As many of you would have read in my past posts, I have written about the issues I faced growing up as an Australian born Asian with my racial bullying as a 5 year old and my many, many formative years wanting to wash off my Asian-ness, change my last name to “Smith” or “Brown” and lived through years of internalized racism and self hatred. These are experiences many if not most Australian born Asians would have experienced – the questioning of our identities and the understanding of where we belong in white majority countries. But my post this week will focus on something slightly different and it may resonate with those who share dual cultures and identities. Of course it is different from say being hapa or biracial with totally different cultures, but for me having the dual cultures of Chinese and Malaysian have caused a lot of angst as well as confusion growing up.
I really have only thought about this crisis like 1 – 2 years ago, when I started getting a lot more interest in exploring my identities and look at tracing my family tree. At that time I was all passionate about exploring my Chinese identity (and still am) and didn’t even give my Malaysian identity a thought. It wasn’t until I had a discussion with a close friend that this interest added a new layer. I was talking with him about some of the difficulties I will encounter when and if I decide to seriously trace my Chinese ancestry going back to China, and he suggested, “why don’t you trace your Malaysian family tree first? Isn’t that a culture which has played a huge part in your upbringing asides from being Chinese?”. As simple and basic as that sounds, I never really thought about it that way for some reason. Was I unintentionally hiding my Malaysian identity for a reason? Was I embarrassed or ashamed by it? Why was it that I blocked acknowledging my Malaysian-ness but was proud of being Chinese? I even asked journalists and media interviews I did to refer to myself as “Chinese Australian” and not “Malaysian Chinese Australian” despite the fact my family and recent ancestry all came from Malaysia.
It took me quite awhile to reflect upon this, and I realized that asides from eating my parents cooking and having relatives still living in Malaysia, I really had no idea or clue about this side of my cultural identity. Thinking back asides from family and food, I never explored my Malaysian side, and a lot of that is to do with how my parents spoke about Malaysia, specifically my dad. Growing up, my dad would talk ill about Islam and Malaysia and would drum this scenario into my head ( his exact words): ” If you have Muslim friends, if the world is about to end and the choices were to save you or religion, they would side with religion 100% and kill you”. For years I thought my dad was just hateful and was racist towards those who were Muslim, and I really resented him for that considering some of my best friends in primary school growing up were Muslim background.
As I grew older the stories my parents would share with us kids about being Malaysian were all negative. My father would tell me about the “May 13 1969” incident and said that Chinese and to an extent Indians in Malaysia were not just discriminated and racially vilified by the majority Malays but also attacked and killed. They were racial riots which really questioned who was entitled to be considered as “Malaysian”. My dad would constantly tell me that Chinese are unwanted in Malaysia and hated by the Malays, so why should he be trusting of Muslims since they caused so much racial hatred in Malaysia. In addition, my dad would drum into my head about how the Malaysian constitution favors the majority Malays in employment, business and in education and how the Chinese and Indians were worth nothing. All this was told to myself and my siblings growing up, and I just remember every time he would mention it with so much anger I would just yell at him to stop being hateful towards Muslims.
But I think more so than not, these stories affected my psyche, and I wonder whether it has affected the psyches of other Malaysian Chinese living who were born and raised in the West and Europe, and whether it has pushed them to ignore and sideline their Malaysian heritage and identity. The negativity towards Malaysia went as far as my dad telling me he loved his childhood growing up under British colonial rule and how he felt his freedoms were taken away when Malaysia became independent in 1957. My dad was only 9 when Malaysia became independent and my mum was just born, so I think the impacts and the resentments are stronger in my dad’s memory because he was old enough to understand what was going on.My parents left Malaysia in 1975, and was sponsored by my dad’s elder brother who was already living and working in Sydney after studying under the Colombo Plan. His and my mum’s happy memories always revolved around food, physical environments, friends and the culture generally. But their resentments about the racial divide in Malaysia has stuck with them and I feel they have internalized that for so many years and to an extent still do today. It was not till recently that I learned from friends who are active within the Malaysian Australian and the Malaysian activism space that a lot of their resentments and anger and perceived hatred comes from extreme trauma and what their memories of Malaysia were before they left. I don’t consider my parents and in particular my dad for being racist and hateful anymore, because his anger about Malaysia was due to his observations and his memories about how minorities were treated in Malaysia when he was living there.
Even now that Malaysia is coming upon a new era, a new Government and more transparency after all the corruption and political turmoil from the previous ruling party who governed Malaysia for over 60 years and caused a lot of racial divide, my dad still treads carefully in how he feels and sees Malaysia’s future. But I can see some life coming back into him about his feelings, because he would consistently check Malaysian news and he was so interested in following the last election when change was on the horizon. When we were in Malaysia a few months back for my cousin’s wedding, he would share stories about his childhood and the stuff he would do as children and it was as though he was a kid again. I learned from friends to be more understanding about my parents feelings ( particularly my dad) because it is a common one among minorities in Malaysia, and that his misplaced hatred comes from a lot of bad memories and trauma, particularly after the May 13, 1969 incident.
Now, going back to my own cultural understanding, I think my ignorance of being Malaysian culturally stems from a lot of what my parents ( particularly dad) drummed into my head growing up and I was resentful towards him for being so hateful towards Muslims. My blocking it all out was because I must have recognized sub consciously that it was a minefield and a potential headache to acknowledge it all. It also confused me even till today as to where I see myself and where I belong. Am I more Chinese? Or am I more Malaysian? Can I be both as well as be Australian as that is where I was born and raised or is that too much for me to take in? For now I haven’t decided as yet, but I have started to explore my Malaysian identity, and started to open up more to good friends who are Malaysian background about this.
To end, all I will say is that this is my personal experience and journey and I would say it is a common experience for those who are like me and who share dual Asian cultural identities. Malaysia is a tapestry of different cultures, but its history has been plagued with colonialism and later racial divide, and we all need to be more understanding of how our parents who lived through certain traumatic experiences feel.
To read more about the May 13, 1969 incident, please click on: May 13 burial ground