by Atifa Othman
There I was, bare feet and naked face, drenched in salty sweat after a 1-hour workout. I was a regular at that gym and I always tried to make it a point to look approachable and friendly. I never had a problem frequenting exercise spaces on my own (apart from the occasional random anxiety about my body), but I did sometimes hope to seek simple acquaintances I could get along with on a “Hi!” “Bye!” level.
After frequenting the gym for three months, I still never managed to attain that with any of the gym members. Most of them would speak to each other in Mandarin. The Asians sporting Westernised accents found more interest in the White expats (who also only spoke to one another). It wasn’t an unfamiliar situation. Even now, after exploring new fitness spaces with various kinds of profiles, it still isn’t.
I used to think that only intellectual conversations were worth opening my mouth for. All the way from secondary school to university, I was exposed mostly to people from middle-income families and above because of the profile of the schools I went to. I made some friends, several acquaintances, and a few enemies, but honestly, most of us shared a common thirst to be intelligent and worthy of a conversation.
However, I learnt that people only find you worthy of deep conversations if they assess you to be of a certain profile.
I am a brown-skinned Malay girl. My accent shifts depending on the people I’m around. I play up its ambiguity (cultivated after watching a variety of movies and shows over the years) whenever I’m around Chinese people or snobby Malay people who think they’re too good for common folk. With Malay-speaking Malays, I speak my language more and use Singlish liberally without restricting myself. They often laugh at how awkward I sound, and I laugh along with them.
Language has a way of interacting with the body to bring out the worst in people who are prejudiced and don’t even know it. There were countless moments when people in the university I went to would leave me out of conversations during seminars while flocking towards all the White and light-skinned Asian people in the room. I used to wonder if it was because of my introversion and social anxiety until I mustered enough courage to start saying “Hi” to students from other divisions who would, to little surprise, stare at me blankly and give me a strange smile. (And then flock to the White and light-skinned Asian people in the room.)
We were at a cafe in Raffles City. There was a quiet, charming bustle in the air. Sal and I don’t usually hang out alone very often, so we were chattering loudly and excitedly. What began as lighthearted talk about cute babies developed into both of us talking passionately about how Malay women are always underestimated in the workplace or assumed to be lazy once we are seen taking a damn break.
We were sharing a buttery almond croissant and I was sipping a butterfly pea drink that was an appealing indigo but didn’t have enough taste for my tongue. Once we were done, we stood up to leave.
Behind us, a pair of lean Chinese girls who had been chattering as loud as we were had their eyes fixed on us while we got ready to go.
“Finally,” one of them scoffed in the fake American accent a lot of wealthier Chinese Singaporeans like to sport. “They’re leaving.”
I don’t think Sal heard them. I didn’t want to bring it up either, because I had enjoyed that short time we spent together alone. I remember wondering if I should have spoken less Malay. But I realised that when you and your friends are excited, you shouldn’t have to think about controlling your volume in a space where noise is all around. On that day, it became ingrained in me that even being socially accepted enough to chatter in excitement can be a privilege.
Sometimes, if people hear me speak a mixture of Malay and Singlish the first time they meet me, I predictably receive shifty eyes and get spoken over whenever I try to contribute to “intellectual conversations” until I manage to correct them on a linguistic mistake they made, or call them out on an opinion I find problematic in a way that destroys their idea of what the capacity of my brain is. It used to make me feel so proud to easily shift between different modes of speaking, to alternate between the organic vernacular and the contrived formal, to gloss over the natural accent of my ethnicity and show off that I can sound like a snooty and proper English-speaking person if I want to. I had a lot of pride thinking of how the world saw me whenever I did that: Here is a dark-skinned Malay girl who can talk intellectually, and isn’t like the others. Here is the rare exception to the norm.
But I hate it now.
I began to disgust myself whenever I had to switch my modes of speaking. It sickens me whenever I have to conceal my identity by sounding like I possess a certain class and level of education. It sickens me that speaking a certain way makes others view me as more worthy of intellectual conversations because it somehow cancels out the starkness of my brown skin and dark features. A colour problematically associated with failure, leisure, lack of complexity, and traditionalism by the majority.
During the Singapore Writers Festival, in a panel about language and the body, South African writer Kagiso Lesego Molope said she dresses to the nines just to go out and buy bread. She was sick of being followed around in supermarkets and shops in Canada, to the point that she herself questioned whether she accidentally stole something. Of course, even dressing up did nothing to solve the problem of racist assumptions and profiling. This became so common that she eventually stopped going out to shop, and did most of her shopping online. What she said felt familiar to me. I have had one too many experiences of being tailed by a Chinese shop assistant, even if I was holding a jarringly full bucket of things that would be impossible to sneak out of the shop. Even if I was dressed to the nines.
I had on my favourite red lipstick that I only wear when I feel like dressing up. I had been waiting to buy a new phone case for a long time. Bugis Street was heavily crowded that day. I chanced upon a small booth with several phone cases that stood out to me. Immediately, I walked towards it.
A Chinese salesgirl appeared by my side out of nowhere. I noticed the harshness of her stare before that of her voice cut the silence between us.
“Yes?” she spat.
Instinctively, I retracted my hand from the phone case I was holding.
Still trying to be patient, I asked, “Do you have Google Pixel 2XL phone cases?”
“Huh? No, don’t have,” she quickly replied and continued to stand beside me and stare.
I was tempted to be sarcastic about her exceptional service like I had done before to similar salespeople in the past. But I was tired.
Even when people like me do not speak, we are assessed. To the prejudiced individual, our silence is as dangerous as our voices. And if it is not dangerous, then it’s unnecessary. Us creating an image that pleads for society to integrate us into a presentable, educated norm cannot erase the classist, racist mentalities that are so pervasive yet insidious in our society. I used to seek only intellectual conversations, but I now find them a chore and a bore. It sometimes ends up just becoming a game of who sounds smarter than whom anyway.
It took me years of having my voice undermined to understand that the knowledge you gain and the lessons you learn from people are not defined by how eloquent or educated they are. Human connection is sometimes the most genuine when you can talk about the most mindless things. Honestly, the desire to only have intellectual conversations is, at times, a convenient excuse for a discriminatory social circle anyway.
My mother robustly walked around the Louis Vuitton racks of Galeries Lafayette in Paris. The wide sleeves of her jubah circled the air with every step that she took. Like any street-smart auntie, she immediately noticed a foreign sign that mainly said: “20%”
Of course, she approached the nearest salesperson to enquire what the sign meant, as the noticeably smaller words were in French.
“This one is 20% discount?” she asked timidly, in a soft voice completely different from the confident, commanding one she uses around her family.
A pause, and a blue-eyed glare.
“For French people only,” replied the salesperson curtly.
I once longed to be confident enough to wear slippers and the most comfortable, casual outfit I could think of, and stroll along a high-class place like Orchard Road without feeling all eyes on me in judgment. I thought I could somehow do that by losing weight to look more brown Lana Del Rey-esque and by magically becoming a less nervous person. Perhaps bringing out more cheekbones with a contour stick and shimmery highlighter would somehow make me have more presence in any space. Or maybe my shoes were the problem. Perhaps I needed a certain height of heels to have the power to simpy walk without people wondering why I should exist in a bougie area.
But scrap that. If I cannot be regarded equal by another human being as my natural self, I don’t see why it’s me who has to change. If I were to appear before someone with my naked face and bare feet and have my existence be seen as an annoyance or a threat, then my silence, my body and my voice are not the problem.
Atifa is how she likes her coffee—severely caffeinated. She is so proud of this statement that she lifted it from her Instagram bio. Her works have been published in TAYO literary magazine and Perempuan: Muslim Women Speak Out.
Illustration by Ishibashi Chiharu