Where are you from?

I hate this question ^^. It doesn’t tell anything about me. In fact, I never even travelled around Russia. Proud of it? No. But it’s a fact.

In Russia, illegal immigrants from Tajikistan and Uzbekistan (and in fact all ex-USSR) are despised because ‘they are stealing our jobs’. In Turkey and many other places, Russian women get a lot of whistling behind their back. Because they’re all prostitutes and called Natasha. In Europe, Turks are despised because they’re all horny and cheesy molesters and their women are prostitutes. In Italy, Russian and Ukraninan illegal immigrants are despised because they don’t speak Italian and do low-class jobs. In Europe and around the world, Italians are despised because they are loud and eat pasta all the time.

Around the world, Filipinos are despised because they are always illegal immigrants on low-paid housekeeping jobs. In the Philippines, Pakistanis are despised because they come to work in an overpopulated country like Philippines for no apparent reason. In Iran and Europe, Pakistanis are despised because they are from the ‘country of terrorists’. Around the world, Iranians are despised because they are all terrorists. Or is it Iraq? In Iran, Pakistanis are also despised. Because they are ‘the wacky neighbours’. Both of them, Iran and Pakistan, despise the Afghans. Because they are the real terrorists. In Pakistan, the African immigrants are also despised. Because they look weird. In Afghanistan, the Westerners are despised as invaders and infidels.

Pakistan generally worships the Chinese. Because they build the roads. Like in Africa. You should see these roads. The Chinese are generally racist: they don’t like Pakistanis and Africans, but still build their roads. Not to mention that the Chinese are looked upon as weirdos all over the world. Of course: they speak the language that nobody understands and take a lot pictures. With you. They might as well be Koreans and Japanese, or even Malay or Hawaiian – the Western world doesn’t see the difference.

Now, one of my favourite writers, Elif Shafak, has this article. It is mostly about storytelling, and about herself, and about how storytelling destroys our cultural boundaries. I like this piece in particular:

One way of transcending these cultural ghettos is through the art of storytelling. Stories cannot demolish frontiers, but they can punch holes in our mental walls. And through those holes, we can get a glimpse of the other, and sometimes even like what we see. In my mid-twenties, I moved to Istanbul, the city I adore. I lived in a very vibrant, diverse neighborhood where I wrote several of my novels. I was in Istanbul when the earthquake hit in 1999. When I ran out of the building at three in the morning, I saw something that stopped me in my tracks. There was the local grocer there — a grumpy, old man who didn ́t sell alcohol and didn ́t speak to marginals. He was sitting next to a transvestite with a long black wig and mascara running down her cheeks. I watched the man open a pack of cigarettes with trembling hands and offer one to her. And that is the image of the night of the earthquake in my mind today — a conservative grocer and a crying transvestite smoking together on the sidewalk. In the face of death and destruction our mundane differences evaporated, and we all became one even if for a few hours.

Maybe thats what it takes: a personal earthquake – to realise some basic things about the people around you.

In Borneo, Filipino immigrants is that marginal group of people who are generally looked upon with distrustful contempt. They must be living here illegally. They definitely have a knife and just waiting for a moment to slash your bag open or mug you in a dark alley. They can only catch fish and they obey no laws.

When I first arrived to Banggi island, I didn’t know what to expect from the place. Nobody really goes there even among the locals. Banggi island is situated in the Northeast end of Borneo, about and hour and a half by boat from Kudat town. It has no historical attractions, no dive centres, no orang-utan reserves or five-star resorts. Just the endless jungle full of wild pigs (these beasts surely live well in a Muslim country), huge lizards and nasty monkeys. Most of the people who live on Banggi are immigrant Filipinos from Mindanao (the Muslim island) or Palawan (the touristy island), some of them already with a Malay passport and Malay family.

What do they do? Well, let e tell you how I met Jimmy.

Jimmy loves acts almost as much as he loves people.

Jimmy is famous on Banggi and deserves to be known everywhere else. He came to Borneo from Palawan about 20 years ago and never went back to Puerto Princesa since. He used to earn money by fishing. Not with a net, no. Local fishermen are hardcore. They dive with a spear and a hose. They can’t be bothered with the diving equipment – they have a pressurised hose that allows them to breathe as deep as 50m under the water. For those of you who don’t dive: this shit is freaking dangerous.

Jimmy married a local woman and they now have 5 kids. A few years ago he decided that hardcore hose-diving is too risky for him and his family, and the fishing business is too unstable, so he left it and went into construction supervising instead. Every morning Jimmy picks up his workers from different parts of the island and brings them in his car to the sites. In the evening, he delivers them home. On the way he picks up random hitchhikers who need a lift to their school/hospital/workplace. Or people like me.

Hitchhiking mood on.

Jimmy doesn’t want to forget his English and invites the rare foreign tourists to stay at his place, try his wife’s homemade cookies and maybe cook something of yours. He drove me all around Banggi to the most remote corners of the jungle and told me about every single village in the area. Everyone around knows him because of his jolly attitude to life and sincere willingness to help. His car needs about 3 minutes to get the engines started, the windows at the back don’t close and the front wheel on passenger side almost fell off when we were driving one evening, but within these 2 days Jimmy saved around 10 people from being stranded on the road in the heavy tropical rain and 1 young fellow who just was in a motorbike accident.

He just asked for one thing when I was leaving: “I will write you my address so you could send us a postcard, okay?”

Now we all live in some kind of a social and cultural circle. We all do. We ́re born into a certain family, nation, class. But if we have no connection whatsoever with the worlds beyond the one we take for granted, then we too run the risk of drying up inside. Our imagination might shrink. Our hearts might dwindle. And our humanness might wither if we stay for too long inside our cultural cocoons. Our friends, neighbors, colleagues, family – if all the people in our inner circle resemble us, it means we are surrounded with our mirror image. Now one other thing women like my grandma do in Turkey is to cover mirrors with velvet or to hang them on the walls with their backs facing out. It ́s an old Eastern tradition based on the knowledge that it ́s not healthy for a human being to spend too much time staring at his own reflection.

The village I stayed in.

For me, encounters like this revive my faith in humanity. Because some people really represent the spirit of the place where they live. I must make sure that Jimmy will get into the next Lonely Planet guide.


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