This is possibly the most nerve-wracking piece I’ve ever done in my years of performing. I tackle a number of issues that has bothered me as an international student in Western-heavy activist spaces – calling out people who are already on somewhat shaky ground. I was heartened to get a few responses saying “Thank you”, but it definitely was controversial.
being an international student
(particularly one from a non-white culture)
affords you a certain level of…
that weird sensation where you just don’t quite belong
even though you could probably pass
it’s a bit like waiting for the other shoe to drop
waiting for someone to spot one little incongruity
‘hey, hang on, you can’t be with us’
or maybe you’re holding the other shoe
and you’re wondering when would be a good moment
to drop the bomb of
‘um, i’m not sure i can be behind you here.’
i have a couple of friends who are currently in an activist anthropology program in university.
i’m not in that program myself, but i share a lot of similar passions and sentiments
– i just go about them through art.
one time we were talking together about how there’s this expectation where
if you want to be a Proper Good Politically-Savvy Activist
you had to conform to a pretty particular set of ideas
all mostly informed by Western – especially American – ways of looking at the world
disagreement or skepticism or doubt
meant that you were not ‘good enough’
i have been in POC spaces where the prevailing idea behind racism ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD
is that basically it can’t be relevant if white people were not involved.
never mind that when my parents were roughly around my age
the pakistani government went into their universities and killed all their best minds
because their people wanted to speak bengali rather than urdu.
never mind that when I was a school kid in an officially Malay Supremacist government
(seriously. Ketuanan Melayu. Official term. That’s what it translates to.)
a government that came to being thanks to the Race Riots of 1963
that they still use as a spectre against anyone that ‘threatens national security’
sometimes for just existing
using the Internal Securities Act – which inspired your Patriot Act.
never mind that as a school kid in this government with permanent residency
Which nearly was sabotaged multiple times
a country that lured my people over with promises of Muslim Brotherhood
I kept being threatened with expulsion for not having the right ‘papers’.
for not being Malay.
for not doing Islam right.
for being of a dirty migrant class.
speaking of class.
sometimes it’s kinda awkward to be around people talking about, say
gentrification or the working class struggle
it’s all true and valid of course
no argument there, this is a struggle that applies everywhere.
but er, people like me? we’re the ones you’re protesting against.
how else could I be here speaking to you?
with the multiple visa fees and high living costs
and the downside of foreign exchange barely stretching our currency.
never mind, though, that the foreign exchange rules mean that
when you go back to where I come from
you are automatically the 1%.
even with your menial wages.
the monthly $800 from your government
comes out to much MUCH more than the monthly pay for my production job
at an international television station in the heart of malaysia
AFTER asking for a pay raise.
RM2000 a month for writing scripts for world-famous VJs
while holding down an apartment next to the capital.
where a substantial breakfast costs roughly 1 Ringgit
and 15 is enough cause for haggling.
658 US dollars a month.
your currency travels a hell of a lot further than i ever could.
oh yeah, things are very different once you head out of the country.
over here it seems the first part of your hyphenated identity is important.
X-American. you fill in the blanks.
but when you go overseas, that doesn’t matter.
all people care about is that you are AMERICAN.
You are probably closer to ‘White’ than to any ethnic minority over there
because that’s what you know
your culture is filtered through an American, often White lens
not out of your own fault, mind
but it’s just how it is
and to hell with ‘why you talk so white’?
as far as we’re concerned, you talk more white than we do
again, the ‘american’ thing
(because all americans are white, apparently, yay us ignorant third worlders)
we just knew it as ‘english’.
one part imperialist history
one part imperialist present
one part needing to take a pile of language exams to be allowed access into your world
one part if we don’t access your world then there’s no way we can be taken seriously, no way we can matter.
i’d like to see you all take the ielts and the toefl
see how you fare.
if you even know what the hell they are.
all this comma fuckery about where to put a space
and where to attach an asterisk
and which word to use when
i don’t see so much fanfare around
ei, cannot speak like this ka?
YOUUUU don wan to faham us
but you think we have to faham you
apa ni man, so mah fan lah
…no, didn’t think so.
we have to care about your politics.
is it obama or romney?
wait, who were those other ones?
biden? clinton? palin? mccain?
prop 8 and prop 32 and prop 50 zillion and 1
even while I was down under i got every petition
for everything from marriage equality in New York to net neutrality
tell me, do you know who the prime minister of malaysia is?
what code in indian penal law about homosexuality was recently repealed?
which muslim country was the first to legalise sex work?
nah, not relevant
that is ‘foreign affairs’
so much for ‘community’.
yknow, being an international student means you are REQUIRED, by LAW
to have health insurance.
a specific sort, even.
problem is the health insurance really does fuck-all for you.
but when i looked up community low-income health support places
they all went ‘sorry, no can do for you’.
i asked around in spaces where you request help on one thing
and tons of people respond
because, y’know, ‘community’.
i think only one person really bothered to get in touch and share help.
(well that’s assuming her resources are willing to help me).
and everything else from housing to getting help with those stupid medical bills thanks to insurance problems
needs credit checks and paystubs and a social security number and blah blah blah
sorry! can’t help you with that! will a school letter work? letter from my dad?
can’t even put my money into the community through credit unions
because I’m not enough of a ‘local’ to qualify
I’m sorry the Big Bad Banks are the only ones to take my money.
speaking of which.
we spend quite a bit of money in this country
for not a hell of a lot in return.
all the taxes, sometimes higher tuition
and all those damn visa fees
but we don’t qualify for social security
or scholarships or a plain old job
because again, the LAW says
we can only do very limited hours
on very limited oncampus jobs
with very limited pay.
and that’s it.
but hey! didn’t I say something about being the 1% somewhere or something?
we don’t really need it, right?
we’re just here really to funnel our country’s limited money into yours
one way or another
nothing about needing to live or thrive or survive or whatever.
pfft, petty concerns.
not long ago there was this big brouhaha about international students in australia.
all the politicians from every party had a say
most were really…wishy washy.
‘yeah yeah they are important bla bla screw their needs whatever’.
the only man in australia to admit that if it weren’t for international students their economy would be FUCKED
was from the right-wing party.
meanwhile the hipster lefties are shouting down calls for donating directly to those in need
those who can’t get grants or scholarships or funding because of stupid gov restrictions
by saying ‘but that is a neo-liberal idea! we must protest the government so that they give you the money! not us!’
sadly that is a true story
and sadly i don’t see many of those hipster lefties sign my damn petition to review bridging visa laws
(a campaign i worked on for years. to no avail.)
not too many hipster lefty locals bother caring about
international student rights
or migrant in transition rights
or immigration rights
– well, unless the migrants are downtrodden refugees
‘oh pooooooor them!’
because migrants are either tortured refugees or rich europeans.
and the tv shows only really care about the rich europeans.
never mind that when 180 malaysian gay couples sought asylum in the UK
only about 10, maybe less got through
and the rest were dismissed both within and without as
‘oh, malaysia’s such an easy country to live in
they’ve got the world’s tallest building (at one point)
it’s not like they are at war or anything
it’s not like people are really being PERSECUTED’.
just go back to your country and suck it up.
but hey, we should be grateful we’re allowed in anyway, right?
we should be grateful we get to sit at your table because we’re activists.
even though you refuse our offer of our generous meals because they taste weird.
you won’t even let us cook them.
and you only feed us scraps that are sometimes poisonous
or set off allergies that you don’t really care about
but hey, we’re getting fed, right?
don’t bite the hand that feeds you even if all you get are indigestible scraps.
– please sir, can i have some more?
and people ask me sometimes
why you don’t really see international students
voting in student elections
coming out for protests and demonstrations
or speaking up in community events like these.
Culture Fuck – November feature
2nd November 2012 | Actual Cafe, Berkeley
Video: Amirah M