Priviledges and Politics (2)

this is part of a set of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write  ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..

I think of myself as priviledged because I knew my parents loved me unconditionally and my siblings are pretty good to me too. My parents were immigrants in Malaysia, they were barely out of their teens when I was born and 3 years later they had a second child and I was stricken with polio. They were very poor and I needed medical care, there was no NHS there and my father worked incredibly hard to afford the medical treatment I needed. My parent’s friends advised them to give me away to an orphanage and try again for other children but my parents did not, they hung on to me.

People at school marveled at my mother’s devotion to me, she carried me everywhere until I got too heavy. She fought for me to get into the right classes even if they were upstairs. She spent hours tirelessly teaching me to cycle on a little tricycle. I think my primary school bent over backwards to accommodate me as much as they could.

black and white photo of a solemn looking child in a dress, cross legged, seated on a round cane type chair. She has an anklet on my foot.
me just before my third birthday

So why do I say I was privileged being born of poor parents, in a developing country which was just gaining independence from England. Maybe I should just say I was lucky. I was priviledged because I had great parents – who knew not much about parenting who did not speak English (English as the colonial language was a perequisite for getting a good job in the civil service). I think having had a poor childhood made me realise that just how lucky I was.

Now when I said that once, a friend asked me quizically if I was having a Pollyanna moment. I could have been given away to an orphanage and left in a residential home in Malaysia where disabled children were given to make handicrafts to eke out an existence. I once visited such a home ran by a friend of my mum’s in an outskirt of Kuala Lumpur.  I do not know what kind of life they lead, I did not want to know. I was too keen on distancing myself from those I considered unfortunate.. My parents had been saving for my education – they saw that I needed it most and when the time came, they send me to England to study.

newspaper headlines ''Crisis laws after 39 die in riots' from the Strait Times'
‘Crisis laws after 39 die in riots’ from the Strait Times Source: http://says.com/my/news/44-years-since-may-13-1969-have-malaysia-recovered

Now in that backdrop, I also grew up in the aftermath of the May13th racial riots in 1969. I remember being given strict instructions not to put my head out of the window or I might be shot.

Not so long after that boat people also arrived from Vietnam. I think it gave my father a disquiet – even if he had escaped from Communist China and he had made a good living as a citizen in Malaysia, he did not feel safe for his children. He saw the discrimination against ethnic minorities, I remember him telling me that having an English education would give us an advantage above having had a university education in the Malaysian system, if ever we should get kicked out of the country.

With hindsight, I can see it gave me my first lesson in politics – my father was deeply Confucian, he would not agree with engagement with any form of politics. But I understood the uncertainty of place and identity. It is in no way comparable to the plight of modern day refugees but I understand the fear and the uncertainty.

But my education of politics and the importance of social justice came from the Catholic church and my mentors who were deeply spiritual people. They taught me about liberation theology and inculturation. I went to a convent school. But no, my convent school did not teach me about liberation theology – where I started realising about social justice – but it gave me access to a different way of thinking and inculturation taught me that I can embrace other faiths without abandoning my own heritage.

I was very fortunate to have as godparents, Sr Teresia Mowe and Br John D’Cruz, who understood a curious young disabled girl searching love and understanding – as much as their own busy schedules allowed. If you watch the video  and see John’s work with slow learners, you will get the idea how open he is and his acceptance of people as they are. In my youth he was the one person who gave me confidence and taught me self acceptance and about relationships. I know over here, we hear much of the harm that the Catholic church but I learnt a path away from materialism and capitalism there, a thirst for learning and respect for spirituality. I am indebted to him for his brand of nurturing love and acceptance which was not at all judgmental even when I grew away from the faith.

One other person who had huge influence over my formative youth was my parish priest, Fr Surmon. He helped me with my homework and had an extensive library ( my hometown had no public library). He gave me books to read by Simone Weil and Teilhard de Chardin! So my reading consisted of Wordsworth, Jane Austin, Chinua Achebe, (school text books)  Mills and Boon, Georgette Heyer, (what was available in the bookshops)  and French philosophers (way over my head, my worst subject as an undergrad was philosophy!)

 

see previous blog

Start at the beginning (1)

this is the start of blogs in preparation for a chapter in a journal which asked me to write  ” on your work in relation to your personal activism and advocacy with the onset of austerity, and the intersectional tensions as a disabled women involved with a diverse set of communities. In particular we thought you may want to contribute a chapter about your personal reflections, that rigorously capture the new and emerging issues for disability activism” …..

So I am taking the opportunity to write a few notes on my journey.

Chinese girl with mid length hair looking at the camera, with glasses above her head
As a 16/17 year old teenager

When I was a teenager, I had some Swiss penpals who came to visit me in Malaysia. I was very excited, these were my first contacts with white people (apart from religious clergy associated with my school). They came for two weeks bearing gifts of Swiss pen knives and an embroidered blouse. In these days of social media, it is difficult to imagine a world where we wait for letters to arrive in the post, where handwriting was still important.

I took them to a few places but in Kuala Lumpur, they insisted on visiting a palm reader in a fancy hotel. I refused to pay the fee but he took my palm and was very interested – he said that I would travel the world and live in foreign lands. It was clear to the teenager in me that this was a real scam. I thought how could that be when I was disabled and not able to hobble far. I did not really bother to keep in touch with those penpals after a while, I did not expect to reciprocate the visit to Swizerland.

I went to a mainstream school, there were no special schools in Malaysia and I never met another disabled child when I was growing up. My schoolmates accepted me and they included me when they could but they never asked questions when I was excluded either. One of my classmates was very kind to me and acted as a sort of helper, she got my bag and bought me lunch from the canteen. We went to my house together because she had to wait for the bus, I m not clear why. I was self absorbed like any other teenager. I was not a particularly nice child, I was spoilt by my wonderful parents- even as I felt like an outsider oftentimes when I could not join and perform in the class band, choir and be on stage or do sport, I raged against what seemed like an injustice to me and only me.

black and white photo of girl on bike with glasses. shes wering a dress.
I had a Ragleigh bike with stabilisers

My parents were reasonably well off and it was not a big place, my hometown. The town people knew me as I used to cycle around on a girl’s Ragleigh bike with stabilisers. That bike gave me independence – I valued the mobility independence far more than  my non disabled friends who could walk. That bicycle was a precursor of the wheelchair I got from the NHS when I started university as an undergrad at Kent University in the UK.

My bike made it possible to visit my friends and be part of their families – Malaysia is multicultural. I celebrated all the festivals and it helped me understand cultural differences by being embedded in it. The muzzein call to prayer in the morning, church bells on Sundays, firecrackers for Chinese New Year, and all types of processions ( not found in other parts of the world where I have lived) like for Thaipusam.

This part of my youth is so important in the development and passion for intersectionality and the importance of understanding that no oppression is in isolation of the politics and the context of our community and society. I say this given the context of the Malaysian melange of four different ethnicities: Malay, Chinese, Indian and other.1 It is not a question of race as in white against people of colour, it is the post colonial context and who held the political power at the time. We had also to look at the make up and influence of religion as well.


ref The Population of Malaysia 1974 http://www.cicred.org/Eng/Publications/pdf/c-c34.pdf

Lunar New Year of the monkey!

 

This is a very windy Lunar New Year here in London. I stayed snug in the flat and have not ventured out even to empty the rubbish. I do not miss the fireworks and definitely not the firecrackers. I missed having my family about but that didnt last….

raindrops through a window on a dark night with reflections of light opn the pavement

But my wonderful university friend, Yin, brought me some delicious food from her reunion meal with her family. I did not mind being a recluse, it was nice and I felt priviledged to have a warm bed and time to myself. I caught up on television series.

However I must say I really like the rendition of this version of new year melodies from Colour of Voices from Malaysia!

馬來西亞新晉 A Cappella 組合 Colour Of Voices (C.O.V) 送上他們第一支華語串燒賀年歌曲向大家拜個早年!

由 Asnal (領唱), Ikhwan (男高音), Joe (男中音), Jaswan (男低音) 和 TuxBoNic (Beatbox) 組成的阿卡貝拉合

I usually cringe at the sweet mush that gets put on.

Happy Lunar New Year of the Monkey everyone!