25 September 2015

A farce of stereotypes...

We all fall prey to the temptation to stereotype people. I know I do, although I try very hard not to, from time to time a thought will creep into my head before I squash it down.  We have all heard them, Americans are brash (actually very few of the Americans I know fall into this stereotype), Irish stupid (again I have not met that many), British are drunkards (there is truth in the fact that the British like to drink but I think few actually ever get drunk), Germans efficient and unfeeling (efficient yes, unfeeling, not that I have noticed), French elegant lotharios (most the French I know well are happily married and very straight laced, some are elegant but many are not), women can’t drive or read maps (really!) and so it goes on. 

behind one of these shops lurks an unfriendly smile...
While there can be a kernel of truth behind stereotypes that have lasted for many years it can be damaging to make assumptions on an individual and their character and competence based on an inaccurate and generalised point of view.  This is particularly so in an expat community where we have to work and get along with people from around the world, having a preconceived notion of what they will be like can potentially sour a professional or personal relationship before it ever gets off the ground.

Stereotypes persist, however, and I came across one the other day in the most bizarre of locations.  I wear a very particular brand of underwear.  I can get it easily in some department stores or online in the UK and some specialist stores in Kazakhstan stocked it.  Sadly neither Miri nor Ipoh have a lingerie shop that sells my preferred brand. Since it has been nearly 2 years since I was able to purchase some of these essentials I was contemplating placing a mail order when my husband saw a brand outlet in a mall in KL.  On our next trip down I made a beeline for the store expecting to be able to stock up to my heart’s content. 

I gave the shop assistant my measurements (both British and European) and, without even looking at me properly she said ‘you can't have that size, too small,' up until this point I thought she just had a very good eye and I had expanded a little, but she ruined the illusion by continuing 'you are European, Europeans are all larger than Malaysian women’.  I must admit to being rather shocked – store assistants are usually trained to flatter the purchasers not to insult them!  In any event while I may not be as slim as I was aged 18 I am the same size as I was at 28 and while I expect to put on a little weight as I move towards my 40s I don’t intend to buy clothes that don’t fit me now just in case!

I would not have minded, genuinely not have minded if the woman had asked to take measurements because she wanted to double check as I don’t want to spend money on something that I can’t use.  I don’t even mind being told that in general Asian women are more petite than Europeans because that is, generally true and I would be a fool to be offended by that. I was, however, rather shocked that a woman (who was, incidentally, larger than me – not that size should matter at all but I found it amusing given the point she was trying to make) refused to sell me something I had asked for based on my ethnicity.  I decided not to buy anything at all in the shop, I did consider writing to the brand’s regional manager but I don’t want to get the woman in trouble and she might have had a bad day or a particularly unpleasant customer just before me or she might even (and this is a stretch as she was very coherent) have had trouble expressing herself in English.  In any event I will give the store the benefit of the doubt and sort out a mail order or get my sister to post some stuff out to me. 

This stereotyping only concerned clothing, nothing of real import, but it still left me quite bemused and a little upset (until my husband and I decided it was just amusing), I can only imagine how terrible it must be for someone to have their professional, personal or moral credentials and abilities questioned on the basis of their origins.  I will be making extra effort to question it whenever I hear others make such statements.

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Ersatz Expat

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