A tale of a Malaysian student living abroad, and her brush with internationalism.
At 13, my peers informed me that I was a ‘Malaysian Chinese/Chinese Malaysian’.
At 13, wanting to fit in, I said, “Okay, whatever you say.”
At 16, I declared to my peers, “I am Malaysian.” They said, “Okay, whatever you say.”
At 18, I declared to my peers (again), “I am Malaysian.” They asked, “Aren’t you Chinese?”
The Malaysian identity is a complicated one. In school and amongst our peers, we identify ethnically and/or racially. It makes sense when identifying the origins of different cuisines, but it gets complicated when all one wants to do is build national identity.
Why do we do this bizarre ethnic identification? Is it because of our national politics? Our histories? Our education? I am almost certain it is a medley of all the above, but comes as a by-product of a very confusing education system, which, let’s be honest, plays the biggest role in creating multiple identity crises amongst Malaysian youth abroad.
It is in Malaysia that one will find discussions regarding the accuracy of ethnic/racial terminology within and without the racial/ethnic group. The discussion is quite present when you have conversations of the ‘multi-racial persuasion’ at the local mamak over some teh tarik halia and roti bom. But one place in which this discussion is missing is in vernacular schools.
In my experience, national identity in vernacular schools is not an issue that is discussed critically. The vernacular school system has developed to such an extent that no one really needs (or wants) to discuss ethnic identity within its walls because of its ethnic homogeneity. Your peers understand that you are Malaysian by nationality, but Chinese ethnically. So what’s the problem?
The serious answer would be that this brings up tumultuous questions about national cohesion and solidarity. How can we develop a cohesive national identity if we can’t even agree on the webs that define our society? Alternatively, it would also be a problem if someone ever decided to draw a caricature of Malaysians.
Furthermore, if you are a Malaysian living abroad and every time someone asks you where you’re from, you spend 10 minutes explaining: a) Malaysia’s geography; b) Demography; c) Culture; d) History, and finally, e) Education, even though they expect you to tell them, ‘China’ (if you’re Malaysian Chinese lah). This has led to some extent of conversational hilarity which, however, doesn’t work if you’re sitting at a loud bar trying to add one-liners to every explanation.
Perhaps it would be more useful to describe such a scene. Setting: A liberal arts college in New York, USA.
Student A: Hi, I’m from Michigan, where are you from?
Malaysian: Hi, I’m from Malaysia.
A: Where is that?
M: Southeast Asia. Between Thailand and Singapore.
A: So… are you Malay?
M: No, that’s a different ethnic group.
A: Then… are you Chinese?
M: Not technically. My great-great grand parents emigrated from China. So I’m Malaysian.
A: So is everyone in Malaysia like you? (i.e. Do they look like you)
M: No. *Launches into discussion about Malaysian demographics, racial politics and the education system*
At 18, I declared myself to be Malaysian. I finished high school in a vernacular Chinese school. I got on a plane to study liberal arts in the U.S. At a train station, when prompted, I declared myself to be Malaysian. But the prompter (a middle-aged Chinese lady) begged to differ.
Lady: Are you ???? (Which literally translates into Chinese – from China)
Me: No. I’m Malaysian (?????) .
Lady: But you look Chinese.
Me: Oh, yes, well, my great-great grand parents were from China, but everyone else has since been born in Malaysia. So I am Malaysian but my family are overseas Chinese.
Lady: Then you are Chinese (???)! You should go back to China.
Being a Malaysian is confusing. It’s time we developed a cohesive national education system and build up our international image. It’s also about time everyone stopped erasing the large piece of land between Singapore and Thailand.