What Am I?

November 07, 2009 | Published in | 1 comments

< *whine >

So, the other day I had a random girl come up to me asking if I am Singaporean because she'd heard me talking on the phone. I laughed and said, "No, I'm Malaysian", but she was really excited because she'd grown up in Singapore but literally lived in America all her life etc. I didn't think much of this until later on at night. It triggered an avalanche of thoughts which ultimately begged the question: what am I?

I'm Malaysian Chinese, but I almost don't speak Chinese at all; English is my first language; I went to an international school in the same place for 15 years, so that doesn't make me a Third Culture Kid; I say "lah" and "leh" and "lor" pretty often if surrounded by the correct crowd; I studied in London for 3 years, and now I'm in the US; I'm pretty well versed in Western culture, English literature and Western history, but have a near zero knowledge of my country's history; I come from a family of - for lack of a better word - anglophiles (my grandfather speaks Queen's English - and when I say Queen's English I suspect he may have a better grasp of the English language than the Queen herself).

I've always been ashamed of my inability to communicate in Mandarin or Cantonese properly. I can speak Hokkien fine, but hey - how many people actually speak Penang-style Hokkien, right? I took a Level 1 Mandarin class last year and did pretty poorly in that, despite the fact that I had constant help from my flatmate. After that stint, I decided I'd just watch Mandarin/Cantonese shows to acclimatize myself. It doesn't help that Wah Lai Toi doesn't do Malay subtitles anymore, though.

Anyway, at least I can cook Malaysian food. Sometimes.

This never used to nag at me before, but nowadays as I mingle with people from people all over the world here in International House, I find myself having trouble introducing the concept of why my first language is actually English and not my mother tongue. People are amazed at how well I converse in English when I come from a developing nation in South East Asia (though this may actually stem from ignorance more than anything else). I should be able to speak and write Mandarin the way I speak and write in English, dammit! I just have more trouble than I thought I would attempting to speak Mandarin in that I sound ridiculously foreign and just wrong overall.

Being this far away from home and Malaysians in general has made me realize that maybe Malaysia isn't as terrible as Malaysians think it is. The United States is equally mired in political and racial problems as Malaysia is, but people sure as hell aren't running away. I wonder why.

I am probably not the best candidate to represent Malaysia, which is a crying shame. I wanted to make the spoilt brat decision of going to China to live for the summer, but I doubt even 3 months would help. Especially when nobody speaks Mandarin at home. Sigh. This identity crisis needs to be addressed ASAP. Identity crisis and future career prospects. Yes, top of priority list definitely. I don't really want to graduate; I don't mind working 'til midnight everyday writing lab reports. Honestly.

< / whine >

1 Responses to “What Am I?”

  1. lynnette says:
    14 November 2009 at 09:30

    Girl, I totally understand your feelings. Sometimes I really kinda envy those foreign students from China or Taiwan or other places because their mother tongue is Mandarin and after a few years of living and studying in a local school, their English is pretty darn good; good enough to live anywhere in the world and they can still pride themselves on being even more proficient in their mother tongue. Whereas what do we have to pride ourselves in? Sometimes I feel that no matter how good we are in English we can never really be as good as many people from Western countries esp the UK/U.S...

    oh well. ;p but we're a pretty interesting group of people eh? products of British colonies... SIGH.