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Monday, March 31, 2014

Making sense of the Malaysian Chinese experience

Recent circumstances, especially constant questions from my comrades from China, had caused me to evaluate my place as a Malaysian Chinese.

In case you can't read the Facebook post, or in case the above embedded post will disappear a few years from now, I'll copy and paste it here.

2 weeks ago, I finally returned to Tokyo after being away for 10 months.

I'm staying at the same dorm that I had been staying since 2008, Wakeijuku. I always liked telling people that this was the exact same place Haruki Murakami lived in during his university years, and this was the "dorm" in Norwegian Woods.

Before I went back to Malaysia last year, a tall and muscular China dude had just moved into the room opposite mine. He had the mannerisms of someone who was in the army (he was). He told me that he had spent a few years growing up in Japan, but instead of conforming and trying to please everyone around him, he had maintained his sense of self. There was no assimilation, just "conquer" (he stamped his foot on the ground with authority).

I nodded and pretended to look impressed by his nationalistic spirit. (because it was the polite thing to do, really)

On the night that I returned, the guy appeared and greeted me enthusiastically. As if one would greet an old friend.

We started chatting. Naturally, the topic veered to MH370, to Malaysia, to the administration. I didn't say much to defend my government, since there really wasn't anything there to defend.

The discussion veered to the Malay Chinese experience. Of our place in politics and economy. He seemed genuinely outraged that we were given unequal treatment. He mentioned that long ago, Chairman Mao had wanted to unite the Chinese around the world.

"Uh huh." I said, trying not to look indifferent.

"Do you all speak the Malay language?" The guy asked.

"Yeah. It's the national language. We all have to speak it." I replied.

I assumed that the guy interpreted my reply as another act of oppression being forced upon us. He started laughing heartily. "When I hear the Malay language, it sounded like monkey shrieking. So undeveloped."

Struck by these words, I was suddenly overwhelmed with anger.

"You can criticize the government. But stay away from the people." I snapped at him.

I think he was surprised by my response, so I continued.

"Malaysia is a multicultural country. We grow up understanding and accepting everyone's different cultures and traditions. My Malay brethren, or rather, the Malays in general, they have always been nicer and friendlier, I've always trusted them more. When it comes to filming, I could easily ask to borrow a boat, or a house, for my film shoot, while our fellow Chinese, your fellow Chinese, would only look at me with disdain, ask me for money, renege on previous promises. Being judgemental, being manipulative, being untrustworthy." I said, calmly and slowly.

"I'm not like you. All nationalistic, all Chinese supremacy. You don't need to be tolerant of other people's ways and methods. You love everything about your country, your skin colour, good for you. Great. Hooray. Hey, I wish we Malaysians have that much pride too. But really, what makes you think you can disrespect us?"

What followed was a little awkward, as he tried changing the subject. And I allowed him to, because, seriously, the daily 'patriotism' quota of mine was used up by then.

I would like to reiterate the fact that I wasn't necessarily doing it for Malaysia. I was merely taking a stand against bigotry and ignorance, against racism, against generalizations. National barrier is an illusion. I don't believe in "racial superiority" like the Big Comrade did. And i find it classless and distasteful already, that our very first conversation veered towards him "coming to Japan, using their resources, conquering this place like a male Khaleesi!" (with stamping of foot? Oh wow.)

Is being respectful of other cultures such a foreign concept to (young) people now?

So, my fundamental philosophy is "equality".

The government's racist politics in the last few decades go against everything I believe in. But I don't have much sympathy for the "opposition" either. Those outspoken folks who went online to whine about the government for every single thing and condemn WOLF OF WALL STREET as "pornography invested by Rosmah's son, BOYCOTTTTTT!!" annoy me just as much.

In this crazy country in this crazy world, we deserve each other.

Equality. I also hated some of my high schoolmates/ teachers for paying more attention and giving more love, exclusively, to those jocks with great academic results, and ignoring, trivialising those with artistic aspirations. Hated those who had the gall to say "this girl is out of your league, she too pretty, you too ugly". Hated those who measured success by monthly salary etc etc. That's why I started skipping high school reunions and gatherings. Because I hate feeling miserable. Or being reminded of what made me feel miserable.

Yes, despite my cheery demeanour, there's really a lot of righteous anger burning within my soul.

It's just that I don't like to, you know, whine about these stuff on Facebook just to fish for "likes" and cyberhugs.)

Enough with my angst. If you can read Chinese, the following article, by a Malaysian Chinese student studying in a university in China, sums up really well what is it like to exist as a Malaysian Chinese.

I'll try to summarize the article: Basically, the following three are main characteristics of our existence.

1) An awkward existence.

Often, people from China would ask why we could speak Mandarin so well. For the last few decades, the people of Chinese ethnicity in Malaysia have fought hard to preserve our tradition, our culture, our language, in spite of our government. Yet these efforts are mostly unknown to people outside the country either. Therefore even though we are Chinese, we are not "Chinese enough" to our comrades of Mainland China, and are constantly reminded that we are minorities or "outsiders" by the hardliners of Malaysia. Thus we are "outsiders" no matter where we are.

2) A lonely, solitary existence.

The fact that we are "outsiders" no matter what. Malaysian Chinese are generally more religious compared to the folks in China. Be it Buddhism, Taoism, Christianity, they all play a bigger role in our everyday life.

We live in a multicultural society, therefore we grew up in a heterogenous environment where it's essential to accept and understand the different cultures and different beliefs of our Malay and Indian brethren who make up the majority of the country's population.

Therefore, despite our similar outer appearances and the ability to speak the common language, we are rather different from our Mainland Chinese comrades.

3) A sad and melancholic existence. (initially, the author was going to say that it's a "proud existence" or an existence with "pride", but he corrected himself)

No, the politics of my nation don't really favour those of Chinese ethnicity. We still struggle to preserve and protect our Chinese tradition. Malaysian Chinese actors, singers or others in the entertainment industry usually have to go to Hong Kong or Taiwan to ensure a proper career (and people end up not knowing that they are actually Malaysian Chinese. Look at Michelle Yeoh, Tsai Ming Liang, Fish Leong, Gary Chaw, Lee Sinjie etc.)

Nonetheless, we continue to exist.

"Yes, they will trample me underfoot, the numbers marching one two three, four hundred million five
hundred six, reducing me to specks of voiceless dust, just as, all in good time, they will trample my son who
is not my son, and his son who will not be his, and his who will not be his, until the thousand and first
generation, until a thousand and one midnights have bestowed their terrible gifts and a thousand and one
children have died, because it is the privilege and the curse of midnight's children to be both masters and
victims of their times, to forsake privacy and be sucked into the annihilating whirlpool of the multitudes, and
to be unable to live or die in peace."

- Midnight's Children, Salman Rushdie