What does it mean to be Malaysian: Bitter like peria, sweet like gula merah

My relationship with my birth country is almost like tango minus the sexiness. It is often rough, swift and loud. There are days when I roll my eyes at the sight of all things patriotic ...

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By Phavanjit Kaur | OPINION |

“I’m Malaysian.”

Funny how this word comes out from my mouth gleefully as I introduce myself in a crowd, but immediately leaves a bitter taste on my tongue.

“Forget it, they don’t need to know what comes with it.” The bitterness stays and reels in the roots of emotions of knowing that migration is key to finally having it erased from my tongue.

You see, my family is now in different parts of the world in the name of education, progress and better lives. My people, we run so that we can finally be seen. We run to provide for our children. We run away from “Oye, you pendatang okay! Jangan lupa!” at home to find ourselves being the pendatang in another’s land. We run for better lives.

Ha. Better lives, what does that even mean? As though a nation with four seasons will help shed our attachments to our identities. As though nations with more efficient waste management systems will suddenly help us with fulfilling our responsibilities as citizens. [AHEM Australia, Europe, Canada and other “developed countries” who send their trash to our shores in the name of adding economic value when really most of the trash can’t even be RECYCLED]. As though a nation with more white folk will suddenly transform us into informed people.

My relationship with my birth country is almost like tango minus the sexiness. It is often rough, swift and loud. There are days when I roll my eyes at the sight of all things patriotic and cannot find myself to work for this nation. I scoff at “Sayangi Malaysiaku” (Love Your Malaysia]. How to sayang (love) when I cannot tahan (witstand), you tell me lah?!

What can’t I tahan? The tidak apa attitude. Plastik beg untuk bungkus makanan? Takpe lah. Cut queue orang lain? Bolehlah. Dengar orang cakap benda racist? Eh jangan masuk campur lah apa kaitan dengan kita? Ada kaitan! Dengan generasi yang akan datang nanti. Malaysia’s love for long winded conferences about the social landscape with a RM100,000 buffet lunch. Takpe lah, duit taxpayer jer nanti budget next year berlambak lagi. Malaysia makes me want to run away and never come back. But question is, why?

Working as a key player of the education system, I can see myself in KLIA, pushing all the people in my way, running towards Departures and boarding a flight to anywhere but here. I can’t help myself to feel a sharp tug at my heartstrings when I see my work colleague sharing a racist meme on Facebook or overhearing racial remarks made about the majority by minorities, thinking that it’s justified. Malaysia shackles me on most.

But then, there are days, when the mind is asleep and courage takes its place. Days when no matter how bad it is, it’s worth to stay a little bit longer, just to fix something broken. It could just be, reminding your kids that you too have red blood despite the difference in skin colour.

I’m not sure where I will end up one day. But I do know this, there is no Malaysia without integrity. It’s a love-hate relationship, that’s obvious but I’d like for it to be resolved once and for all.

The bitter taste reminds me of the distorted lens I have towards my birthplace, my Manglish, my identity. One hand, I am a Sikh, and feel strong for my motherland, Punjab and on the other hand, I belong to the gula merah soyabean coloured rivers and durian headquarters. You must be wondering – why don’t you feel like you belong?

I feel un-Malaysian when I am asked, “orang Bangla ah?”. I feel un-Malaysian when I am told by my respected elders who clearly want the best for me to “Work hard and get out from here for a better life.” I feel un-Malaysian when I’m asked after a terrible experience, “What was his/her race of the perpetrator?”. I feel un-Malaysian when they tell me, “Oh sorry, you’re not accepted but you can try other Indian focused scholarships/investment schemes/insert-another-race-based-social-policy here. I feel un-Malaysian when after my best friend leaves my home after a great laugh session, and I’m told, “Don’t get too close. You know how their people are.”

All the things that I’ve been told, weigh me down and although I’ve risen from some, I’ve been weighed by some words too. Fact is, a Malaysia that speaks of all its children without the colour of their skin is Utopia; an imagined community. A Malaysia that breathes clean, cool air with its forests and indigenous peoples, is one of the mind. A Malaysia that looks at me, and says, “Ini tanah air you” is a dream.

This Malaysia Day, the bitter taste has travelled and lingers in the pit of my belly now. It lingers but lathered in sweet gula merah like syrup, the colour blind friendships, the heartiest encounters, the glorious food pathways have all hugged me and whispered, “You’re mine.”

Malaysian-born Phavanjit Kaur writes to make sense of the world. This article was first published here.

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