“I plan to write about the bra,” a Gen Zer announced at the recent Aliran writers’ workshop at the University of Malaya.
“Because,” she continued, “viewed from a historical perspective, the bra is a symbol of Western imperialism on Eastern civilisations.”
In response, the workshop facilitators at first attempted to be seriously open-minded and forward thinking, as they ought to be.
But then, their grey and mellowed Boomer minds soon broke down, and they glanced at each other in silent amusement as if to ask, “Why have we never ever considered the bra in this light before?”
And that’s what happens when Boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) meet Gen Z (born between 1997 and 2012).
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The two-day writers’ workshop on 26-27 May was jointly organised by the Department of International and Strategic Studies of the University of Malaya, the university’s International Relations Society, and Aliran. The event proved to be more than an eye opener for the five workshop facilitators, as much as it was for the dozen participants.
As a facilitator myself, I wondered if the tables had not been turned, with us learning just as much from the participants as they were expected to learn from us. At times, it felt like we had unsuspectingly stepped into an alternate universe.
Within the first hour, QR codes were flashed around to capture everyone’s contact details into a chat group for the workshop. For the Gen Z participants, it might have been just another day in their digitally enhanced world.
But to us older facilitators, watching them from our analogue-formatted parameters, it was like magic was being floated around us.
Later, on learning more about Aliran’s history, its struggles and its journey through the decades, a group of them recommended we consider asserting a stronger digital presence to reach others, like them. They spoke over our heads about content providers and videographers, as powerful strategies to put us quickly onto the digital track.
“But we are already on Twitter and Instagram,” we told them, proudly announcing our digital achievements.
But that was clearly not good enough for the Gen Zers. To be heard further, wider and louder, they told us we needed to be on TikTok.
“No one reads emails or writes long texts anymore,” one of them told us. “Our inboxes are always flooded with hundreds of emails every day. We just ignore them all!”
“We have no time!” another said, pausing a moment to look apologetically at my greying hair and thin aged face. “The academic standards today far exceed that of your time.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Unlike your time, we have to read research journals from all over the world,” she said. “If we cannot access them, then we have to try ‘other ways’. The subscriptions are just too expensive for us to pay.”
All this information was new to us. It was disheartening to learn that the much younger Gen Zers were just too busy and may not have time to know or hear us through the text format.
The differences between our two generations surfaced again and again over the two days, and it was even more apparent when they introduced us to their version of the English language.
The discussions crackled and frizzled, challenging our own more conservative formal constructs of vocabulary and meaning. They told us that some stories were “piping hot tea” and that it was possible for one to have an attitude that was “so slay”.
As the first day progressed, I wondered if our workshop was “not giving” and if they were secretly waiting to “yeet” out of there “like queens”.
But we all knew that the differences were just cosmetic.
We, more than anyone else, could easily understand their passion for wanting social and political change. After all, we too had wanted change, once, a long time ago, and the point is … we still do. And we fervently wanted them to carry that passion with them … always.
We could not help but be floored by their zeal for social and political change. Why else would they choose to attend a two-day workshop amid their tight student schedules?
And so, even if they sometimes seemed to have come from a different planet, spoke in an unfamiliar language and rode the digital world like “GOATs”, we could not help but be impressed by their presence and unassuming maturity.
Each of them brought to the workshop bold thoughts and ideas that challenged our own, more seasoned and restrained points of views. Most of the time, all they needed was some tempering, to provide a more accurate and balanced perspective.
Besides wanting their world to rethink the bra, they discussed a wide variety of other issues.
They highlighted the plight and rights of the many unpaid silent caregivers.
They appealed to the youth to address human trafficking.
They called on women to assert their agency over matters regarding their clothes and their bodies.
And they explored the unhealthy trend of rising ageing anxieties among the young in China.
While an East Malaysian worried about the possibility of a separation of Sabah from Malaysia because of the territorial dispute with the Philippines, an avid footballer considered the potential of football as a platform that could defeat racism and unite people.
A participant from Nigeria explored the dangers of stereotyping through humour and satire. We were entertained by his tongue-in-cheek handling of the Nigerian stereotyping of Malaysians as “organ harvesters” and Malaysian stereotyping of Nigerians as “scammers”.
“The youth need to be heard!” another participant said, as she complained about the practice of “youth washing” by our politicians. The term, she explained, described a trend where politicians merely use the youth for political leverage and exposure in the media, while paying no proper attention to them.
These young people are like gems, we repeatedly told ourselves as we watched them sparkle and shine. They bring to us a distinct reality and a different way of looking at the world.
During the two days we were with them, we were often challenged to examine our own personal taboos and prejudices versus their open and embracing outlook of the world.
But then, their world is not really too alien to us. As long as we are all prepared to teach, learn and change, we can together build a better future.