A tale of a Malaysian student living abroad, and her brush with internationalism.

At 13, my peers informed me that I was a ‘Malaysian Chinese/Chinese Malaysian’.

At 13, wanting to fit in, I said, “Okay, whatever you say.”

At 16, I declared to my peers, “I am Malaysian.” They said, “Okay, whatever you say.”

At 18, I declared to my peers (again), “I am Malaysian.” They asked, “Aren’t you Chinese?”

The Malaysian identity is a complicated one. In school and amongst our peers, we identify ethnically and/or racially. It makes sense when identifying the origins of different cuisines, but it gets complicated when all one wants to do is build national identity.

Why do we do this bizarre ethnic identification? Is it because of our national politics? Our histories? Our education? I am almost certain it is a medley of all the above, but comes as a by-product of a very confusing education system, which, let’s be honest, plays the biggest role in creating multiple identity crises amongst Malaysian youth abroad.

It is in Malaysia that one will find discussions regarding the accuracy of ethnic/racial terminology within and without the racial/ethnic group. The discussion is quite present when you have conversations of the ‘multi-racial persuasion’ at the local mamak over some teh tarik halia and roti bom. But one place in which this discussion is missing is in vernacular schools.

In my experience, national identity in vernacular schools is not an issue that is discussed critically. The vernacular school system has developed to such an extent that no one really needs (or wants) to discuss ethnic identity within its walls because of its ethnic homogeneity. Your peers understand that you are Malaysian by nationality, but Chinese ethnically. So what’s the problem?

The serious answer would be that this brings up tumultuous questions about national cohesion and solidarity. How can we develop a cohesive national identity if we can’t even agree on the webs that define our society? Alternatively, it would also be a problem if someone ever decided to draw a caricature of Malaysians.

Furthermore, if you are a Malaysian living abroad and every time someone asks you where you’re from, you spend 10 minutes explaining: a) Malaysia’s geography; b) Demography; c) Culture; d) History, and finally, e) Education, even though they expect you to tell them, ‘China’ (if you’re Malaysian Chinese lah). This has led to some extent of conversational hilarity which, however, doesn’t work if you’re sitting at a loud bar trying to add one-liners to every explanation.

Perhaps it would be more useful to describe such a scene. Setting: A liberal arts college in New York, USA.

Student A: Hi, I’m from Michigan, where are you from?

Malaysian: Hi, I’m from Malaysia.

A: Where is that?

M: Southeast Asia. Between Thailand and Singapore.

A: So… are you Malay?

M: No, that’s a different ethnic group.

A: Then… are you Chinese?

M: Not technically. My great-great grand parents emigrated from China. So I’m Malaysian.

A: So is everyone in Malaysia like you? (i.e. Do they look like you)

M: No. *Launches into discussion about Malaysian demographics, racial politics and the education system*

At 18, I declared myself to be Malaysian. I finished high school in a vernacular Chinese school. I got on a plane to study liberal arts in the U.S. At a train station, when prompted, I declared myself to be Malaysian. But the prompter (a middle-aged Chinese lady) begged to differ.

Lady: Are you ???? (Which literally translates into Chinese – from China)

Me: No. I’m Malaysian (?????) .

Lady: But you look Chinese.

Me: Oh, yes, well, my great-great grand parents were from China, but everyone else has since been born in Malaysia. So I am Malaysian but my family are overseas Chinese.

Lady: Then you are Chinese (???)! You should go back to China.

Being a Malaysian is confusing. It’s time we developed a cohesive national education system and build up our international image. It’s also about time everyone stopped erasing the large piece of land between Singapore and Thailand.

Jeamme is a through-and-through Penang-lang not studying Arts in a liberal arts college. When not thinking about food (very rarely), she can be found trying to decipher the bizarre world of politics. One...

7 replies on “I am Malaysian lah!”

  1. Education has the only one thing that gives us full information about the stock market. This is the only who develops the sense of awareness in ourselves. Education teaches that we should think before our any action and that is the key to success in any stock market.

  2. You should have asked that American guy if everyone in USA looked like him. Then he may have realized even in USA there are Americans of different origins such as native americans, latin americans, irish, african americans, etc etc.

    1. Get this, the Mat Salleh didn't qualify his American citizenship with his ethnic origin. He is American, period.

      I do hope that u r not a loyarBurok to be!

  3. How about this for a comparison;

    A Mat Salleh in M'sia is been approached by a local.

    Local: Hi, where u from?

    Mat Salleh: I'm from Portland, Oregon, US of A.

    Local: I known US of A. But where's Portland & is it part of Oregan or vice versa?

    Mat Salleh: It's on the NEast side of Pacific coast of Northern America. Yes, Portland is one of the city within Oregon state. BTW, my ancestor came to US from Ireland during the famine of the mid 19th century.

    Local: So u r actually Irish American.

    Mat Salleh: No, I'm American through & through. BTW, my traveling companion is a recent Czech immigrant. She is American, too.

    Local: Both of u looks the same to me in appearance.

    Mat Salleh: Just the other day, I met a Malay M'sian. He looks entirely different from u!

    Facts to ponder……..why Americans of different ethnic backgrounds r proud to just call themselves American, while in bolihland there must be Bumi/non-bumi, Malay, Chinese, Indian, DLLs??????????

  4. What's wrong with telling people you're Malaysian then explain ethnically (or culturally) you're Chinese/Malay/anything?

    Just because we're Malaysian doesn't mean we have to deny our other identities.

    Like for example, I'm a gay Malaysian who perform Chineseness. (For some reasons I don't like to call myself a Chinese, yet I think it's ok if other people like to identify using their ethnic identity.)

    1. Hi,
      I definitely agree with you that as Malaysians we should not have to deny our other identities. Nonetheless, it is sometimes frustrating to see that this concept of national identity is forgotten around the world. It usually provides for some comic relief – for me – but like many of my peers now, we'd like to be Malaysian 1st, and Chinese/Malay/Chindian 2nd.

      But the thing to remember is that on the larger scale, this question of national and ethnic identities is far from settled. Identity is formed not only locally, but globally. We've still a ways to go in terms of understanding who we are, and I think that the culture shocks along the way help us figure it out.


  5. As someone who's been through the same routes of education (and probably will, with the US), I can completely relate with the above. Every time I try to explain being "Malaysian", albeit of "Chinese" ethnicity, I only end up confusing my non-Malaysian friends who nod and go "ah", pretending to understand. Sigh. Will there ever be a day when ALL Malaysians will be able to use the label, "Malaysian" (full stop. period. no more.) with natural ease and confidence?

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