06 February 2013

My motorbike as a metaphor for white privilege, or how to avoid jail in Southeast Asia

I have a feeling of immeasurable warmth when I think of small motorbikes, feelings always tied to places. Two examples.

The Agano River stretches out of the Japanese Alps and empties into the Japan Sea in Matsuhama, a small fishing town on the edge of Niigata City. I had an apartment there for three years from 2004 until 2008, right where the river and sea come together. I would ride my motorbike, a Honda Minicub, inland towards Meikun High School where I worked. The road was built on the river embankment, so you could see forever — the mountains in the distance and the rice fields stretching out underneath them. I kissed Yoko for the first time in a park tucked under the embankment and still remember how amazing summer nights felt riding into the darkness.

And then in Laos in 2007: I rented a motorbike with some tiny amount of money and my passport. I rode as far as I was comfortable, out away from Vientiane into the villages. I rode and rode and at some point just stopped, not sure where I was going or what I thought would happen if I kept going. I stopped, got off the bike, and took a few pictures. It was so quiet there.  

Today, a new set of memories of motorbikes and place.

I turned up at the bike shop at 8:30 after peeling my crying daughter off my wife and taking her to school. The shop is on a corner, right in the centre of town, so the roads were already clogged with all sorts of different cars and motorbikes and lorries. I sat thinking about Naomi while I waited, about how miserable she seemed, wondering what might be done to ease her stress, and sweating. A Chinese woman in a Billabong shirt and jeans got the paperwork together and another older Chinese man pulled out the bike I had bought on Monday, which looked in worse shape than I remembered, but still seemed okay. He showed me everything I needed to know — petrol cap, oil, lights — and I got on, kickstarted it, thanked both of them, and cautiously rode off into the morning rush hour. It took two or three minutes and then everything came back. All the freedom I remember feeling when I first rode like I was suddenly unfurling. I was comfortable immediately; the bike gasping and struggling along at first and then humming confidently.

I rode to a government pension office, where I was to enrol in the national pension programme. As a foreigner, I can withdraw this money when I leave the country, and it guarantees me some savings, provided the system works as it should. This being Malaysia, I am a bit apprehensive, but the office instils confidence. New, efficient, clean. They called me quickly and I was smiling, holding my application and passport while a woman in a tudong (the Malay word for hijab) and another woman sitting behind her, both smiling took my papers and read through them. I had everything I needed, and the process was clipping along without any trouble until they reached 'race'. Race and religion. Sorry, you wrote white. I don't know if we have white. She showed me the drop down menu in Bahasa Malay: an endless list of different categories. I didn't know what to say, I actually said to her: I don't know what I am. What am I? She scrolled some more... Am I Caucasian? Do you have Caucasian? 

And then religion: sorry, you wrote none? Yes, I said, I don't have a religion. She looked at the much shorter drop down list. You are Christian? she asked, not realising how complicated a question that is. No, no, I don't have a religion. She said something to the other woman in Malay and ticked a box.

I got back on my bike and assumed that they had just marked 'Christian' and got on with it. Fat white man doesn't speak language, doesn't know the difference anyway. The bike started up immediately again, and I was quickly distracted. Yes, right: you need to idle in the first gear at the lights. You need to look left and right when you change lanes. You have to watch out for potholes.

Gaining confidence far too quickly, I chose to go to school on the expressway, cutting out the Kajang traffic. I could manage, I thought: overly confident, flying along. The expressway was empty, thankfully, and I stayed to the side like all the other bikes. No one bothering me, no one coming close. Before the toll booth, the motorbikes have a separate, narrower road to follow. I exited onto it, and looked up to see four or five men with moustaches and uniforms: a policeman waving me down. Shit. SHIT. I coasted in, suppressing the urge to just recklessly gun it and fly through.

I had been, before this moment, confident enough to ride on the licenses I have from the US and UK, but I was by no means certain. I figured if I got pulled over and there was a problem, I would offer to pay the 'fine' and move on. Simple enough in theory: more difficult when you are surrounded by serious looking men with handguns. They asked for my license and I pulled out my EU one. For motorbike? the policeman asked. Yes, I said, small motorbike okay. He looked at it carefully, and waved over an older cop whose gun I also immediately noticed. You are American? he said. Yes, I am. You have your passport? I did, surprisingly, yes. He flipped through that and got to my visa: you are a student? No, I said, a lecturer. Why don't you have a car? I said the stupidest thing: I don't have the money now. He laughed, How does a lecturer not have money to buy a car? Yes, I thought, I've been asking myself the same question... But instead I smiled and shrugged: I like the motorbike.

He flipped over the license again, paused, smiled, gave it back to me, and shook my hand, and I rode off.

This, of course, doesn't mean anything in terms of the legality of riding the bike, but what I've suspected and what another lecturer had told me was absolutely true: it doesn't matter what colour your license is; it matters what colour your skin is. The nuance of the systems, the different licenses, the size of the engine: I researched this, preparing some explanation that is plausible and accurate, but it doesn't matter. I have a license from the UK and I am a white lecturer. That's all that anyone needs to know. Still: the sheer terror I felt when I saw them waving me down. How can I be so powerful when I feel so powerless. There is a whole system of privilege built on hundreds of years of history that I have no knowledge of, but puts me at the top, the very top, without me even being aware. I thought everyone was born with this silver spoon in their mouth.

I rode off from the police trap feeling incredibly lucky, naively thinking I had won some sort of lottery, but caught up in these complex feelings about who I am, where I am, what I am. After five minutes, though, the bike had intoxicated me and I forgot about myself as foreigner: a smell reminding me of Japan again as I rode up into the palm oil plantation where our school campus is set. A beautiful white tower like the Trent Building in Nottingham, England set in a perfect blue sky, the most diverse set of students you will ever see streaming in and out of it. There is so much to make sense of, but so little time.

This motorbike, if it doesn't kill me, will save me. I suppose that's true about a lot of things.