The story begins with an agonizingly slow day at the bookstore. The only thing there was to do at the cashier was nothing, so my friend and I decided that talking might be better than staring dolefully at the entrance, praying that some Good Samaritan might waltz in and buy something – anything – so that we’d have something to do.
“Are you celebrating Chinese New Year?” I asked her. The season was upon us at the time, and I was gleefully anticipating the excuse to overeat at a fancy dinner.
“Not really.” I was a little surprised, because she’s from China, but apparently the celebration isn’t a big thing in her family. “Are you?”
And that began my 15-minute-long soliloquy on all celebrations Chinese, including a brief description of my favorite mooncake flavor, durian.
It was her turn to be surprised. “You celebrate all that?” she asked. “But you’re Malaysian.”
And that wasn’t the last time, either. I sat down about a week ago, when my RA approached me to discuss social identities as part of her duty to get to know all the people on our floor. She asked for my ethnicity. I told her I was Chinese.
“But aren’t you Malaysian?”
Akak, banyak cantiklah lu. Ini Cina punya orang mata sepet boleh nampak hidung penyek pun ada, pelat semua lengkap ada, rojak punya bahasa pun ada, lu mahu apa lagi.
Namun demikian, beginilah persepsi masyarakat Amerika terhadap diriku yang OCBC (orang Cina bukan Cina).
So back to the topic at hand. It seems that people were under the impression that ‘Malaysian’ was an ethnicity. And I won’t deny that I felt a slight twinge of pride when they first identified me as Malaysian. But that brings me to my next topic.
She asked me, “What do you identify most as?”
I gave it a couple of seconds’ thought. “Malaysian-Chinese, I guess.”
That was when my neurons started firing. I had never given it much thought before, but I had somehow always identified myself as Malaysian-Chinese. What else was there? The first time I’d gone to the US, I told people I was Malaysian, because the Chinese part seemed obvious. Besides, ‘Chinese’ is a pretty broad term, like calling a German ‘Caucasian’. I always wanted to reinforce that I was Malaysian, though.
BUT WHY LAH.
“Probably because I feel like I have to constantly prove that I’m Malaysian,” I replied.
I learnt that my ancestors immigrated to Tanah Melayu all those years ago for some reason now lost to the annals of history. Don’t remember when, don’t remember how. Later on I discovered that I had different rights from some of my friends, because I was ‘Non-Bumiputra’. That term didn’t make much sense to me back then. All I knew was that ‘putra’ meant prince, and non-bumiputra probably meant that I wasn’t royalty or something. And sometimes I’d read articles in which A would tell B to ‘balik (insert country here)’, ensuing chaos and another unproductive debate on the state of racial and social justice in our country. But it all didn’t mean much to me until something like this conversation happened:
Friend: I hope things don’t get too bad in our country.
Me: Yeah, afterwards we all go down the drain weih.
Friend: Ah, you don’t have to worry. You can go back to China anytime.
She probably meant well, and didn’t know the impact of her words, but at the time my brain was struggling to juggle the sudden deluge of indignation, frustration, and sadness. All I could manage in the end was a nervous, “Hahah, even if I go back they also don’t want me lah.”
Was I not Malaysian enough? Was I still so “Chinese” Chinese that I cold hop on a plane, lickety-split, land in China, locate my hypothetical long-lost relatives of the Liu clan, buy a small apartment in the middle of a polluted Beijing, learn to speak Mandarin overnight, and settle down like my great-great-great-great-and-then-some-grandparents never migrated? How much roti canai and nasi lemak and sirap bandung did I have to consume to qualify as Malaysian? How many ulas of durian – scratch that – how many biji durian do I have to inhale every season to prove that my ‘home’ home is in Subang, and not some little village in China? How many karangan do I have to write? How many peribahasa do I have to learn? How much must I score in BM? How well must I do in PLKN? How Malaysian is Malaysian enough?
But there is a strange beauty in all of this. There is a constant struggle to balance the urge to assimilate, as well as to maintain the uniqueness of one’s culture and heritage. And that, I believe, has given rise to diversity (and probably my inability to speak Mandarin). I don’t think I would’ve appreciated being Malaysian as much if I didn’t have to think about all this. I have moments where I wonder what life would have been like if my ancestors had chosen to stay in China. But the apple fell 3,512km from the tree, grew roots and proceeded to allow more apples to grow and fall where the progenitor landed. So I will never know, and that’s okay. If I can be mistaken as Malaysian in a foreign land, that’s good enough for me.
On a side note, I finished three exams in one day, and have the bad feeling that the engineering life has only just begun.