A Malaysian mamak stall

Imagine...

22nd May 2009

Michelle Mayes, who teaches English in Kuala Lumpur, reflects on how language defines us.

I was just about to enter the changing cubicle when I realised that it wasn’t empty after all. A young Indian Malaysian girl was preoccupied with kissing her reflection in the mirror. I didn’t want to intrude on her private moment of self-exploration, and expected her to run off red-faced.

She did go… but soon reappeared as I waited in the checkout queue, and with no trace of shame.

“Auntie, what you do in Malaysia? How long you here? Where is Uncle? How many babies?” Her questions poured forth. Two responses came to me simultaneously: 1] What presumption! Why should she call me ‘auntie’ and assume my private life is her affair? 2] Let’s have some fun. And so I gave her crazy answers, trying to see which one would finally end the interrogation. Only my arrival at the front of the queue brought it to a conclusion. She must’ve known already that we white women are funny creatures, and had anticipated that nothing I said would make sense.

When we sallehs and putehs arrive here in Kuala Lumpur, it’s usually with a mixture of curiosity, indulgence and indignation that we respond to being spoken to as part of an extended family. There was definitely no real sense of recognition or identification for me with the terms ‘auntie’ and ‘sister’, and the thinking behind them. I consciously ate daily at the same mamak stall for weeks in order to be recognised as a local, yet when the owner came over to chat and addressed me as ‘sister’, I freaked. I was honoured and delighted, but incapable of calling him ‘brother’ in return. I wanted to, but something kept stopping me. I can handle abang and adik but when you translate the words into my own language, it’s just too awkward.

The first time I actually managed to call someone ‘brother’ still sticks in my mind. The young Indian who works in our corner shop had called me ‘auntie’ when we met, and I remember feeling insulted. “Do I look that old?” I thought. Next time, however, he called me ‘sister’. I was pleased he thought I looked younger, and commented on my change of name. He was remarkably persistent in his use of my newly-acquired status; one evening I overcome my inhibitions and called him ‘brother’ in return.

This sets the scene for one of my ‘tales from the English classroom’. My course book introduces the second conditional tense with a song by John Lennon: Imagine. I’d been primed by colleagues that some students might find the lyrics offensive. Certain lines, including the suggestion ‘Imagine… no religion,’ can rile the faithful of a variety of creeds.

Ready for this potential stumbling-block, I initiated a discussion about some of the issues that are raised in the song, such as ‘country’, ‘possessions’, ‘dreamer’ and ‘living for today’. There was great debate about the value or inherent danger in these concepts, and my students became not only forthright but eloquent too, trying to win others over to their opinion.

Next in the lesson plan was ‘gap fill listening’, for students to analyse the complete lyrics. To my immense surprise, the mood changed from disagreement to contentment. People from diverse backgrounds analysed the words – but understood the message and began to hum along. Seizing the opportunity, I held an impromptu karaoke session, with tables competing against each other for the best rendition. Iranians and Iraqis together, plus Syrians, Yemenis and the one Korean sang in a spirit of hope.

A woman whose father had been kidnapped and held to ransom for being a Christian in Iraq, joined her voice to Muslims and Zoroastrians:

Imagine no possessions / I wonder if you can / No need for greed or hunger / A brotherhood of man / Imagine all the people / Sharing all the world...

Absolutely fantastic. And then I mentioned my Indian friend calling me sister. “Normal,” the Iranians said. “In our country, everyone is brother, sister…” Heads round the class nodded.

I attended an English Catholic school, and have had occasion to call priests ‘Father’ and nuns ‘Sister’, but it was an official identity, never a relationship. How ironic that in leading a lesson that turned out to be about the brotherhood of man rather than the second conditional tense, I should find the language I teach so lacking in the willingness to make this happen. How shameful that I should travel half the globe with qualifications and experience only to find that my language avoids using the words that remind us we all belong to one world.

Feminist readings of literature in English made me aware long ago of the inadequacy of English to deal with gender equality. A quick analysis of the hundred most common words in English will reveal that ‘he’ takes position 11 while ‘she’ is number 46; ‘his’ is in position 18, but ‘her’ doesn’t make it into the top 50. ‘Brother’, ‘sister’, ‘auntie’, ‘uncle’ simply don’t feature. ‘Father’ and ‘mother’ hover between 100 and 300. Somewhere between 300 and 600, you’ll eventually find ‘brother’, and lurking in the dark regions near 1000 is ‘sister’. I wonder if similar statistics are available for Bahasa, Mandarin and Tamil. I know for certain I learnt abang and adik long before I knew a hundred words of Bahasa. However, at the same time, I was mostly being addressed as ‘boss’ in shops, cafes and taxis, and I learnt to understand puteh through frequent exposure.

Whilst I teach English, I would never wish to promote the supremacy of my language, which my students want to learn, by and large, to improve job prospects. The words we speak to each other radically affect the outcome of our interactions. If we want to establish a brotherhood, sisterhood, or family, a language of respect and inclusion most certainly plays a pivotal role. As a native speaker of English in Malaysia, I am finding I have as much to learn as to teach.

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