Roast­ing racial stereo­types

We each have pet prej­u­dices about cer­tain eth­nic groups, but can’t we just laugh about them in­stead of get­ting all up­tight?

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INBOX - by ANDREW SIA Andrew Sia prefers full-bod­ied teh tarik over weak-tast­ing English tea any day. Feed­back is wel­come at star2@thes­

YOU Chi­nese all, ah, ask many ques­tions, but never buy. The Malays come here, they see, they like, straight buy,” an In­dian shop lady at Per­tama Com­plex in down­town Kuala Lumpur told me once.

Should I have felt in­sulted? Or was she ac­tu­ally giv­ing the Chi­nese a back­handed com­pli­ment about us be­ing canny with money?

When I posted this on my Face­book page, two other Chi­nese friends com­mented, “It’s much eas­ier to do Malay busi­ness than Chi­nese busi­ness.” Whoa. Could some Po­lit­i­cal Gourmet Or­gan­i­sa­tions or PGOs, which serve reg­u­lar buf­fets of street drama, seize upon that re­mark as “in­sult­ing the Malays” for be­ing spend­thrift? But wait. Maybe it’s ac­tu­ally prais­ing them for hav­ing a gen­er­ous and easy-go­ing (read: less cal­cu­lat­ing) spirit....

Sev­eral friends agreed that we Chi­nese were the most fas­tid­i­ous and finicky about get­ting “value for money”. One of them con­fessed: “I am ev­ery sales­per­son’s nightmare. I am Chi­nese and, hor­ror of hor­rors, a fe­male. I love jew­ellery and am will­ing to walk to 10 shops to com­pare prices! I never fail to get the best deal.”

But be­fore any­body can glee­fully de­clare “Aha! Told you, izzenit!”, an­other friend de­scribed how the rich Chi­nese from China waltz into lux­ury watch and hand­bag shops in high-end KL shop­ping malls: “They don’t even speak, they just point here and there to choose their stuff and pay CASH ... up to RM200,000. How do you think these shops can af­ford such high rentals?”

So, did the Per­tama Com­plex In­dian lady have the right or wrong racial prej­u­dice about the Chi­nese, af­ter all? Are the Chi­nese stingy or spend­thrift? Such is the Chi­nese dilemma... are we looked up to, or down upon?

Take the very fact that I was in Per­tama Com­plex. It’s an old and rather dingy shop­ping mall – and also one of the cheap­est places in the city for watches, sports shoes, phones and hik­ing bags.

To those who “want to be­lieve” the worst, my pres­ence there, of course, only ac­cen­tu­ates their pre­con­cep­tions that Chi­nese are thrifty. But hold up ... the main cus­tomers there are Malays. So which race is count­ing their ring­git and sen?

It’s al­ways tempt­ing to over-gen­er­alise things along eth­nic lines, but this is re­ally a lazy way to an­a­lyse the com­plex­i­ties of so­ci­ety.

For in­stance, the Chi­nese are said to be in­dus­tri­ous, but is that just be­cause im­mi­grants need to work harder to es­tab­lish them­selves? Yet when China was re­ally com­mu­nist, restau­rant wait­ers there wouldn’t bother serv­ing cus­tomers sim­ply be­cause there were no fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives to work harder.

Sim­i­larly, some people think that “the na­tives” (Malaysian Hokkiens and Tamils use this term) of this re­gion are “laid-back” (the eu­phemism for “lazy”) but is that due to a sys­tem that re­wards hard lob­by­ing rather than hard work, or “know-who” rather than “know-how”?

Yet “the na­tives” from In­done­sia slave un­der the hot sun on con­struc­tion sites and oil palm es­tates, much harder than many Malaysians. Is that be­cause those “na­tives” are ac­tu­ally strug­gling im­mi­grants in Malaysia?

There are count­less fac­tors that mo­ti­vate people. Yet, all too of­ten, we hu­mans like to over­sim­plify things – and joke about it too – be­cause it’s the eas­i­est, most con­ve­nient thing to do.

In the song Ev­ery­one’s A Lit­tle Bit Racist from the hit Broad­way mu­si­cal Av­enue Q ( the char­ac­ter who plays Gary Cole­man gets all up­set when two white people crack a joke about blacks – un­til he him­self ad­mits that he likes to make fun of “stupid Pol­ish people”. As the lyrics go:

It’s sad but true! Ev­ery­one’s a lit­tle bit racist Big­otry has never been Ex­clu­sively white If we all could just ad­mit That we are racist a lit­tle bit, Even though we all know That it’s wrong, Maybe it would help us Get along.

Prof Dr Syed Husin Ali once told a group of us Univer­siti Malaya stu­dents back in the 1980s that what mat­ters in racial re­la­tions is the abil­ity to main­tain a “jok­ing re­la­tion­ship”. That means that we can poke fun at each other’s racial pe­cu­liar­i­ties and still re­main friends.

Where we can not only (to use that hor­ri­ble word) “tol­er­ate” each other, but ac­tu­ally ac­cept and cel­e­brate each other – warts and all – and laugh about it, to­gether. This is just like how our own fam­ily mem­bers have their own ir­ri­tat­ing quirks which turn out to be en­dear­ing.

How­ever, what is not funny, is for cer­tain PGOs to re­spond to a Youtube par­ody (about es­sen­tially po­lit­i­cal is­sues) by of­fer­ing money for vi­o­lent acts and spilling in­no­cent chick­ens’ blood ...

Imag­ine ... what if they had in­stead de­cided to counter the video in an in­tel­li­gent yet hu­mor­ous way? Say with a dikir barat or

balas pan­tun lam­poon about the weak­nesses of Pe­nang’s lead­er­ship? That would have en­riched Malaysia’s cul­tural life much more – be­cause we all love to laugh at politi­cians, don’t we?

Take Chris Rock, the black Amer­i­can stand up co­me­dian who satirised Ge­orge W. Bush’s War on Ter­ror ( He pointed out that what started out as “pa­tri­o­tism” af­ter 9/11 soon turned into “hate-tri­o­tism”, as shouts of Amer­i­can pride slowly be­came twisted into White Su­prem­a­cist calls to bomb Arab-Mus­lims, with nig**** be­ing next on the list.

“I ain’t scared of Al-Qaeda, I’m scared of Al-Cracker,” he joked, us­ing the slang term for the white slave mas­ter, rem­i­nis­cent of the Ku Klux Klan, who “cracks” the whip.

Yet no­body in Amer­ica slaugh­tered chick­ens and ac­cused Chris Rock of “in­sult­ing the whites”, be­cause people could see he was tak­ing the mickey out of Bush’s poli­cies. And if any­thing, he wasn’t roast­ing a race, he was roast­ing racists – there’s an im­por­tant dif­fer­ence there. So, can we learn to lighten up? Go­ing back to the In­dian lady at Per­tama Com­plex, per­haps what she said about us Chi­nese cus­tomers has a grain of truth. If so, why don’t we just laugh at our­selves? And hope­fully im­prove our be­hav­iour too.

As J, a friend who owns a shop in Pe­nang com­mented: “As a re­tailer, I find the Pe­nang Chi­nese con­sumer the worst. They will shame­lessly ask many ques­tions over half an hour, try many things, bar­gain and bar­gain and in the end, amaz­ingly, just walk away.”

J, who is a Pe­nang Chi­nese him­self (and there­fore en­ti­tled to self-racism!) con­tin­ued: “Am I in­sulted? Nope. I re­alise they do it with­out re­al­is­ing how bad it looks. To them bar­gain­ing is just a sport, the adrenalin of get­ting a good deal.

“I’m afraid these are traits we’ve in­her­ited from our an­ces­tors. Here’s a con­fes­sion – I was once like that too! But af­ter start­ing my own shop, I re­alise how it feels like to be at the other end. So now I re­mind my­self to be gra­cious when I am do­ing the buy­ing.”

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