We cut our poems out of air

Today’s post is a prompt from Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation JournalReflect on the first time you became aware of race — either yours or someone else’s. What meaning did you make of it then? How has that meaning evolved?

As Malaysians, or my closest circle, are trying to unlearn and doing better on disposing of our entrenched racism, colourism, and antiblackness in our society, our government had gone and imposed a ‘no foreigners allowed‘ rule for congregational and Friday prayers. In another word, the government went ahead and made themselves the authority of the house of God, whoever you worship. Furthermore, we all know what ‘no foreigners’ meant. It always meant no black and brown lowly paid foreigners — white foreigners, however, by the privilege of their skin colour, are always allowed wherever they want to tread. There are not enough words and mental space to describe how shitty this whole thing is, and how fuming those of us who had been trying to dismantle racism in our very own community and the system as a whole.

I don’t quite remember how I first became aware of race, but in doing so I remember my first best friend, Uma. I wouldn’t be lying that when I first became friends with Uma 23 years ago, race hadn’t come into mind. I am a Malay — which automatically made me a Muslim as preconditioned in the constitution in Malaysia — one of the most privileged majorities in the country, and Uma is of Indian Tamil descent, forming the third largest group in the country after the Chinese. She had a voice so modulated sometimes I wondered if she had trained herself to speak without hurting people but still getting her point across. And I guess that was how Uma was, she often spoke to you so softly and so pointed but when you went home, it’d hit you that you had accidentally done something wrong. We would split the money to buy the magazine Smash Hits! although she didn’t quite approve of my obsession at the time with Westlife’s Shane Filan. She was more of a Keanu Reeves person, and would never fail to make me watch Little Buddha every time I dropped by her house. Her mum would always use a different set of utensils — which I learned that they bought new ones specifically for us out of respect for our halal diet — every time my family and I dropped by for lunch or dinner. I never liked lentil anything, but her mum made the best lentil soup so creamy that matched her honeyed voice. Her dad, a TNB officer, had a small library of hardbound books kept in a cupboard with glass doors — the kind of books that old libraries often had — and he let me borrow his few copies on Greek mythology. Whenever my dad came to pay her dad a visit (with me in tow), I loved to snoop in their conversations about the differences of how the two corporations (my father was in Telekom Malaysia) had sustained their lives, or any random chats about raising daughters (it was always very tough!).

I wouldn’t be lying that being friends with Uma, race hadn’t come into mind. But to me and her it wasn’t a big deal, although we often heard from the grapevine of how people would often make fun of our ‘colour’ differences. Even teachers did so. I regretted not doing much about it, although I remember one time I was fuming and threw a tantrum in a class, but the whole class made fun of me because all of a sudden I was this angry girl against the world — the world that had normalised making fun of skin colour differences and reducing our friendship to just so. I was also made fun of because I spoke mostly in English with her, an idea so radical in a suburban secondary school in the northern part of peninsula Malaysia at the time, although to be honest I only spoke with her because I wanted to practice my English. She lent me her Enid Blyton books, wrote me notes and letters, printed me poems from the Internet, and some articles about The X-Files (another obsession of mine at the time). We were too young and uninformed to talk about the idea of affirmative action — an idea I was neither into nor disapprove at the time, particularly for my privilege as a Malay and an only child — especially on our moving forward plan after school, but I did remember she was fretting about which universities would accept her. I unknowingly said everyone would accept her because she was amazing, but she went quiet.

When I was transferred to another class towards the end of the secondary school year, Uma and I grew apart. We did, however, kept in touch through texts all throughout the years. She got into a car accident in 2008 on her journey home from Kelantan where she was a teacher, and did not survive.

Looking back, if Uma was still around, I would think that we both would have the kind of real conversations I keep having with my other friends these days — on allyship, on activism, questions on gender and equality, even some hard to explore conversations such as reframing our anger or dejection, because that was exactly the kind of conversations we had so many years ago. When she grew quiet after the conversation about the university, I was reminded that was why she was always striving to be ahead of everybody else. She knew that hard work alone could not easily let her into universities or any institutions like us Malays — she must also be calm and composed, tolerated the bullshit everyone threw at her (including from the teachers), and endured casual and intended remarks about the colour of her skin and her race. Maybe this was also why when she loved, her love was so whole and generous and unconstrained, she never hesitated to have them immortalised in printed poems and handwritten notes and letters, because her energy and her light had to be channelled somewhere. She channelled it to me.

I am thankful for the lessons your presence had brought into my life, the fears and hopes you shared with me, and the light you shone upon me. Rest in peace, Uma.

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