Sunday, May 17, 2009

Transplanting: What're Roots For?


You know what that means if you're Malaysian - it means that race doesn't matter, and that nationality comes first before the racial qualifier. In fact, some of us are all for dropping the racial qualifier entirely, because nationhood comes first before our skin colour. This is what I used to like to tell myself - I will not identify with this other culture that comes appended to my skin colour but divorce myself from it in order to identify even more strongly with my nationhood's culture within which I wish to gain more rights and privileges.

(OK, I used less refined language, but the point remains.)

This didn't mean I was ignorant of where my father's family is from, originally. My family that I know of is mostly descended from two sons: one rich, one poor. (Incidentally, I'm from the "poorer" branch, though you wouldn't know that to see us.) I'm fuzzy on the details, but the family hails from Hainan island. We still have some land there, even. My father's gone there to meet relatives, which I think is an infinitely neat idea.

I can't speak Hainanese, much less the more commonly spoken Hokkien, or even more commonly spoken Cantonese, or the official Mandarin.

However, I do meet Chinese mainlanders from time to time, and I do like asking them, "where are you from?" A bit of an internal survey of mine, I'm afraid. I asked this question a lot to students who came to the writing center I worked at. Not all of them, of course. Just those friendly ones.

Sometimes, they ask me back, and I say, "from Malaysia."

And then, sometimes, as if I needed further common ground with these strangers in a strange land, to let them know they're not completely alone, or something, I further qualify myself, "but my family came from Hainan!"

And they say, "Hainan! I know where that is..."

But I don't mention Hainan island when I'm in Malaysia, because where I come from is moot there - I'm born and bred in Malaysia, I carry a Malaysian Identity Card, I have a Malaysian passport (which allows me to travel everywhere but Israel!! another topic for another day), I have a birth certificate that says I was born there.

It's pretty much a given that I'm Malaysian.

Except, of course, I'm clearly Chinese. You know, yellow-skinned and it's in all those aforementioned documents. I'm not sure what the point of the racial profiling is (there's also religious profiling too! again, another topic for another day), but it is a pointed reminder that apparently I'm not allowed to truly forget where my lineage is originally from: China.

But I'm Malaysian.

It's true, I cannot speak Malay very well, if at all. And it's also true that I'll mock a fuckton of stupid things that Malaysians do/say. It's true that I'm in Canada precisely because I couldn't fit in with my Malaysian peers. I was too loud. I was too proud. I was too opinionated. I was too critical of all the wrong things.

So I came to Canada and met white people that I could actually talk to. I couldn't actually identify as Canadian, so I grandiosely labelled myself a "child of the world", especially seeing how my privileged self had managed to get some traveling done on pretty much all the continents.

I love where I am, and I love the people I meet. This little city I live in now is filled with wonderful, friendly people. Too small to be overrun by too many idiots, and yet too large to be boring.

Even so, the longer I am here, the more I look forward to going "home": Malaysia. I crave the sounds of the pasar malam, the unique Malaysian accent, the hawkers shouting at each other. I crave the smells of open-air hawker stalls frying in the open next to drains, the buttery saltiness of roti canai, the scents of so many different kinds of food clinging to the humid air and assaulting you all at once. I crave the sight of the Petronas Twin Towers, of the hordes of devotees and monks at Kek Lok Sii temple, of people milling around everywhere - hundreds and thousands of people crowded into small spaces! (And people here complain about public transit.)

Even more complicatedly, when I am at "home", I'm reminded of all the reasons I left - family problems (a case of personality incompatibility between myself and various other members of my family), ridiculous politics, a strange oversight of what I feel to be important issues. And, of course, the growing conservative streak that never used to be there.

Conundrum. This Malaysian-Chinese with a strong affection for her adopted Canadian city wants to feel at home, but it's rather hard, you know, when you're still told your race somehow doesn't matter (except when it does, often during those times when you think race actually doesn't matter), that you're being obfuscating when you use words with more than three syllables or sentences with more than one subject and one predicate, or just trying to stir shit up when you just want an honest discussion.

Driven in further by people who think they have a sense of humour and sarcastically tell me I'm no longer Asian, simply for expressing a viewpoint that is not an Asiatic norm.

At this point, Hainan drops away into the distance, and so does the Chinese bit, and I'm caught between Malaysia and my Western sensibilities, unwilling (not unable) to pick just one, because, well, fuck, why the hell should I have to choose?

I am descended from a family that lives in a little village on Hainan island in China (which is a pretty big place, you gotta admit). Made, born, bred in a suburb of Malaysia, thirty minutes from the capital-state. Attended university and living in a small city in Canada. Reading literature, current and classic, from all over the world.

I don't need to declare any loyalty to where I am, or come from, or even descend from. I like to acknowledge them, because the past shapes the present and informs the future. They're as much a part of me as other non-stereotypical aspects of my identity.

But for convenience's sake? "Where are you from?"

"Malaysia," I say.

My pretty-fucking-unmistakably-light-skinned-Asian face can speak for the Chinese bit.