Is it so strange that I speak the language of the country I live in?

In English speaking-countries, we assume that everyone we meet – either visitors or inhabitants – will speak English. Well, some English anyway. And we (with a touch of arrogance) tend to be a bit miffed if they don’t.

Here, the reverse is in force. Everyone thinks that someone not born here will NOT speak the Malaysian language – and they get really, really surprised when they do. And to someone like me who has lived here on and off since 1970, that can get a bit wearing, especially as my “otherness” is loudly declared by my skin colour.

Yes, I do speak the language. Maybe not as well as I should – I wouldn’t like to give a formal speech in it – but I can chat about most everyday things*.

Today, while shopping in a K.L. shopping complex, I selected some clothes and told the young girl sales assistant that I wanted to try them on. The following conversation ensued (in Malaysian).

Sales assistant: Oh! You speak Malay!!
Me: Yeah, that’s right.
S.A.: Where are you from?
Me: Selangor state. [Not quite the answer she was expecting.]
S.A.: Oh, you live here. For how long?
Me: Since before you were born. [She does a double take as she absorbs the implication – I’ve been speaking the language longer than she has. She hands me on to the fitting room sales girls – there are two of them, one of whom is an ethnic Indian – and tells me to try the clothes on. I disappear into the fitting room. the following conversation takes place – right outside the room, between the three of them].
S.A.2: You spoke to her in Malay. She won’t understand.
S.A.1: She speaks Malay!
S.A2: No, of course she doesn’t. How can she understand? She’s a white woman!
S.A.1: She lives here.
S.A.2: So? That doesn’t mean she understood you.
S.A.1: She does so too! [raising her voice] Madam, how many years have you lived here?
Me: What’s the matter – don’t they believe you?
S.A. 2&3: [accompanied by fits of giggles]. Oh! She understood!
S.A.3: Do you think she speaks Tamil too?

At that stage I opted out.

The first part of that conversation was repeated on 3 or 4 separate occasions today, so you can understand that I do get tired of it. In fact, if I can, I prefer to speak English for this very reason, and will only revert to Malaysian when I have trouble making myself understood. Or when I want to embarrass someone for referring to me as a Mat Salleh, thinking I won’t understand, which also happens with monotonous regularity. (That’s the local expression meaning a white person, akin to any rather impolite term used in English to describe an ethnic group.)

Funnily enough, when I first came here I was constantly called “Mem” – the term used to address a white woman (akin to the Indian Mem Sahib), and I was even more uncomfortable with that, as it smacked of all the things wrong with imperialism. Frankly, I’d rather be called a Mat Salleh.
*(Funnily enough if I get angry, my command of any language except English flies out the window).


Is it so strange that I speak the language of the country I live in? — 12 Comments

  1. About the getting angry bit … most of the Malaysians I’ve met (of whatever ethnic origin) seem to swear in English anyway. πŸ˜€

    When you were in Europe, did people show much surprise when you spoke to them in French or German?

  2. Maybe that’s because a lot of other languages don’t have swearwords like the English tongue does.

    And yes, it is strange Glenda, so many people don’t bother to learn the language of the country in which they reside. I bet you the majority of the millions of English who now reside in Spain don’t speak a word of Spanish. The British (of which I am one) have been some of the worst at not learning languages, they expect everyone to speak English and have done so for many, many years.

  3. Ha! I just flashed back to A Town Like Alice, when everyone is so surprised that Jean speaks Malay.

    On another note, my copy of Song of the Shiver Barrens arrived from the U.K. (I’m in the U.S.) So I now have Shadow and Song both to read.

    I haven’t been able to find a copy of Havenstar for under $50-80. I would even by it in German, even though I would struggle mightily to be able to read it that way, but even the German edition is near-impossible to get!

    I hope to see more of your books published in the U.S. πŸ˜‰

  4. Is there more variety in ethnicity and/or nationality in the English-speaking countries you’re thinking of, than in Malaysia? Is white skin (or white skin coupled with knowledge of the language) really that rare? If so, then I understand the surprise–though I also understand your frustration. πŸ˜‰

    The U.S. has (had?) a reputation as a kind of melting pot, so you can’t presume nationality (let alone language knowledge) based on skin color. (Obviously, some idiots do….) I feel in the USA, anyway, one has to presume someone speaks English until proven otherwise–that it’s usually impolite (or downright rude, depending on the situation) to presume someone doesn’t speak English based on something silly like how they look.

    I also feel it’s absurd to live somewhere without speaking the language. Going on a 10ish day vacation in Italy, years ago, I picked up a simpel Berlitz 1 tape + booklet and a separate phrase book. The former was to learn a few veeeeery basic things; the latter was in case I ran into a situation (or my bad memory!) I didn’t know words for. Am I weird?

  5. Not at all Kendall, I do the same thing. Having once been stuck in a country where I didn’t speak the language (I eventually found someone who spoke French which helped) I vowed never to go to a country without some knowledge of the language. It is generally appreciated by the people of the country as well.

  6. Jo, thank you for the info re: Amazon UK. Alas, there are only two copies under 20 pounds; one is “acceptable” but “ex-library” (and in my experience as a librarian, most paperbacks don’t stay “acceptable”) and the other does not offer international delivery, apparently.

    But I feel confident I will get my hands on a copy! I just recently found a 1945 book I’d been searching for online for over 10 years. When it comes to find books, I can be patient. πŸ˜‰

  7. I didn’t make it clear — I really shouldn’t post today at all! I meant that most paperbacks that have been a library copy don’t hold together well. Paperbacks in general do fine, of course. πŸ˜‰

  8. Hrugaar – no, unsurprised. Amused maybe, at my atrocious language skills. Guess they expect someone to be a local until such time as they open their mouths.

    Amy – I had forgotten that from A Town Like Alice. Apropos of nothing, did you know one scene in the film aroused a lot of ire here, when the heroine’s Malay “father” kissed her goodbye. It was not something a Malay man in those circumstances would ever have done! It felt awfully “wrong” in context, even to me, and a Muslim man in those days would never have done it.

    I also am longing to see my books back in publication in the US too. but, like you – I am patient. If I can’t find a publisher to re-issue Havenstar, I will organise a PoD publication one day. I can’t even offer to send you a copy, because I only have 2 of my own!

    At Swancon in March someone came up to me at the booksigning with a pristine copy that had a cover somehow laminated – a library copy that had been released into the wild. They paid a couple of dollars and couldn’t believe their luck!

    Kendall, I think people here assume that all white people are tourists, but in actual fact there are thousands of residents working or living here like me who speak the language to some degree or another.

  9. Heh, reminds me of how I’ve met or spoken to a number of Caucasians in Malaysia before, and usually the first question I ask is “where are you from?” especially if they have a faint/indistinct accent. That is, until one of them replied “I’ve lived here all my life.”

    Although, on a related note, I hate it when foreigners get all surprised when they hear that English is my first language, and that I read English novels extensively. I guess neither side is guilt-free when it comes to making assumptions.

    Oh and swearing in English is much more satisfying. I mean, imagine saying ‘lubang buntut’ in lieu of ‘a$$hole’ (pardon the language), or some kind of equivalent to the widely used four letter f-word that indicates intercourse. It loses its… luster, somehow.

  10. Lol, Hisham. You have no idea how many times I hear that: “Where are you from?” question! I usually answer “Selangor”!

    And I absolutely agree with you on the swearing…

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