Written last Friday night on June 14, 2017:
Identity is a tricky thing. Whenever I think I’ve at long last gained it; there it slips away again. I think back to 3 weeks ago to the question my 12 year-old nephew had asked to Third Sis and myself – what if he denies any association or identification to his legal race? – and I wonder if in truth, I stayed quiet because even now at 26, the answer eludes me.
Once, months ago, I’d joined a random dinner with a group of (Malay)Muslim colleagues, only to regret participating. They were women I’d frequently come across in the prayer room but our interactions were limited to smiles. These were highly accomplished women in the company, exposed and educated, yet somehow between them their topics were limited to jokes and tales about husbands, fashion, marriage… marriage… marr- why? So many topics to delve into, I’d angrily thought to myself, yet this cultural and societal norm is disgustingly pervasive. Maybe I’m guilty of judging upon first impression; maybe even my interests simply aren’t theirs – nothing to do with racial or cultural context – but I’ve stayed away since.
Once, two or so years ago, one of my brothers had randomly asked, “Why are all your friends Chinese?” His tone wasn’t accusatory, yet for a brief second I wondered if he thought I’d deliberately handpicked friends based on color. “It somehow turned out that way,” I said with a laugh, doing a quick mental check of my closest friends at the time and… oh. I traced the timeline further back and… oh. I recall early last year too, after three long months of running circles around newfound friends in search of ‘my people’ in Miri, I’d at last found them in 3 individuals on a rainy Saturday night in March ’16 and I’d returned home that night and cried, both from relief and unease. Again, I’d thought to myself. Why… can’t I seem to identify with those of the same color and cultural context?
It shouldn’t matter, I know, especially in this day and age, and more so when one looks at my family. Plus, I’ve always been certain about being Muslim – isn’t this most important?
But, if it is… at 26, why am I still asking the exact question my 12 year-old nephew raised?
Recently at offshore, one of the inspectors had asked where I’m from. “Your slang is… different. The way you speak. You don’t sound Sarawakian,” he said, “But you don’t sound like you’re from Peninsular either.” I’d simply laughed.
“Are you mixed?” He’d asked again.
I’ve spent the bulk of my adulthood formative years as a minority – the only Malay/Muslim/Malaysian among groups of friends and places I’d built temporary homes – and this continues until today, in my workplace. It is a space I’ve become comfortable in and familiar with, but it is also one where I’ve understood, with quiet acceptance, that I will never be fully accepted. Whichever half of my identity that I choose to identify more than associate with, the reality – in my mind at least – is that I’ll never completely be ‘one of them’. There is a different kind of acceptance instead, of course, and it’s a beautiful one – like friends who would say, “I’ve checked for you – the place is halal.” Or the many instances when my senior/colleague would consciously switch his language and encourage others to do the same in my presence.
Yet it is puzzling, and most of the time it is exhausting – it feels like I have and will spend my whole life forever trying to fit in and belong? Yet impeded by the realities of boundary lines, cultural contexts, and languages foreign to my tongue. What if I accept only minimum association to my legal race, yet ironically and laughably, have no claims to the second-halve of my identity? What if I deny both, as I have for a long time, and instead identify only on being Muslim and Malaysian? Will it change if I stop looking at myself as an anomaly, or will I always carry this baggage?
Today, more than other days, this quiet acceptance of what I am (and am not) breaks my heart.
I think of my nephew and his confused expression in that brief moment of vulnerability and understood I’d looked away because in truth, I’d recognized myself – both she from the past and present.