Saturday, July 5, 2014

A lesson in cultural sensitivity

Bob Cole and I spent a lot of time together on our first postings to Butterworth, and one of the places we spent a lot of time was the Sky Room in the Continental Hotel. We would sit at one end of the bar and were so well known to the staff we could reach over the bar and refill our glasses. A simple wave or nod and the price of the refill would be added to our account which would be settled at the end of the evening.

One evening as we were departing we walked past a Mercedes in the car park. Bob began to wax lyrical about how well made the Mercedes emblem on the bonnet was and how it didn’t matter how much it was twisted or turned it would remain intact. And just to convince me he grabbed the emblem and gave it a twist.

Fortunately for us there was no CCTV in those days – at least in Georgetown – and there was no one else in the car park. Our departure was swift.

Bob not wanting to be photgraphed and the beast on which he escaped the Continental

One evening in the Sky Room I learnt a lesson I will always remember. We had been befriended by an Australian business man and his Asian companion. And the best part about this relationship so far as Bob and I were concerned was their generosity to two airmen so far from home. The grog was on them.

The Asian gentlemen was of Chinese origin but I have no idea if he were Malaysian or not. They were both tall and the discussion turned to who of the two was the tallest. After some debate I was asked to adjudicate. I thought for a while as to how to best answer the question but finally, unable to think of anything else, said ‘The Chinaman,’ all quite innocently.

With that the Chinese gentleman immediately left the room and our supply of grog instantly dried up. Bob, of course, didn’t hesitate in letting me let me know what an idiot he thought I was, as good mates always do in such circumstances. And I have never called anyone of Chinese origin a ‘Chinaman’ since, although it is only of recent times, thanks to Google, that I have understood the reason the term is considered derogatory.

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