Saturday, 3 December 2011

Through my time here in Australia, as well as when thinking about embarking on my very own solo adventure soon, I am reminded about an issue that is sometimes controversial- ethnicity.

 Me, somewhere in Sarawak in 2009

Here's what Niki Cheong wrote in his blog:

EVER since my first visit as a 16-year-old teenager, London has remained at the top of my list of favourite cities I’ve visited (Kuala Lumpur, being home, is of course excluded from the list).

By most significantly, I like London for the fact that I speak a common language as everyone else. Living in such a transient city as this also means that the people who come through here come from various cultures but speak English as a unifying language.

Language is a big factor for me because I feel uncomfortable when I can’t read signs or approach people without sounding silly. I grew up feeling out of place even in a city as Singapore because the locals would come up to me speaking in Mandarin. When I explain – or at least attempt to – that I am unable to communicate in that language, it is usually followed with awkward silence, probing questions or worse, accusations of how I have forgotten my roots.

This has never happened to me in London. In fact, instead of judging me or awkwardly changing the subject, my five classmates from China find this to be fascinating. Looking at me, I am obviously ethnically Chinese. Yet I have so little in common with them – I don’t identify with much of their culture, I don’t speak the same language and I have no connection to the “motherland”.

Motherland to me is Malaysia and being an eighth generation Malaysian, I define myself (if the need arises) by my nationality as opposed to my ethnicity. Recently, during a Facebook conversation with one of my former students in KL, I was asked if I felt ashamed that I couldn’t speak Chinese. I was not offended by the question, but I found it hard to understand why anyone would suggest that in the first place. 

That got me thinking about my own language proficiency, specifically my Chinese language proficiency, and the Chinese culture. While I did go to a Chinese primary school, I never completely identified with most of my classmates who were brought up very traditionally, as in they were the very stereotypical Chinese kids who barely spoke English, were good at Maths, wrote their religion as Buddhism when it's Taoism, read Chinese novels and comics, and watch Cantonese dramas.

While I could talk to them about certain Canto dramas that I watched as well, most of my entertainment came from Hollywood.

I was comfortable speaking in English, and if I dare say so myself, I was the juggernaut when it came to English- in the competitive world of Chinese schools and young kids, I was considered a favourite to ace the English exams- every single time. In fact, it was Chinese that I struggled with.

Now, fast forward to 8 years since I've left my Chinese primary school, I barely have anything in common with my former peers. I speak English with my friends, and I speak Chinese as little as possible (in Melbourne that's close to none).

What Niki wrote about how some people accused him of forgetting his roots sounded interesting to me, as it's something that I realised while being here.

Why is it that we are considered to have forgotten our roots because we do not speak a language our ethnic group speaks? I find it really frustrating at times when I read about politics back home and there is this constant talk about the different races- why the Malays will not vote for a certain party, who will Chinese vote for, why the Indian voters voted against the government the last time.

I enjoy how in countries like Australia, the people come from many different ethnic backgrounds but yet consider themselves Australian- they speak the same language, and is entrenched in the same culture. It's just that some kids with immigrant parents would be familiar with one or two other different cultures. I sometimes think wouldn't it be so much easier if we all just started calling ourselves Malaysians and not talk about our ethnicity?

There would be no need for different political parties catered to different ethnic groups. There would be no need for different types of mediums of instruction in schools. We would all just simply be Malaysians.

I myself feel no shame at being not proficient in Chinese. Sure, it's a hindrance sometimes, but I know that I would much rather be a 'banana'- yellow on the outside, white inside. It's just makes me a more interesting person to meet.

In a few days, I will be heading off to China, where I will have to rely on my basic Chinese oratory skills to survive. The fact that I can barely speak Chinese only makes it a much more interesting experience. Think about it- would you remember a story about a friend who got lost in a place where nobody spoke a language they know and they had to search high and low for an interpreter or to use sign language, or a story about a friend who had no troubles whatsoever because they could speak the local language?

I think that ethnicity is not everything- after all, we're all supposedly descended from Africans. Sometimes, we let it get to our head that a person from a certain ethnic group must act in a certain way. hopefully, that'll change soon.
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