Monday, March 12, 2007

Meeting Malaysian mothers

Within the French school I began to be aware of a certain group of mothers, who although they had a strong link to France and it's culture were often on the fringes of French society. They were embassy families from French-speaking countries in Africa, like Senegal, or the French-speaking Middle-Eastern countries, like Tunisia, while some were Malaysians married to Frenchmen. These mothers got together regularly for coffee, lunches, Tupperware and jewelry parties. They were friendly to me, always saying hello in the mornings or at school shows and inviting me to their get-togethers. These ladies often moaned about the French and their concerns of racism and exclusion within the school. I agreed they had a point, but being Caucasian and ‘white’ I had my feet in both camps. French-English political or cultural differences are very different from the sensitive French-Algerian issue or the French colonial past. So I kept my distance from the group in general. They were a very glamorous set of ladies, beautifully dressed and made-up, wearing perfectly tailored clothes and matching accessories, but to be honest I didn’t feel very comfortable with them and their ‘ladies-who-lunch’ lifestyle.

At school Marc had two good friends, Adam and Danton. I liked them a lot. When they came to my house they were extremely polite and always ate their food without asking for ketchup or coke. They didn’t whine or act spoilt like so many of the French expat kids did. The boys played wonderfully together, building lego, trains and making imaginary worlds. Both boys were bilingual, even trilingual, having fluent-English speaking Malaysian bilingual mothers and French fathers. Both boys came from families of three children, Adam being the oldest child and Danton in the middle. Marc’s friends lived miles away in the suburbs of KL though and I was terrified of driving there and always got lost. The streets were numbered and I could never find the right Jalan 6/13 or 9/20 and would end up doing several illegal U-turns before arriving, shaking with fear. Since after-school play was not possible, we usually invited the boys for weekend sleepovers or got together in the holidays as a family.

Danton’s parents worked with refugees within the United Nations organization and Adam’s parents worked at the University in sciences. The French fathers had lived in Malaysia for a long time and were integrated in the community. Adam’s mother, Mazida, was a Muslim, although she did not wear the veil and traditional dress of Malaysian women she was serious about her religion. Danton’s mother, Mahes, was of Indian origin and had lived as an expat in several countries before returning to Malaysia.

Mazida and Mahes were not like the other ‘not-French’mothers at school, they were remarkably down-to-earth and too busy working and getting on with life for moaning. We would chat about education, Malaysian versus British, British versus French, and how we could help our children. We worried if we had made the right decision choosing the French school, and we found the homework and school structure bewildering and challenging. We would sometimes ring up each other to check on spellings or strange requests in the French communication book.

Going to Adam’s or Danton’s home was always a pleasure, it was a real cosy family home, a permanent base full of family memorabilia. It was such a pleasure to sit at the kitchen table or in the living room and sip tea and eat Malaysian food. Marc loved spicy food and we would often join Danton and his family for a local Indian breakfast of curry and roti (flatbread) on a weekend in a café near their house in Petaling Jaya. With Adam we would visit at teatime and eat sweet Malaysian cakes and pastries while the men would discuss French literature and politics and the kids ran around playing happily.

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