By Jorene Ooi
Jorene is a pragmatic liberal who would like to see a better Malaysia.
Her parents drove her to school in a bright cyan Kancil, a green and white PAS decal on the rear window proudly proclaiming their political allegiance. I remember she had long brown hair, which I had thought unusual. Sometimes she wore a baju kurung to school, sometimes the dark blue pinafore that she was quickly outgrowing. I remember seeing her parents maybe once – her mother had an elegant floral headscarf on, dark sunglasses shading her eyes; her father diminutive, slightly shabby with his wispy mustache. I can see where she got her size and sophistication from.
Despite being quite possibly the cutest girl in Primary 2, she was rather friendly. She chatted incessantly, in that demeanor of carefree innocence all children seem to have. We talked about all sorts of things; oh, we talked about games, and Enid Blyton, and our parents, and cartoons, and recess time. Mostly inconsequential things, but they seemed so important back then.
One sunny afternoon, her parents had just dropped her off at the same time I arrived, so we walked together up the dank stairwell to our classes. Suddenly, she turned to me and asked,
“Which political party do you support?”
I shrugged. The eight-year old me had only ever heard of BN at that time, and it was one my parents approved of. Disillusionment, I suppose, was less common those days. “BN, I guess.”
She nodded. “Okay. I support PAS. My parents, too.”
I tried my best to keep the expression of shock off my face. Up till that point, PAS had always been portrayed in a negative light to me. I thought of it as a conglomeration of radical extremists – of course, not in those terms, for such big words were beyond my childish comprehension, but that was the general idea.
“So, let’s go to the playground during ‘rehat’?” Our school had a swing set and slide on the field.
I was enthusiastic, of course. “Yes, I’ll see you there!”
We had a grand old time that afternoon.
I do not read the newspapers anymore. They say ignorance is bliss. Maybe it is. Maybe if I insulate myself from all the hatred, from all the stupidity, from all the sadness and hopelessness and anger, it will not affect me.
But what does that make me?
The circle of expectant faces did not scare me for once. Remy had her legs folded up on the armchair. William was chewing his fingernails again. Irene had her baseball cap on backwards. She adjusted it again as she sat cross-legged directly opposite me, waiting for me to begin my “life story”, or so they called them on these Alternative Student Break trips.
I know these people so well. One week ago, they could have walked right past me on Sheridan and I would not have recognized them. The week spent volunteering changed that. Praise is a pastor’s son. He’s agnostic. Ned likes to listen to classical music in the shower.
I stared at the cross mounted on the wall. And then at the familiar faces around the room. I stole a glance at Praise. Back to the cross again.
I began. I told them of my childhood. Of the fights. Of the financial hardship. I told them about my hometown, about my country. I told them about being a Malaysian abroad, about hanging out with the white kids and being accused of “trying to be white”.
But I am not white. I am not yellow. I am not a color.
I tell them of the political unrest in my country. The racial tensions. The corruption. I give them a short history of how things came to be the way they are now. I tell them about May 13th. Anger. Disappointment. Blood. Hope.
I do not gloss it over. I tell them these things, knowing full well that I am making, most probably, some of their very first impressions of my country. Because they are there. Because when I sit in my room late at night and read the propaganda spreading on facebook, on independent and state-controlled media, and talk to my friends and family back home, this is what comes to my mind.
Another notification popped up. Someone had posted on the college program’s facebook group wall. I clicked on it, but as expected, it took about 10 solid seconds before I could see the post. Slow internet.
Another discussion about religion. They seem to forget that there are students of other religions in the group. It’s a student group, people!
Where do we draw the line between “secular” and “religious”?
They also say that you cannot have it all. Perhaps you really cannot.
It is a knee-length dress, white on top, black below. The straps are thin and rather unappealing, so you wear a cardigan over it. That aside, it is a gorgeous dress. The fabric convalesces into a lovely bubble at your knees, and the empire waist flatters your figure. What’s the occasion? It’s an unofficial class photography session. You and your friends have decided to wear dresses. We’re all going out in the sun for some bonding, photos and memories.
But it is hot at the piazza. The red and beige bricks amplify the heat, and although it is only mid-morning, you are sweltering. Perhaps the cardigan wasn’t such a good idea after all. Figuring no harm would arise, you take it off. It’s only a cardigan after all.
In fifteen minutes, an angry-looking lady storms out of her office and demands to know what you are doing there. More specifically, she wants to know why, for god’s sake, you are in a spaghetti-strapped dress. Oh, the OUTRAGE!! “You know there are men staring!”
You would think shoulders are innocent enough.
Well, there goes the photo session. You walk back to your dorm to change. Your friend cries.
Sometimes, when 7/4 (Shoreline) is playing in the background and I am thinking of these things, it overwhelms me. Why all the judgment? Why all the distinctions about religion, about social status, about money, about color? It frustrates me. Why can’t we all just get along with each other? Praise, the agnostic, staying overnight in a church. Imagine that! Why is it when I think of Misha, I remember our exchange about political ideologies? Like political ideologies should be consequential in personal relationships.
When Promethius stole fire from Zeus, Zeus created a box which contained all the evils in the world. He gave Pandora, the first woman on earth, along with the box, to Promethius’ brother Epimetheus. When curiosity compelled her to open the box, all the evils of the world escaped. She quickly closed the box, but it was too late; all its contents had escaped, except for one.
That item was Hope.
They say ignorance is bliss. They say you cannot have it all. They tell you who’s good and who’s evil. They say, you’re Malay. You’re Chinese. You’re Indian. You’re “lain-lain”.
But then I think about how that afternoon, Misha and I just continued playing together, as if our conversation had never happened. And then, I realize that we act the way we do now because of our upbringing, because of all the bias that surround us. And so, I have hope. I hope we will come to see what is wrong with us. I hope we will have it all.
And hope; maybe that’s most illuminating of all.
Pic credits: Old bears by Steve FE and A bird in the hand by a-bollen