from us.
If we ever set foot in an unfamiliar land, it would be a lie to say that we would not be just like them. We would be longing for familiar faces and loved ones. We would be the ones who video-call and talk loudly on the phone and speak in languages unfamiliar to the locals. We may even be treated like them by those who live in that unfamiliar land.
Perhaps returning their offerings of lives and labour to us with unkind feelings is an unfair transaction. Sure, we may not actively hurt them in any way, but we have been subtly wounding them through our unkind thoughts and perceptions towards them. Wouldn’t it be better to at least send a kinder thought their way?