Growing up as a foreigner in any society is an incredibly eye opening and humbling experience that reaps tremendous benefits in the long run. It is also an experience that has the power to shape many impressions or opinions that one might have regarding race prejudice or dealing with people who are from different backgrounds, people who are marginalized (minorities) and humanity in general. Certainly for me that was the case.
The Arabs have a very interesting saying which goes “Whoever lives amongst a people for 40 days, becomes one of them”. And as a Sudanese citizen whose spent way way way more than 40 days in Malaysia, 20 years in fact, I can definitely say that my experience of the world is far more Malaysian than it is Sudanese.
Now It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the later in life you expose yourself to a foreign culture the harder it is for you to assimilate to that culture. Mainly because when you’re young you just accept the way things are, as apposed to questioning why certain things are as such or why certain things aren’t as you expect ( or want) them to be. This probably explains why I feel more of a foreigner in Sudan than I do in Malaysia. Strange! I know, but true.
A very common question that I get asked is “Has race ever played a part during your time in Malaysia?”. Well the simple answer to that would certainly have to be yes. But I do have to be fair in my opinion on this and so usually before answering the question I would ask the person if by race they meant racism. If so, then what would they classify to be as racism? Is it having less rights on certain things just because my citizenship is not Malaysian. If so, then yes for sure but so has every other foreigner whose lived in a country that is not theirs.
Well then is it being treated differently just because I look different, if so then yes again but so has every other foreign looking individual whose ever been to a foreign land. And if they were referring to my place of origin (i.e. Africa) and skin color (i.e. Black) then certainly yes and I do have to admit that there is a “white bias” that exists in the world, but that is not something that I can attribute to Malaysia alone but it is something that exists nearly everywhere even in places that are as liberal and open minded as the United States.
I do have to mention that this is a personal opinion and I am talking about things that apply to my own scenario first and not in a general sense. And to better explain here’s an example of a very common occurrence at work.
You see a lot of my actual work is in hospitals in and around Malaysia. So I’ve been fortunate enough to get the opportunity to travel around the country and visit many different medical centers. Sometimes I would need to go visit some of these sites by myself and then at those times there I am this tall, dark, foreign looking fella who is obviously not a patient trying to enter a secluded section of a hospital.
Now one of the common initial expressions that I see on the faces of most nurses who I meet is one of extreme caution and in some cases even fear, which is strange because am really a nice guy actually. Haha! But anyways I found a brilliant way of combating this though, I would just speak to them in Bahasa Melayu (BM) which is the native langue of Malaysia in case you didn’t know. And then immediately the doubt/caution/fear whatever is replaced with “Oh he’s just another one of us or is he?”. So I would then go in, do my job, and on the way out I would typically have some documents that I would need the nurses to sign and nine times out of ten, at those moments I would be asked if I am local or not. I would then tell them my backstory and just like that we all become good friends.
That right there is the wisdom of knowing the local language of a people. It breaks barriers down and in fact induces a type of affinity between both parties because from your end it shows respect to the local culture and language. And I also see this as one of the major faults of a lot of people that come into the country, they don’t make a conscious effort to know the local language of a people. Sometimes you don’t even need to master the language, just a few words/phrases here and there would suffice. And you usually get asked the same questions believe me, I can tell you my life story backwards in BM. Haha!
But my point in all of this is there is truly no escaping racism. I’m not going to say its something that is inherent because its not, you only need to go to a kindergarten to see that that isn’t true. What I meant by “no escaping racism” is that its a social disease; a disease that many often times finds its roots in lack of knowledge, lack of understanding for what is different, lack of will to change and fear of loss of power. You can look through history and you will find that a lot of the things that relate to racism are often motivated by any one of those four.
And also no race/nationality or any sort of demographic is entirely superior to another. They all have flaws but more importantly they all have many good attributes about them. The problem we have as a people is that we often notice and focus on the bad while unconsciously overlooking the countless good. And on a personal level I can honestly say that Malaysia will always be a part of me and whether I live for another 50 years or I die tomorrow my view of the world would always be through Malaysian eyes.