When the school bell rings for the recess, the race to the canteen will commence. I have memorised the red and grey paths in this Chinese primary school that lead to the hall of succulently fried wanton, fiery curry noodles, bouncy fish balls, sticky popsicles and refreshing cups of Coca-Cola. The canteen is heaven on earth – my friends and I have sweaty running bodies to prove it.
I reach the canteen, slide my feet to brake when I lose control slightly, and walk through the aisle for curry noodles. At once I pay RM0.60 and take up the bowl of springy yellow noodles with lava-like broth and weave through the crowd of running students to our common table. My friends and I always sit at the same spot – the middle of the canteen, the longest of all tables, vanilla white table top with black lines on the sides.
Minutes pass and familiar faces start to fill our table. Some spill their broth onto the table, some slip on oily floors and cry, and some calmly open their packed meals and devour the food. The controlled chaos of primary school recess.
Mary, the assistant monitor of my class, has brought a new student with her. She introduces the new student to us. Her name is Hani. Hani’s skin is bronze, hair twirling in a short bob with a pin behind each ear, standing small and smiling slightly beside Mary. Hani is Malay – the only Malay in our class.
Just when Hani takes a seat at the end of the table, Richard stands up and yells at her. Richard said this table is not meant for Malays and she is not welcomed. “Go back to your old school! We don’t want you here, you have no right to eat here with us!” Richard shouts while pointing aggressively at Hani as though his needle-like fingers might reach to sting her.
Everyone looks at us, and the background noise gradually becomes murmurs. Richard’s face turns red and he angrily uses his leg to kick the side of the bench which Hani is sitting on to intimidate her.
“Get out!” Richard’s voice reverberates against the canteen walls.
Hani rushes away from the canteen with tears running from her eyes in hurried streams, holding her mouth shut before a cry breaks out. Mary shouts at Richard for being stupid and says he should be punished for acting like a gangster.
Hani never sat with us again. She brought her own food, every day, and sat with Mary on the porch of our school yard during every recess.
Getting along with one another
I always remember this story not because it tells me any fundamental truth about the Chinese or students. I remember this story because it shows me a saddening picture of how each race still finds it hard to get along, despite chasing the dream of racial harmony for over 50 years.
The remnants of the British policy of racial segregation still linger today, and the Malaysian government has often chosen to maintain these racial boundaries to hold on to power. As a result, we cannot even sit together without prejudices, stereotypes, and negative moral judgments hidden under the blanket or piercing us in the open like a scorching sun.
I went to a government secondary school years later, and segregation was similarly obvious. In the canteen, the Malays still prefer to sit with their Malay friends, Chinese with Chinese and Indians with Indians. Occasionally we will have a mixed-race friend who would be confused about this arrangement and choose to eat alone.
None of this is entirely their own fault, as you would naturally still lean towards the people you are most comfortable with. And if you have only grown up with people who are like you, you would find it hard to sit with others with whom you have little in common.
There is no law or policy that prevents us sitting together with other races, but our social situations had implicitly legislated who our children should sit with. This is more lethal than any law passed by our legislators.
So much is lost. Our lives become less enriched if we only know of our own story. Our minds become narrower when knowledge is not diverse and variegated, and our bodies become more rigid when sensory experiences are not broad and deep. Eat with your hand sometimes, eat with your chopsticks sometimes, eat with fork and spoon sometimes – eat with someone of a different race sometimes.
Sitting together allows us to expand our understanding and sphere of empathy so that we become more tolerant and patient in discussing our compromises. If you have sat together before, you would not start from a point of the vile and vicious because you do not see the other person as someone from a certain race with pre-set moral qualities; instead, you see your friend...