Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Month: October 2017

The Black Expat Stories – Bus time story

The road was so busy. I stood there for a moment as cars, trucks, motorbikes and buses whizzed by. I made it to the centre and the crossing point, with its water logged grass was not going to stop me. I did wonder why they had put the bus stop so far away from the airport. Surely, if they had wanted to increase the use of public transportation to and from the airport, they should have positioned the stop closer. I put my hand out and stepped onto the warm bus with my small case. The comfort of that heat versus the ongoing negotiation that I would have entered with the taxi driver to turn down the air conditioning, was an easy choice after a freezing cold return flight. Most taxi drivers would turn around to look at me twice, whenever I asked for the AC to be lowered. That alone was disconcerting.
The bus was full of black and brown people. The buses were always full of brown and black people. I had never seen a pink or beige  person on the buses in Selangor. In Accra I had seen the khaki-shorts=Dr Martens-wearing types. They were never alone though and this was only occasionally. In Jamaica, the ones on the buses always looked like missionaries, as if they had come to save the passengers. I recall coming down the hill in Cameroun with broken headlights on a small bus. Someone hanging out of the window with a torch for light and Peter Tosh singing African. The Legalise album had been playing and the locals sang every word. There were a few white people on that bus, the last one for the evening. On leaving a conference in London, I had suggested to a friend that we take a bus to the next event. It was a beautiful sunny afternoon and she was totally bemused, admitting that she had never taken a bus. We laughed. Yes, I enjoyed buses and being around the ‘public’. It was so easy to slip into the exclusive life of being an expat with the condo, mall and taxi lifestyle.
I swiped my card and sat down on the vacant seats close to the driver. I was still wearing my long skirt from having worked in one of the Islamic regions. There had been no time to change at the airport, for when the check in assistant had offered me an earlier flight, I literally had to run to board the half empty plane. Looking around at the women in their shirts and jeans, I so wished I had changed into my trousers. It was just easier. As the stares began, I could see that my braids were raising questions. My brown skin meant I could be African, Malay or Indian. My hair though. It didn’t make sense to the other people on the bus. I could see the passengers weighing up their questions about my ‘identity’ through my hair.

 

Plugging my earphones in, I relaxed to Earth Wind and Fire. It had been a long two days and the school visits had involved three hours of travel each day. The roads were rough and the rain was amazing. Torrential down pours are great when you are safely tucked up in bed. When the raindrops against the corrugated roof , become a part of the canvas to a sultry intimate scene, that is where rain and love making completely synergize. Driving along those roads to a new location, whilst hoping that the GPA wouldn’t go down, or that the hire car would perform well or that the rain would just stop, equalled too many challenges to my senses. There was little fun in that experience.
You take public transportation? Their faces looked confused. The locals and the expats asked the same question. Standing in the space of privilege where the taxi app on the phone is the only transportation option you know or would consider, looked like a disability to me. Not wanting to be close to ‘the workers’ as a Malay women had termed those who rode the bus, made me reflective. The workers were ok to build the shopping malls and expensive condominiums. They were not ok to be seated next to. There were always so many infinite possibilities and experiences that I had or observed with the public on these buses. The majority of the public take buses and I have learnt so much on those journeys.

 

The police often stop the buses to search for illegal immigrants.One evening the officers jumped on and asked for something. I wasn’t sure as they had spoken in Malay. I had woken from my drowsy state to demands and outstretched palms. I handed over my bus pass and the passengers laughed. I realised that was definitely a UK response with memories of inspectors and badges! The police officer smirked and then I heard the word Passport. I didn’t have it and so handed him my business card which he took to the officer outside. I wondered if he could read. He came back and asked ‘You work here?’. I do. ‘Carry passport’ he insisted in his best English. I agreed with my best nodding and dozed back off to pretend sleeping. In Malacca the brown people had been led off the bus and told to lay on the ground as their papers were not in order. I had been stopped there too. After all, my papers may also not have been in order. The white people in shorts and T-shirts had walked past this undisturbed. No one asked if their papers were in order.

 

On my previous bus journeys, I had met a Chinese woman who had complained bitterly about the Malay. She spoke of them as lazy and undeserving of all the perks which they received. I had listened. I had met a Malay man who asked me if I was married. He complained about corruption in their government. He complained of the rich Chinese taking over. I listened. I’ve met people who studied in the UK as the 1960s newly independent Malaysia had attracted scholarship offers which many of them had gained from. As a result of their own experience, they had chosen to send their own children to the UK and to the US to do their graduate studies. These elders had returned. Many of the stories ended with the children remaining. Those places had become familiar and their comfort zones had changed as they experienced the anonymity which places like London gave them.

My journey from the airport ended and the driver let me out at the traffic lights instead of taking me another half a kilometre away from my home. He must have known how much I was dreading that walk up the hill to my condo. He knew my brown face.

The Black Expat Stories – Curtains

As an expat, there is a crazy sense of displacement that I experience when it comes to things like washing curtains. Having spent most of my adult life in the UK, it was a real ritual that went alongside pulling the furniture out and vacuuming those corners which may not have been touched for months (I am embarrassed to say). It meant wiping down all of those large pieces of furniture where the dust had been hidden. The first day of sunshine was the new high wattage bulb and It would send me to the supermarket to purchase cleaning items like nice spelling Zora disinfectants.

Now I live in someone else’s home. Their agreement states that I cannot put pictures on any of the walls, so I haven’t. Me who once had a living room so filled with African masks, family pictures, sculptures and cloth that my friend’s son, on arriving for the first time, whispered to him, “is this a museum daddy?”, now lives with bare walls.

I was young, naive and hungry for everything African. My walls were a testimony to my commitment to living a truly authentic African life. The first payment which I received for a poetry reading was used to purchase an African woman with braids who sat on my wall for many years. There were copper sculptures from Ghana, cloth from Nigeria and Ethiopia, cushion covers from Kenya and that large Ashanti stool which the authorities had challenged me on carrying as they suspected I had drugs hidden inside. Of course, with my having dreadlocks that I covered, how could they come to any other conclusion.

The new sun would make all of the carvings and sculptures expose that covering they had collected over the previous six-months. As I polished some, dusted others, ensuring that those corners were clean, the curtains would be soaking. The clean lace curtains reflected the bright sunshine and sent a wave of satisfaction of a job well done. This was my home and I had put the effort in to make it look, smell and feel good for my family and I. It was always a good day when the curtains were washed.

Now I rent an apartment, with a balcony that is hardly used due to the noisy ongoing construction of yet another apartment block which has stolen the peace and tranquillity that living next to a forest should have bought me. I watch the dark skinned men working on this building site each day and I wonder if their story is in line with those I have heard of the labour force that comes from Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. Men who work long hours, while their passports and mobile phones are held. Men with long periods away from their families who look lustily at the Chinese women who bare so much flesh in their shorts and strap tops, against the backdrop of Hindu and Malay women in their (mainly) modest attire.

The curtains were filthy. Having lived in the apartment for ten months, I could not figure out why washing the curtains had become such a big deal. Then it hit me. It was about the ritual. The history. The practise and memory of this one act. There was so much love in cleansing the winter and in welcoming in the summer in the UK

In hot countries, there are no clearly defined seasons. There are days of sunshine or cloud. Drizzle or torrential downpours. After living in Jamaica, I returned to the UK during the winter and depression had set in. I could not stand the cold, the unfriendly people and the effort that everything took once I had on my two or three layers of clothing. I remember signing up for a community yoga class and being the only student who would attend. One day the yoga teacher must have had enough of my long face. He stopped the class and asked me what the matter was. I went on and on about how cold I was, how I missed Jamaica’s heat and people and how sad everyone in the UK looked. He listened attentively, showing no sign of frustration or disappointment in the views I had expressed.

He simply said

You must really live, wherever you are. Unpack the boxes. Enjoy all there is to enjoy.

I said thank you and stopped the complaining. I unpacked the many boxes which I had walked passed every day and sorted out my apartment. I put the pictures back on the wall.

Washing the curtains and cleaning the windows took me to a place of doing things on purpose. Enjoying where I am…wherever I find myself. I celebrated the array of colours which I now have every day.  The sunshine and warmth which I now have everyday.  I have new rituals .

DISCLAIMER:

The thoughts in this blog are mine. My opinions, uncensored.  Please don’t take it personally.

The Black Expat stories – Special Occasion

A few minutes on the yoga mat breathing, connecting and looking forward to what was to come. I packed my cucumber water, laptop, documents and my colleague and I made our way over to the new school. Fortunately, it was just 5 minutes away and not a two-hour morning drive into a rural school through torrential rain. No! That had been last month.

The headmistress was waiting to greet us and we quickly moved to the first set of interviews for the day. These were followed by a series of focus groups and whilst being shown to the second room, the Vice-Principal enquired after my age. I responded and confirmed that it was my birthday. She looked surprised, wishing me a happy birthday and commenting on how young I looked. I have learned to ‘manage’ the way the personal and private boundaries blur in Malaysia. Having been asked how much I earn, where my husband is and how many children I have by store security guards, shuttle bus, and taxi drivers, I know that everything is up for discussion! People have asked if my afro is ‘real’, if my braids are ‘real’ and why did I come here to work. There are no private zones and having experienced this living in Ghana and Jamaica, I have realized that all of my local living experiences outside of the UK, have much in common.

Moving around the school bought the usual range of stares and pointing. It was a primary school and the children were not sure what to say or how to approach someone who was different. Malaysians stare! As a child growing up in the UK, my mother would always say ‘Don’t stare, it’s rude’. This is not a part of their collective programming process so as a result, the adults and the children will point, stare and giggle. If my hair is in braids or I have wrapped my hair with African cloth, they know I am ‘different’ and unlike any of the main groups in Malaysia, there is something that stirs their curiosity. As the morning moved on, one of the young boys eventually came over to me and asked me where I was from.

On any one day, when I am in the rural areas, I may be asked this up to ten times. For Malaysians, my accent does not go with how I look, based on their experiences of people who sound like me. An English accent is not something they are used to hearing from brown and black people. I feel blessed, for having long left the shackles and constraints that the western cities can create, I feel free from the many prejudgments that owned my thoughts and actions in those spaces. I know that many of the simply curious questions can move one to anger. I have learned to understand the curiosity of others in the same way I am curious about them. Their own experience of creed, race and color hierarchy clearly affects how they see and respond to all black and brown people in authoritative positions. It is a global story.

In the middle of the morning, the break gave me an opportunity to have some of my cucumber water. It was not long before my colleague and I was pulled into the boardroom for ‘breakfast’. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner generally look the same and there is always so much food! It was not on my plan to eat heavy food during the first part of the day. However, I knew that relationships in this school had to be handled carefully. I ate some rice thinking about the additional 1000 calories I had not bargained for! I mean, this rice was seasoned, fried, filled with tofu and vegetables and probably fried some more. I ate it slowly hoping that would save me!. At the same time, wondering if my body would just explode as a response to the shock, and especially after the cucumber water. I was offered the tea that was heavy with all of the usual added sugar! Oh boy, the cucumber water sat laughing and asking me what the heck I was doing? I didn’t answer.

The mid-morning lessons were impressive. The teachers had planned well and the students were thoroughly engaged. It was great to see high-level practice. My colleague and I reconvened at lunchtime as we shared notes and discussed the remaining activities we would cover. The focus groups would continue after the scheduled lunchtime, either though I had no intention of eating any more food for the day…for the week! As we discussed our findings, there was a knock at the door and there stood the headteacher and her SLT team. Not just standing there but holding a cake and singing happy birthday!! I was surprised and humbled. Working away from home comes with sacrifices. My ancestors had decided I would have my celebration today. Food, cake, and people! The cake was cut, shared and too much of it was eaten. Another 1000 calories had somehow crept in!! There was a conspiracy against my cucumber water and my temple today!!! I smiled at the tricks that life played with and on me.

I succumbed to the experience, blessed to be the recipient of that celebratory energy. I had much to celebrate and asked myself why should I put that on hold! Malaysians pride themselves on being hospitable and food and drink are everything. To not take part is seen as an insult. This can be challenging and, like all things, I have managed them and carefully navigated each pathway. As an expat away from home, family, and friends, I was grateful for the warmth and gratitude which I felt to have someone present me with a cake and to sing Happy Birthday. For these small things really do matter.

 

The evening beach trip was a pleasure in and of itself. The question was there waiting for me from the Muslim women who were already enjoying themselves in the sea when I arrived. I also recorded them!

Wondering along the beach, I watched the families, groups of men and groups of women as they enjoyed the sand and the sea. It was a simple free pleasure with roaming monkeys scavenging for any leftover food.

A couple was having their photographs taken. Shakira and I wondered if it was a magazine shoot or a pre-wedding set. Marriage is huge in Malaysia and couples often do a photo shoot against one of the many incredible locations.. The videos are then shown on their special day. Having been to a few weddings in Malaysia, I knew that I missed the music and dancing which came with the UK, Ghanian and Jamaican weddings I had attended.  Islamic traditional weddings are generally about food, speeches, and photographs.

The photographers here constructed a perfect fantasy  It was intriguing to watch the poses by the swing, looking back from the water’s edge and he kneeling down to propose to her.

 
A few cartwheels later and with time on the swing myself, I was able to enjoy the sound of the sea, and an opportunity to reflect, smile, and to celebrate some more whilst watching others enjoying the beach. Birthdays may feel lonely if you’re an expat, especially if they are important to you. Having that occasion recognised and shared made a positive difference.

Disclaimer

The thoughts in this blog are mine.   Please don’t take it personally.

The Black Expat Stories – The Wonderful Hike (Malaysia)

The hike stands as a space that I go to every Sunday. The forest is approximately 10 minutes’ walk from where I stay and it’s down a steep path that leads to the main road. On that walk to and from the forest itself, I have seen elders tapping trees, families of monkeys eating , Chi Kong classes taking place and many couples, individuals and whole families, exercising up and down the hill which leads to the forest. They are doing what many people do on a Sunday morning by taking time for self-care.


As I enter the forest, there is always a feeling of excitement for having hiked for over a year now, it never ceases to amaze me what and who I might experience on that day. As I start to move along the pathway, the one guarantee I have is that I know that the people I meet in the forest embrace the space with love and respect and always stop to say hello. There is always time for laughter, photographs and building new relationships. It is definitely a networking space as many professionals go there to bring balance to those hours spent in board rooms with endless meetings. We are indeed a ‘tribe’ as someone recently said to me. For in taking on this challenge, each Sunday, we are united in our support of one another and in our intention to complete the one, two or three laps which we set out to do.

On the forest trail, there are people like myself who are expatriates, living and working in a country in which they were not born. Some have young families and they have decided to make Malaysia their home. It is an easy country to live in with good public transportation, safe reliable taxi options and a great range of healthy and not so healthy foods available. There are always large numbers of local Malaysians representing the three dominant groups who are visible here. These are the Chinese, the Indian and the Malay. It is wonderful to see families playing board games, children being introduced to hiking and elders teaching the next generation Tai Chi. There are many positive things which I take away from each hiking trip.

My hiking journey happened when I discovered the forest after walking past a set of rickety old stairs many times and wondering where they led to. I am a curious soul and willing to follow that curiosity. On the first occasion that I entered the forest, there was no one else around. I could hear the rustling in the trees, the amazing sound of all of the species of birds that Malaysia is famous for plus crickets and monitors going on their way. I thought about going further into the forest. My spirit told me not to go any further though and I turned back. I returned on a Sunday morning to find hundreds of people and I simply followed, smiled a lot, saying hello to everyone who caught my eye as I negotiated this new experience.

Since then, on the Sundays when I am in town, I hike. I wear my comfortable clothes, hiking boots and off I go. I’ve had Sunday mornings where I have woken up, body aching and I don’t want to leave the house. I’ve had Sunday mornings where I have had cold and flu symptoms, coughing and drowsiness. There are Sundays when I feel totally energised and I still go to hike. However, I may be feeling before I go, I always feel amazing afterwards with endorphin increase and completely elated.

More recently, I have begun to capture my yoga journey as my yoga and forest time complement one another perfectly. Many yoga studios have ridiculously high air conditioning levels which has always left me feeling uncomfortable and at times even sick. The temperature and the humidity in the forest and I are in total harmony. It is an experience that you must have to know it’s power.

If there is no forest, I encourage people to find a green space and to spend time there. It really does energise and ground you. There is a river in my forest and after watching a hiker take to this space bare footed, I have added this to my walk too. Standing in this small river is another part of my magical Sunday morning journey which I then continue by walking the last half of the journey bare footed. To say it is an ‘awesome’ feeling would capture all that it is, perfectly!
One morning, I saw a group of children practising taekwondo on my way to the forest. After my hike, they were still there and the teacher looked tired,  having reverted to giving instructions from a seated position. As an experienced teacher trainer, this is such a big no no but I also am aware how the sun can wipe you out in a minute here.I offered the teacher a few minutes of yoga classes with his small group of children. My English and his Malay came together and there and then, the teacher happily let me proceed. There we were, on the pavement doing yoga on a Sunday morning and all of the children responded positively!

The forest is a place of pure healing and love. A place where troubles and worries can be shed and new friends can be made. It is definitely one of the local things which I have totally embraced since being in Malaysia.

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