Are we integrating, like, really?

This post was originally published in Goethe Institut CityScape Blog

I wrote this post to answer to the theme of  “Us and Them – How does my city integrate?” Most cities are a patchwork of cultures. Some of those cultural groups may live peacefully side by side or with each other, others perceive tensions. Income and education, rights and privileges – are issues that determine the ongoing debate about what multicultural cities may constitute.

************

“I’m on my way!”

Flustered? Cecilia? Never. But that evening, she was. I ended the call with a phrase most often heard in dramas and drove like a madwoman. She was comforting Anita when I arrived at the latter’s apartment. Eyes swollen and red, she looked like she had started weeping long before Cecilia got there. On the floor were several pictures of a smiling couple. The prints were as crumpled and tear-stained as our youngest friend, the 25-year old ‘baby’ among the three of us. “Derek?” I asked. Cecilia nodded but mouthed “no details yet,” as I sat and smoothed out the prints. Derek’s dark good looks from his South Asian ancestors complemented Anita’s naturally-tanned features. Such bitter tears, only a month after the happy pictures were taken.

Chimes. I opened the door to the man himself. If looks could kill, Derek would’ve died twice from Cecilia’s glare. “What happened?” I asked him.

“We were at a wedding dinner, and-” he began.

“Your friends belittled me!” Anita cut in. “They were joking with each other about how mediocre students like me were given scholarships to study overseas because it’s our birthright. That being born a Malay helped me get my post at the bank when there were better candidates who were more deserving. They congratulated me on being fortunate to benefit from so many special priveleges!” I hadn’t known what italics sounded like but I could hear them loud and clear that evening.

Her issue sounded minor to me, though. Of course these ‘them’ vs. ‘us’ arguments would surface once in a while as different groups integrate into one society. Doesn’t anyone read The Nutgraph’s Found in Malaysia? There’s a bigger number of us who desire and have put in effort towards authentic harmony, surely. “And that’s why you’re howling your eyeballs out?” I turned to her.

“No,” Anita answered me. “I’m sad because he kept quiet.” The index finger pointing at Derek was steady, but her voice was not. Cecilia directed a fresh ‘turn-you-into-stone’ glare at him.

Anita faced Derek. “Why didn’t you say something?”

“They’re my best friends, Anita. What’s the purpose of building things into a big debate?” No answer.

“Besides, they weren’t entirely wrong,” Derek continued. “Even in our set, there were those who couldn’t get a place in public universities to pursue their first choice of studies. Some of our friends still have to make way for people from your race to move ahead of them at work, regardless of poor performance!”

By the time he realised what he had said, it was too late.

“MY race? We connected because of our shared values and now you say these words ‘MY race’?” I never knew Anita’s voice could be so shrill- “Get out,” -or so emotionless. “Go.”

Derek’s gaze fell on Cecilia and me. I hoped he understood the ‘we will sort this out but for now you’d better go’ expression on our faces. Anita didn’t look up as he left.

Cecilia sprang into action. “You’re never mediocre! You’re perfectly capable of standing up for yourself, why did you let them attack you?” Cecilia’s words shot out like bullets. “I thought he’d be the gentleman and make them stop.” Anita answered in a small voice. “I didn’t realize he feels the same way.” She looked up at me. “When are we going to learn to focus on what we all have in common? What’s stopping us from getting along?” Anita’s voice shook as Cecilia enveloped her in a hug.

“Don’t ask us, we don’t get along with anyone.” I attempted a joke.

My joke fell flat. Cecilia’s stern look could have turned me into stone.

******

You can find the published post and comments to it here, on the Goethe CityScapes Blog.

Additional information:

Demographics of Malaysia

The Nut Graph‘s Found in Malaysia, the book:  Compilation of interviews with prominent Malaysians of different lineage on what their Malaysian identity means.

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