"One of my colleagues was so happy when she got her transfer to national school but after a few months there, she asked to transfer back to Chinese school. She couldn't take the pressure," said the Chinese lady.
"What pressure?" asked her Indian friend.
"She had a cultural shock! You know la, in Chinese schools, we don't talk about our private lives. It's all work and work, and even when we had discussions, it's usually about students and school policy. She couldn't get used to the atmosphere in the national school because the staff asked her too many questions that made her uncomfortable. And mind you, she's a Malay and those teachers at her new school are also Malays."
"I'm not surprised," said the Indian lady. "On my first day at school as a KPLI teacher [graduates who became teachers after a year's training] a teacher actually came up to me and asked straight at my face' How much is your salary?' I know that they don't like KPLI graduate teachers but it was my first day on the job, in her school. I was like - urr - I don't know- and I avoided her like the plague for the rest of my time there."
"I wonder if it's a Malay culture to talk about their private lives. And having the nerve to ask other people to talk about theirs."
"Ya la, in my former national school, they would group together in the staff room and talk about their lives, their families, their husbands.. and the latest gossips involving artistes. And I'd pretend to be busy marking the books so that I'd have an excuse not to join them."
"In Chinese schools, we don't have time to chat. It's always books and books to mark. Those in national schools are so relaxed. "
"I'd rather have books to mark than somebody coming up to me and ask who my husband is, where he works, how many children I have, where they all study, and all those stuff I consider private. I mean, they could be trying to be friendly. Perhaps it's a Malay culture to ask so many questions to a new teacher on her first day at work, but I still squirm each time a stranger asks me those questions. I don't 'take my family to work' and I seldom take my work home. And unfortunately when you hesitate or give short answers, they'd label you as 'sombong' proud and arrogant for being unwilling to share. For me, I take time to be friendly with people and to share my private lives with them. Ask me anyhting about work and my students and I'd be happy to discuss but please, don't try to find out about my private lives unless I'm willing to share. I just don't understand how those Malay ladies think. "
And suddenly they looked at me as if realising for the first time that I was there, a tudung-clad stranger who was eating at the same table with them and listening quietly to every word they said.
"Don't ask me. I'm not a Malay, and I face the same problem as you," I smiled at them sweetly.