Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Malaysia

Black Expat Stories – My original hair they asked

I peeped around the corner, as I  quickly pulled the hot comb through my hair. There was no sound. Thank goodness, my mother was still sleeping.  The kitchen window was open so that she wouldn’t smell the hot comb process from that morning.  It was 1976 and a seriously hot summer.  My afro would go from 7 to 2 inches as soon as I started to sweat. I loved the work of Angela Davis and so wanted my afro to look just like hers. In 1976, as one of the hottest recorded summers in the UK, the shrinkage was real!

I allowed my sister to convince me to put ‘realxing cream’ into my hair once. It was hard work though and all of that burning, visits to the hairdresser and ‘treatment’ really didn’t work for me. It was so funny watching the women flock to be around the male hairdresser. He reminded me of Marvin Gaye, but that was insignificance once he started doing my hair as it all took so long and seemed to cost so much money! He was making a killing as I suspect those women would have paid him just to walk across the shop floor.

I had locks for years. Once I cut my locks off, I wore all of the hairstyles which looked exactly like locks. Single plaits and that pineapple wrapped thing were my favorites. Whilst I had lived in Ghana, having my hair ‘fixed’ was easy and cheap.  I could change my style every week if I wanted to and explore colors, up, down, braid, weave, whatever I fancied!.

Moving to Asia was a different ball game. There was one Ghanian aunty who I found after asking all the women who I saw with braids, where did you do your hair?  Aunty Cynthia was great and I bathed in the familiarity of her and her twi speaking customers.  Her tails of the traffic she endured to get to her place in Cape Coast and the constant light off, brought back fond memories.  I had loved many aspects of my Ghana journey. The traffic Jams and power outage were not part of that though! I liked aunty but she never really understood how tender my scalp was. I mean, really was.  Twelve years of locks had made my scalp super tender.  On my last visit, I had to bite my tongue and hold myself from cursing as she had not mastered the crochet style and kept digging my head with the needle. It was not a good look and my blood pressure rose every time she exclaimed ‘sorry o’. I decided to only go there if I was absolutely desperate.

The Nigerian community in Malaysia had grown and hair extensions, bleaching creams, and yam had appeared in Chowkit market.  The store owner offered me a hairdressers number but, if the truth be told, I was wary of the Nigerian women I had met so far. My Nigerian friends had also stayed away from Nigerians. The young men told me how their mothers had categorically warned them not to go to their churches. They said too much 911 was going on so I followed their advice.

I pulled out my braids on a trip to London, and, although I knew that the hairdresser there had overcharged me, I paid anyway. The fact that she whispered the price was not the friendly gesture that the mini-me had received this as.  My funds also looked greater on the first day than they did on the last. I wanted a good steam and wash, plus she reminded me that I have hair so I paid her asking price.

I left the hairdresser happy that my hair was clean and that she had managed to comb out all of the hair which had begun to lock for I had washed it many times with the braids in. As she blow dried my hair, I admired it in the mirror.  It looked good and felt so soft. I was considering a short neat cut, but not today.  I loved the feel as I walked down Peckham Rye Lane with my own hair. That trip to sunny London was way too hot to wear my wig and my hair demanded to be free of all attachments so I listened and complied.  I decided to stay in that space for my return to Malaysia.

People asked me is that your original hair?.   I loved the way that the English language took on its own style in the different places I have lived and worked in.  My hair! My original hair! Not someone else’s hair or a synthetic rendition but my own hair!  I told them yes.  It was not a perm.  Their stories came out of how they had longed for curly hair! How their children had been born with beautiful curly hair, which soon became limp and straight. Who would have known that these Malaysians wanted what I had been covering up for so long?

Black women support a billion dollar industry of hair extensions and products.  Indian and Brazilian women of all ages sell their hair for very little money.  Whilst wearing braids, I had wondered if, even though it was described as synthetic, whether it was, in fact, the hair of a cousin or sister of one of the many south Indian people who live in KL

I reminisced on my years of having locks. Large unruly beautiful locks in a time when locks were worn as a covenant with the most high. My cutting and disassociation from that community came after years of watching domestic violence and disrespect.  My son was born and there was no rasta man I wanted him to emulate. The locks could have been transformed into a ‘hairstyle’ but, that was not my attachment to them. They had to go.

 

I still watch admiringly now at the many who wear locks. There are sista locks,  ‘false’ locks and lots of different colored locks.  Some people feel that it is a mockery for all of these Asian, Caucasian and others to be wearing locks. I reflect that mocking can only take place if people don’t know their power.  If we don’t collectively know our power.

At the end of my UK trip, I let the Antiguan hairdresser straighten my hair.  I loved her energy and we both had lessons to learn. Me about the healing I and my loved ones needed. She about her health choices.  As she used the hairdryer and straightener,  I was fascinated as it smelt exactly as those early morning hot comb quickies had.  The hair looked lifeless though. My already thin hair hung and even though she tried hard to convince me that it looked ‘wonderful’, I wasn’t persuaded. As I left the salon, we hugged. Something special had been planted between us.

It took two hours for the humidity in Malaysia to kick all of that straightness out! My afro returned whilst all of that straightening and serum simply disappeared.  But hey, the fro looked good and Viola Davies and many other black women before her continue to empower as we celebrate our natural hair.

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There are women who work in countries and/or organizations where their natural hair and/or the wearing of braids is illegal. The growing movement of black women who are wearing their natural hair continues to challenge those systems and to empower women’s right to have this choice.

Black Expat Stories – Meet you at the Toast Masters Club

Meet up groups were a new discovery for me. Whilst I was working in the Far East with no friends and family to call on, it meant that I had to create my own work-life balance. For me, this meant spending time with people beyond those who were working on the same project as I.  In my previous overseas roles,  family and friends had resided locally and I had happily spent much of my social time with them.  This location came with none of that!

 

It was not long before I found a large number of groups on the Meetup platform. They included cookery, language, travel, wealth creation, discussions about spirituality and lots of health-related activities. There were many clubs and outlets and it was easy to spend a Sunday afternoon visiting a local indigenous group, observing

their traditions and wearing their customs, or traveling out to see traditional dishes being made and having the opportunity to meet other local and expat travelers. The writers club was fun, although a little confusing as I had rushed over, thinking the black UK writer, Zadie Smith was going to be present, whilst they thought I was her when I arrived!!

The photographer group took me to Chow kit market where I discovered plantain, and black hair products on sale everywhere!  I met one of my fellow photographers on the journey home and we sat on the train discussing how we had both toyed with the idea of attending the Toastmasters club.  It had taken me about a year before I attended my first meeting and she had been considering attending for just as long. Others whom I’d spoken to, had said the same thing.  This was strange for me as, there we were, both professional trainers and yet there was a reluctance to place ourselves in a space where we’d be judged on something that we did every week. I decided to go along as my curiosity and love of words meant that I couldn’t stay away.

 

My first Toastmasters visit had me in awe and bouts of laughter at the same time.  There were a conviction and commitment that the core members demonstrated through their opening allegiance. Traditions which had been recorded and started in 1903 by Ralph Smedley, and which were alive here in Malaysia in 2018.  Needless to say, other clubs existed then and still do in many parts of the world with very similar aims and objectives.

Toastmasters prides itself on the development of confident and proficient speakers and leaders.  As a professional, these are two of the core transferable skills that I and many others,  find ourselves teaching, training and coaching groups and individuals in the development of.  In this fast-changing and unpredictable environment,  Leadership and Presentation skills remain current and necessary for us all.  Whether you are a business owner, self-employed, employed or unemployed, the ability to sell our skill set, improves with confidence and proficiency in our presentation and leadership skills.

At my first session, the evening began with the usual ‘Where are you from ?’ question.    My ‘proper English accent’ did not fit in with some of the member’s prejudgments of how a woman with this voice, should look, so the inquiry was lodged again and my response was repeated.  In my mot non threatening voice, I asked if I had been white, would they have had a problem with my location of birth.  There were uncomfortable stares and some silence. Eventually, a braver soul inquired, so where are your parents from and the pompous ‘Ah ha’ to my answer  ‘Jamaica’, was familiar.  After all, they knew there was ‘something else which I just wasn’t saying!!! I could not be ‘British’ !

 

The roles were introduced and I watched with an increasing curiosity and excitement.  The Time Keeper, Grammarian, and Ah counter would evaluate each person that presented a Table Topic.  The timekeepers’ lights would guide the presenter through,  the grammarian would feedback on the accurate and inaccurate use of grammar and the ‘Ah’ counter cited all of those Ah, well, hmm moments which find their way into presentations.

The table topics and word of the day followed and this opened up the opportunity for anyone to speak on the topic for two minutes. I volunteered on my first evening and the feedback was kind. It was a test speaking to a line of a nursery rhyme so, as they say, I did my best! I cringed as I watched the man from Bangladesh who volunteered after me.  He was not familiar with English nursery rhymes.  He spoke for two minutes as to why ‘the dish ran away with the spoon’ but his logical approach to this nursery rhythm, which of course has an adult history to it, was painful to observe.   The voices in my head complained about Cultural inappropriateness and being inclusive. Were these issues not of concern to this club in the heart of Kuala Lumpur?

 

The set speakers of the evening,  presented and we were then tasked with providing feedback to the evaluators once they had given their feedback to those speakers. As a Coach trainer, I know whenever a role play situation is enacted,  the coach, coachee, and observer gain equal value as each role affords the participant, a unique perspective and opportunity to develop their skills. On this evening, we had the opportunity to speak, to give feedback and to evaluate those who had evaluated!

The club is based on what some may consider as old-fashioned, albeit, sturdy values.  They do form part of the cry for 21st-century skills and an evening at the Toastmasters club will include problem-solving, critical thinking, flexibility, managing uncertainty and providing constructive feedback. All are cited by the top leadership and management game changers as critical for survival in this century,

 

I left the Toast Masters club feeling satisfied.  It had been a good use of my time. The gentleman who I left the building with asked me why did you come?. I was a little taken aback and responded that feedback in a friendly environment is always useful.  He had won but had seen a light in me, even though I had not thought I had presented well. I  was reminded that I am often my worst critic and that I need to be a lot less harsh! Pictures were taken and moments captured as is the case at every event I have attended in Malaysia so far.

My work colleagues were invited to the second Toastmasters trip. They too had been considering it for over a year. Unfortunately, they couldn’t make it that evening.  The core members and 10 guests were in attendance at my second session. One of these was the international champion for Malaysia who had recently come second in a tournament. He is a lecturer by profession.

I grabbed the opportunity to do the two-minute table top talk again and froze at the first sentence.  I wanted to remember FEAR as False Evidence Appearing Real. It wouldn’t come and there lies the irony! I asked if I could begin again and the smiles and head nodding confirmed that I could. The skill of being able to come back from the floor and to still do well takes confidence, determination, and a little arrogance.  I left knowing that, it doesn’t always go well, and that too is ok.

Yes, the Toastmasters club is filled with quirky word enthusiasts who are taking every opportunity to improve those all important presentation skills as they surface in so many areas of our life. As with every other place where two or more people meet up, this is also a networking opportunity. One of the new guests ( but a long-standing toastmasters attendee from Lithuania) is employed at the Mind Valley corporation office in the same building! Mind Valley produce amazing self empowerment material.

If there are any grammatical or spelling mistakes, unwanted ‘ahs’ or ‘wells’ in my written or spoken pieces, get ready to see the back of them as I fine tune my skills through my attendance at the Toastmasters clubs in Malaysia.

 

DISCLAIMER:

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

 

 

 

Black Expat Stories – Eating Durian in Malaysia (what was all the fuss about)

Just do it! Yes, I know it’s the Nike strapline but it dawned on me that its success had come from the fact that it was true! There are things which we take far too look to make a decision on and yes, I know about all of those sayings including the one that says that nothing happens before its time.  I had not tasted Durian in Malaysia,  even though 24 months had already gone by since I first moved to live and work in South East Asia.  With the pungent smell that overpowered everything around it, that for me had a big turn off.  Its offense was so indignant,  that it was banned in hotels and many condominiums. That had been enough for me to refuse every invitation to ‘Durian eating sessions’. I had given into my fear of this strange fruit which others seemed to be happily enjoying with no lasting consequences or illness. You know that I had checked!!!

Walking through Penang after a day of consulting in schools, it was easy to feel motivated around Azinah though. Her loving and sweet personality had us chatting and laughing at the ease and delights of this part of Malaysia. When she asked

Would you like to join me for Durian ?’ in that happy jovial Azinah way, my natural reply of ‘why not’ made total sense. I let my mood dictate my openness to this adventure for her energy was always so pure and kind.

Have you had it before ?’, she asked as we entered the store

I haven’t’, I admitted, a little embarrassed.

This store we entered sold nothing but Durian. The aesthetics were not important here.  The café style tables and chairs were plastic and very basic.  The Durian fruit and Durian products were scattered on the shelves but it was safe to say that all overheads had been kept to a minimum. It was not so much a store as an open space with some Durians on a rack, a sink where you could wash your hands and table and chairs.

The young man at the door looked as if he’d been on shift all day. He was not kind to my many questions about why the Durian came in different shades of yellow or why it was so expensive (equivalent to 20 British pounds) or what the health benefits were. Whilst Azinah giggled at the blatant curiosity of this expat, he simply stopped answering for he was not about to be my Wikipedia for the day. Didn’t he understand that I still thrived on human interaction and to be honest, I thought his answers would be more authentic than Wikipedias. We opted for what was the king durian and as there was no queen durian.  Having made out purchase, we sat down ready!

I looked over at the table of eight men and women who ranged from dark to light shades. They were also sharing the experience of durian eating.  I could hear Asian and European accents.  The fear on my face must have been evident.

Is it your first time? , one of the men asked

It is!!! Answered I, the virgin Durian eater

You’ll be alright. It really isn’t that bad!!!!. He reassured me as he returned to his group.

 

I smiled and wondered why there were no beautiful pictures or some degree of distraction for us over emotional and sensitive types! As I sat in front of Azinah, I asked her to record this coming of age experience in Malaysia for it was time!

 

The bright sunshine, Azinah’s smile and the laughter from the other table, all helped to diffuse the pungent smell. The first taste was mild. Incredibly mild compared to the smell.  I was waiting for the taste to knock me down or to at least throw me from my seat and a little way from the table. It didn’t do any of that. The texture reminded me of freshly made butter. Incredibly rich and creamy. The fruit slid from the seed into my mouth with so much ease. The richness of the texture made eating large amounts impossible. It had to be taken a small mouthful at a time and  I closed my eyes and swallowed the rich, slightly pungent tasting fruit. It was however not offensive. I had tasted grapefruits in the UK which had me twisting, and resisting the next segment. In this case, the smell soon disappeared and the specialness of the fruit lingered. I ate another piece and found that I liked this strange fruit. I liked that it was warm and comforting and strangely familiar.

My husband hates it so I have to eat it outside,   Azinah explained.  She smiled all the time, what seemed to be a genuine and love filled smile. I wondered if there were things her husband ate or did which she didn’t like.  Did she have space to also express or to object? So many of the women I had met here, were warriors. just like other women. I had stopped letting the smile and hijab fool me in any way.

One of the men from the other table joined us. He had a German accent. He had come to see if I had survived the ordeal for he had been watching me.

How was it? my new friend enquired

It was fine, I smiled still eating small pieces.  Have you finished yours?

No, I didn’t take any today. I’ve had it before…my friends wanted to come.

Ahh. So you just accompanied them?, I asked

Yes. I don’t like it that much anyhow. He admitted

I understand, I said, eating the last of my own supply. It had begun to grow on me

He sat with us for a few minutes and then wished us a good evening as he returned to his group.  They were still laughing and discussing the experience.

Azinah and I had planned to take some back but our plates were empty and we remembered that it was banned in the hotel. Having had such a great afternoon, I wondered what had all the fuss really been about anyway. I shall certainly eat Durian again!

 

 

DISCLAIMER:

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

The Black Expat Stories- Taxi Journey lamentations

As he typed his what’s app message. I looked over his shoulder. I wanted to ask him not to do this whilst he had a passenger. Whilst he should be focused on the road ahead. I decided not to. The last driver had told me I only had a 3.8 score. I was busy looking for my keys which I had lost once already that week.

I looked up and agreed vaguely with him.

Do you understand what this means?

I don’t…sorry…what? I continued to search for my keys. I had no idea what the protocol was if keys were left in these Uber taxis and I didn’t want to find out today.

You have a 3.8. score. As a friend, I have to tell you that your Uber account won’t work in the states or the UK with a score of less than 4.00

Score? What do you mean? Friend???

The drivers score you when you ride in their cars

I stopped. He now had my full attention.

That night I had been so scared. I had been in the country for less than a month and had been using the buses. It was easy, cheap and no matter what the bus driver thought of me, we all paid the same fare. Taxis’ were a whole different story and with no idea of the city layout, public transportation became my preferred method of travel. It was a fact that the bus drivers did not always stick to the route yet the fare would not change. With a taxi driver, them going off route could make a big difference.  Questioning a taxi driver over a 10 ringgit fare which had gone past 35 ringgits. resulted in my being thrown out! I learned then that Malaysian taxi drivers do not like to be challenged. Granted, this was before I discovered Uber and Grab.

Taking the buses, and then walking had meant another challenge as I was stopped by the police on the days when I wore my Nigerian or Ghanaian head wraps.  A long-held cultural, fashion and personal style that I had no intention of giving up became an excuse for the police to interrogate me. It was a pain I had experienced many times in a country with its numerous overt prejudices. Once they heard my UK accent, they always stopped asking for my passport or what job I was doing there. It seemed that none of that mattered once they established that I was English. I learned quickly that life was a matter of ongoing negotiations in this new space.

The driver messaged to say ‘I am here’ but I couldn’t see him or the green car described on the app. There were so many cars pulling up but definitely no green one. Here where? Around the corner came his response. I was tense and didn’t want to walk around the corner into a dark road. I so wished I had canceled and just gone home after work! I messaged asking him to come to the KFC where the road was well lit. He replied ‘Just two minutes around the corner’. I could feel my anxiety levels risings and by the time I found and sat down in the car. I was a nervous shaking wreck. My evening activities were limited and I realized how vulnerable I felt out by myself once the sun had set. The show I was going to see needed to be good! It was a recommendation from my friend in the UK which I was so wishing I had passed on.

Why didn’t you come to the KFC? I asked on entering the small car.

One way. One way! was his response.

So you could have come up the one way, I retorted in a less than pleasant tone.

Ok! Ok!

It was a ‘you’re in the car now, so shut the fuck up ok!

What do you mean? I asked responding to my interpretation of what I had heard.

He didn’t answer.

The journey took around five minutes and I imagined a horrible ending. What did Uber drivers do with angry or anxious customers? We pulled into the mall carpark.

Let me out I said once I recognized where I was.

What here? His English returned and he was annoyed for he was about to park

Yes, right here! I said, paying him and slamming the door behind me. I headed towards the Library where the performance was scheduled to take place.

You need see doctor! You are mad. Shouldn’t be allowed on the street was the SMS which came through. It took a few minutes before I connected that this was the driver. On that night, he may have been closer to the truth than I dare to admit. But regardless, what right did he have to send me that message! I reckon that we are all mad anyhow. It just depended on who labeled it as madness or as creativity or genius. Jack Nicolson in One flew over the cuckoo’s nest was just a great critique of the hypocrisy that exists around madness and remains a favorite movie of mine.

I contacted Uber who assured me they would warn him not to do this again.

They could not, however, ask him to apologize.

Yes, you need to keep your score above 4.

I felt straight jacketed after that. As I leave the Uber or Grab rides now, they all say, give me high scores. Even when drivers speak on their phones, answer what’s app messages and get me lost (with the GPS directing them) I still leave them the highest score. They are under pressure to maintain a high score as are the passengers to receive them.

The world of constant feedback and monitoring has escalated. I hear young people talking about how many ‘likes’ or views they have received on social media. The pressure to be popular, to be always smiling and having a great life is on full throttle. So many school teachers judge their new students on what previous teachers have written. I know that there isn’t always time to get to know all of their students so they rely on other’s  judgments. Teachers, Taxi drivers, and users of social media are all affected by other peoples comments.  Social media responses have resulted in Adults and Children committing suicide as the pressure creates unnatural expectations based on these totally subjective views.

I ask myself if real stories exist anymore with all of this pressure? It seems they are rare. I decided that I may just need this account somewhere else where I live or travel to.  There are also alternative means of transportation which I am not ruling out.  For now, though,  my score has gone up to 4.5!

The Black Expat stories – In search of plantain

I realized how low I was feeling as I sat at the bus stop watching the young college students. It was the time of the day where there was a lull.  The afternoon school session had ended and the workday rush had not yet begun. At 5 pm, I knew I was cutting it fine as I walked up the road to the stall. It was closed. This was my third attempt in three weeks and each time the stall had been covered over. I wondered if the trader had moved on.

I had not formed a great relationship with him. The men at the coconut stall were friendlier. They were bad boys after all and although now in their 50s and 60s, the free spirit bad girl in me, connected with them. They were always chatty and pleasant and allowed me to have coconut water in those few days when I had changed bags and left my purse at home. The owner would tell his assistants, ‘she is my good customer…comes all the time’. Some evenings, I had stopped there just to revel in the thrill of watching the men play their board games. Their bodies swayed as they weighed up the opposition, cigarette smoke hanging over them, suspended until, bang! Down would go the piece they had played, which was often followed by laughter, shouting and then silence again as the next player repeated the same process. It reminded me of the big men who played dominoes at the Christmas gatherings, weddings, and christenings, I had attended as a child. I never quite got why they banged the pieces or made so much noise but I did get that the socializing and comradery that came with playing, was always more important than winning. Here the noise level was about the same.

This man, however, insisted on short-changing me every time. He had a limp and a funny mouth. I wondered if he may have suffered a stroke at some point. He usually had to stop our proceedings to cough at length, sounding like he had bronchitis or a chest infection. He would always return my change 5 or 10 ringgit short. I had started simply standing there with my hand holding what change he had given me. The gently bang on his head which he administered, resulted in him going back to the till and returning with my balance. Maybe he was knocking sense into self! No, we were not great friends but he was the only one who sold plantain in walking distance from where I lived, and he was who I wanted to see today.

As I sat at the bus stop, too forlorn to walk back and allowing myself to indulge in this overreaction that only a plantain loving person could relate to, a Malay woman approached me. She was smiling and I knew she was going to say something about my hair.

‘Where did you get your hair done?’, she asked

‘Sorry?’, I looked at her before answering. After all, she was fully covered and I had made a lot of assumptions.

‘Where did you get your hair done? I want to do mine!

‘Sorry…? I was repeating myself!  I could hear her words yet her full covering and question did not make any sense to me. I knew that Muslims in Malaysia were more liberal than other interpretations of Islam I had experienced, but still, I was confused. She saw my confusion.

‘Yes, I’ve had it done before and I love it!’ she said “Even when it hurts’. She was clearly excited at the prospect of doing it again.

‘Sorry?’ I could feel myself repeating the same response but I seriously could not help myself. Broken record syndrome had taken full hold of me.

‘Are you a Muslim?’ I eventually asked.

‘I am but I wear braids sometimes. My husband doesn’t like it but hey ho!’ She was bubbly and funny and I was stunned and awkward.

‘I had my hair braided in London.’ I finally responded. ‘ I do know a few people here who braid too’, I added

‘Great. I shall take their numbers from you. I am not sure if those who do my hair are charging me correctly’ she admitted

‘How much do you pay?’ I enquired

‘600 ringgits. I have a Nigerian woman in Kuching who does it for me. She is married to a Malay man.’ She had definitely been overcharged. I wondered about the Nigerian woman and Malay Man. I let it go as I was working hard unpacking the Muslim women in front of me.

‘Do you live around here?’ she enquired

‘Yes…not too far. I just came to buy Plantain but the man isn’t there. I could walk home but I feel lazy’. It was a half-truth. I didn’t feel the need to bore her with my drama and recount of longing for something I could not get. Being an expat who didn’t drive often meant that I knew of only one or two places where I could find certain things. In this case, it was one.

‘Plantain? Plantain?’ She had gone into recall zone. ‘Oh yes, those big bananas! My Nigerian friends eat them’ she confirmed

‘Yes, yes!’, I agreed ‘They eat a lot of plantains’. I remembered that it had been my Nigerian friends in the UK who first introduced me to the black eye beans and plantain stew in red oil. In that world, any pot with fish or meat in it was called ‘stew’. What sweet memories!

‘I am sure they sell it in Gasing. Oh yes, my name is Rosita’ She said stretching her hand out. ‘What’s yours? My car is there so jump in and I’ll drive you there’.

I got into the car smiling at how bizarre the situation was. I had taken lifts with strangers in Ghana and in Jamaica so that was not new. It was one of the ‘calculated risks’ that I was willing to take. We stopped at the small shops a few roads from where we had met. Rosita asked trader after trader and they all seemed to be pointing in the same direction.

‘Yes, I was right. We will have to go to Gasing’ she said with a determination and spirit which totally bowled me over. Heading towards Gasing took us along some pretty rough terrain. It was an area where recent demolition had taken place and where new apartment blocks were already going up. I wondered if I had made the right decision though. I was going further and further away from my home and I didn’t know how I would get back. I felt so vulnerable in local areas without the language skills and where English was rarely spoken. Did I want plantain that badly?????

Rosita spoke openly about being a doctor as we drove along. Coming from a family where she was expected to be a doctor or lawyer, she had not planned to be anything else.   I asked her what she had wanted to do. She said Art and Design but her parents had told her that it wasn’t a solid career…. wouldn’t pay the rent. She and I came from a time where our parents were gods. My mum had died when I was sixteen and yet, two years later when I applied to university, I still didn’t do the BA in Linguistics as I could hear her voice asking me first of all, what is linguistics and what job I would get with this ‘Linguistics degree’. Hearing this in her quietly spoken Jamaican accent, meant that it sounded so much more demoralizing. I opted for Sociology instead!!!

As we pulled up at the stall, I smiled broadly. There were bunches of plantain and coconuts everywhere. It was that thing. That thing which connected me to home (UK, Jamaica, and Ghana). There it was. And plenty of it. Maybe this place too would be one of my homes…one of the places I would become a local of. A bus passed us by. A bus I had seen many times parked at the station next to my office. It was another place I could travel to by bus or taxi. I had options and everything was alright. I purchased ripe and unripe ones. Enough to last me

Rosita insisted on dropping me home and we chatted about the many ways in which plantain could be prepared. She was fascinated that I would consider eating it raw. She had eaten it boiled, mashed and fried with her Nigerian friends but none of them had ever spoken of eating it raw. She asked the usual questions about whether it would make me sick or wasn’t it designed to be ‘cooked’. Sharing my limited knowledge of foods that could be eaten raw felt good.

Outside my apartment, I asked a stranger to take a photograph of us two laughing ladies. He was in a bad mood and said he would only take one. It was not like the experience of Malaysians who often took 10 photographs when you handed them your camera and of the last five, my hand would be stretched out indicating that I’d like my phone back…please. Rosita and I laughed lots and I knew I had found a kindred spirit. As the angry stranger handed me back my phone, we both hoped he too would meet a stranger that would help to take that cloud away.

 

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.

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