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Checking the damn Chinese box

Updated: Jul 30, 2021

I heard the French often referred Algerians and Moroccans borne and raised in France as immigrants although the latter hold French citizenships. I find this rather disconcerting because as a descendant of immigrants myself, I would be offended if I’m called an immigrant here.

My grandparents were indeed Chinese immigrants but by virtue of being a second generation Chinese Malaysian, I am not an immigrant - not by law nor by social construct.

Other compelling facts that make me NOT an immigrant would include me being ignorant of Chinese history and to a lesser degree, its language. I also do not hold any allegiance towards what once used to be the home of my late ancestors many years ago. I have no ties with anyone in China and the first time I stepped foot on my ancestral land, I was 44.

As a child, I remember feeling angry and betrayed when my father supported the Chinese badminton team over the Sidek brothers in the Thomas Cup semi-finals. I already understood the concept of nationalism and political betrayal. It infuriated me so much when my father cheered and clapped when we lost (yet again). I also knew he did it just to deliberately piss me off because he didn't even like watching the match to begin with. It was just one of those rare opportunities for him to feel closer to his "motherland". Well, I am not my father.

In college, I had a conversation with my best friend about what we thought came first; nationality, religion or race, in the order of what was most important to our hearts. I remember placing them in this order from most to least important; religion, nationality and race. If I have to answer this again, I would probably rearrange the order to nationality, race and religion, not that any of them matter to me now.

The thing is, I have lost a lot of my Chinese identity being brought up in Malaysia. I am not proud of it but it was certainly confusing and hard growing up and living in a country that perpetually highlights the racial privilege disparity but yet expect you to never question your loyalty to the country. The American Chinese author, Amy Tan managed to express her thoughts and feelings about being a first generation American Chinese coherently in her best-selling novel, The Joy Luck Club and her first non-fiction novel, The Opposite of Fate, which perhaps inspired me to write this piece.

When I was in primary school, I was oblivious of the way I looked. I had slanty eyes and lighter skin tone. I spoke Bahasa Malaysia with my friends in school and it was a language that united all of us, regardless of our ethnicities. I even spoke Bahasa Malaysia with my Chinese Malaysian friends. I excelled in the national language because I genuinely loved learning it - collective nouns, proverbs, idioms, the whole shebang. I spoke the language as if it was my mother tongue and I believe it was the only thing that clearly defined me as a Malaysian, not Chinese nor Chinese Malaysian.

One day, I was asked by my teacher whether my father would like to donate some money to rehabilitate the school surau. I remember feeling jubilant and excited with the thought of helping my Muslim friends. It didn’t take long to convince my father to offer some money towards what I firmly thought was a good cause then. However, something happened that changed the indifference I felt for the ethnic differences that sadly continue to divide Malaysians today.

In 1991, the New Straits Time awarded two PMR (a mandatory national school examination for those in Secondary Three) top scorers in every school in the Klang Valley. I scored second after another Chinese Malaysian friend. However, I did not receive the award because it went to a Malay classmate instead. I was told that day that at least one of the recipients must be a Malay and hence, they picked the best Malay scorer. He came fifth in the entire school, by the way.

I began to learn the horrible truth about a beast we all know as the "Malay special privilege" policy practiced by my school. I felt like a little girl who stumbled into a terrifying beast in a forest where she had previously thought was safe. I wished I had known about this beast because my parents had never mentioned nor warned me of this special privilege policy while I was growing up. A little heads up would have been nice, folks.

From that day onwards, I began to question my identity as a Chinese Malaysian and I can't help but hold that grudge until today.

That day, I made my Muslim friends paid for what the school had done to me by asking my father to withdraw his pledge. Many of you would say I was petty and childish and you are not wrong but hell, I felt insulted, discriminated and persecuted. Those strong feelings were enough to turn me. I was fifteen for crying out loud.

How do you expect a child should feel or react if he or she is being discriminated against and is told that race merits more than hard work? Go figure.

Needless to say, from being a happy and hard working student, I became resentful and unmotivated. I couldn’t bring myself to like Bahasa Malaysia anymore and I didn’t do well in my SPM (another fucking mandatory national examination which meant nothing to me by then). I didn’t want to study in a local university and prayed for the day when I could fly to another country in search of what I deserve.

Since then, I have travelled and lived in many places but I have never once found a place where I could truly call home. When I went to Chinatowns in New York, England and France, I felt like an outcast simply because I couldn’t converse proficiently in Mandarin or Cantonese. All I see is my failure of being a true Chinese. My Chinese race means nothing to me except for the fact that I celebrate Chinese New Year, watch Chinese movies and eat Chinese food. But so what? Millions of non-Chinese people do that too.

Now, I speak Bahasa Malaysia poorly and feel insecure whenever I have to converse with government officials. The rejection I felt during those days in school is brought to life repeatedly whenever I have to check the boxes on all the application and registration forms in this country that ask for my race. Would I be regarded less or discriminated against if I check the Chinese box?

So whenever the French questioned why those fucking “immigrants” don’t go back to their homes if they are unhappy in France, I retorted, “Go where?” Don’t you think that they would have already left if there is a place that will welcome them with open arms? It’s not our fault that our ancestors have crossed oceans to find a better place to live.

I often scoff when some of my friends claim that they are citizens of the world. To me, there is no such privilege, particularly if you come from a family of immigrants. Geographical boundaries, politics, religion, race and language have, and perhaps will always divide us.

At 45 now, do I still care about my national identity? No, not really when I am faced with a multitude of other "grievances" that matter more than this, and not especially when I have a lot to be grateful for - all the privileges that come with having a legitimate birth certificate and citizenship. At least I have these.

Tell me, what challenges have you encountered as a descendant of immigrants in your country?

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