I am half-and-half; half-Malay and half-Chinese.
Personally, I believe I’ve lost that look now having tanned and such, but when I was younger I’d be mistaken, without fail, as the latter. What gave me away would either be the company I was in, my grasp of the Malay language or more specifically, my inability to converse in Mandarin and or Cantonese. I won’t lie however; I enjoyed very much this confusion, because it provided the medium for correction.
When I was younger, rather than being confused about who I was, I was often confused about what I was. Identity crisis paid a visit in many phases in my life, escalated even more in those growing up years. I grew up in a household that was more urban in terms of culture than anything else. Yes, perhaps we were more on the Malay culture, however in truth we’d practiced very little of the old traditions and such. My parents are great parents who raised us siblings with greater emphasis on religion – to understand what it means to be Muslim first, before Malay or whatever else. Thus even now, although in general I do identify myself as Malay, oftentimes I’ll stress on being a Muslim first – which leads to more tangential discussions, but that’s another story for a different day.
During those growing up years, I’d shifted plenty from denying completely being Malay, to pretending to be totally Chinese, trying to reconcile between the two and complete, utter rejection about being neither. Yes, I was confused though looking back now, I’m extremely grateful that throughout my growing up years, this was only an internal conflict – it was something I battled by myself because of my own perceptions about who and what I ought to be, as opposed to receiving external pressures, backlash or racist remarks from society at large, peers or the like. I now know that this is rare and thus, I am forever grateful that my struggles and such were not radiated and escalated to points of no return. The closest scar I’d received was perhaps at eighteen, in that one year I spent in the private college – a particular year I consciously blackout about, to be honest – in which I’d been socially rejected and could never quite find a fit due to being neither this, nor that.
All through growing up, I’ve only known multi-racial communities – being of a family that’s ethnically diverse and in an urban-setting school, communicating, establishing relationships and intermingling with teachers and peers who are of equally diverse backgrounds. Our different skin colors provided no more fact apart for logistic purposes and acknowledgment that for the most part, our cultural and religious celebrations differ. It never once dictated our seating order or preference in class, for example, and in fact, one of my best memories about high school would be every evening, twice daily, when the bell would ring indicating the afternoon and evening prayer times. Classes would be halted during each ten-minute period to allow for the Muslim students to perform their prayers in the school’s surau. I love it whenever my non-Muslim friends would swat my back or tap me on the shoulder, saying, “Hey N! Time to go and pray!” Or, “Why aren’t you leaving yet? Go and pray!”
In the later years since high school, whenever topics of food and new restaurants are brought up, a number of them would still awesomely add the following when suggesting I check out the restaurants too – “I’d asked as well, they’re halal so we can go together.” The conversation would then proceed as usual, as it’s always been.
To be completely honest, I have no scars from racist encounters apart from the ones I think I’d inflicted upon myself from those days as a schoolgirl, unable to accept my own mixed ethnicity. I’m also equally aware that the reason as to why my racially diverse, melting pot community and friendship circles worked was because before anything else, we were defined by our social strata and location; we were all from middle- to upper-class families with parents who held stable or reputable jobs, lived all our lives in an urban setting and spoke the same mixed language of English and Malay whether at home or in school. Most of my Chinese and Indian friends who knew Mandarin and Tamil respectively, typically took classes outside of normal school schedules, an active initiative by their parents. In other words, if that somewhat derogatory term banana was a big deal, forget calling it out to our Chinese friends – in truth, to a degree all of us would then be guilty of this.
As I grow older and continually take increasing steps into the Real World and society at large, I have since realized what a bubble that was, this high school setting and the community I’d known, grown up in and surrounded by. Outside of my circle, differences seem too vast to too many people; it’s normal to prejudge another person because for instance, they’re totally dark-skinned or say, they don’t have a good grasp of a particular language. In fact, even within people of the same races, there seem to be some sort of unofficial, unspoken rule of strata: too much of it, not enough of it or normal. The definitions vary based upon upbringing, material wealth, grasp of mother tongue and usage of English, educational experiences and more. I know I am perhaps making extreme generalizations but though varying in the degree of our prejudgments, I think we’re all guilty of this notion.
The older that I grow and the deeper I delve into the real Malaysian community, I’ve realized that as if finding a real friend is not challenging enough, trying to let another look past what you are and how you look is another task-at-hand. Ever since I left that bubble of high school, I’ve been implied hilarious generalizations about being Malay, or Chinese and equally bizarre generalizations due to the common confusion in the difference between Malay and Muslim. During the first six months of my first time being judged without filter by others whom I’d not once given second thought about based on their skin colors, I’d been offended, scarred, angry and mostly just surprised. These questions did not come from foreigners, but fellow Malaysians.
It has since been 5 years since I was 17 and I’ve learned aplenty, with more still to be discovered. I’ve learned to accept myself for what I am – half-and-half – and to make peace with the fact that I recognize myself as an urban Malay girl, but also a staunchly practicing Muslim. One is not guilty for not knowing, but ignorance is inexcusable. For that reason, in the years since, rather than continually find myself offended and angry, I’ve learned to smile when someone makes generalized racist statements about the diversity that exists in Malaysia …and then proceed to correct them my utmost best.
I don’t fall into a particular category or type very easily because of my physical appearance and mostly, my personality. For instance, sometimes I am mistaken as Chinese but I’ll notice their looks of surprise when they find out I’m only half. In another instance, they’ll think that all Malays are Muslims and then they’ll realize my niece and nephews look distinctly Chinese, before then realizing that that’s not my Chinese friend, rather my sister-in-law. It is surprising to realize and discover that even in the modern day we live in today, people’s perceptions can indeed be very narrow.
Perhaps my favorite find however in the plenty frank, racially-driven conversations I’ve had with peers and such in recent years, are those whom have grown up largely in a homogeneous bubble all their lives. For instance, they’d been Chinese-educated all throughout the formal education years, live in a Chinese-majority neighborhood, frequent and mingle at places where Mandarin and Cantonese are heavily and often used … yet are still able to open the doors of their heart and mind to me, a sore thumb in what they’ve been so familiar with. Similarly, I’ve come across Malay and Indian peers like them who, despite the racially skewed background they’re familiar with, have treated me with curiosity and wonder yes, but also respect. I have success stories of friends I can easily attest to as proof, with whom are now my lifelong friends. My point is: it’s never too late to remove prejudgment, prejudices and anything along those lines. It’s difficult and I’m not saying it isn’t – but it’s never too late.
I am writing this because I am greatly unsettled at the recent events that have unfold in Malaysian society. I’ll be honest and admit that I don’t have answers on ways to bridge this social, racial and whatever else divide, but I believe very strongly that the greatest transcendental leap must first begin from within, thus each person must first be open to unfamiliar territories and faces. I can keep explaining and correcting for instance, but my words will only be effective if the other person will listen. However, I strongly and sincerely believe that once this threshold is overcome, there’s great potential in where the conversations can embark.
In my opinion, it isn’t so much about accepting differences. Rather, it’s about accepting the differences, acknowledging this fact and then working on finding a common ground, some degree of similarity whether they may be in terms of interest, personal values, lifestyle and more. In this way, it’s not about denying our differences such that we can’t speak or acknowledge it, as if it’s an elephant in the room – rather to challenge it, as if retorting back, so what if we’re different? It’s fact, we can either address it, leave it …or address it and do something about it. I choose the latter and do it personally by openly conversing about it and allowing for even the strangest question to come my way. In fact, I can personally attest that in too many instances, I’ve also been on the receiving end and each time this happens, I’m humbled.
Perhaps I am too idealistic, hoping for a Malaysia that’s a larger scale of the community I grew up in. Is it possible? I don’t know, I really don’t. What I do know of and hold strongly onto though, is this:
Muhibbah is not simply a phrase, a term, a word – it’s my way of life, my belief and a reflection of myself.
We are so much greater as a sum, than in parts. Come on Malaysia, rise above this!