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The absurdity of equality

Updated: Aug 1, 2021

Before Hong Kong’s return to the People’s Republic of China on 1 July 1997, many Hong Kong People contemplated immigration as if it was a matter of life and death. Decades before the designated date, yee mun (移民 or immigrating in Cantonese) to developed Western countries like the United States of America, Canada, Britain, etc. was brewing heavily in most people's minds.

I suppose this was partly due to the Hong Kong People's fear of being governed by a less developed and liberal country and how they perceived themselves as superior than the mainlanders due to better living standard, being more sophisticated, socially mature and modern.

The Chinese mainlanders were regarded as country bumpkins, gauche, people who considered spittoons in public places as a matter of practicality, rather than a social faux pas (not to mention an unhygienic practice). At least that was what the movies produced in Hong Kong portrayed the mainland Chinese at that time. Not only did they make fun of Hong Kong people's desperation for yee mun but also the backwardness of mainland Chinese.

Within the last 25 years, China has become more developed than anyone could have ever imagined and it is already one of the biggest economic powers in the world. Guess who is having the last laugh now?

If people from the same ethnicity and culture could feel the disparity of social gap due to inequality of economic power, what more of those from different genetic makeup living in countries with huge socio-economic gap? Consider someone from Western Europe and another from Sub-Saharan Africa. DNA and culture will not be the only asymmetricity between them. Political freedom, rule of law, education, social values, worldview and lifestyle will all conspire to widen the equality gap further.

Today, people from different parts of the world; whether developed or developing, are able to understand each other better due to the rapid advancement of information technology (and low-fare airlines). What used to be TV programmes such as National Geographic, Discovery and Travel Channels which helped to open up the world where we could learn about cultural taboos and social norms from even the most remote of areas are now being replaced by unlimited online content via social media, making information even more accessible than ever.

We no longer fear the unknown, and instead some of us have been called out for cultural-appropriation if we are not careful, mindful or become over-zealous in embracing the cultures of those in disadvantaged positions.

As a Malaysian, I sometimes find it difficult to define whether Malaysia is a developing country or not (technically it is not). When I inform foreigners that I am from Malaysia, they immediately think about the Petronas Twin Towers and would tell me how developed Malaysia is, much to my own amusement. I suppose while we are not as developed as Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan, Taiwan or South Korea, we are still better off than many other countries, which puts me in a position of privilege to a certain extent.

That was perhaps an unnecessarily long prologue to an intimate story I wish to share on the inequality between a man and woman from two different worlds. In this story, I was the one in the position of privilege.

An Ethiopian woman selling spices at Fajira Market, Dire Dawa
A woman selling spices at Fajira Market, Dire Dawa

A few years ago, I had the opportunity to live in Ethiopia. While traveling in Bahir Dar with a friend, we met two Ethiopian students at a local cultural bar. One of them was graduating from a local university and was out celebrating with friends. We had a fantastic time, talking, laughing and dancing the night away. The night ended with me hooking up with one of the boys, Teddy. I was 32 and he was just about 21.

The next day, Teddy invited my friend and I to his friend's graduation ceremony at Bahir Dar University. I could not be more delighted and accepted the invitation graciously. There is nothing more thrilling and gratifying for a traveller than to be welcomed and included by the local community. This and also the fact that he was terribly handsome and a caring and amazing lover.

After the graduation ceremony, Teddy showed my friend and I interesting places to visit in Bahir Dar. One night, while we were out and about in town, I excused myself to get a pack of cigarettes from a nearby grocery kiosk. Sweet Teddy volunteered to escort me in true gentleman fashion.

While we were walking on a dim but busy street, I received a text message on my mobile phone. While reading it, a man appeared abruptly from my side and snatched my phone away. It all happened so quickly that I was left in a state of shock. The next thing I knew it, Teddy had given chase to the thief and disappeared into the darkness of the night. I had never seen anyone sprinted so fast before. Looking back at this now, there is a certain hilarity to the image - you know, an Ethiopian running, but at that time, this humour was lost in me because what I saw that night was a gallant man going after the bad guy. Just like those scenes seen only in movies.

As soon as I regained my composure, I shouted after Teddy to stop the chase. A shitty mobile phone was definitely not worth sacrificing his life for. Minutes after, he returned empty handed, looking completely crestfallen and was profusely apologetic. I suppose he felt embarrassed or responsible that something like this should happen to me in his country.

I told him that I needed to report the incident to the police since the SIM card belonged to an organization and it was procedural for me to report a theft. We didn’t have to walk far to the police station because we bumped into two uniformed officers on the same street. Teddy started explaining the incident to the officers in Amharic. I tried to talk to them but nobody listened. I suppose it was cultural that in the presence of a man, a woman should just shut the fuck up, especially if she doesn't speak the local language at all.

After a few minutes, I sensed there was a problem since the officers didn’t look too sympathetic. From their facial expression and body language, they seemed to think we were the culprits. Teddy explained to me that the police did not believe what happened and instead, accused him of conspiring with the thief.

I was baffled and stunned. He told me that since I was a foreigner and he is Ethiopian, they just assumed that he was trying to take advantage of me.

I didn’t know how to react except that it was one of the most ridiculous things I have ever heard in my life. I worked as a human rights officer in countries like Afghanistan where human rights abuses are ten times more severe than most places in the world, but this one tops my list of absurdities.

I insisted on talking to the officers myself but when Teddy told me that it would just annoy them further, I decided to let it go. I was angry and upset at how he was treated but was also afraid to make a fuss for fear of making him feel worse than he already was.

We returned to where our friends were in awkward silence. I was distracted because all I could think about was how embarrassed he must have felt. For someone who had just demonstrated masculinity and chivalry a couple of minutes ago, and now being dismissed like a worthless fly to be swatted in front of a woman must had been humiliating for him.

When I recalled the entire incident to my friend privately later, I was so infuriated that tears welled in my eyes.

Apart from this unfortunate event, Teddy and I spent the remaining short time in Bahir Dar with our arms wrapped around each other. While I enjoyed the physical intimacy, I was unable to get into his mind no matter how much I tried. I wanted to know about his childhood, his hopes and dreams, how life was for his family during the big famine when the whole world associated Ethiopia with images of starving children, their distended bellies and faces covered with flies.

Since his command of English was basic, it was difficult to initiate any deep conversation. In the end, I accepted that we had nothing in common except mutual physical attraction. I did however learn that Teddy only takes cold shower, even on cold winter days. According to him, "cold water make me healthy. Look my body strong. I never sick." When I shook my head in disbelief, he quickly added, " Please believe me. Is true" and slapped his strong and beautiful chest to rest his case.

Religious paintings at the Ura Kidane Meret monastery in Bahir Dar

When we returned to Addis Ababa, Teddy and I stayed connected. I was very touched when he invited me to visit his family in his humble home. I was happy that I could at least have a glimpse of his private world, a place where he probably felt the safest and most protected. His family was welcoming and lovely, unlike the awful assumptions I made before based on many less friendly Ethiopians I met.

One day, he offered to show me around a shopping area in Piazza, notoriously known for pick pockets and snatch thieves. Compared to Bole where most expatriates live, the Piazza is frequented by locals and only popular among tourists for souvenirs and gold jewelleries.

When I finished shopping, he took me to the bus station to get a ride back to Bole. Embarrassed, I told him that I was not allowed to take mini-buses and could only take taxis. Out of curiosity, he asked me why.

I explained to him that as an expatriate under the care of an international organisation, I was prohibited from taking local mini-buses due to the bombing incident in front of the Hilton Hotel in Addis Ababa which killed three foreigners and injured nine in May of 2008.

He told me not to worry as mini-buses are usually safe and it is after all the cheapest mode of public transportation in Addis Ababa. (A taxi usually cost about 50 birr from Piazza to Bole while a mini-bus cost only about 1.90 birr). I explained that if I insisted on taking the mini-bus and something bad were to happen, may it be from a bomb or road accident, I would not be covered by my insurance.

He looked at me as if I was from another planet. He didn’t have to say anything for me to understand how incredibly ridiculous that must had sounded to him when millions of Ethiopians were suffering from famine every single year. Most of them didn't even own insurance policies, much less try to understand the exclusion clauses that came with it. This probably topped his list of absurdities.

These two events taught me that equality is an ideal concept that only exists on paper, never in reality. It is something that we cannot hope to change overnight, or perhaps never will. How can we when we cannot even begin to empathise with each other unless we are or have been in the other’s position?

Like a chicken and a duck trying to converse with each other, we could go on and on, clucking and quacking, defending our choices and positions loudly and it would still sound gibberish and meaningless to each other's ears.

I left Ethiopia a year later with a heavy heart. If there was one thing I knew I would miss, it was Teddy. The day when he told me he loved me, I shut him down. I told him that he was too young to understand love and I was not able to explain lust to him in a way he could understand.

I was fond of Teddy as he was kind, gentle, respectful, unblemished and uncomplicated. Perhaps it was because I am older, or maybe I was more privileged. Whatever it was, I felt protective of him despite his superior physique and masculinity.

When we made love, I felt an aching pain in my heart especially when I looked into his earnest eyes. I knew it wasn't love nor lust. It was simply sadness, anger towards the universe and a heavy feeling of being truly sorry for someone. And if I were to be completely honest, I think I was mostly just consumed by a selfish need to rescue or protect the less privileged. I find this need obscenely egotistical, which is why my stomach often churns in disgust when people talk openly about their acts of charity as if they come from a place of true altruism.

It wasn't until many years later when I felt that exact sentiment again. It was for a young Berber tour guide when I was travelling in Morocco. I was attracted to Halim physically but thankfully, I did not attempt to create any connection other than what it was. In many ways, he reminded me of Teddy - kind, gentle, respectful, but definitely blemished because of the exposure to life's challenges that came with his work experience, as opposed to just being a student. His English was also a lot better and because of that, what I had with Teddy physically was matched by stimulating conversations carried over long hours of car ride across Morocco with Halim.

From our conversations, I could tell Halim's heart has long been hardened by a difficult life attributed by a discriminatory and unjust system maintained by a corrupted government. We even ran into a similar situation where he had to deal with corrupted law enforcement officers who stopped us at a police checkpoint on the highway from Marrakech to Fes through the breathtaking Mount Atlas. (Another story, another time.)

After that incident, I was surprised again by the overwhelming sense of need to protect him. I even conjured up images in my head of asking him to come back to Malaysia with me. Again, I was able to recognise that my desire did not come from a place of love or lust, or even the desire to rescue him this time.

In fact, it dawned on me that it came from my position of privilege that had allowed me to feel so powerful, strong and superior that I had the gull to think that I could offer this man a better life. My God, that sense of power was both intoxicating and frightening at the same time.

It was right there and then when I think I finally understand why many older white men had married younger women from Africa and Asia. Before that, I would automatically assume that it was purely based on their lust and desire for submissive and obedient women.

The intoxicating feeling of having the power to change someone's life and make it better is tempting and it never occurred to me before. It has also made me wonder if the whole notion of gender inequality is completely founded. What if it's just really about the imbalance of power between human beings, regardless of gender? Period.

Women are disproportionately affected by this imbalance of power more than men because of prior and persistent subjugation which left our gender in a vulnerable and less advantageous position, but what if we were given the same power one day? When that day comes, I have no doubt we will behave exactly the same as anyone who has had the upper hand in this power dynamic.

I know this because I have lived that day several times.

* The Human Development Index (HDI) is a comparative measure of life expectancy, literacy, education and standards of living for countries worldwide. It is a standard means of measuring well-being, especially child welfare. It is used to distinguish whether a country is developed, developing or under-developed, and also to measure the impact of economic policies on quality of life. According to UNDP HDI 2020, Malaysia is ranked at 62, Morocco at 121 and Ethiopia at 173 out of 189 countries.

This article was first written on 25 September 2008.

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