Where is home?

After several years abroad, an old university mate of mine is moving back to Malaysia. She’s very much a deep thinker, whose view of life mirrors my own, so I hope she won’t mind me sharing with you her insight on perpetual homelessness.

No, she doesn’t live on the streets and neither do I – in fact, she’s done very well for herself professionally – it’s just that we are part of that generation of Malaysian-born  Chinese whose parents strongly encouraged us to leave Malaysia. Fed up with the crime, the corruption, the bigoted rhetoric permeating politics, along with the persecutory policies resulting from them, our parents wanted us to leave for somewhere where we would be accepted, appreciated, given equal opportunity to succeed, equal say, equal rights.

And leave in droves we have; many to Singapore, Australia, the UK and the US. In the last fifteen years, some of us Malaysian-born Chinese, have even returned to the motherland, where, as my old university mate says, “It’s not home for us either. Our forefathers severed their ties when they left China. Perhaps Malaysia, for all its flaws, is as close as we’ll ever get to having a home.”

For all those who can’t tell one Chinese from another Chinese, let me explain: Chinese migration happened in waves. My forefathers came to Malaysia over 400 years ago. They married local women to spawn a Sino-subset known as the Peranakan who, until my grandparents’ generation, only married within their own community because the races from which they descended, Chinese far more often than Malays, rejected them. Until independence, Malays accorded Peranakan the kind of respect it did not accord other Chinese. Subsequent Chinese migrants to the Malayan Peninsula found that although the mainlanders were more than happy to received monies from them to fight the Japanese, the Kuomintang, what-have-you, they were forever sundered from mainlanders psychologically by the very act of having moved abroad.

As another friend points out, “It doesn’t matter whether we came at the beginning or towards the end. We are all considered betrayers of the great cause.

Since Mao all but eradicated Chinese culture, the very essence of what distinguishes us from other races, I have no idea what this great cause is, but suffice to say, I don’t think it involves helping us traitors find a permanent home. Ironically, mainlanders have been arriving in increasing numbers to Malacca, to learn from Peranakan the ways of old.

But this is not a post about us versus them; mainlanders versus overseas Chinese. It’s about finding a place we can call home. Although I’ve lived in Australia for the past 14 years and have no trace of my Malaysian accent left, I still refer to visiting Malaysia as “going home.” I especially feel a gush of national pride when, flying Malaysian Airlines, the pilot announces, “Selamat kembali.” As in, welcome home.

“But we’re already home,” insists Amanda, whose only memory of Malaysia is the mosquito-bites she sustained on her last visit there.

For her, Australia is home. She was born on Australia Day, in Australia, and has an Australian name, Amanda. The way she thinks and acts is completely Australian.

“You can’t get more Aussie than that,” I say, joking with locals.

Occasionally, like Jhumpa Lahiri’s Ashima Ganguli in her novel The Namesake, it feels like I have a stranger in my house, eating my food, sleeping in my bed. Each time I finish packing to move, I look around the cavernous house which has been my shelter for however long, and can’t shake that feeling that it wasn’t home, merely an illusion of one.

But we’ll always have this feeling,” says my old university mate. “Being the children of Chinese migrants, it’ll never completely go away.

“Yes, I know what you mean,” say I. “I thought in time it would, but it hasn’t.” I proceed to tell her about my sister-in-law’s psychological analysis of me. My SIL was a psychologist back in Indonesia, now studying to have her qualifications recognised in Australia.

She made me draw a tree, which I did, with all the joyful abandon of a child. When I had finished, she said, “You’ve a type A personality, prefer the big picture to the details, and you are homeless.”

Point 1 and 2, I was expecting, but point 3, caught me totally unaware. “Is this what that feeling is?” I asked myself at the time.

I looked down at my paper rendition of a tree. I had no idea it said so much.

“How do you feel about going back? I ask my old university mate.

“It is time. I was worried at first but am now excited since I’ve made up my mind to go.”

“Aren’t you afraid to return to a country you can scarcely recognise?”

It’s not just the flyovers or the shopping malls which have sprouted every which way you  look, it’s the people. I reckon Malaysians, as a people, are starting to question the bigoted policies and the politicians who enact these bigoted policies. They’re becoming more civic-minded and if community reports of theft and burglaries on facebook are any indication, more willing to look out for one another. Malays are beginning to see that we Chinese are not the enemy, that meritocracy is not just good for us, but them too.

Be that as it may, it’ll be years before I decide to return, if at all I do return. The thing about nostalgia is that it causes you to see what you want to see; it’s a hankering after the past that manifests itself as you being more of what you left behind than those left  behind.

“You go first,” I tell my university mate. “You go first. If it is any good, I’ll come after you. If not, you can always move to stay near me in Australia.”

I love Australia. The country and its people have given me everything my country of birth could not, except the feeling of belonging. Perhaps one day, that will come too.

 

 

 

 

 

Interracial romance of Yasmin Ahmad’s “Sepet”.

If you’ve seen the late Yasmin Ahmad’s movie “Sepet”, bear with me. Since foreign movies take forever and a day to reach Australian shores, last night, courtesy of the intellectual property rights disrespecting of Youtube, I was finally able to catch the interracial love story in all its glory on His Royal Highness’ crook laptop.

Ever since Amanda accidentally sprayed His Royal Highness’ laptop with urine, we’ve only been able to use it for limited surfing of the internet. If ever you do receive an extremely curt message from me with no h, t, j or l, then you know which computer I am using. Anyhow, it’s still good for Youtube and we managed to enjoy “Sepet.”

If you’re a white dude or dudette reading this and wondering whether “Sepet” is the movie for you, read on. You can read a synopsis of the movie on Wikipedia but since you’re already reading this, I might as well tell you about it. It was awesome!

It’s the love story of a Malay girl and a Chinese boy set in modern-day Malaysia that captures the ethnic, social and political conflicts of the multi-racial, multi-cultural country. If you think European movies on SBS speak a different language, wait until you see this.

Reflecting how diverse Malaysian society is, dialogue is a combination of English, Malay, Cantonese, Hokkien and Peranakan patois. There are English subtitles throughout for the linguistically-challenged viewer. As a Peranakan, I adore the movie because it explains to the viewer indirectly what we are and touches on our special place in the nation’s history. As a Malaysian, I am proud to say it is from our local film-making industry because it is a production with creative integrity.

The late Yasmin Ahmad, herself married to a Chinese, did not trivialise the issues that arise from Malays perception of Chinese or Chinese perception of Malays but instead sought to give the racial tension between Malaysia’s two major races voice by acknowledging its existence through the nuances of the script. Friends of the main characters were opposed to the relationship, even though family was mostly supportive, because each held long-standing racial misconceptions of the other.

For example, Malays are viewed by Chinese to be lazy. Chinese are viewed by Malays to be shrewd and mercenary. The movie shows how both groups co-exist within a multi-cultural framework but have ample mistrust of the other. It is a love story, but it also a story about the love-hate relationship between Malays and Chinese; the private admiration and the open condescension, the historically close relationship and present-day alienation.

As for the title, “Sepet” means slitty-eyed. It refers to what Malays call Chinese eyes.

 

On coming out.

If you had read my earlier post about discovering my Peranakan roots at twenty-nine years of age, you will understand why this has nothing to do with me being gay or a part-time streetwalker. I am neither, although for me, coming out publicly with my real ethnicity was fraught with as much soul-searching as had I been either.

To start with, my mother had long denied having non-Chinese ancestry. My father had asked her many a time, but each time she reacted as though he had said the most absurd thing. In her defence, her mother had nine other children and passed away suddenly when she was fourteen so she probably had no one to enlighten her on how her father was a court interpreter and lower court judge. Pre-independence, most Chinese were merchants or labourers. Apart from Malays, only Peranakan held government posts and by virtue of their mixed-ancestry and fluency in many languages, acted as intermediaries for the British with the locals.

Furthermore, from a young age I had seen other Chinese ostracise my Eurasian sisters by labelling them half-castes. This was Malaysia of the 1980s and our mother was called into their school principal’s office every so often to settle arguments with teachers that arose when they were called derogatory names. There was even a period when she resorted to teaching the principal to making chee cheong fun, a steamed rice noodle dish, at our home, in an attempt to butter up the latter so that there would be fewer of such trips. Thus I knew that in claiming to be other than what every Chinese had sceptically accepted I was, I risked social alienation. After all, with the offspring of modern-day marriages between Chinese and Malays deemed to be Malays and hence Muslims, and many Peranakan from my parents’ generation marrying non-Peranakan’s, we are a dying breed at the mercy of authorities out to peddle our unique cultural synergy to attract tourist dollars.

Me as a five year old with my mother.

 

On being one race and then another.

This seems like a physiological impossibility but let me assure you that in the realms of everyday living, it most certainly isn’t. I was a full Chinese person for the first twenty-eight years of my life and on my twenty-ninth year, became only three eighths.

So how did this happen and how did I arrive at this peculiar set of fractions? After all, most people are either half, quarter, three quarters or some indefinable combination of ethnically different genes. My sisters would be galled reading this seeing as they still think of themselves as half Chinese. We share the same mother and a different father. Already they have gone through life as islands growing up in homogenous if multicultural Malaysia where pure Malays, Chinese and Indians predominate.

Like me, they must have thought that our third aunt enjoys living in a Chinese museum, unaware that the various wooden sculptures, furniture and fixtures are reflective of our real culture. My mother and her sisters fondly refer to our third aunt as “Nyonya” and for twenty-eight years of my life, I assumed it was because she cooked curry prawns and fish for all our Chinese New Years.

I postulated it was simply a way of life she subscribed to, even though her mother, my grandmother, was also a Nyonya. As was her mother and her grandmother before her, because as I discovered belatedly, Peranakan, while recognised by the governments of Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia as Chinese since their respective independence from colonial masters, are a hybrid race spawned by Chinese settlers of the 1500s and local indigenous peoples and that until the last generation, only married within their own community!

That we have our own culture, language and traditional dress, was something I was oblivious to until I made the connection. Then I was rediscovering myself anew, for I had grown up only thinking myself a solid, ethnically Han Chinese person; my father in his eagerness to impress this upon me showed me the physical marks of a real Han person. He neglected to mention that one of his grandmothers was a Peranakan too, even though with my features, Chinese, Malays and Indians had queried me repeatedly from childhood about by my ethnicity; hence, how I arrived at the three eighths.