MY time in Kuching has presented me with different experiences of culture shock that have always been interesting to talk about.In one of my earlier articles, I wrote about some locals having a tendency to stare, which was a culture shock for me, and how it posed some serious repercussions if one is not aware of the true meaning behind it.
Today, I have another experience that I want to share. I experienced it during my first days in Kuching and I have continued to experience it since.
When I first came to Kuching, I had to buy some things and one of them was an electronic device. I went to a shopping mall in the hope of finding this electronic gadget. I was new in town and already dealing with the constant stares.
The first stall I went to was run by women. Upon seeing me, all of them ran away to the back of the shop, leaving me to grace the counter all by myself. I was shocked and at the same time confused by what just happened.
My mind was not quick enough to grasp the reality of it all. However, when the wave of shock had passed, and by this time I had already left the stall for another one, I started probing myself with endless questions.
The next stall I patronised had a male at the counter who served me with a smile, in a split of a second making me forget the previous encounter. I was not quick to make judgements then since I was still new to this place.
However, over a period of time that I have been in Kuching, the tendency of shopkeepers running away whenever I approach the counter has intermittently repeated itself, always leaving a sour taste in my mouth.
Over the period of this experience I have come to notice certain ‘patterns’ in this experience. First of all, in all the occasions of this tendency, it has been only women that seem to run marathons upon seeing me.
Males, on the other hand, have seemed to be too lazy to run away, for reasons I do not know.
Since this was such a mind-boggling experience, I had to ask a few people if they had encountered the same treatment. I asked some of my friends from Africa and they told me that they had shared the same experience.
However, my Malaysian friends have never experienced anything similar to this.
The picture started to become clearer from this point. Running away was only experienced by non-Malaysians; at least that’s what I concluded.
I never extended the same inquiry to other foreigners apart from Africans. Though a social scientist might question the credibility of my results due to the sample used, I believe there is still much to be said about this simple research.
When this experience happened to me, a series of questions swirled through my mind. Was I too scary or my presentation too intimidating that these ladies would find refuge at the back of the stall, leaving me stranded in front of the counter?
Were they scared that I might extend a painful experience in their lives and thus ran away when they saw me?
When I was swimming in the ocean of uncertainty, a thought formed. Perhaps, they were too afraid that they could not understand me due to the language barrier, so they had to vanish in my presence.
I never knew; I believe my readers would offer me further insight into this behaviour.
When I asked friends to interpret their approach to the whole experience, they told me they thought it was due to racism.
When I questioned why their minds came to that conclusion, they told me they could not think of any other reason as to why someone might run away upon seeing them. To them, the experience screamed of “we don’t like you”.
However, I believe this experience might or mightn’t be in the name of racism. I think there is more to be analysed and said about this experience. I might say there is an element of fear.
Just a suggestion, I think running is not a solution, since what it does is to exacerbate the situation since one party gets to view it as propagation of racism and discrimination from the other party.
Speaking from an African perspective, it would be better to just stand there and see if you can understand the request. If you cannot, then you can just say “I cannot understand you” and it will be much better than running away.
I think over time, I have gotten used to this experience. When I encounter a running away situation, it doesn’t bother me any more. I would say it’s one of those things.
However, I feel it is always a problem for new students, who encounter this situation for the first time. With lack of direction, one might end up connecting this to another experience of racial discrimination.
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