Monday, 24 March 2014, 11 am. It was cloudy outside, but with no more drizzle. I thought I wanted to steal some breeze to dry my laundry.
I was hanging some pairs of jeans and two jackets at the backyard of my apartment building, when a man walked towards me and asked:"Is there a water tap around here?" I saw him carrying a small water tank. So I said, "well, there a toilet there. Hope the tap works." I pointed to an outside toilet just next to where my son puts his bike.
The man checked inside the unlocked toilet, then told me. "It's not working. But you speak lovely English."
I was startled for a moment, not knowing how to respond. He continued, "I thought, 'oh this lady wouldn't speak English.' His smile was sincere, implying his apology for having been mistakenly thinking that I was just some sort of a woman who may have migrated from her country for a better economy or escape from a political turmoil.
"Where are you from?" he asked me again.Back from my musing, I told him, "I'm from Indonesia. I'm a student here.""Oh, cool," he said. Then he repeated his incorrect judgement, as if to show me that it was stupid for looking down on me like that. "You speak lovely English to me." (Wondered what he would say if I told him I'm doing PhD here).
So here is why a white Aussie man could have acted that way. He was looking at a tiny woman with a loose veil and a sweater that was apparently too big, doing the hanging at the backyard at almost noon. Sounds very domestic, huh.
One could say, 'don't judge the book by its cover.' Others might have thought so far as 'him being racist (at least in his mind).' But this is not the first time people see me 'differently' because of how I look. Just to mention a few, a check-in attendant at Juanda airport spoke a bit rude to me, as I was checking in for my flight to Hong Kong. "Paspornya mana mbak?" (Where's your passport?). I knew she thought I was a migrant worker. No need to get offended in my part. Doing my research on migrant workers, I kind of anticipated this. I just smiled at her, and handed her my official passport. Not a moment too soon, she changed her tone. "Ada tugas ke Hong Kong, bu?" (On duty to Hong Kong, ma'am?).
I just find it funny that my current readings on alternative modernities are reflected on to these 'incidents.' It seems clear how falsely people think that being modern can be represented by what you wear (or my bad for looking 'too modest.'?). Although I eventually 'won' as I produced my social capitals (my 'so-called lovely English' and official passport), it is apparent that in this widely claimed global world, many things are still skin-deep.
Yet, knowing that being modern is more about having the habit of self-questioning, there's really no need to be overacted. There's certainly another better way to strike back.