Being The Other: A White Kiwi’s Experience

So much energy! Brisbane’s Student Strike For Climate, March 15th, 2019

It was 2.30pm last Friday 15th, I was famished, but reveling after watching
scores of passionate Brisbane school students carrying bold signs:
“This Generation Will Not Wait” and bellowing spirited chants:
“What do we want? Climate justice!”, in the global school strike for
climate. My mood quickly changed: I turned to my phone and I received a message from a friend in my native Aotearoa New Zealand: “Shootings at Christchurch mosques. We are home safe. Am in shock 😦“. As a kiwi expat, it’s not a message you expect to receive from my usually peaceful homeland. Along with many others, I spent the next few days in dismay, transfixed on the scenes and listening to anecdotes of what had unfolded in Christchurch during New Zealand’s ‘darkest day’. Shakespeare’s “Beware the ides of March” never seemed so relevant.

And then, over the past week, I proceeded to read countless articles and social media posts, written by both Muslims and others in both New Zealand and Australia, with many expressing a lack of surprise at the heinous incident in Christchurch last Friday. A rising minority in New Zealand, 1.2% of the population identified as Muslim in the 2013 census, with numbers increasing by 28% from 2006. Comparatively, some 48% identify as some form of Christian. Concurrently, anti-Muslim sentiment appears to be rising, perhaps associated with the global expansion of radical Islamic terrorism in recent years. Many Muslims describe (not the first time) of facing daily abuse and discrimination, even death threats. Muslims have recounted what it’s like to be perpetually seen as ‘the other’, to be looked down upon, misunderstood and victimized.

Waleed Aly of Australian TV’s “The Project” speaking about Muslim experience.

As a white middle-class Christian kiwi, my childhood in lower North Island towns and cities, contrasted these experiences of injustice. Here, I explicitly do not want to diminish or belittle prejudice that Muslims are confronted with, or drown out their voices. Instead, I would like to present my experiences of being ‘the other’ and what I’ve learnt from these. Anyone who has travelled to countries with cultures, languages and religions different to their own will have had some experience with being ‘the other’. However, it is through living for periods of time in other countries (Australia, Canada, Scotland and Thailand), where I’ve encountered being different from the majority. Minor experiences have ranged from being mocked for my accent or the bizarre words I use (what a crazy language English is) in Australia and Scotland; derided in Scotland as coming from ‘the colonies’ (somehow we’ve never quite shaken our colonial status); to offending Canadian’s who didn’t understand my kiwi sense of humour. These relatively minor happenings often temporarily made me feel angry, hurt or misunderstood.

Three languages and cultures in one room: The Marist Asia Foundation ‘Green Team’

However, my real lessons came from living in Thailand for 15 months. As a predominantly Buddhist country, Thailand’s cultural and religious traditions starkly contrasted my own. On top of this, Thai language has absolutely no similarity to English: it is tonal with a foreign script. Typical images of Thailand may include glistening azure seas viewed from a luxurious beachside resort; however Ranong, a border town with Myanmar in southern Thailand is far from this touristy idyllic bliss. Off-the-beaten track, you’ll sometimes find the odd tourist passing through Ranong en route to some nearby islands or southern Myanmar. In fact, during the 8-month long rainy season, white people, or ‘Farang’ as we are called, are so
scarce that I would actually stop and stare if I saw another on the street.

Wat Tham Suea (The Tiger Cave Temple) , Krabi: statues of Buddha at the top of hills are commonplace

First, I must say that the majority of Thai people I met were lovely, albeit
generally shy and reserved. As a Farang in Thailand, I definitely felt like
‘the other’. Being blonde and fair skinned, people often stared at me in the
street; they talked about me on the bus (“…… Farang…… …… Farang…..”);
they rudely pushed in front of me at checkout lines at 7-Eleven; I often had to pay higher prices than locals or was sometimes not served at food outlets (I attributed this predominantly to shyness or embarrassment at not being able speak English – even though I could speak enough Thai to order food).

The language barrier was continually frustrating: I couldn’t express my gratitude or ask questions; and was embarrassing when Thais would repeat something several times, getting progressively louder when I didn’t understand (frustrating for both parties I’ll concede). Then there was the time when I was biking home from Saturday morning yoga, my yoga mat in my bike basket, when a truck piled high with school students all began to point and laugh at me. Or the day when I attempted to resolve a perceived problem at school and inadvertently offended some colleagues, as I had apparently acted like a ‘manager’ (in my culture I have been empowered to take initiative; Thai culture is hierarchical and leadership often comes from the top). Nonetheless, I was never persecuted for my religion, in fact inter-religious sharing and respect was high.

Attending a Chinese Buddhist temple during the Vegetarian Festival

The majority of these experiences, when viewed in isolation, seem minuscule, laughable even. But overall, they contributed to an overwhelming feeling of always being ‘the other’, so much that when a friend visited we named ourselves ‘The Stupid White Girls’, after we continually mistakenly did things that were contrary to local custom. No disrespect intended. Not matter how much Thai language I spoke, how much I tried to dress appropriately or how many times I attended Buddhist and Muslim festivals, with my blonde hair and white skin boldly proclaiming my ‘otherness’, I would always be ‘Farang’. I often felt misunderstood and had a perpetual lingering fear of offending people.

Notwithstanding, I recognise that my experiences do not equate with anti-Islamic sentiment that many Muslims face in Western countries such as New Zealand or Australia. There are however, useful lessons to learn from being ‘the other’. How can we break down perceived barriers between different cultures, religions and ideologies? How can we foster understanding and respect of these differences?

A few words go a long way. Making friends with at my favourite roti restaurant.

In my experience, language is incredibly important, as I became equipped with a fairly limited repertoire of words, I could convey my thanks, be respectful and polite. This helped me build little friendships with locals often only evident through smiles and waves: the Muslim lady from whom I would buy samoas and chickpeas, the lady who made the best roti snacks, and the exuberant taxi driver stationed on the corner near school who would madly wave at me as I cycled past. Sharing food with my Thai and Burmese colleagues also helped to cultivate cultural appreciation; through daily lunches, going to local festivals and cooking pizza (Farang are experts at making pizza – didn’t you know?) for locals. Through attending Buddhist and Islamic religious events, sometimes even visiting student’s homes and seeing shrines and other religious practices, I learnt about these religions and the local culture. Gaining detailed information was often futile with given the language limitations, however, simply being there gave me cultural insights and (I think) developed mutual respect.

So where to from here? The last week has shown an outpouring of compassion from New Zealanders towards the victims of the mosque massacres. This empathy needs to translate into respect, openness to learning about other cultures and religions and a willingness to accept differences within society. May this extend to Muslims and all those (religious and non-religious alike) who aim to live peaceful, loving and harmonious lives. Sending thoughts and prayers to all those New Zealand and elsewhere in the world who are grieving and will continue to grieve into the future. Kia kaha Aotearoa. Arohanui.

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