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A Stranger in Malaysia: The Problem of Identity

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“Siew Lin, I think you are better suited living in a Western country,” said my aunt.

It was mid-January – Chinese New Year, to be precise – and the extended family was gathered at my grand aunt’s house in Petaling Jaya for a visitation. Red packets were given, gossip was exchanged. And as usual, the favourite topic of conversation among the elders was what the younger generation was up to. My aunt’s children now lived in Australia and New Zealand and she felt that it was my destiny to live there too.

This wasn’t the first time my relatives had said that to me. In the past, I’d be puzzled by their conclusions. What was it about me that indicated that I didn’t belong in Malaysia?

Growing up Chinese in culturally diverse Malaysia, you can’t help but feel different. Despite half-hearted attempts to remind us that we’re Malaysians first, all of us – Malay, Chinese, Indian and “lain-lain” (other races such as the Orang Asli, Serani, Ibans, Kadazan and Dayaks) – are constantly reminded of our differences by our politicians and the media. I can’t even complete a form without indicating my ethnicity.

After the racial riots of May 13, 1969, where thousands died, there was an uneasy agreement among the races that we should no longer provoke each other. We have become a self-censoring culture, afraid if our words will cause discomfort or fury. We watch what we say and write, and hide what we really mean behind taut smiles.

I have never been good about watching what I say. And as a writer, I ache to write the truth.

But my feeling like a stranger in my own country extends to my very speech and thoughts.

Although I was educated in Malay and spoke Hokkien (a Chinese dialect) at home, I’ve mostly thought, spoke and wrote in English. I’m not sure how that came to be; perhaps it was my exceptional fondness for American television shows and great love for English novels.

As I was not educated in a Chinese-medium school like most Chinese children these days, I can’t read Chinese. My half-baked Mandarin has gotten me stares of disapproval from my Chinese brethren who sometimes jokingly refer to me as a “banana” (yellow on the outside, white on the inside).

My identification card may identify me as Chinese, but I have a feeling that I’m not Chinese enough to be Chinese.

If I were to prefer living in a Western country, it would only because I have grown weary of being judged based on what I am rather than who I am. My genes may indicate that I’m Chinese, and culturally I may belong to that group, but these are mere labels, not true indicators of my principles or character.

Where do I really belong, then? It’s really simple: I belong among people who see me for who I am instead of what I am on the outside. Now, that’s my true home.

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About Elizabeth Tai