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My take on my ‘diasporic’ Malaysian identity in my blog-essay “Art, Race and Identity”

March 9, 2011

I have submitted one post to a site and it will come out sometime next week, but am still behind in two other posts and a proposal. One week of spring break is just insufficient. I need my rest as well before the hectic and intense weeks to come, so it is unsensible to work all the time. Anyway, for a post that came out recently at the FHi blog, i want to draw the reader’s attention to the final paragraph of the post.

“The relation between work and life as exemplified by the likes of Thomas and Weems had me wondering about myself as a fledgling writer who struggles with issues of identity: of being ethnically Chinese in Malaysia, a country where we are the largest minority; of being part of an extended family that has been in Malaysia for only three generations. I grew up being educated in a national language and national culture that supposedly belong to an Other ‘majority’ ethnic group while remaining an ‘insider-outsider’ in my social interactions with them. I grew up being confused as to what constitutes my ‘native’ tongue, having to navigate between multiple languages, at varying degrees of competency, in the different areas of my life, from a relatively young age. I will not even venture here into the similarities/dissimilarities I share with ethnic minorities in the US who are the offspring of recent migrants. Growing up with quasi-Chinese customs and having no affinities with the ‘motherland’ of my ancestors (I speak only for myself since the cultural circumstances of my homeland is too complex to dwell into here), I speak a language of multiplicity and unbelonging. As a writer, I always wonder how much can I speak for a character who does not ‘ethnically’ belong in the same category as me, more so if religion becomes the factor of our differences. How do I speak in a language that is both familiar, passionate, alienating yet frustrating, all at the same time, this being the language I have greater familiarity that the ‘native’ language of my ethnicity (having lost all claims to that long ago). Ien Ang has spoken of this very succinctly in her book, On Not Speaking Chinese: Living Between Asia and the West. For me, it’s living between East Asia (to which I am only connected to by virtue of my genes), South East Asia and the West. Living the life of a person perpetually on the move, I will probably have to use the shifting and indefinable experience that I have to shape the creative space I dwell in, in the same way that African Americans, brought to the US on slave-ships, have managed to carve a culture, literature and creativity that is native to their identity and being.”

Hope that would elicit some comments. Check out the entire essay when you can.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. dukuhead69 permalink
    March 9, 2011 11:08 pm

    If, like myself, you are english-medium educated, i can sure relate to what you wrote about “being confused as to what constitutes my ‘native’ tongue”. I personally think that Chinese-medium educated Malaysian Chinese seem to be better-adjusted individuals with less of an identity crises since they are the dominant cultural group within the Malaysian Chinese community. That’s also why I’m giving my daughter the benefit of a Chinese-medium education. I myself will teach her the English language, but she will think in Chinese, not in English like her father does.

  2. March 23, 2011 5:32 pm

    As Malaysian writer living and working abroad, I share your sentiments.

    However, in the nature-versus-nurture debate, I do think individual identity matters most in the cultural landscape. For even in the most passive culture, you will find those who are more outspoken and rebellious than their peers, simply because they choose to be.

    So don’t seek to write about cultures as a whole. Rather, write about individuals.

    Also, in regards to dukuhead69 comments about English-medium education — don’t you actually mean Malay medium? =)

  3. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
    March 23, 2011 5:38 pm

    Thanks for the comments, John and dukuhead. For the record, no Malaysian who has had gone through the public education system since the late 1970s can consider him/herself ‘English-educated.’

    I was in a Malay-medium national school and we spoke minimal English there. My current education could probably be considered English-medium, even though I am suppose to be working on my French and German too. 😉

  4. dukuhead69 permalink
    March 23, 2011 9:03 pm

    I was educated in Singapore and i am now working in Malaysia. I am English-medium educated, sorry about the confusion. My parents didn’t think too highly of the Malaysian education system and they packed me off to Singapore early on (circa late 70s). I had a foretaste of Malaysian education when i was in my raw primary schooling age, they wanted us to learn jawi and all that jazz and i scored an F- for my efforts. Shortly after that, i scooted off and I am a beneficiary of the Singapore education system today. No thanks at all to the Malaysian gubment.

  5. Clarissa Ai Ling Lee permalink*
    March 24, 2011 4:12 am

    From my viewpoint, in retrospect, I think it is a shame that the learning of Jawi has been removed from the school curriculum because it cuts us off from access to a large portion of our historical texts that were originally written in Jawi. Jawi is certainly a lot more than a language of religious instruction and gives us a stronger sense of who and what the Malay language is about, instead of the ahistorical moment it occupies today. Italian (and those of the Romance languages)) schoolchildren are still expected to learn Latin today just so that they will have a better understanding of their vernacular.

  6. dukuhead69 permalink
    March 24, 2011 4:40 am

    try telling that to an 8-year old kid. learning chinese at night school was already a pain in the ass and add to that you gotta learn some scribbly language that is original malay. that would be a turn-off for most kids.

  7. April 11, 2011 8:44 pm

    Sadly, language is one of the major flashpoints in Malaysia. Many non-Malays equate Jawi with Islamification, and they will fight tooth and nail to keep it away. On the opposite side of the spectrum, there will be Malays who insist that Jawi should reside firmly within their realm.

    When things become so politicized, the pure academic joy of learning for the sake of learning is lost.

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