Monday, July 12, 2010

Race, Class, and Residence in KL (Part 1)

“I hope they do not discriminate against us!” I almost cried out to my husband after speaking on the phone with a real estate agent in Kuala Lumpur for the first time.  She was a Chinese woman.

Before I had the chance to ask more about the condo, she asked a series of questions: “What is your husband’s occupation? And your race? Where are you from?” Black was the first word that came to mind, but I dare not say it. Plus, she really didn’t mean race as we use it in the U.S., I assured myself. She wants to know my nationality. “American,” I responded with confidence.

We had been warned that the color of our skin could make a difference in KL. Our generous host whose condo we currently reside, a Pakistani American, told us to expect racism in Malaysia in more direct forms than what we are accustomed to in the States. He has experienced it as a brown man in KL, my husband should definitely anticipate it as a black man, he promised us.  

I wondered where this racism might come from. From the Malay Muslims who, among black American Muslims, hold the good stereotype as the nicest, most color-blind people in the ummah? Or from Chinese or Indian Malaysians whom I knew very little about?

We also had been warned that black people in Malaysia might be looked upon suspiciously.  It was said that this is because a group of Nigerian immigrants to Malaysia in the mid-90s were known for selling drugs.

Our American friends in KL, a couple of Iraqi and Arab-Indonesian background, reinforced my concern. When they did their apartment search a year ago, several agents directly asked if they were Nigerian.  

Did I have to travel to the other side of the world to face racial profiling on account of my African features, except this time it was not because of the criminal actions of a group of black Americans but black Nigerians?

My connection to Africa always came to the forefront when I traveled abroad. I was accustomed to the question, “But where are you really from?” In Medina a young shop clerk asked where I was from but stole from me the voice to answer.  Immediately he moved his body in to bully me, calling out a series of African countries. In the moment of his harassment, I thought, America, America, America, if only he know. But it would be both futile and hypocritical to correct him. What would I imply: No, I’m not that kind of black; I am a black American.  Without a voice, my American citizenship could not protect me. Instead it was another man who saved me—a stranger who gently moved the ignorant youth away. 

But now, over the phone speaking with KL real estate agents, I could assert my national origin and use it to my advantage, I imagined.  Every agent with whom I spoke, always a Chinese, asked me where I was from.  At some point, I must directly ask them the point of this question. What assumptions do they make when they find out I am American?

A few have been quite direct. One agent told me, “Honestly, this place wouldn’t suit you because it’s where the locals live.“ It is true that Westerners are used to certain amenities that are not available in most Malaysian homes. Even in the expat areas, where I currently reside, people don’t necessarily use a clothes dryer.

When I happened to mention to one agent that I was living in an expat area, she answered, “If you are now living in Mont’ Kiara, the view here will not suit you.  Mont’ Kiara is where middle and upper people live. Here is where medium and low people live.” Trusting her, I crossed out the condo listing.

My thoughts turned to immigrants in the U.S. and how they go about choosing a residence, a topic I explore in my analysis of black and immigrant relations. I anticipated that my status as a “foreigner” in Kuala Lumpur would make me revisit some of the perspectives and points made in my book.

(There I spend a lot of time discussing the way in which choice of residence influences African American and immigrant relations in the American ummah, or Muslim community.  For an idea of this, see an excerpt from my book.)

Monday, July 5, 2010

The Liberated Muslim Wife

And imagine if I didn't have any help. Such was my thought as I escaped from mothering for a quick shower. My two year old is sick with a fever, and the baby also has a cold. But at least I have help with cooking, cleaning, and the laundry.

I love it here in Kuala Lumpur because the idea of a middle-class woman having help managing her household is not a radical one.

And yes, this topic brings out the Islamic feminist in me. Western women think that we are more liberated than women in Muslim societies. But when it comes to women's work, I do not consider it liberating that women have similar work responsibilities as men but also assume the larger part of parenting, cooking, and cleaning. This sentiment relates to a common complaint I've heard from African and Asian immigrant women in the U.S., that is, that "back home we had lots of help."

In KL, the full-time maid functions as a nanny, cook, and cleaner. I won't pretend that this arrangement is perfect. I've heard that sometimes maids are too busy with their nanny duties to complete other tasks. Or they are too busy with cooking that they don't mind the children as they should. Hmm....makes me wonder if expectations for the maid are unrealistic.

My musings have led me to the surprising conclusion that I prefer the term "helper," another way to refer to the maids in KL, because it is this aspect that I find empowering and worth blogging about. I celebrate the awareness that women cannot do it alone. It is the widespread cultural understanding that women need help that I find liberating.

On my first day in KL, I was offered part-time help. Mama Sarina, originally from the Philippines, helps twice a week. My husband's agreeing to pay for this service has partly to do with the fact that it is more affordable here than in the U.S.  But affordability isn't the only issue. It's also an issue of mindset. Many American men imagine that the wife should be able to handle all of the household duties, especially if she stays at home.  

Luckily I have a husband who, even before life in KL, was coming to understand that I needed help even when I was not going outside to work. He would occasionally pay for housekeeping services, or for a part-time nanny 2-4 days out of the month. 

Mama Sarina is more than a helper. She has become family away from home. She calls me Mama so I call her Mama. She spoils Yahya like any grandma would. Yesterday we drove around in our host's SUV with Mama Sarina and her two Filipino friends helping us find a condo to rent. When we stopped by a mosque to pray, my husband and I went in while Mama and the others watched the children.

Before leaving for KL, my mother's dear friend Sister Khayriyyah made a prayerful comment that Allah would bless me with the support I was accustomed to from my mother and aunt in Atlanta. I never imagined that it would come from these kind Filipino women.

Thursday, July 1, 2010

The Beauty of the Ummah

"This is what we do for each other in the Ummah." These were Khadijah's gracious words after I thanked her for so generously offering to let us stay in her condo in Kuala Lumpur for our first two months. I refer to her and her husband Sulaiman as our hosts. Sulaiman is a second-generation Pakistani American and Khadijah is a second-generation Filipino American convert.

Islam’s ability to bring together people of diverse backgrounds who might not ordinarily interact, I find very compelling, so much so that I wrote a book about it (smile). What's awesome is that Khadijah and I have yet to meet in person. A mutual friend in the US introduced us after hearing that I was traveling to Malaysia. Khadijah’s and Sulaiman’s kindness and trust to let us stay in their condo while they visit the US demonstrate the beauty of sisterhood and brotherhood in the Ummah (Muslim community).

When we first drove up to the condo building, it felt as if we were at a resort. We are very happy with our accommodations, and we love the view of the swimming pool and luscious landscape.  May Khadijah, Sulaiman, and their family always be blessed with the most beautiful accommodations in this life and the next.