Pardon my “Chinese”
Why I’m Malaysian, Not Chinese
by Karen E. Chin
When I was in Primary School, sometimes we were required to fill in simple forms for joining clubs or signing up for an event. Whenever I had to specify my race, I would stall for a moment before checking the box that said ‘Chinese’.
The first time I came across one of these situations, I checked the ‘OTHERS’ box, only to be reprimanded by my teacher to correct it. Confused, I asked my parents when I got home from school, “What is my race?” and they told me that because dad was Chinese, that would make me one too.
Genetically, I am Chinese. Fair skin, dark eyes and hair, small eyes (plus most of the Chinese features) but culturally, I was never sure. A few years back, during one of my soul-searching periods, I gave this issue some thought.
It has become the norm that when someone speaks Mandarin to me, I struggle to findmemorised phrases to tell them I don’t speak the language. When I was younger, I was confused when they were baffled and sometimes outraged. After fumbling around for an explanation why I never learnt to speak Mandarin, the person would usually ask me, “So, are you Chinese?”
My answer will always be the same, although it varies in depth of details, depending on the questioner. My father is Chinese – of the Hakka clan to be specific – but speaks neither Mandarin nor Hakka. My mother is of Chinese descent, but she was adopted by a Melanau family when she was a baby, so culturally she is not Chinese but she doesn’t speak the Melanau language either.
Basically we are a family of mixed heritage that do not speak any of our intended languages.
Next question would come: “So, what languages can you speak?”
English and Malay. Some Hokkien.
“So what do you speak at home?”
Very superficial touch-and-go Hokkien, conversational and very functional, intertwined with a lot of English and Malay words.
I went to a missionary–turned-government school, so it was common for many Chinese students to not speak Mandarin. Our subjects were taught in Malay and most of us city kids spoke to each other in English or Malay anyway. In my social group, it is common to speak English with each other.
Our English is special: it’s called ‘Manglish’. We can speak proper textbook English if we have to or want to, but we have a hybrid language of everything molded into one, a lingo not easily recognised by native English speakers.
The story of our Malaysian language is somewhat like a spider web, and it is common for many Chinese people to be in my situation here. To be honest, if I ever needed to speak Mandarin, I would need to take a complete beginner’s course like a foreigner.
When it comes to language, I am not Chinese; I am Malaysian.
Come Chinese New Year, people ask: “Are you celebrating Chinese New Year?” Usually, I don’t know what to say, as it’s a grey area. An ‘open-house’ is for families that celebrate the festival and have their houses open for friends and family to visit. My family doesn’t do that. No fireworks, lion dances or the whole she-bang; yet we dress up, have a special family dinner, send wishes and thanks to those who send them, and be overall, festive.
So do I celebrate Chinese New Year? I believe a new year starts on the first day of January but I have no knowledge whatsoever of the Chinese calendar. Grey area. So my answer is usually,”Yeah… Nah… Not really… a little bit… small scale…”
My favorite musing is that I get to celebrate everything in Malaysia. If that is how I am with Chinese traditions and celebrations, I can do the same with every other celebration available. The attachment and importance I have for ‘my’ festival is the same for others so why not?
Every Raya, I would get excited and dress for the festivities. Same goes for Gawai, or Deepavali and Western celebrations such as Christmas, Easter, Halloween.
When the little Chinese events come along, from what I know (The Ghost Month, Mooncake, Lantern, throwing-oranges-into-the-river event and so forth), I am as clueless as the non-Chinese person.
I have lost my identity and I am not alone in this issue. I have grown up under the influence of American media more than anything else. Ask me to name a Chinese movie or a Malaysian movie, and you’ll find me a blubbering fool.
I have read of the American lifestyle and culture and most of my thoughts and principles are based on that. Strangers I talk to would tell me I have a very different mindset from others they have met in my country, but sadly, I tell them that I haven’t had the financial freedom to travel as much as I like: I have lived in Malaysia all my life.
So when people ask me what race I am, it is most definitely accurate to say “I am Malaysian.” Just in case they are Malaysians too, and they think you are being cheeky, then you specify. Although our blood runs back to our migrating ancestors, all we know is Malaysia. I have never set foot in China and it is probably the last thing on my mind when I think of countries to visit. The fear of not being able to speak the language stops me from ever desiring to learn about my roots.
There is a disconnect and it doesn’t bother me one bit, unless someone discriminates me by my race based on stereotypes, that is when I start thinking “I am more like you than I am Chinese. Why can’t you open up your mind?” But of course, I am too polite to say that to their face, but instead write it in an article so everyone can see.
PRIDE IN HARMONY
I grew up in a generation of new Malaysians and we are a very special diverse group of people. All I need to do is to look at my group of friends when I hang out. The idea that we aren’t divided by our races or language puts a smile on my face. Race has never come up except when someone notices it for some random reason and we all go “Aww that’s so cool” and smile.
Karen is a born-and-bred Kuching singer/songwriter who made her debut with her single ‘Cold’ in 2011. She is a trained occupational therapist, experienced makeup artist and has been a writer her whole life. She writes on a variety of topics and the tried-and-tested lifestyle as she sees it; direct, witty and down-to-earth.