Saturday, September 20, 2008

Born Identity

I often hear the French refer the Algerian and Moroccan born and raised in France as immigrants although the latter hold French citizenships. I find it rather disconcerting because as a Chinese Malaysian, I would be offended if I’m called an immigrant despite the fact that I was born and raised in Malaysia. My grandparents were indeed Chinese immigrants but by virtue of being a second generation Chinese Malaysian, I don’t think I deserve to maintain that status quo particularly when I don’t know much about the Chinese history, the language and much less feel any allegiance towards my ancestors’ homeland. I have never been to China and my parents have never mentioned about any relatives we might have there.

When I was younger, I remember feeling angry and betrayed when my father supported the Chinese badminton team over the Sidek brothers in the semi-finals of the Thomas Cup.

I remember in college, I had a conversation with my best friend about what we thought comes first; nationality, religion or race. I remember placing them in this order from most important to least important; religion, nationality and race. Now, none of them holds any significance to me.

The thing is, I believe I have lost a lot of my Chinese identity, being brought up in Malaysia. I don’t claim to be proud of it but I feel it is time for people to try to understand how confusing and difficult it can be being a descendant of immigrants.

The American Chinese author, Amy Tan managed to express her thoughts and feelings about being a first generation American Chinese coherently in her best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club and in her first non-fiction novel, The Opposite of Fate, which perhaps inspired me to write this.

When I was young, I had never felt or noticed any difference in the way I look; my slanty eyes and lighter skin colour. I spoke Bahasa Melayu with my friends in school and it was a language that unites all of us together. I even spoke Bahasa with my Chinese Malaysian friends. I excelled in Bahasa Melayu and simply adored the language. I spoke the language as if it was my mother tongue and I believe was the only thing which clearly defined me as a Malaysian, not Chinese or Chinese Malaysian.

One day, I was asked by my teacher whether my father would like to donate some money to rehabilitate the school surau (prayer hall). I remember feeling jubilant and excited with the thought of being able to help my Muslim friends. It didn’t take long to convince my father to offer some money towards this good cause. However, as it turned out, something happened which changed my perception and faith of whom I was.

That year, the New Straits Time offered awards to two PMR top scorers in every school in the Klang Valley. I was second after one of my Chinese Malaysian friends. I was not awarded. Instead the prize was given to a Malay friend.
I began to learn the horrible truth from a beast disguised as what we call the special privilege policy practiced by my school. I had learned this on my own because my parents had never explained or talked to me about this special privilege policy while I was growing up.

From that day onwards, I began to question my identity as a Chinese Malaysian and I hold that grudge until today. I made my Muslim friends paid for what the school had done to me by asking my father to withdraw his donation. Like it or not, I felt discriminated and I felt the injustice of being a Chinese Malaysian.

Many of you would have thought of me as petty and childish. Well, I was fifteen and being rejected was a big deal particularly when I felt that my hard work was not acknowledged but also insulted. What do you expect a child to feel or react if he or she is being discriminated against and is told that race merits more than hard work? Go figure it out.

Needless to say, from being a happy and hard working student, I became indifferent and discouraged. I couldn’t bring myself to like the Bahasa Melayu language anymore and I didn’t do well in my SPM. I didn’t want to study in a local university and prayed for the day when I could fly to another country in search of what I deserve and my identity.

Since then, I have traveled to many places and I have never once found a place where I could truly call home. When I went to the china towns in New York, England and France, I felt like an outcast simply because I couldn’t converse proficiently in Mandarin or Cantonese. I could only speak broken Hokkien.

All I see is my failure of being a true Chinese. My Chinese race means nothing to me except for the fact that I celebrate Chinese New Year, watch Chinese movies and eat Chinese food. But so what? Millions of non-Chinese people do that too.

Now, I speak Bahasa Melayu poorly and feel insecure when I have to converse with government officials. The sense of rejection I felt during those days in school is brought to life again whenever I have to check on the boxes which asked for my race in all the application and registration forms for administration purposes. Would I be regarded less if I am a Chinese?

So whenever the French questioned why the “immigrants” don’t go back to their homes if they are unhappy in France, I retorted, “Go where?” Don’t you think that they would have already gone if there is a place that will welcome them with open arms? It’s not our fault that our ancestors have crossed oceans to find a better place to live.

I often scoff when some of my friends claim that they are citizens of the world. To me, there is no such privilege, particularly if you come from a family of immigrants. Geographical boundaries, politics, religion, race and language have all but divided people.

I still think that the best way of introducing oneself is such as practiced in certain culture.

“I am Lim Ka Ea, daughter of Lim Chin Sim and Loo Yik Lew.”

After all, that is the most accurate description of my identity. I am my father and mother’s daughter, linked by blood and history.

Written on 18 December 2006

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