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.






9 thoughts on “Where is home?

  1. The article is illuminating. It shares so much of the commonalities of diaspora among all people who have to migrate for a handful of reasons. I will be going to Malaysia to photographically document the Chinese in Malaysia. Concentrating in small towns which are on the fringes of tin mines, plantations and fishing villages where migrant culture still holds strong. I believe there is no place on earth that can come close to how Chinese traditions and values, for better or worse, are kept.
    Please help me with any pertinent contacts that will enable me to perceive Malay Chinese culture in its context. My effort in the last 3 decades focuses on Chinese Americans in North America. Now my fascination is Chinese in Malaysia. I look forward to hearing from you out there. Please browse my website to see a range of my work including Malaysia and my contact info. http//:pokchilau.com

  2. I’ve checked out your website and I have to say that your ability to capture the uniqueness of Chinese people, in all their ordinariness, simply blows me away. Even though my blog is not strictly about overseas Chinese, much of what I write about is from the viewpoint of an overseas Chinese, which is what I am.

    If you’d like to document Peranakan Chinese, who still adhere strongly to traditional Chinese culture, I can share with you some contacts on facebook. Just add me (Estella Moo) and I can “suggest friends” from there. You can ask who’d be willing to participate in your project. I dare say many will since we are keen to preserve our culture. Alternatively, you can contact the various Peranakan associations in Malaysia for their help. Here’s a link to their page:


    • Btw, I forgot to add, my parents live in Ipoh, formerly the world’s biggest tin mine, home to very many Malaysian Chinese whose ancestors were originally from Guangzhou. There are many other smaller towns like Menglembu and Setiawan, near Ipoh, where you can find the Chinese you speak of.

      Klang, in the state of Selangor, although urban in many parts, is well-known for its fishing villages. The Chinese there, whose ancestors come from Fujian, speak Hokkien.

      • Thanks so much for your response. I was fishing near a small town near Ipoh called Tualang where I got really hooked by discovering Cantonese is the dialect of commerce. Since I spent over 2 weeks there, some of the local cafe people got to know me. My fishing guide and good friend Benny Chew whose Cantonese is downright native, is a 5th generation Peranakan Chinese. His parents are from Menglembu. I have yet to visit them. Before I make my trip, I will contact you further. Right now I am getting my fishing fever taken care of as I am retiring in 3 weeks!

        • Good luck with your next trip to Malaysia. I’m sure you’ll find my countrymen to be as convivial and helpful as ever. Yes, many Cantonese in Ipoh or thereabout, Peranakan or otherwise, speak the lingo most fluently. You’d be surprised but even some INDIANS in Ipoh can speak Cantonese. There is this Indian actor who’s very popular in our locally-made Cantonese soaps. I don’t know his name but I’ve seen him in many of them.

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