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).