Once in a way I will join a group of mothers from school for morning coffee. With the exception of yours truly, every other person in the group is white. One or two are married to non-whites, but the coffee shop we meet up in is only frequented by whites and the topics we talk about are mostly white.
What do I mean by white topics? First world issues like the weather, trips to the beach, gym memberships… One of the women once spoke about a trip to Port Dickson in Malaysia, but even though I am from Malaysia, no one thought to ask me about it.
Don’t get me wrong. Everyone is friendly and welcoming, but while they want to solve the world’s problems over morning coffee, no one wants to hear about how LYNAS, an Australian company, is going to pollute Gebeng, a small seaside town just outside of Kuantan on the East Coast of Malaysia, with effluvients from their rare earths processing plant. The specificities of such a potential atrocity on the natural environment are too much for any one of them to deal with – especially after I point out that these rare earths, which go into their solar panels and Ipads and Iphones, will give an impoverished fishing population anything from birth defects to leukemia.
So it is back to the safety of first world topics: school sports days, the increasing costs of going to the movies or how apartments are unsuitable for a growing family…
There was a time when I stopped going for these coffee mornings altogether because I felt excluded from the general flow of the conversation. They would greet me and urge me to pull up a chair and sit with them, but none would show me the pictures they took when visiting the Louvre in Paris or of their home’s renovation, even though by the sounds of it, everyone else at the table had already seen them.
Eventually, I managed to put aside my misgivings about being the token Asian because it occurred to me that if I am to thrive and prosper in this land, I have to first master the art of communicating in generalities about topics I have an in-depth knowledge of. Then I have to put aside my feelings of people asking how I am but not really wanting to know.
White Australians want the romance of the East, the escape and adventure, not the reality of rampant poverty, corruption and discrimination that living in a third world presents. They want lovely word pictures of home births assisted by family instead of the truth that no Asian would ever want anyone other than a doctor delivering their baby. It is this knowledge of their mindset and how to communicate effectively with them that I gained from returning to the group.
In many ways it’s no different to learning how to avoid talking about Malaysia’s racial tensions. Now that I have come out as a Peranakan, essentially a hybrid of Malay or Indigenous and Chinese, anything I say with regards to Malaysian politics will be read as pro Malay by the Chinese, pro Chinese by the Malay, when all I am stating is simply my own conclusions, the result of long and intense observation.