Thursday, May 21, 2009

Cultural Identity: Perspective from a Malaysian Chinese

Note: Chiew-Siah Tei, the author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes, is a Malaysian Chinese living in Scotland. We met and became friends during Hong Kong's Literary Festival in March. The following is her response to Drifting Leaf's letter regarding the issue of cultural identity, see yesterday's post "The Vertigo of Foreign-born Chinese." Comments are welcome. (And thank you, Chiew-Siah!) Xujun

Dear Xujun,

I read your Singaporean reader's letter with much thoughts. Confusion of one's identity is a common issue among persons who live outside their cultural roots, be they Chinese, South Asians, Africans and the like, especially for those who are not first-generations. History has determined our fates. It is impossible to go back in time and amend, but there's time to understand, and with that to accept the unchangeable facts. By acceptance, I don't mean we should defy our cultural roots, but recognise and inherit the culture, while at the same time, acknowledge the country we were born and grew up in to be our homes.

As a fourth-generation Chinese from Malaysia, I can understand how she (I'm under the impression that that's a lady) feels. I myself was once confused, too. After all these years, I've come to realise that, over my adolescent years, I had never doubted my identity as a Malaysian and Chinese, and that I was part of the multi-cultural society, and Malaysia was my home. Here in Malaysia we have a unique Malaysian Chinese culture, which I embrace. Some might say the language, the cultural practices, the food, etc, are no longer authentic, but then, this is the authentic Malaysian Chinese culture! My confusion, however, came later during my university years and after entering society, when I became aware of the racial inequalities, and even became a victim of the unjust policies. It's the politics and the politicians that have confused us, not the country or the culture, and that is part of the reasons of your reader's confusion, as she mentioned of her disappointment at the Singaporean leader.

Today, here in Scotland, I can loudly declare that I am Malaysian; there's no doubt about it. I follow news from home and am closely in touch with friends in Malaysia who are fighting against political and social injustice, giving them support as much as I can, as well as trying to do my part through my writing. This way, I don't feel detached from the country - I would if I were to moan and completely alienate myself from it. I see Scotland is the place I work in, where I can acquire certain degree of freedom, which I will be never be able to enjoy in my own country.

Your reader has no reason not to be proud of the cultural displays at the opening of the Beijing Olympics - in fact I was in tears watching the ceremony. I, like her, a Chinese, recognise our root culture that was once, and still is, a splendour.

My thoughts might be quite different from most people, but I think after all these years, I have grown to see things more clearer. I hope your reader will be clear of her doubts. Accept and understand, these are the two things I wish to stress. In fact, writing my first book has helped me to understand the history and learned to accept it.


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