Where Am I Allowed To Be Me?

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Where do you come from? He asked.

She queried, they wanted to know.

Me? From the jungle!

It’s so evocative, provocative.

(isn’t it?)

Dangerous, different…

Inciting. Exciting.

Vague. Vacuous…?

It’s a place, a space, a location that is what you want it to be.

Where am I from?

– from From the Jungle, by Anna Sulan Masing

Inspired by Manick Govinda and the Manifesto Club’s Visiting Artists and Academics Campaign I wrote the piece below in support of their work. This is a personal account of what happened and what I felt and still feel, when a friend from Malaysia was detained at Heathrow and deported a year ago. She had been invited to help, advise, participate and complete the development of a piece of work.

Let me tell you a story” – what happened?:

It was around April 2012, when I received a call from my friend Anna, who sounded in distress. She was at the airport to meet our friend, Abot, who had flown in to help with the final development of a performance piece which stood as part of Anna’s Phd in performance and gender studies. Anna said that she had already been waiting at the airport for a few hours. The authorities were holding Abot and not allowing her to enter the country on suspicion that she was entering the country as an illegal worker.

It was by chance that I had picked up the phone call. Anna could very easily have had to deal with this on her own. I got myself to the airport for about 8pm. It was a Friday evening.

Abot had flown in to London from a small town, Kuching, which is in Malaysian Borneo. Anna and I, together with two other UK-based performers, had in the year before spent time working and sharing stories and performance practices with a group of dancers at the Sarawak Cultural Village in Kuching, as part of Anna’s Phd in performance and gender studies. Anna is half Iban, Iban being a tribe in Borneo. Her research specifically looks at performance and performers from a post-colonial feminist viewpoint. Abot was key to the final piece – From the Junglein that she was Iban, female, and a performer.

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Upriver in Malaysian Borneo. We stayed here as part of our time researching and sharing ideas. 

We sat for some hours. We didn’t really know what to do. There were no advice lines, and no experts to consult. The clock was ticking – there was every chance that they were going to put Abot on the next flight back to Borneo. Luckily, we both had iPhones to surf the net for ideas and numbers to call. Luckily, I had a phone charger on me – Anna’s phone had all but run flat. Now, you may feel that the presence of a phone charger is trivial, but it felt like a lifeline. It is no fun at all, feeling completely alone in a situation that involves government policy, stranded in a space as unfriendly and liminal as an airport.

So, we called solicitors, embassies, anyone we knew who might help. No one, of course, was answering – it was a Friday night. I had, by chance, heard about Manick Govinda’s efforts to change the laws regarding artists travelling. I wasn’t able to reach him directly that evening. I left a distressed message on his, a stranger’s, phone.

Finally, a stroke of luck. Someone happened to be working late in a solicitor’s firm and answered the phone. Anna ended up spending several hundred pounds to hire a solicitor on the spot. However, in retrospect, what I found most helpful was that we were able to talk to someone, anyone, who seemed to know more than we did about what could be done. On a practical level, it turned out that the solicitor was not able to advise on how to convince the UK Border Agency that Abot was not an illegal immigrant. Her office didn’t, at the time, know about the new laws Manick had helped change, and neither did the UK Border Agency. Anna and I learnt about this from our iphones but this didn’t help us buy any more time. (Till today, a year later, people cannot access with ease the information about the changes in law. I know this because less than a month ago, I referred a roomful of professional theatremakers making international work to Manick as a resource. They still understood that the old work visa system was necessary to invite visiting artists into the UK.)

We continued to bounce between calls from the solicitor and the UK Border Agency. Now, we did not have a number for them and they would not speak to anyone apart from with Anna. We had to wait for them to call us. Time passed slowly and painfully.

After much discussion, they felt satisfied that Abot was not a sex worker, which was their first assumption. They finally believed Anna that Abot was here to help with her project, but then the next issue was this: they said that she needed a work visa. They did not accept that this collaborative sharing of stories and skills to make a performance piece didn’t fall under the category of work. It did not seem to matter that  Anna was not employing Abot. The premise is this: Abot would not be able to visit if it had not been for Anna’s help. They had gone through Abot’s things and, counting the money she had, and deemed it insufficient for a trip into the country. Seeing her as being dependent on Anna, it was too dangerous to let her in.

Furthermore, they did not accept the premise that Anna and Abot were friends and that Abot was a guest of Anna’s. They asked about their Facebook friendship and looked up Abot’s facebook account. They said that friends would facebook message each other more frequently than the two did.

They refused to talk to me – I could have vouched for the relationship and also, showed that Abot had other friends in the country and that she was our collective guest, in that way. I could also have stated that I wasn’t being paid for performing. No one was “working” for Anna. We – there are two other UK-based women who went out to Borneo and who developed and performed in the show – were helping Anna with her research. We are all friends and artists together and our time together working on the piece fast-tracked us to friendship, as all artists know. Working on autobiographical material on an intense, full-time basis really does transform relationships.

Meanwhile, what’s happening with Abot? I don’t think she had ever travelled very far away from the small town of Kuching on her own. She is, to all intents and purposes, a small town girl. She is a single mother to two young children. She didn’t speak English very well, or rather, the English spoken in certain parts of Malaysia is a very simple version. Access to her was also controlled via the UK Border agency. We got to speak to her over the phone and Abot sounded calm enough, but I didn’t know who was listening or watching her on the other end. She wasn’t informed as to what was going to happen, or when. We found out later that she didn’t know what she was allowed to do, so she remained glued to her seat. The officials stated to us that they had told her that she could move about. This got lost in translation. No translator was offered and they did not ask us to communicate matters with her.

When we were in Kuching, part of the research was to talk to the women there about their journeys through life, family histories, their aspirations, the hardships they faced to get to where they were. I know that Abot has a tough exterior – she’s had a tough life – and Anna and I had to reign in our deep distress when talking to her. It felt awful. We had, in some way, led her to be detained at an airport, away from her children, away from her real, paying job and so she was losing money to visit us, in a cold foreign country, after a 15+ hour journey, where no one was saying anything that made sense. She later wrote a text to us saying that she did not understand they were treating her like a “bad person”.

Abot was sent back to Malaysia the next morning on the first flight out.

Video greeting from some of the dancers at the Sarawak Cultural Village sent a few months after we were there in Sept 2011. Abot is third from left.

***

I’m a bad person – on feeling helpless, angry and guilty:

These things surprised me:

– Nothing was done face to face. The Border Control telephoned Anna and asked what seemed like odd, irrational, invasive, ignorant questions about Abot. I believe that the first thing they said was, “So she says she’s a dancer,” as an accusation that “dancing” is an euphemism for a sex-related job. We find out later that a top tip is to never say that you’re a dancer even if you are one. In the scheme of things, dancing is on the bottom rung occupation within the generally suspicious category of artists, in terms of border control. Abot, incidentally, is a specialist in the traditional dances of tribal women in Borneo. Her traditional dance outfit was in her luggage.

Om_people_iban

Image from the internet of a dancer in Iban costume.

– How helpless we felt. It was evening, no emergency helplines to embassies seemed to exist or work. No one at the airport could advise us impartially. There appeared to be confusion and subjectivity from the voice on the other side of the line. We were absolutely a position of weakness, despite being educated, UK residents. Border Control was completely in control. We waited, with no indication of timeline, for them to call. If Anna’s phone had died before she had managed to call me, Abot and Anna would have been entirely isolated in the predicament.

– Stupid things worried me: how would we get home if the Piccadilly line stopped running? I had things to do, deadlines, a maxed out credit card – I couldn’t afford to spend the night at the airport. I had acquired British nationality some years back and I was suddenly paranoid that this would be investigated or revoked. I recalled times when, even with permanent residency status, I was asked at airports in London how I had achieved this. I was always too taken aback and scared to state, “None of your business” and I am still slightly irrational and defensive about this to this day. Anna, who I was with, had not yet acquired her British citizenship at the time. I later found out that she too had felt irrationally nervous about being thrown out of the country.

– I was thinking all sorts of angry and racist thoughts: a well known author I had invited over for an event in a few weeks from then was white, middle class and well turned out. Would she be stopped at the border like Abot, who was tiny, pretty, young and who definitely looked like what one would think a stereotypical mail order Thai bride might resemble? (Why would she look like that, you ask? Well, she’s from a small town and visiting us was a big deal. In her excitement, she would have made herself up to look as pretty as she would have felt happy.) I felt conflicted, ashamed, selfish that I was worrying about my future possible problem. I was annoyed that Abot looks like she does and that she doesn’t speak better English. I was cross with Anna that we hadn’t preempted all of this by getting more than the necessary paperwork done i.e. applied for a work visa. I was cross with myself for thinking that perhaps Abot would run away and disappear off into the night, leaving her two small children, and becoming an illegal immigrant in the UK.

Soon after, I spoke to a literary agency in the course of my work. They confirmed that writers who travel across borders for book tours tend to state that they are tourists. This is usually never a problem because they look “like tourists”: white, middle class, educated and not young, pretty girls.

Years ago, I had to renew my non-British passport in London and my official job title at the time was “Hostess”. This simply meant that I met and greeted guests, in this instance at an extremely classy five star deluxe hotel in Knightsbridge. The very helpful passport officer advised me not to use this word in my application. Any young, East Asian, vaguely attractive woman would look suspicious. I should not make life more difficult for myself.

It hurts me to write this. I feel ashamed of myself, for no substantial reason. I have delayed writing this response to what happened because of this irrational fear and guilt. What have I done wrong? I don’t quite know. I feel like an outsider, alone and due to be caught out.

I wonder if Anna understands and shares some of this irrational fear. We are both mature, professional women with high-powered jobs as well as being artists, from good universities, cultured, and relatively articulate. This ridiculous fear of being packed off “back to where we’ve come from”, is for me, more present than I care to admit.

Abot’s question, “Why did they think I was a bad person?” resonates. I imagine that when you’re held as the Other, it’s sometimes hard not to start thinking that you’ve put a foot wrong somewhere.

I have rewritten and am sending this in now, a year later, because something came up recently, to do with judgments based on appearances and hyperregulation. It made me feel acutely that I need to get over hesitation over whether what I say has any validity. I feel, of course, that overwhelmingly familiar fear of talking about what I believe in. Bigger than my fear, though, is my need to find some answers to questions and that is why I am resubmitting this now, and not anonymously, as I had previously decided. Will one person’s questioning change anything? I really do want a quiet life but I can’t have my quiet life if I am angry with and doubting my own voice.

***

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As part of a performance for Anna, here I am wearing a Malaysian kebaya outfit and I’ve been made up in a very particular way. Think air hostesses. Think of the “Singapore girl” of Singapore Airlines.

Where am I allowed to be me?

The country where I grew up in, Malaysia, doesn’t recognise dual citizenship and I have held a British passport for some years now. The political situation in Malaysia is far from ideal. There is almost certainly a list of dissidents who are monitored in some way, and I sometimes think that I may well be on it, even though I am in no way up to date or involved in politics there. However, when I bought some independent films in Malaysia, they recorded our passport numbers/ID card numbers and addresses. (These films are never go out on general release.) When I was at an event at Amnesty in London to do with freedom of speech in Malaysia, there was a ticket and mailing list I suddenly felt nervous to be on.

My ‘new’ country –  I’ve lived here for almost two decades – sometimes bewilders me. Mostly, I can’t imagine being at home anywhere else. More than I would like though, I am shaken to the core and feel the ground fall away beneath me. I am racially abused, very occasionally, by strangers in unexpected places ranging from Upper Street, Islington (arguably bourgeois and cultured) to Bethnal Green (multicultural and artsy). I am a performer and my work is visual. I look Chinese or East Asian and I am aware of what that often signals. I am reminded of what I represent based on what I look like.

I am an artist. The idea that the UK government regards identifies artists as a special class of people who should be regarded with suspicion if they travel across any border, is yet another reminder that this layer of culture and civilization we wear proudly and accept as a given is a veneer.

I am a woman, and apparently, not unattractive. (This is something I wear with a degree of discomfort i.e. the way I am treated depending on the degree of attractiveness I display.) It has been assumed, many a time, in towns big and small in the UK, but also in my native country, that I am an older white man’s bride, some sort of consort, especially if I am dressed up. This causes me to make the effort to not look feminine or pretty when I am travelling or out with such friends. In London, a friend of mine was asked to leave a swanky restaurant in Soho because they would not believe that she was not a prostitute.

So we’re back to the point we started off at: borders. Spaces we’re allowed into or not. What if I look like a sex worker? What if my life’s activity, making art, is deemed suspicious?

Hearing people at Artsadmin via the Visiting Artists and Academics Campaign talk about their experiences and what they believe in has led me to feel less alone and has given me a sense of having something of an anchor.

What now? I don’t quite know what it is I need to do or where it is I need to be, but I do feel that I will keep doing the best I can, and not hide from the questions I want to ask.

***

I am a Malaysian-born Chinese. I grew up near the capital city, leaving aged 17 to study in the UK. I read Archaeology and Anthropology at Oxford and am an actress and performance maker. I am very aware of my own prejudices and of the assumptions I make but endeavour not to act on. I believe in focussing attention on self-awareness, curiosity and willingness to enter into open dialogue. 

You can read Anna’s testimony here. (Maryline is Abot’s official name, Abot being a nickname her friends use.)

Watch video footage from Anna’s project here, including interviews with the dancers.

4 thoughts on “Where Am I Allowed To Be Me?

Add yours

  1. Dear Vera,Thank you so much for sharing your story. It’s brought a tear to my eye. The biggest force of institutional racism is that of border control and immigration regulations, yet it is a racism which seems acceptable and is rarely challenged. More power to you and your dear friends who have agreed to speak out against the everyday casual injustices of border controls.

  2. Thank you for everything you do and for standing up and voicing out for what you believe in. I care about people having the courage to ask questions and voice opinions. Whether or not I agree with an idea, piping up, especially to express uncertainty, is an important step towards open and continuing dialogue.

  3. Thank you for showing the (in)human reality that lies behind what we usually hear as a ‘statistical fact’. Another outrageous example of the fundamental irrationality at the heart of the way governments arrange things in our name.

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