Last week, I was at a pan mee restaurant. I wanted a rather specific order (a mix of dumplings and fishballs with extra spinach and no noodles, but I’ll spare you the boring details), and the staff, a foreign worker who looked new, didn’t really understand what I wanted.
She asked me to wait, and called out for another staff, also a foreign worker. Inside, I was like, ‘Great. Now I have to explain myself all over again and probably be totally misunderstood’.
And then he opened his mouth and out came near-perfect Mandarin. My jaw hit the floor (in my head, of course). He very eloquently took my order, repeated it to make sure he got it right, and left me staring after him in awe. And when my food arrived, it was exactly the way I wanted it.
This wasn’t the first time I’d met foreign workers who speak our language well, but every time I do, it never fails to amaze me. How they’re willing to come with so little to call their own and work long hours on their feet, just to make a better living for their families, so far away from home.
I guess the first few months here must be living hell for them. It’s not like us Malaysians are well-known for our patience. Many a time I’ve struggled to communicate with foreign staff who don’t understand what I want, and I’m embarrassed to say that sometimes I end up showing signs of displeasure on my face. I’ve seen people lose their temper at foreign workers and raise their voices at them. It’s painful to watch, but it’s such a common sight nowadays that it’s nothing new.
It’s amazing how they still manage to put a smile on their faces and serve us. Maybe ‘ignorance is bliss’, I guess it really is because I work in a company where people speak Japanese most of the time, and sometimes what my colleagues talk about just goes over my head like sakura-scented air. I don’t understand most of what they’re saying, but I’ve grown used to it. I just smile and nod and pretend to know.
I think that we’re lucky to be Malaysian. To be born in a country where tertiary education still makes a difference in your job-hunting process, and to be able to choose what you want to become. These foreign workers have no choice; but they’re still willing to take what they have. They’re not as lucky as we are, to be able to pay someone to be taught a language, where it’s okay if you fail or skip class because hey – you’re the paying customer.
But when you’re forced to pick up a language as quickly as possible because your job depends on it, and to do it so well with just informal training – that’s something worth looking up to. I’ve met foreign workers who speak fluent Cantonese, Mandarin, English and Malay. Which is saying something, indeed.
Heck, I know some Malaysians who can’t even speak two languages. And the sad part is that they seem to think it’s something that should be gloated over. I’ve heard the “I can’t even speak Mandarin!” argument so many times I’ve lost count.
As Malaysians, we’ve been living too-comfortable lives to the point where we’ve become lazy. Cannot do this? Aiyah never mind lah do something else lah. Don’t know how? Find something else you know lor. Sure got one! We lack the drive that pushes us forward. We’ve lost the motivation to be better versions of ourselves, because for many, many years, we’ve seen how people who do nothing get rewarded and people who hustle to work their asses off get nothing in return.
Why should we work hard when we very well know that we’re not going to see the results? Why do we even bother hoping for change when change only exists in a world where unicorns run free?
This Merdeka, I’d like to take the opportunity to remind all Malaysians that if we don’t work harder, the country as we know it will eventually be gone. I don’t know when that day will come, but if we did our part in making a small change, hopefully it will get the ball rolling to create an impact that’s big enough to make a difference.
We’re all the same, no matter what colour, race or religion we are.
Selamat Hari Merdeka, everyone.
(Images: johor.uitm.edu.my, merdeka-online.com, demotix.com)