Friday, January 07, 2005

One's identity is not very often debated, that is, until the question crops up. Only then do we begin to realize that it is not so simple to put ourselves into "categories", especially when we consider the three different and largest ethnicities of Malay, Chinese and Indian that we might belong to, while at the same time holding onto the identity of being Malaysians.

So I then thought to myself - which is more important? What do I say when people ask me "What are you?". I suppose the answer to this question has to take into consideration where the question is being asked, and by whom. If in Malaysia, I would say "Chinese" because it will most probably be coming from a local who can't quite point a finger to my racial origins. However, when abroad, I will proudly say "I'm Malaysian" period.

Sometimes, to think of it, it is rather sad. In this modern day of globalisation and modern civilisation, many are still ignorant about the world's culturally diverse population - yes even within a country!

I remember Frank, my Australian housemate back in Perth during university days, upon telling him I'm Malaysian then asked me "So you're Malay?" Not the first, and certainly not the last of such experiences. "No I'm Chinese, third generation Chinese in Malaysia," and I further go on explaining about the cultural diversity within Malaysia and how the three predominant races make up the Malaysian population. "Aaahh," said Frank with a nod as he emptied out a packet of frozen stir-fry into the pan and begin to stir it nonchalantly. "Do I need to add more oyster sauce to this thing here?" he asked.

Friends from Hong Kong will call us ma lai yan (Cantonese phrase which literally translates to Malay). Of course, here goes the long and confusing explanation of ancestry and the multi-racial and multi-cultural nation we live in. "But you're still ma lai yan lah!" they will finally say.

The question now is - Do we feel that being categorized as one or the other does not project a true image of our identity? Are there then ways to portray oneself to avoid prejudices and misconceptions by others?

If I were to say "Malaysian Chinese", I would have to agree that it is not too general, and yet not too specific. It also will not lead to long and confusing explanations of ancestry in the homeland, and the migration of our ancestors to Malaysia. By saying "Malaysian Chinese" also has it's pros actually. It conveys freedom of race and religion, peace and harmony within a multi-racial Malaysia.

However, by just saying "I'm Malaysian" will also lead to confusion, especially for our Western counterparts who are not so informed about the varied Asian culture, especially in South East Asia. Will our ethnicity lose its cultural essence then? But, identifying ourselves as Malaysians will signify unity of all the ethnic groups in Malaysia and how they are inextricably linked to one another.

Will we one day be able to just say one word - Malaysian - and have people acknowledge, realize, and embrace the fact that this term encompasses and should thereforereflect the pretty colours that make up our country?

I'm still undecided though. "Malaysian" or "Malaysian Chinese"?

Posted by Doreen at 3:01 pm