When you’re 7 years old, the morning breeze that flowed through the classroom always seemed colder than home. It was the first few days of my schooling life, and rather surprising to my 46 year old self, I was already making friends with other boys of my age. What’s unsurprising was that these boys came from all sorts of backgrounds or races. Kids don’t see color. It’s true.
Sat in the front row, right in the middle of some of the Malay boys, we were an excited bunch. That one cool breezy morning, the second teacher of the day walked in a rather stoic manner. He wore a white ‘kopiah’ and a really complimentary friendly smile. There was no resemblance or hint of any threat from his demeanor.
“Can the Chinese boys please line up and walk in a line towards the class next door?” He asks in Malay, with a nice tone.He a quick response from the intended audience.
After a short pause, and a quick draw of his breath, he repeats the same intruction, this time for the students of Indian descendants. They, too, follow suit in an orderly manner.
I remain seated. I didn’t follow the Chinese boys out, even though my mother was of Chinese heritage. I was expecting him to direct the same question to the Panjabis or Sikhs in the room, though I knew I was the only one of that background.
The room was now left with the new teacher and the Malay students. And I. I blended in, I suppose. Maybe it’s my complexion and features, coming from a mixed parentage.
The teacher started his class. He immediately points towards me and orders me to recite the Bismillah. I drew a blank. I had no idea what he was asking.
“I don’t know the answer,” I responded in Malay. I can hear the boys behind me whispering the answer, trying to get me out of potential trouble.
Suddenly, without any warning, he swiftly hit my head lightly with his knuckles. I’m old enough to know the answer, he says. He repeats the question. I froze, not in fear of his light punishment, but of humiliation that I didn’t know the answer. Before he reacted, a bold soul next to me stood up and said aloud in Malay: “Ustaad, dia bukan Muslim, Ustaad! Dia tu Singh. Panjabi lah, Ustaad!” (“He’s not a Muslim, Ustaad! He’s a Singh, a Panjabi”.
The religious teacher recoils and immediately apologizes, and leads me to the class where the Tamil speaking students went. The majority of Indians in Malaysia hail from the south of the sub-continent, with Tamils making a huge slice of it.
It never crossed my mind, because I was never told that I was from an Indian heritage. I knew my grandparents traveled through fantastic challenges from the Indian sub-continent to forge a better life here in Malaysia, but I was not aware that it meant I was an Indian. For some reason, my young impressionable mind had me identified as a Panjabi, even gave me pride about how unique I was from the rest.
Forty years on, and I still see myself as unique as I was back then. Four decades later, it is still ingrained in me that I’m a Panjabi rather than an Indian, although now I’m educated to know that I’ve got heritage and even family in the Indian subcontinent, more precisely in India. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve grown to love India. I’ve even taken it to the next step of calling India my spiritual home. It’s where I yearn to go every couple of years or so. But I still identify myself as a Sikh first and foremost, and then as a Panjabi, and then as a Malaysian.
As I watch my daughters grow up, navigating in the environment not entirely different from when it was 40 years ago, I do wonder how or who they would identify themselves as. I don’t have any expectations because I’d like them to believe that their unique individuals first and foremost, and belong to communities that treat them as equals and as humans. If that community is of Sikhs, then I’m happy that we have something in common. If not, I’d be happy to join them in exploring how those communities treat them as equals and as humans.
The full Bismillah means “In the name of God, the Most Gracious, the Most Merciful.”
I can now say it, Ustaad. And this resonates with me, with my Sikh identity.
Jagdesh Singh, a Kuala Lumpur-based executive with a US multinational company, is a father of three girls who are as opinionated as their mother
* This is the opinion of the writer, organisation or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Asia Samachar.
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