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I Didn’t Know I Wasn’t Asian

There is something exemplary in employee recruitment process in the UK. In the application form, it is required that a candidate complete a section, titled ‘Equal Opportunity’, where one can disclose information related to gender and ethnicity. This practice also applies to many activities of the society, e.g. education and health care. Government and officials tally up the numbers and use statistics to analyse whether people are being treated equally. Although it is rather debatable whether the information provided would bring equality — it might as well bring the opposite –, this is indeed a good attempt. If you are interested, you can check this link out; it tells you more about the Equality Act.

That is about as good as it gets because the form details are rather confusing and even misleading. I was baffled when I was first introduced to the form. It was when I applied to Imperial College in early 2009. Never in my life have I come across a form where I could choose to fill in a field but not to state the information asked. I was given a list of options for ‘Ethnicity’, which looked like the one below.

Note: The list is different in Scotland and Nothern Ireland. The one above is only for England and Wales. You can read this Wikipedia article about Classification of Ethnicity in the UK.

I’m definitely not White, or Mixed, or Black,” I said to myself.

I really wanted to choose an option and it must not be ‘Not Stated‘. I skimmed through the list and wondered why ‘Chinese‘ was as an exclusive ethnicity and not categorised under ‘Asian‘. I thought it was the Asian of Asians. I watched so many English-language movies and TV shows and the term ‘Asian‘ was always used to refer to an Oriental-looking person, who annoyingly enough was always assumed to be Chinese and Chinese-speaking.

They are everywhere and constitute nearly 20% of the world population. Maybe that’s why Chinese should be an exclusive entity,” I thought while I was still figuring what to put.

Well, I’m Indonesian and Indonesia is part of Asia so I must be Asian,” I added.

So I chose ‘Any other Asian background.’ Little did I know that I was not Asian, at least not in this context according to public convention in this country.

Days and months went by and I always chose the same option, with confident, knowing that it would be the way the society would think of me. In January 2011, a shameful event made a headline, two Asians were caught grooming White girls.

It was such a disgrace and everybody disapproved of it. The headline caused massive public condemnation. It got complicated as it also triggered something else, not merely due to the criminal nature of the event, but also a racial issue that was assumed, by some, to be potentially associated. John Straw, former home secretary, a Blackburn MP, jumped in and made racially stereotyping comments and correlated the crime to the origin and the religion of the convicts. But hey, let’s not dwell on this.

It’s not that I wanted to belittle the severity of the crime but I was rather annoyed with the excessive use of the term ‘Asian‘ in the news. The origin of the convicts was quite specific yet ‘Asian‘ was instead used. It was not geographically incorrect but referring to them as ‘Asians‘ could be leading to misconception.

“A hidden world in which Asian men “groom” young white girls for sex has been exposed with the jailing yesterday of two men for child-abuse offences.” – The Times

“However, speaking on the BBC’s Newsnight programme after the case, Mr Straw said vulnerable white girls were at risk of being targeted by some Asian men.” – BBC News

“The police are being blamed for not having done enough to fully address the issue of young girls being groomed for sexual exploitation by Asian men.” – The Guardian

The credibility of the authors and the sources was undoubtly of high standard. If there were a mistake in the use of adjective, it would have been mine. They were all most probably native speakers of English and chances that they were wrong were very, very low. There must be something behind the use of this word that I didn’t know of.

I quickly looked for references online and I stumbled upon this Wikipedia article about British Asian.

“In British English, the term the ‘Asian‘ usually excludes East Asians (see East Asians in the United Kingdom). Britons who mark the ‘Other Asian‘ category on the UK census are normally of Afghan, Iranian, Iraqi, and Yemeni ancestries.” – Wikipedia

I continued to the link suggested by the article and I found this:

“In British English, they (East Asians and South East Asians) are sometimes called ‘Oriental‘. In the 2001 British census, the term ‘Chinese or Other‘ is used.” – Wikipedia

“In Anglo America (mostly the United States of America), the term refers most commonly to people of predominantly East Asian and Southeast Asian ancestry; however, in the United Kingdom, the term refers most commonly to South Asians. In other countries (like countries of Continental Europe), the term is applied in a wider sense to all people from Asia or from a number of its regions.” – Wikipedia

To confirm the validity of these citations, I went to two of my friends, an English and an Iranian UK permanent resident, and they confirmed that it was indeed the case.

I was shocked. I nearly could not believe them or everything I found about this little misunderstanding. It was as if my years of learning English were thrown into garbage as I could not understand a word as simple as ‘Asian‘. I tried to think about it and everything seemed to be coming into sense.

Chinese‘ is considered a separate entity because the term ‘Asian‘ is publicly used to refer to South Asians only. South East Asian, quite unluckily, appeared to be considered as a small subcategory of Chinese, hence not Asian.

Is it not weird to say “South East Asians are not Asians” yet there is ‘Asians’ in ‘South East Asians’?

Is being greeted with ‘Ni Hao’ not enough that I should properly and legally be classified under ‘Chinese or Other’? How annoying.

After having been for one and a half year in this country, I finally find out that I am not Asian and I have never been. Even though ethnicity is self-identified, in a way the classification has suggested otherwise.

This sort of classification of ethnicity has also attracted controversy in the past: particularly at the time of the 2001 Census where the existence and nature of such a classification, which appeared on the Census form, became more widely known than general. (Wikipedia)

Starting 27 March 2011, the Census day, I can ‘officially’ be Asian as the Office for National Statistics are making some changes in the ethnicity classification in England and Wales. They are to put ‘Chinese‘ to where it should be and should have been, which then would make choosing ‘Any other Asian background‘ a lot more sense to me. They are also to introduce a new category, ‘Arab‘, as an exclusive category.

Illustration by unfoldedorigami.

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A Little Note on Consumer Rights

Indonesia vs. the UK; there’s something essentially different in terms of customer and shopping experience. In Indonesia, we’ve got a little proverb that says “the customer is king”. We are kings. We’re entitled for all the possible treatment of a king: a big, warm, welcoming smile at all time, constant hospitality, unlimited variety of options and perpetual top-notch customer service. The customer is king. Full stop. In the UK, a customer is not always treated like a king, at least not like how an average Indonesian would perceive. People are warm and welcoming but they don’t smile as much. Compared to British sales advisers in general, Indonesian ones look like pre-configured robotic puppets who constantly smile regardless of the situation. That is a bit exaggerated but you know what I mean. However, as I’m thinking more about this, I start to wonder what it really means to be treated like a king.

I once bought a Nokia E52 phone in one of the electronic centres in Bandung. The sales advisers were amazingly helpful; they rigorously checked all the items in the box and made sure that they were all working. I went home. I used the phone two days and the phone started to act weird. It went off for no reason and sometimes I couldn’t turn it back on. It happened several times that I had to go back to the shop. The same, exact sales adviser came to me. I said that I wanted to ask for a replacement but she said that it was no longer their responsibility. It was then Nokia’s responsibility. How clever. Yet, she was still smiling, even until the very last moment. Later on, I had to go to a Nokia service centre, several times, and ended up selling that phone because the problem persisted and I was completely fed up. The whole drama took 3 months. Have I told you that the problem persisted? Yes, I have and it did.

In the UK, things would look very different. In a shop, you would be treated like a normal customer. They would smile occasionally but not too much, not by Indonesian standard. If you buy a phone from them, they won’t be bothered to check any of the included items. Well, if they did, it wouldn’t be as thorough as an Indonesian sales adviser would do. Why would they? They are pretty sure that everything should work perfectly. However, this is the interesting bit: if the phone goes mad after you use the phone for two days, or even longer, you can simply go back to the shop, ask for a replacement and you will get one. You won’t be forced to seek for help from the manufacturer of the phone. The shop takes full responsibility. Problem solved. Additionally, if you feel unhappy about your phone, you can return it and ask for a full refund within a certain period of time. Happy? I’d be very happy.

Here is another example. In the UK, if you buy a piece of clothing from a retailer, you have the right to exchange the item if you later find it faulty or even ask for a full refund within 28 days provided that it is re-saleable. It doesn’t apply to all types of clothing, e.g. undergarments, but it does in general. In Indonesia, if you’re lucky, you can get a replacement. If you’re not, you simply have to live with your faulty piece of clothing. Either way, it is very unlikely that the shop would offer you a refund. If they would, that would be an exceptional instance. Although this varies case by case, there seems to be no strict law where both seller and consumer could adhere to. Sometimes the seller knows little about consumer rights, or they simply don’t care, and most of the time the consumer knows nothing. I guess this explains why some Indonesians are very thorough, and suspicious, when buying a piece of clothing, or everything. So thorough that it usually involves an inch-by-inch inspection.

I know that Indonesia has already had some laws regarding consumer rights (UU Perlindungan Konsumen 8/1999). I just don’t see that it has been strictly enforced. Getting to the bottom of an unenforced law is always a complicated story in Indonesia so finding who to blame is simply a waste of time. So, what to do then? Well, a good consumer is those who know their rights. Know your rights. You’re probably wondering how. So am I.

The Indonesian government hasn’t yet got any way to educate its citizen about this. Nevertheless, it doesn’t hurt to look up to our global neighbours, does it? The UK government has a website that covers everything about consumer rights and it is frequently advertised on television. There is even a TV show, called Watchdog, which is aimed to educate people about consumer rights.

If you happen to be one of those people who involves in law-making or anything of the sort, perhaps it’s time to go further, promote the law and educate people. Invent an easy way to convey the law. Use the media. Our media is pretty strong, you know. Throw a tiny gossip and see it explode in several days. I know this issue is a bit delicate, and boring, but there has got to be a way. Also, we are not alone in this world. We can see how things work in our neighbouring countries. They might be useful for comparison. Maybe later we find out that there hasn’t been enough consumer protection in Indonesia.

If you happen to be a consumer who knows nothing about consumer rights, go find them out (and don’t blame the government, doing it will bring you nowhere). It’s painstaking to read the UU 8/1999 but doing it at least once in your life would be just fine. Additionally, make sure you read the terms and conditions of any purchase or simply skim through them and find the important bits. Anyhow, you have to know your rights. Be proactive. Ask the seller to provide terms and conditions.

Let’s go back to the proverb, shall we. “The customer is king.” Do you think that you have been treated like a king? For sellers, do you think you have treated your customer like a king? We are Indonesians, aren’t we? In Indonesia, the customer is king, and even better, we’ve got the smile.

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I live in London. People are way warmer and more welcoming outside London. Illustration taken from Chowrangi.com. All rights reserved.

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Indonesia: Facts for Dummies

Having lived for around a year in the UK and extensively interacted with people from different countries have revealed some intriguing facts to me. Whenever comes the situation where one has to introduce oneself and make a casual conversation, it appears that it won’t go anywhere but around one’s country of origin. Not only is it always a good topic to begin with, it also translates into an infinite number of possible sub-topics which are useful to prevent awkward and dull moments with new acquaintances. That being said, it often brings up some interesting cultural facts which are always worth noting and remembering.

Here is one language-related example. It may seem ridiculous to some but I didn’t know that texts written in Arabic alphabet may not be Arabic at all. They can be Persian (in Iran), Urdu (in Pakistan), or many other languages in Central Asia and Africa. It had been used in the Turkish language too before they later changed to Latin. Likewise for the Cyrillic alphabet, I used to associate it with the Russian language, only. There was a multitude of Kazakh people in my class who have proven otherwise. Call me daft as you might, but I may not be the only one who never knew about this. There’s always a first time for everything, isn’t there? I know little, that’s why I learn.

Speaking of which, “Indonesia” also seems to be somebody else’s first time. It happens so frequent that it’s becoming my first supposition when meeting new people. In my case, however, thanks to the giant operations of international oil companies in the country, Indonesia has never been difficult to talk about. Balikpapan, Minas, Duri and Jakarta are the popular oil-centric regions and those names are always all over the place. Digging down the subject is another story, though. Just like how I used to assume, these people have also got their assumptions. Here is a list of funny questions and statements, which were posed by different people in different occasions. Probably you’re asking why I’m doing this. Well, there’s no particular reason, to be honest. I just want to see all the experience in a retrospect, considering that this date, last year, I left Indonesia and arrived in the UK.

Is Indonesia a country? Is it not just a region?

Ridiculous as it may sound, the question above was asked in a humble, honest and not-knowing manner, twice, by two different people. That was the sole reason that prevented me from responding with something sarcastic and full of condescension like “Did you fail Geography?” or “Have you suffered from any sort of mental retardation?” It’s mind-boggling to know that the people asking the question do know that Indonesia exists but are not sure whether it’s a sovereign country with all the law, regulations and political dynamics happening therein.

It’s very easy for people to correlate “Indonesia” with “Polynesia”, “Melanesia” and “Micronesia”. On the map, they all look like regions consisting of many islands and they are in fact bordering and overlying one another. Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia are not countries. They are regions which comprise many countries and colonies. Why should one think that Indonesia is not? So there comes the first fact: Unlike the other ‘nesias’, Indonesia is a country.

If you look at the globe, you won’t find many island countries. Some examples are the UK, the Philippines, Japan and New Zealand.

Was it difficult for you to learn the Latin alphabet?

I lost count of the number of times this question was asked. This question was conveyed in an assuring affirmative tone, often rather a compliment, and sounded like, “Your handwriting in the Latin alphabet looks so neat,” or even something imperative like, “Hey, Michael, teach me how to write my name in Indonesian!

I was speechless. “What do you expect me to write?” I was left in both shock and amusement. I started writing my friend’s name in some random curvy lines that supposedly looked like a mixture of the Arabic and Thai alphabets, diagonally across the paper. I can’t speak or write either of them so they were completely fictitious. It turned out that they looked more like a 1-year-old handwriting. Yet I said, “This is how your name is written in Indonesian.” He took awhile looking at my doodle and said, “It looks like Arabic.” Three minutes later I told him that Indonesians use the Latin alphabet, thanks to 350 years of Dutch colonialism. He replied, “No, you’re lying.

It didn’t really cost me any extensive research to find out why this was presumed. Look at Asia, count the number countries, their populations and their official languages. It turns out that the number Latin-based languages in Asia is relatively low. Some examples are Indonesian, Malaysian, Tagalog and Vietnamese. Again, thanks to the Dutch, British, Spanish, Americans and French people who paid us a long visit. There you go, the fact number two, the Indonesian language uses the Latin alphabet.

Is Indonesia a Muslim country?

Well, this has just got very interesting, hasn’t it? Most often this questions was posed in such a condition that I was not readily available for any sort of prolonged discussion. Answering ‘yes‘ might save me some time but that would mean I wasn’t telling the truth. Answering ‘no‘ would probably put me in a lengthy talk and answering ‘something like that‘ would definitely not suffice. The occasion has happened a lot that I’ve got to design a short, preemptive speech that would answer any subsequent questions. Here it is, the fact number three:

Indonesia is predominantly Muslim but it’s not a Muslim country. It’s not quite a secular country either because religion does play a major role in the government. According to the constitution, six religions are acknowledged: Islam, Protestantism, Catholicism, Hinduism, Buddhism and Confucianism. Religious freedom is protected by law but one must belong to one of the six religions. By that, one can’t be irreligion nor belong to any religious group which is considered outside the six.

One thing for sure, my little speech has never quite achieved its purpose as it always triggers further and deeper discussion. Nonetheless, I always love the facial expression shown by my friends when I reply to their question. They always say, “That’s really, really interesting.

“I know.”

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Prambanan by Zsolt Bugarszki. All rights reserved.

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Woman “Privileges”: Honorary or contempting?

What is your opinion on this issue? All the women privileges that we know in our society; are those really meant to respect them because they are women? Or perhaps it’s just a euphemistic way to tell them that they have some certain “stereotypically nature-born” incapability? Let’s say: female parking?

And for women, will you feel honored having such a great ease when parking your car or perhaps you might feel irritated because in your mind, you think that they’re just saying: “Your existence here will bring a catastrophic sluggishness in the parking queue line, so please park here, get out, and go shopping now.

Please mind the phrases inside the quotations above, “stereotypically nature-born”. I do believe in equality of men and women, but I do also believe that there are some commonly accepted stereotypes about women, and so does it about men. And there is where the interesting part lies: how women react to those honorary privileges (considering the stereotypes), and what actually is in our mind, men, when we treat women in a special way.

What is in man’s mind?

It is generally believed that women are humans to be respected and they deserve to be treated specially in order to honor them. Let’s say some examples in daily live: women are to be seated when there is only one seat left in the bus, and men are to open the door and to let women walk into a room before themselves. Gentlemen do that, how noble.

But, in fact, there are some undeniable viewpoints, mostly from men, which do not really feel so noble. “Women as a slow and easy-to-panic driver” is one example. Men, have you ever been in a totally unreasonable “local” traffic jam, as it was caused by only one car that took a very long time to turn her car in the U-turn? And you ended up saying, “Pantesan.. cewe sih yang nyetir..” Men who called himself gentlemen do that as well.

Do you see the inconsistency? The man in the first example did such noble things to honor women, but the man in the second example explicitly shouted out his negative stereotype about women. Then, what if I say that perhaps the gentlemen in the first example acted so noble because they do believe in some “incapability” that women have and they wrap in some way so that it will look noble from the outside? I believe some men have it that way.

How does woman react to those honorary privileges?

I once asked my girlfriend about her point of view on this issue; specifically about the female parking. And lucky me, she said that she will feel very happy to be given such privilege. It would take less time to park her car and more time to do her activities. But imagine if she is a woman who is being oversensitive to gender issues and take it the hard way. I guess she will feel contempt and humiliated, then will probably end up finding another “equal-to-men” parking sites.

Being equal, how far can it go?

I do believe in the equality of men and women, we all should have the same rights in every aspects of life. But, how far can it go?

Dian Sastro herself prefers to use the word “actor” instead of “actress” for the sake of gender issues. Well, I can’t image if she were French. A pronoun for a group of 1000 people consisting 999 women and 1 man is called “ils” (“they”, in English) and is considered masculine. And not to mention about all the adjectives and nouns that have masculine and feminine forms. It is indeed ultimately sexist. But, is it something really essential and needed to be “equalized”?

Those are the three examples: female parking, U-turn unreasonable local traffic jam, and Dian Sastro being linguistically inconvenienced.

OK, let’s get back to the main topic of the discussion.
Men, what is it in your mind when you are acting like a gentlemen? Do you do that because it’s the right thing to do? Or do you do that because it will make your life and everything easier?

Women, what do you think about gender issues and equality? What will be in your mind if you are provided with some “specific-gender” privileges? Will you feel honored, or humiliated? And how far that we all need to be equalized? That “linguistically inconvenienced” far?

Illustration was taken from here.

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Do we have the ideal idealism?

The title is rather self-explanatory. Let’s see, we are twenty-something, starting to walk through the path of an adult, learning how rough and miserable life can be, getting accustomed to conflicts in our personal life, family life, even to conflicts in things like politics, religion, and business. Furthermore, we are getting the idea of living life with certain principles, or with that what we call ‘idealism’. Do we have the IDEAL idealism?

Nationalist or Chauvinist? Religious or Fanatic? Green or Blinded? Independent or Big-Headed?

It might seem easy to pick, but if we dig a bit deeper, we will see idealism and absurdity are only separated with a thin, invisible layer. In fact we’re somewhere in between; we can even be both at the same time. But still, the question keeps resounding in my head, “do we have the IDEAL idealism?” What if what we believe to be ideal is not ideal at all? What if we don’t realize that we’re doing something which is actually against what we believe in? Or perhaps, what if idealism is something that really depends on one’s opinion and therefore there is no such thing like ideal idealism inasmuch as everyone will probably see idealism in different ways and perspectives?

What do you think?

Illustration (The Thinker – Paris) was taken from here.

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