Lately I’ve been feeling a great disconnect from many of the Asian race debates I read online. Then I realized that — duh! — since English is my best language and I mainly surf the English-language web, many of the discussions about Asian identity I come across are from a Western, mostly American point of view, while I’m Malaysian.
When a San Francisco Bay Area TV station made the excruciatingly stupid mistake of identifying the recent Asiana crash pilots with racist monikers, many of my Asian American and U.S.-based Asian friends used the case to voice their anger over white insensitivity, recollect injustices suffered at the hands of white folks, and discuss ever-enduring white privilege.
At first I thought about chiming in. I went to one of these discussions, scrolled to the bottom, typed “I think that”… and stopped. Because I had nothing to say. It hit me then, the feeling that this wasn’t my conversation. It wasn’t my fight. It just wasn’t my place. I’ve never lived in America. I dealt with a different sort of racial issue growing up. I thought the TV station’s mistake was a horrible, fireable offense, but I was missing a certain level of personal rage.
Asian American issues seem to dominate the Asian discourses available to English-language readers. I regret past attempts at writing in an Asian American voice, thinking it would expand my audience, which instead resulted in some cultural dissonance. There are so many Asian experiences, in so many different worlds. Some resonate more for one group than others. As I settle into marriage, wonder when to have children, and contemplate the possibility of moving back to Malaysia, I’ve been thinking more and more of my own childhood and the racial challenges particular to my country.
At first we lived in Canada.
When I think about those early years outside Toronto, I see multicolor, not whiteness. We lived in a very diverse neighborhood. I don’t remember many people who spoke with Canadian accents aside from my teachers and the white family who lived next door, though all I remember about them is that they dig drugs and wore white tank tops and their teenage son got someone pregnant, he was scary. I was glad when they left and a Somali family moved in; they’d just arrived in Canada, with a daughter my age and a son my brother’s age. We became fast friends. I remember my father taking out a new wok to cook a meal for the Mohameds. We’ve cooked pork on this and they don’t eat pork, Pa said. We have to be culturally sensitive.
My best friend was S. from China. She spoke Mandarin and I copied her Saturday school homework. I also loved M. from Serbia, T. from Vietnam, and C., an African American girl from Texas. I crushed on D. from Hong Kong. Every few months, it seemed like there was a new arrival from somewhere — India, Pakistan, Serbia, the Philippines, even Quebec, which I heard my cousin joke was like another country. My mother’s best friends were my Italian “aunties”; they’d get together and moan a lot; Oh mio Dio! Alamak! Our children speak terrible Italian and Chinese!
In that tiny pocket of Canada, we were a mixed-up community of first generation immigrants who had to get along — I remember that message from school, where any sort of racial teasing would result in serious trouble. I was happy there, with my multicolored friends, myself a part of the rainbow. I did well in school, or as well as you can in fourth grade. We sang “O Canada” every morning. Life was the only life I knew.
And then my parents ruined it all by moving to Malaysia.
Well, as a kid, that was my only take on the issue for months. Without much warning (in truth I’d ignored the warnings), I was separated from my friends, put on three flights, jammed into a scratchy uniform, and plonked into a steamy classroom in the land of my birth. I had watched my mother fill out a registration form when we arrived, a form in an alien language I knew I’d have to learn. “What’s that?” I’d asked, pointing to the word jantina. “It means whether you’re male or female,” she said, reluctant to say “sex” in front of school staff. She ticked P for perempuan instead of the F I was so used to in my former life. “And that?” I asked, looking at bangsa. “Race,” she said, and I watched in fascination as she ticked “Cina.”
Cina. My identity, my identification. In Canada I was Malaysian, but here I was Chinese. Soon, I learned that being Cina meant I was not Malay. They were 60% of the population, the bumiputera, native princes, sons of the soil. Chinese were about 20%, Indians 7%, a handful of others like Eurasians making up the rest. I knew the Malays had certain privileges other races didn’t, but at eleven, I wasn’t sure what. At first I was confused — I was born here. So were my parents. Weren’t we sons of the soil too?
I learned there were two types of Chinese in Malaysia. The peranakans, descendants of the Chinese who had arrived in the 15th and 16th centuries and intermarried with the local Malays (whoa, I thought, so are they bumiputera too?), and Cina like me, whose ancestors came to Malaya in the early 20th century, fleeing poverty and strife in China. My ancestors became farmers and small traders, neither side becoming particularly wealthy though enough other Cina got so rich that there was resentment from the local population. Fast forward a few decades: Japanese Occupation, so long, farewell to the Brits, then a bloody race riot between Chinese and Malays in 1969 and Article 153 in the Malaysian Constitution to “safeguard the special position of the Malays and natives.” Affirmative action for the majority, to help them gain opportunities, get rich, to narrow the economic gap among the races.
But I thought we’re poor too, I told my mom. Isn’t that why we left Canada and don’t have a home and are living at ayi’s house? She gave me a teary hug and whispered, we’ll be alright.
So that was roughly what I knew about Malaysia’s racial politics as Form 4 came to an end. Most of my friends only knew this brief outline too; constitutional racism wasn’t exactly high on the list of classroom discussion topics. No politics course existed, just history lessons that were so dry — full of dates and the names of committees and organizations — that we hardly remembered a thing. Race was something we weren’t supposed to touch with a ten-foot rattan cane, and as teenagers in an all-girls’ school, other things seemed more important, like exams and homework and hiding contraband (cell phones, photos of pop stars, whiteout a.k.a. “liquid paper”) in your bra during spot checks.
Form 5 — “senior year” — was the most interesting year of high school for many reasons, one being my sudden interest — some would say obsession — with race. My memories of Canada had long retreated into the background, and “Malay, Chinese, Indian” were three easy divisions that had defined my Malaysian life, particularly in school. I was friendly with all races but my best friends were those of my own race. No, my people were Laine, Sen and Kwan, three girls I’d met in Form 2. As Chinese Malaysians, the languages we spoke varied. There was English, Malay, Mandarin, Hokkien, Cantonese. All of us were fluent in two or three and so-so in the rest, so we jabbered away each day in a strange combination of the five. That first day of Form 5, we chose four seats together in the same row; we always sat together in pairs. I didn’t think much of it — friends just want to sit together — until our teacher walked into the classroom and, perhaps for the first time, made us acknowledge race.
“Oy!” she said. “Why are you girls sitting like that? Look at you!” And she waved her hand in front of us, in front of our silliness. “Why are you sitting according to race!?”
I looked around, and the teacher was right. There we were, a row of Malay girls, a row of Indian girls, a row of Chinese girls. Only one pair of deskmates were mixed. We were just sitting with friends, alright — friends of our own races.
Something in me clicked that day, and I started reading stories about Malaysia’s multiculturalism, it’s promise and problems. I hungered for Malaysian writers. I rifled through the newspapers, noting each mention of our race-based political parties. Just like how we sit in class, I thought. It has to start somewhere. I began to see segregation as a problem everywhere I went. Little sections of Malay, Chinese, Indian lives that operated separately and occasionally intersected, but, to my now-cynical eyes, rarely achieved anything deeper than surface friendliness. I forgot who said this to me — probably someone’s racist uncle — but the line was, “The only good thing about having to live with these other races is the public holidays.” We did have time off for all three race’s major celebrations (an impossibility in Canada!), but I started muttering about the generous holidays as fake multiculturalism. It wasn’t like most of us went out and celebrated with friends of other races during their festivities, I thought. We just stayed in and slept.
So I went on my own multicultural quest. I read Life of Pi and loved the idea of practicing multiple faiths. I tried my best to fast with my Muslim friends, and I started learning more about Indian culture, devouring books by Indian writers, watching Indian movies (okay, they were mostly Bollywood) and eventually developing a love for Indian fashions (salwar kameez!). Though our teacher failed in getting us to mix up our seating arrangements, I spent more time with classmates of other races. I saw myself as exuberant; maybe they thought I was pushy. Mostly they seemed amused by my zeal and welcomed me into their groups. I was invited to an Indian dinner where I was one of two Chinese in attendance. A Malay friend started asking me over after school; she became one of my best friends. This isn’t so hard, I thought. You just have to try.
It was around this time that I fell in love with my teacher. Don’t worry, it was nothing creepy. She was a pretty middle-aged Chinese woman with an infectious laugh that ricocheted through the staff room when I went to visit her. But the most fascinating thing about her, the reason why I sought her company and wanted to converse with her for hours, was the existence of her happily mixed-up family. Her eldest sister had married her own kind, a Chinese, and was Christian. Her second sister was married to a Malay, and was Muslim. And she, my teacher, had married an Indian, and was Hindu! Ohmigod really?! I exclaimed when she first told me. It blew my mind. All three races and three religions in one family, and harmoniously, happily so, from her stories. They were, it seemed, truly Malaysian. Because of my growing love for everything Indian and the posters of Shah Rukh Khan and Hrithik Roshan on my wall, I assumed that if I, too, were to intermarry, it would be with someone of Indian heritage. I teased my teacher, telling her I would date her firstborn when he was older.
As the school year progressed, hints of unhappiness and discontent started to spread among my friends. It started, I think, with the news about “matriculation,” a special yearlong government sponsored college prep. Usually, after Form 5, you had to spend two years in Form 6 to be eligible for university, or else do a private, foreign equivalent like the British A-Levels, which would still take a year and a half. We didn’t want that. A yearlong matriculation seemed so much better. But most of the matriculation spots, 90% I think, were for bumiputeras. My Chinese friends applied and didn’t get a place. Their grades were better than mine so I didn’t bother trying. As the end of Form 5 approached and stress about the future increased, there was no more nicey-face about our social system that allowed someone with 4As to get a scholarship over another with 10As, all because of race.
My Chinese friends ended up going to Form 6. Though it took them longer to get to university, they graduated with first class honors. I took the A-Levels instead, then moved abroad, splitting the last nine years equally between East and West. I didn’t meet an Indian man but a Jewish one, in the strangest of places. With the reality of an unexpected interracial relationship before me, I panicked and opened myself up to doubts that, in retrospect, I wish I hadn’t spent so much time and energy on. In the end, it was simple: I made sure he respected my culture, and I his, and that we were better together than apart. Then I married him. Now I’m thinking of bringing him to live in the country I’d grown up in, in the place I most identify with, and it doesn’t matter if he’s not Malaysian, since our kids, when they come, wouldn’t be princes of the soil even if he were. They will tick a different box under race, the one that always follows Malay, Chinese, Indian: lain-lain, other.
You might wonder why I’d want to go back if constitutional favoring of one race over others bothers me, if the anti-Chinese remarks made by my leaders in the last election made my blood boil. The answer is simple: for all of its problems, the country has blessed me, my family, with a lot. Asian Americans aren’t going to leave their country due to white privilege; why do Chinese or Indian Malaysians have to flee? After nine years abroad, it’s time to give in to the homesickness, to go back and see how the country evolves. The racial issues in Malaysia are my conversation, are my fight, are my place. It’s my personal rage. It’s where I belong.