For many of us, the substitute teacher was the first white person we’d ever seen outside of television. Before this, for us, white men fell into two camps: Leonardo DiCaprio – youthful floppy-haired, desirable; or Prince Charles – wrinkled, dog-like, horrifying.
Mr. Gardiner was different. He was older than Leo, but maintained a similar, though less successful middle-parted hairstyle that stuck to his forehead like an oily curtain. His face, ruddy like the Prince’s, shone with sweat from the humid classroom, pink as the whole chickens our mothers would defrost in the kitchen. And he mispronounced everyone’s name. After an unfortunate incident where he called Lee Pooi Kee, “Lee PU-KI” (puki, being the word for cunt), he appointed Laila, whose name he could pronounce, class monitor, to help him take attendance.
My mother did not approve. What business, she asked, did the school have hiring a gweilo during an economic downturn? “Can’t find someone local?” she raged. She listened every day to Radio 4, as Prime Minister Mahathir blamed the 1998 financial crash on an American Jewish conspiracy.
My father took issue with something quite different. “The English are so smelly. Why is it with them, the soap budget is the first to go?”
He doesn’t smell too bad, I countered, and besides, it’s too hot for them here.
Undeterred, my father asked, “How do you know? Have you sniffed his bum?”
My older sister wanted to know, “Is he cute?” And to be honest, I wasn’t sure.
Mr. Gardiner taught history. It was an unfortunate incongruence, a white man hired to educate 13-year-olds on the impact of colonialism in their country, yet the syllabus, unlike the tropical weather or the pronunciation of girls’ names, was the one thing that Mr. Gardiner did not seem uncomfortable with.
Each day, he learned three new Malay words, then he would teach the rest of the class in English. For example, he might ask, in English, “What positive impacts did British colonization have on Malaysia?”
Then he would turn to the blackboard, scratching his three new Malay words in chalk.
In the years that followed, we learned to be appalled by this unapologetic Eurocentrism. But at the time, we were preoccupied with something more ridiculous – when he finished scribing, Mr. Gardiner would wipe the chalk dust off his fingers and onto the back of the dark polyester slacks he wore. The white chalk stains looked like ghost fingers grabbing his bum.
Laila, the class monitor, detested him. Her parents, like my mother, were angered by the influx of foreigners, “taking jobs from locals.”
Kalaiselvi felt sorry for him. “He has no wife, and no friends, and he’s hot, all the time!”
And I, as I watched the chalky fingers flex on his bum, felt a curious spaciousness fill the area below my stomach and above my pelvis. Much later, I would identify the feeling as desire, but at 13, it just made me feel like peeing.