11 February 2013

Pictures, race, and religion

If the closing scene of my last entry was me riding up into school, triumphant, on my motorbike, the opening scene of this entry starts with me riding out of the campus several days later, less intoxicated, but more in control, aware of the dumptrucks and buses around me; the eighteen year-olds on bikes in worse condition than mine cutting in and out of traffic as we make our way up Jalan Semenyih towards Kajang.

Naomi has been struggling to get up and go to school in the morning, crying and pulling the covers over her to make the world go away. Yoko or I have to pick her up, assure her and firmly insist that she put on her dress, eat her bread, brush her teeth, put on her shoes, and walk with us to school. The brilliant trilingual Montessori Kindergarten is the pinnacle of five year-old education as far as I'm concerned: what a bright, beautiful future this is building. But when I am empathic, when I can compress the experience into the comprehension of a five year-old, I can see how terrifying and disorienting it all is. She is a year behind the other kids who speak Malay and/or Chinese natively and who have been together for more than 13 months. Naomi has been forced awkwardly into this situation, taken away from all the warmth and security of Ms Heath's first year class in Milton Keynes where she was the insider, into this foreign building with foreign children. A toilet you don't sit on, but squat over.

I see it is snowing everywhere else in the world. Here, the windows are open and a gecko has just run across the wall. We walked out into the streets of Kajang two nights ago, which are quiet as the Chinese have shut up all their shops and headed home for the holiday. There are red lanterns strung up on the main road downtown. The girls have been shouting 'Happy New Year' in Chinese and I have been struggling to hear the pronunciation correctly. I suspect they will have a whole different world to call home.

The thoughts on white privilege provoked responses from readers around the world, literally, if not figuratively, with the best note coming via e-mail from my PhD cohort colleague and friend, L. She, a black woman in South Africa, who grew up with apartheid, writes:
I wanted to say - it's less about you as a real representative of the old colonial powers i.e. Britain or France or Spain (guess we could debate whether America can be considered a 'colony' and subject to colonialism in the same way as most of the countries in the global south, especially when defining it from the perspective of those who came to country as part of the colonial project and not the indigenous people who were there already and actually subject to being colonized) - but more about how colonialism has become embedded and ingrained in the consciousness of the colonized country and and its people. It gives everyone a particular place in the society and it infects everything. And what you are doing is coming to the society without that lens, without the inherent understanding of how things work there...  
She is, of course, right: this is all about how people think without thinking. It's the same as my Christianity which I explicitly and vehemently reject, but still runs my life in so many ways, hijacking my feelings and responses to the world around me. You don't just forget how you are programmed to think. You don't just deconvert. I talked about my trouble with my race in a class the other day and a student told me that there were four categories here: Malay, Chinese, Indian, and other. In this scheme, I am, of course, other. Yes, I suppose so, but not just any other. The white other — there may not be a box to tick, but my place here is already, subconsciously, predetermined.

Today, the fat white man adventure took a predictable turn as we made our way up to the Hindu shrines in Batu Caves, a must-see tourist attraction in Kuala Lumpur: at least two pages in the Lonely Planet guidebook, I imagine. The caves are high up in limestone outcroppings, and you have to climb two hundred some steps to get into them. There are two massive statues at the base, Hanuman and Murugan, and I was struck immediately as we got off the train, how the tudung, the hijab, had disappeared. Instead, there was a crowd of beautifully dressed Indians with sweaty, frustrated-looking Westerners, all carrying water bottles, mixed in. Every foreigner within 200 km of this place has the same set of photos.

At the base of the steps, you look up and it's a bit daunting, particularly holding the twenty-month old's hand, and looking at the almost four year old and wondering how far she will make it. We put on cheerful faces though and started up, Mia making it almost twenty steps and Mei, after taking off her shoes, making it all the way to the top.

Inside the caves, the mix of capitalism and religion made me immediately think of the temple cleansing (Mark 11:15-19); a tent made from the back of a Bieber promotional poster, with an inverted image of Bieber's smiling face and his album title, Believe, projected back at you like a mirror. They were selling all sorts of things--trinkets and good luck charms and many armed elephant gods like the one our mostachio'd taxi driver, Letchu, has on the dashboard of the taxi. The contrast to Islam goes without saying: this is a religion of the body, of animals and images. The Indians were walking around, some having just shaved their or their children's hair, while Chinese tourists and white, serious-looking hipsters snapped photos with the same Japanese camera.

We walked through the main cave, which was spectacular and high, light streaming in through holes in the top. And then up some more stairs, back into the sun, where the cave disappeared and the limestone walls were covered in foliage and monkeys. The monkeys, the ones I had promised the girls before we came here, were bounding down and taking food from tourists, garbage piled up in different places. Suddenly I remembered watching an Eastern Orthodox church service on the edge of the Red Square after a hungover flight from Madrid enroute to Tokyo. There, it sounded like a bee hive of mumbling, people oblivious to me, the tourist, while they kissed the crucifix. Here, the Indians also seemed to ignore the tourists, hands clasped piously as men in robes came in and out of the different shrines with the ring of a bell. Your holy site is my photo opportunity. Thanks for looking so exotic. I wondered when in the future these same tourists would travel to Gurnee, IL, to my parents church, to take pictures of white worshippers their eyes closed, hands held high. When will this also become a photo opportunity.

Perhaps I'm wrong to interpret all of this in terms of race and nationality, but I'm not sure what other lens works. I keep coming back to it; it's always on the edge of conversations. The categories are always splitting people up into different careers, train stops, public holidays. Me and my little family, Yoko and I holding the two youngest ones who have fallen asleep in the middle of whatever we are doing — we just watch, bumping into people, trying to skirt around our imperial histories and take good pictures so the girls remember their childhood.