Home is a place where people understand what they see when they look at you, because when they look at you, they are seeing a reflection of themselves. In a foreign land, this doesn’t happen. In a foreign land, the people become confused by something as simple as your cheekbones. What sort of cheekbones are those, you see them silently wondering, as they scrutinise you with friendly curiosity?
My earliest memories are of my parents, of devouring the leg of a roasted duck, and the dark expanse of Malaysian sky overhead with its shimmering stars. It is warm, and I feel safe. I run around the garden singing Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star, the first song I ever learnt. I look up at the sky and wonder how far the stars really are, if I can ever visit one of those stars.
The voices were already there. “Dengan itu pendatang-pendatang Cina yang mulanya menetap di Melaka…” “With that, the Chinese newcomers who at first settled in Malacca…”
“…perubahan yang paling nyata dalam kehidupan orang Melayu ialah kemasukan secara beramai-ramai pendatang-pendatang Cina.” “…the most notable change in the lives of the Malays was the mass influx of Chinese newcomers.”
(Quotes from ‘The Malay Dilemma’ by Mahathir Mohamad, a book banned in Malaysia until he became Prime Minister).
The voices haunted us.
In Malaysia, no one is confused when they see me. They can tell at once that I’m Chinese, and not a Muslim. These are the simple facts about my life which mark me out, as if I wore a yellow star on my head.
Her name was Puan Asny (Mrs Asny). For me, she is forever in her thirties, this Malay teacher with curly black hair, a long face and thin lips that curved into the most welcoming of smiles. She came from a village house near Ipoh, but it was at the Methodist Primary School in Petaling Jaya where she taught me. Though the images have become fuzzy with time, the kindness Puan Asny brought into her classroom has lingered inside of me, never to be forgotten.
Puan Asny didn’t cover her head with the Muslim headscarf (tudung). None of my friends or their mothers did. The only person at my mission school who wore the tudung was a religious woman with bad breath who taught us the Arabic alphabet. I tell you this to make you aware that things haven’t always been the way they are today, in the home I once had.
I was in Standard Six when Puan Asny became my teacher, old enough to understand what the voices were saying. “The government’s policies aren’t fair,” I said one day. “But Selina,” Puan Asny said, looking at me with her large brown eyes which in my mind, were tinged with green. “The Malays are not like the Chinese. They need help.” We disagreed animatedly, she and I, but that didn’t stop our mutual respect.
Once, after my family moved back to Ipoh and I had left the school, my mother took me to wish Puan Asny a happy Hari Raya Puasa (the end of the fasting month) at her family’s village home. She was so happy to see us that she let out a scream, while I too rushed eagerly forward. We went inside to be received by her family, who enveloped us within their warmth. The memory of that feeling, that warmth, has stayed somewhere in my head as well as my heart.
The next year, I left for England and never saw Puan Asny again.
When I left Malaysia, part of my soul stayed behind, the part which I am only now beginning to rediscover. It creeps up on me at unexpected moments, giving succour to the Malayan family story I am busy polishing.
The voices have since become louder and more insidious. “Orang Cina cuma tumpang disini sahaja.” “The Chinese are only squatting here.” (Remarks made by Ahmad Ismail, Malay politician, at an open meeting on 23 August 2008, as reported by Li Weihua of the Guang Ming Daily).
The politician was banned from his political party for three years, but rank-and-file members received him as a hero, even awarding him a traditional Malay dagger.
Learning how to be at home in a country which doesn’t welcome you is an art for which I lack the patience. Perhaps if I had no choice, it would be different. I would then, like my compatriots, pretend not to care, and learn somehow to block out the chattering voices. As it is, I hear their high-pitched whispers everywhere.
“Sekiranya tidak puas hati, pelajar Cina disuruh balik ke Beijing, Cina, atau pun Sekolah Foon Yew. Beliau mengatakan pelajar-pelajar Cina tidak diperlukan. Bagi pelajar India, tali sembahyang yang diikat dipergelangan tangan dan leher pelajar India ianampak seakan anjing dan beliau mengatakan hanya anjing akan mengikat seperti itu.”
“In case of dissatisfaction, Chinese students were told to go back to Beijing, China, or to the Foon Yew School. She said that Chinese students are not needed. As for Indian students, the prayer strings they wear around their wrists and neck make them look like dogs and she said that only dogs would be tied in that way.”
(Taken from a police report on remarks made by a Malay headmistress during morning assembly at a multi-racial school in Johore, Malaysia, on 12 August 2010).
The headmistress was never dismissed, only transferred to another school.
To stay or to go, that was once the question. To stay put or to go back, that is now a question. If I go back, which part of me will I regain? If I don’t, which part of me will remain lost?
Kerana Malaysia ialah tanahairku. Because Malaysia is my homeland (usual translation), my soil and water (literal translation), land which nourishes my soul (own poetic translation).
(Taken from personal notes which I jotted down during a recent visit to Malaysia, February 2012)
Below, I share an excerpt from my unpublished novel.
“I had loved Ipoh’s hills from the moment I set eyes on them. On cool rain-soaked afternoons when everything outside smelt fresh, the trees covering the hills became so dark, they looked almost black, as if that were the only way they could retain the moisture from the heavens. Light mist would occasionally drift in, its white veil like the strokes of a brush on a perfect Chinese painting. On hot mornings, I could see the exposed rock more clearly and would marvel at the shapes which had been created …narrow pendants stretching down like long teardrops along the sides of many cliffs…and in the opposite direction, fat mounds that rose up from beneath, seemingly without effort…sculpted by years of the rain and wind which lashed down over the Kinta Valley.”
COPYRIGHT SIAK CHIN YOKE 2012
Is it possible to feel at home in a country which doesn’t want you? Yes, but only because you know it so well that it’s like an old shoe, wrapping itself around the contours of your feet and carrying you effortlessly onto familiar terrain. To survive as a non-Malay in Malaysia today, you must bury yourself in concrete to block out the echoing voices.
“Orang Cina Malaysia, apa lagi yang anda mahu?...Berikut adalah senarai 10 orang terkaya di Malaysia. 1. Robert Kuok Hock Nien…10. Tan Sri Vincent Tan Chee Yioun.”
“Chinese of Malaysia, what more do you want?…The following is a list of the 10 richest people in Malaysia…(a list follows of whom 8 are Chinese, 1 Indian and 1 Malay)”
(Extract from an article by a Malay journalist in the Malay newspaper Utusan Malaysia dated 28 April 2010)
Can I block out the hissing whispers? I ask myself this repeatedly, and wonder about the cost of such effort. Where is home?