Friday, February 15, 2008


I recently made promise to my partner and my son that I will not smoke inside our flat anymore. I felt very good about this new selfless decision. Actually, I felt quite heroic about it. It was a small step toward quitting smoke.

However, an event this morning gave me a new insight. I will not quit smoking. As a heavy-smoker friend told me once, ‘only quitters quit.’

I was outside the building, in the cold in my homey pants and t-shirt, having my morning cigarette after walking my son to school. A neighbour walked pass and we exchanged greetings. Then another neighbour came. I do not know his name, only a nod whenever we passed, as a solidarity nod among mature-post-graduate students living in a student hall.

This time, he stopped by and smiled. I said hi and good morning. Then out of a sudden, he asked me where I am from. I said, ‘Indonesia.’ He said, still smiling, ‘I do not know that Indonesian people smoke.’

A-ha! Here we go again, I thought. If he were going to the road I had thought he would, it would not be the first time. Yet I played along.

‘Oh yes they do! Heavily. Indonesian people are one of the heaviest smokers in the world. In fact, we have very good strong cigarettes with cloves far better than any western cigarettes,’ I told him.

Then he smiled again. By now I know that his smile is the most insincere smile men would use before making their sexist remarks. ‘What religion are you? Are you a Muslim or a Christian?’ he asked.

‘I am not a Muslim,’ I told him politely. He looked a bit disappointed. Then he started again, ‘I have never known any Indonesian… (paused) smoke.’

I would happily filled the blanks and re-phrase for him. I would bet my bottom dollar that what he meant was ‘I have never known any Asian woman smokes.’
As I mentioned, he was not the first man making this remark to me. There had been a new security guy in our building, thanks good God that he is not here anymore, who told me directly, ‘Why are you smoking? You are a woman. Are you a Muslim?’ At that time, I was so shocked that someone who lives and works in this modern European society would make such a sexist prejudice remark. This time I was not as surprised.

I smiled as sweet as I can. The most insincere smile I could do to return my neighbour’s bigoted smile. ‘Oh, I’m surprised you know many Indonesian people in Manchester. I know almost not all Indonesian people in Manchester, there are only about 100 of us. We have routine gathering. Who do you know?’

My neighbour took his time to answer. I cannot decide yet whether he needed time to overcome his shock on my question or to search for names. He came up with a name did not sound Indonesian. I could almost swear that there was no Indonesian person in Manchester by that name. But as a sweet and kind person, I had to save him from embarrassment.

‘Ah, is that the guy living in Cheetam Hill? I think I have met him once. Any other Indonesian you know here?’He gave up for that day. He mumbled something like where he met this bloke and said goodbye to me.

The next time I saw him outside the flat, he said to me, "Are you still smoking?" No need to reply as I was indeed, smoking. This time I was fed up, and this is what I said, "Please help me, I cannot decide: are you sexist or racist or both?"  I could see with great satisfaction the shock and defeat in his face. I puffed my last smoke to the cold air, threw the cigarette butt to the bin, and went upstairs to my flat leaving him thinking.

If I were an angry mean woman I had been ten years ago, I would have said to this bigot, ‘And yet you demand to be treated the same as all human regardless of your race and gender? Go back to your little tribal village wherever it is, man!’

In this age of political correctness, with a little remark by a white person towards other race considered racist and bigotry, I cannot help but thinking, who is the bigot here? Who needs more education?

* * *

(Written in March 2007, originally posted on

Postscript: We have now moved to Manchester city centre and I have never met that sexist-racist ex-neighbour again.

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