Mbeke Blog

Mbeke Blog

Category: Off we go

Black Expat Stories – Diversity in Identity

The stairs up to Batu caves had felt easier the second time. Hatshepsut had struggled but had never waned. Her fighting spirit and determination were wonderful to watch as we completed the climb. The caves offered a small, close and intimate insight into aspects of Hindu culture.  The candle was purchased, lit and placed alongside the candles of those who had visited before us.  We watched with large curious eyes as babies were handed to ‘holy men’ wrapped in cloth, who spoke special words into their ears and then rubbed a dusty powder onto their foreheads. Babies could be heard as they yelled from different parts of the cave and the closest one to us exercised his or her lungs to celebrate the return to its mothers’ arms.

We moved around embracing the smell of incense within the coolness of the evening which touched the faces of locals and expats alike. It was that funny time of year, that week between the celebration of Christmas and the new year where all days feel like ‘week endings’ and there is no need to check for tomorrow is yet another ‘holiday’.  The ease of our exploration was simply part of an already chilled spiritual experience.  One of the holy men who was arranging the flowers had called us over. We had not paid for a reading but he wanted to see us up close anyhow. We complied and walked to where he sat. He looked at us both, from one to the other with that look that passes the eyes and heads straight for the soul. He didn’t say anything but simply put a fingerprint of the special dust on each of our foreheads with a smile that said we may leave.  Sitting close by on the floor for a few minutes, we let the experience seep in.  It was an opportunity to just be which we both welcomed.

As we descended the cave, we spotted a dark-skinned photographer at ground level. His camera on a tripod and he with the air of an enthusiastic amateur trying to position himself well for the best shots. With her new eyes and my seasoned eyes, it was hard to decipher if he were Asian or African. We wondered if he were African, would he be part of the large Nigerian population who had made Malaysia their home or might he be from the Caribbean?  It had been fun playing this game of identity.  In my years on this land, I had discovered just how complex this could be and,  especially after I was so used to the old tried and tested methods of diversity and labeling in the UK. I knew that my old friend Elanor’s wise words often came to mind for her challenge to me that there were only 7 facial types in the world had begun to make sense now. Physiognomy was very real here as I saw Chinese, Indian and Malay people with the same features as my family and friends. The secret was out and we really were connected.

‘Do you think he’s black ?’, Hatty asked. I looked at her knowing that I now hear that question in different ways. To unpack it or not with her was the question to myself. I decided not to.

‘He may be from Africa’, I surmised due to his beautiful black blue skin. I didn’t want to commit though as I had seen ‘Asian’ men with this skin tone too. His cap hid his eyes but his face and hands were that dark smooth chocolate color.

As we walked closer I decided to approach him. Something said go for it

Hi, what camera are you using? I asked casually and confidently.  As a trained photographer, it was a conversation topic I was able to engage with.

His smile was warm and it included Hatty and myself in its acknowledgment. I heard his accent before his answer.

It’s a canon…

‘Wait! You’re a Jamaica’, I squealed.   It was the sweet Jamaican accent that those born there have.  The one that some of us from the UK,  develop who live there long enough or we try hard to imitate.  The one that reminds you of fresh ackee, breadfruit, June plums and genip, that is blue and clear like the Caribbean sea herself.

Whaaaaaaa!  He smiled. I was wondering as you were coming down the stairs. I wasn’t sure if I should ask though’, he said apologetically.

‘We were wondering too’, I said

We moved from strangers to reacquainting cousins. He was from St Catherine where members of my family had built their homes. Friends too had relocated to St Catherine. I had even lived in St Catherine for a short while.

‘What brings you to Malaysia?’, I enquired

‘ I am teaching in Uzbekistan and just took a vacation’, he answered casually

‘Seriously?’, I asked probably sounding a little too surprised

 ‘Yeah Man!’, he confirmed

 ‘You know I was offered a senior position there and I turned it down when I               saw the -41 degrees on the day that the offer letter was emailed!’

We both laughed

‘Yes, I hear you. When it’s -10, it feels warm’. His reflective look told me that he had seen many freezing cold days.

‘Buoy! Me couldn’t do it. I choose not to take that gig’, I added

We laughed again.  It was the same company who had interviewed and pursued me for many months.  I had been working in Ghana at the time so they had been very unlucky. I may have considered it had I been in the cold UK. The international education employment world is so small.

‘Sister, I have a one-year-old and whilst it hard, the money is decent and I can see it through this year. After that, I am moving on’. He sounded ready to go

I hear that. Me couldn’t do it but I hear that’ I reconfirmed

‘Whats your discipline’ I enquired

‘I teach Maths’, he stated

‘Cool. You can get something almost everywhere. Maths teachers are always in demand’

Yes. Ah, so me see! I just don’t fancy moving too too much. I was in China before’

‘How was that ?’. I asked. I had heard things about China which made it unattractive

‘Pretty cool aside from the overt racism. It never pretty!’, he laughed

‘I hear it can be extreme’ I responded

‘Yes, my sister. Man wid his hand in my chest telling me I must leave his country!  He laughed again.

 I felt sad that my brother had those experiences. We talked some more and Hatty stood listening to these two black expats.

I was sat next to the waterfall and you asked,

Have you traced your ancestors?

I haven’t’ I answered quietly.  I had planned to.

Why not?’.  His directness unnerved me. Ghanaians were not so directI had no answer. I had planned to do it but it just hadn’t happened…yet.

‘You must do it! You must know where you are from’. He was persistent. I didn’t respond.

The reader said I was a medicine woman. Healing people who didn’t want to be healed. From one of the Chinese dynasties in a former life.  Nothing seemed impossible now.  Many had died as they wouldn’t take the medicine I had recommended.

 

By the way, whats your name? he asked. We laughed again as we had bypassed all formalities once we heard and saw the Jamaican connection.

            ‘Its Ifetayo’

            Wow! A real African name! I want to get one too!’.  He was excited.’What does it mean?’

            It’s my middle name and means Love brings happiness.  My first name means ‘Sunday born’.

‘And were you…born on a Sunday?’, he asked cautiously.

 ‘I was’.  I smiled at his excitement and naivety. I remembered those of us who had taken names which did not reflect us. We had just wanted African names and a sense of belonging.

            ‘Whats your name? I asked

            ‘It’s Jonathan but people call me Pete. I should have an African name don’t it?’ he sounded apologetic.

            ‘Of course not. Everybody has to travel their own journey’, I said as his shoulders relaxed. ‘Here is my business card Pete. Keep in touch

            ‘For sure!  I shall tell my wife we met. She’ll be so excited!

We hugged and Hatty and I left. Walking to the station, I thought about us black expats around the world and the daily negotiations we faced in our new spaces.  He was the first Jamaican I had met here in Malaysia.  Everyone can relate to that bond when you meet a fellow citizen from your home or parents hometown. There is the added specialness of being a Jamaican in a world where everyone knows that place.

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 – 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.

The Black Expat Stories – Reflecting on Gina Yeshere’s performance

My niece had sent me a message saying that Gina Yeshere was performing in KL and that I should ‘check her out’. I had not been to any of her shows in the UK and I decided that since I was in KL, I would gather three friends together for a rare Friday night out. I would find out how significant that evening would be for us all.

The supporting act, was a linguist, performing, impersonating and speaking at least six languages in ways that I saw had certainly impressed the locals. His facial expressions were amazingly funny and he certainly set the evening up for Gina to take the stage.

As Gina came out and spotted us near the front row, her first comment was that “every time I come here, there are more and more black people in KL’. We laughed, wondering where she was going to take this. She asked us what we were doing there and under the spotlight, we simply responding that we were Educational consultants. Gina implied for a minute that we could be ‘something else’. It was an uncomfortable space as we were all too aware of the sex trade in which African women were involved in KL. She didn’t say much more and soon moved on to share the jokes of her zero maternal genes supported by stories of current young people in places like London and New York who, were once afraid and fascinated in equal measure by men in trench coats, that would ‘flash ‘their private parts and this was fantastically illustrated with the use of the mike for her swinging tool! Those same young people now would not be captivated thanks to the exposure to sex that the internet had provided them with. They would more than likely refuse to leave the scene without demanding the flashers phone or watch for having been inconvenienced!

Gina’s show touched us. She is an amazing performer but she also stood in front of four black people who all happen to find themselves in Malaysia at that time and she told us, our story. She told us how she had been stopped at every airport in Asia on her tour and often was the only person stopped, in a sea of white and Asian faces. She joked about walking into restaurants and experiencing the cold silence as the chopsticks and chatter was halted so people could stare to either tell her that she was not welcome or to establish if she was, infect…real! Yes, we had all experienced this.

Her story of the pit toilets (made with ceramic) had us almost peeing ourselves and the joy of being from the UK, with accent and passport, could not have been more graciously unpacked as the scene of the immigration supervisor scolding her junior staff for disturbing someone (Gina) who is ‘British’! With her passport in hand, and released from the interrogation, Gina’s accent became more British than ever as she walked away singing ‘God save our precious land’! We with black skins who have travelled know that ‘being British’ has stopped many immigration officers from harassing us even further on hearing our accents. It is a bitter sweet truth.

This was an evening made even more special by Gina’s connecting with three women and one man, two of whom are Nigerian. She captured stories that we don’t often hear with such openness and humour. Her female, Nigerian, British experience resonated with us all.

Many parts of Asia are very beautiful. Breath taking beaches, traditions, spiritual practises and a clear history that connects it to Africa. Some of the orang asli (indigenus Malay ) have the same DNA as people in South Africa which is hardly suprising as you look at their dark skins and wooly hair. Racism is present in Asia and unlike the UK, overt racism is acceptable. Fortunately, I have met a few people who challenge this and who are awoke to the fact that this is a global phenomenon. The Asians in Malaysia have their own hierarchy of where people are positioned and in line with the global idea, white skin definitely takes precedent over dark skin. Overt discrimination is acceptable and perpetuated through negative stereotypes towards black and brown peoples who were born in Malaysia and who find themselves there. The experience in other parts of Asia differ and can be milder or harsher.

Gina talked about what were familiar experiences to us, which we all manage successfully through our own survival strategies and because we had each other. These are strategies we already had coming from the UK and US for even with the laws that protect us against racism in those parts of the world, the fact remains that there are countless examples of how racism continues and is often not challenged even when there is clear evidence to support that it has taken place. Malaysia offers many positive experience. The negative challenging times are also very real. Gina’s show in February 2017 provided us with wonderful anecdotes that continue to sooth the rough edges away and to keep us smiling!

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