By Lenita Tiong
For years I have been living with aliens, but actually I was the alien. The Khmer word for foreigner is "boh-re-teh". The older folks, however, use the word "barang" which means French, as the only foreigners they knew were the French who colonised Cambodia from 1863 till 1953. I was called "barang" by my first landlady.
As a "boh-re-teh", I was well respected as I lived in a big house and drove a car. At the market, I was addressed as "madam" even by hawkers who knew only two English words "madam, buy buy".
In the Christian circles, I represented the church leadership and so with the ecclesiological and academic status, I was the "neak krew" (female teacher) and I received "kow-taos" (bows) everywhere I went.
But now, back in Sarawak, I am a local, but I still live with aliens. At first, they were the Indonesian maids in my brother's house in Miri. I was "kakak" (elder sister) to them. In a house of two maids, one teenager, an elderly ailing lady and this "kakak", we had to be a family. We had meals together.
What mum ate, we all ate together. Initially, the maids insisted that the fruits and treats were only for "nenek" (grandmother) since they were given to her by her friends. One maid cried when she shared with me about her first employer who insisted that she ate in the kitchen only after the family had eaten.
Now that we are in Bintulu and live in a big house in an Iban community, we are aliens and yet locals. The neighbours know my parents as "uncle and auntie Cina" as we are the only Chinese family in this community. I am merely "anak uncle or anak auntie". A few ladies call me "madik Dicky", identifying me as Dicky's sibling. I have become a commoner, with no social standing and no more "kow taos".
But word somehow got out that there is an alien in the house and recently a group of kids stood outside the kitchen window and saw Kosal, my Khmer helper. They stuck their tongues out at her and went "neh-neh-neh, neh-neh-neh". I was shocked that even kids would know how to treat foreigners differently.
I remember when I was in Sudan years ago, the neighbourhood kids would run out when they saw me walk past and would call out "Chinese, Chinese". As Chinese, we stand out like sore thumbs in that African and Arab community.
Living with foreigners allows us to see how racist we all can be. Like a mirror, we see our true inner self. Unlike the kids who would shout and stick out their tongues, we are more sophisticated in our reaction and disguise our true feelings well.
Recently, I took a whole set of documents to be photocopied. The worker at the shop was a Bangladeshi. Soon after he started copying, an original document was stuck in the document feeder. I asked him to copy the conventional way and not to use the feeder. Then I realised that he was doing only one set when I needed two. His explanation: do one and then use the copy to go through the document feeder.
I told him that the copy of a copy would not be as clear. But he was already half way through and I asked if he remembered which he had done and which he hadn't. He confidently said yes. Then I realised that he had rearranged my original documents. They must be in the right order for the submission of the work permit! What can I do but laugh. The boss then commented that the worker is always like that, he has his own idea about what to do, and then passed a racist remark on his skin colour.
Immediately I found myself on the side of the worker and defended him.
As a missionary, I lived among the foreigners, people very different from me, people who do things in ways which baffled and often times frustrated me.
Now I am a local, but I still live with foreigners. They still baffle and frustrate me, or is it now the other way round? They have come to our land and they live among the aliens. Do we frustrate them with our ways? I am sure we do.
As I reflected on what God wanted the Israelites to do with the aliens living among them, I realised that, to the aliens, the Israelites' ways must be equally frustrating and baffling. No work on Sabbath, not even the animals. Who had ever heard of animals needing rest? The land resting too? How odd.
God's love for the aliens is truly out of the norm and must have been so odd not only to His own people, the Israelites, but also to the aliens who lived and worked among them.
God's command to His people was "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were foreigners in Egypt." (Ex. 22:21, NIV)
The word "alien" is used in NIV while KJV and NLT use foreigners and strangers. God's command to His people was to ensure that the foreigners living among them have certain rights as well as limitations. They were to be loved, treated fairly and generously and were to be provided asylum when in trouble.
My question is that for the aliens now living among us, do they find our love for God and for them odd and out of the norm? Is there a difference if Indonesian, Bangladeshi, Pakistani, Chinese, Myanmar or Cambodian helpers and workers work for a Christian? Is God's love for humanity through us obvious to them?
My prayer is that it would be, and so to all who live with "aliens", let's make a difference.
— Adapted from Connection, The Chinese Methodist Message, Sarawak