Life and 'Lain-lain' Problems
I am going to tell a story. You can tune in if you want but if you are expecting to read this and to find some kind of enlightenment or deep embedded meaning within it; you will be disappointed. If you want something dramatic; something that will leave you gasping and in tears that is; I am sorry, this is not a Korean story and no lover dies prematurely of cancer in it. If you want to dissect it and discuss whether the protagonist is a 'sweet Prince' or an 'arrant knave'; I do not do the whole Hamlet thing here. This is simply a story by me; about me.
So! Are you still reading? My story is basically about a little Indian boy who grew to manhood from abject poverty; rising above it all to become a successful lawyer. No, wait! This is actually a story about a young Chinese kid, who ruthlessly set aside friends, family, morals and principles to rise to the top of the corporate world and amass millions and millions. Well, that is not quite true either. It is really a story about the prejudice a Malay child faced while growing up. Always trying to face accusations of enjoying favouritism due to the local government's policies and favouritism and even viewed as a potential security threat when travelling abroad.
Fine! Fine! It is all of the above. What do I mean? If you have to ask, you are obviously not a Chindian like me!
I guess I could give you an explanation but it is a lot of work getting the idea across to one of the 'major' races of the country. Not like those of us who have been dumped unceremoniously into the 'Lain-lain'1 category. I guess I should start at the beginning.
My name is Jonathan. Jonathan Button. I was told it was an especially good night to be born. What? You have heard this introduction somewhere else before? Benjamin Button? I am a Malaysian. We are the biggest pirates in the world. Ok fine. My mother met my dad in university. They dated, got together, got hitched and a year later I was born.
Perhaps that is oversimplifying things. You see, my dad is an Indian and my mom is Chinese. Oh you already figured that part out when I told you I was Chindian? Do not nitpick. Anyway, from the start of their relationship, there were complications. Friends raising eyebrows, people staring at them as they walked hand in hand down the city streets like yin and yang Siamese twins. Mixed couples were not exactly commonplace back in the seventies. Like Siamese twins they were considered freaks of society.
Anyway, they were in love and when you are in love you do not listen to reason. Despite very strong objections and even threats from their families, they got married anyway. 'Love conquers all' as the cliché goes. If you roll your eyes any further back they might get stuck; so be nice.
Probably the first issue raised when I was born was what I name should have. An Indian name or a Chinese name? Both? While Sivaraja Chong Balaswaran a/l Button does have quite a ring to it, I am eternally grateful they compromised and decided on a western name. With the other name by the time I filled my name in the answer sheet for exams, people would probably be finishing the tenth question.
The next issue was language. With both my parents being in the English profession, naturally we spoke English at home. My mom took it upon herself to teach me Cantonese. We moved all around Malaysia very often due to my parents' profession; perhaps every six months or so. Having a tiny semblance of intelligence, I picked up dialects like a Chow Kit street prostitute picks up STDs.
Before I knew it I had a reasonable arsenal of languages under my belt; which back then was a rather big belt. My mom, to my horror, still loves telling people how she had to lift my chins (yes plural) to clean my neck when she was bathing me.
The one language I did not learn was Tamil. In fact, I did not learn anything about my Indian heritage or even know that I was of mixed parentage. I was blissfully unaware that I was 'different' from all the other kids. When you are 4 and in kindergarten, you are more interested in playing with the swing and see-saw than what colour, let alone race, your friends are. The topic never came up.
My grasp of my Chinese heritage, however, increased dramatically when we moved in with my mother's mom; my maternal grandmother. I spoke Cantonese with her daily and she educated me in the 'pantang2s' and rich culture that was part of my birthright. I still did not understand why daddy was so dark, mommy and grandma were so fair; and me? I was the tone right between them. In fact I did not even realise it.
I recall this one time when my grandmother was bathing me. She was furiously scrubbing at my knees. They are a tone darker than the rest of me so she assumed that was because they were dirty. She made me squat and she scrubbed them for a good 15 minutes until I thought my skin was going to be scraped off.
Finally satisfied, she instructed me to get up so she could dry my body. To her incredulity, the skin at my knees returned to their original dark colour when I stood up. Basically, the skin was fairer when I squatted because it was stretched and returned to its normal colour when I stood up. "How did you get them dirty so fast?" she had asked me.
School came when I was seven and my life changed forever. I remember being asked by my teacher what race I was.
'Race? What is that, cikgu3?' I recall asking.
She raised her eyebrows, 'Are you Indian, Chinese or Malay?'
That was the first time I was introduced to the concept of race. And that was also the very first time I was thrown in the 'lain-lain' category. I did not think of it much at that time, after all I was seven. I was very restless and eager to make new friends.
There came the second rude shock. When I looked around, the classroom had been neatly divided into colour groups if you like; or to use my cikgu's ten dollar word, 'races'. The Chinese sat together, the Malays grouped up and the few Indians in the class did the same. Where did I belong? Where should I sit? I instinctively knew this would be a very important decision and gave it a lot of thought. Well as much thought as a hyperactive seven year old with a two minute attention span could anyway.
Apart from my father, I had never noticed any other Indians in my life. I mean, I have seen them but never talked to them or socialised with them at all. So that crossed them out of the potential sitting partner candidates. The Malays were the same colour as me, but were speaking mostly in a language that I did not understand. I later found out it would be one of the languages I would never master and dread using; Bahasa Malaysia. Then, there were the Chinese, all chatting happily in English or Cantonese. I spent my life growing up around Chinese people, so they were my first pick.
So I sat with the Chinese. I could feel a few puzzled looks around me, mostly both from the Malays and the Chinese. What was a brown dude doing sitting with the yellow dudes? Even at our age, the social instinct to stick to your own race had been ingrained in us by our families. But what exactly was my own race?
It was not really awkward. Children have a habit of glossing over details when they are having fun or playing. It was not till later on that I faced my first direct confrontation over my mixed parentage.
'I heard cikgu said your daddy is Indian. And your mommy is Chinese. What are you?' one of the little boys had asked in the middle of a game of galah panjang4.
All activities stopped. He had voiced the question that everyone else had wondered but were too caught up with the merriment to ask.
I had told my mother about my cikgu's question the night before. She had briefly explained the concept of races to me and looked appalled when I told her I had been dumped into the 'lain-lain' category.
'You take after your daddy. You are an Indian,' she had told me.
I did not understand what that meant but it gave me the answer to the boy's question.
'I am Indian.' The reaction from them stung me.
'Kutu5! Kutu!' they all screamed cheerfully; running wildly away from me. 'Kelings6 have kutu!'
'I'm not a keling!' said, without having the faintest idea what a keling was.
'All Indians are kelings!' they giggled and started the chant again. 'Kutu! Kutu! Kutu!'
'I'm not Indian then! I'm Chinese! I do not have lice!' I had shouted without thinking.
'Children are innocent and the paragon of virtue.' Whoever said this must have skipped childhood and only met mute children with no hands and legs.
Talking about denying being one half of our inheritance from our parents; my younger brother played the race card like a world poker champion. When faced with Chinese food that he did not like; think steamed fish in soy sauce; he would loudly exclaim, 'I don't want to eat this, I'm an Indian!'
He would do a complete 180 degree turn with Indian food that he did not like and vehemently claim to be Chinese! It did not work of course but you have to give him credit for thinking it up. He was definitely a lot smarter than me.
I remember the first time I ever went to my paternal side of the family's house. Like I said earlier, I had never really noticed or spent any time with Indians. I was raised by Chinese amongst Chinese. Imagine my reaction when I was brought to a house full of Indians. More of them in one place than I had ever seen in my life. Hell, I did not know that so many Indians existed till that day.
So, I reacted like the mature and brave child I was when I was eight years old. I screamed my lungs out and clung onto the pillar outside the house for my dear life. Apart from my rabid screaming, there was pin drop silence from my paternal relatives. I think if my father could get the earth to swallow him up at that very moment, he would have done so but probably only after he had killed me in a very slow and painful way.
Let us move along a few years to when I was finally old enough to fast; I did not. I was not Malay let alone a Muslim. I learned an important lesson about fasting and my racial descent but I will explain more later on. Anyway there I was, sitting in the canteen and eating my nasi lemak7 contentedly when an Ustad8 approached me. He just stood there expectantly, waiting for me to look up.
So I obliged him and saw a look of huge disapproval in his face. I wondered what I did wrong to deserve that disgusted stare and those angry, thinned lips.
'Why are not you fasting?' he had asked me in Malay.
Without thinking, I said, 'Because I am hungry.'
'It's fasting month. You are supposed to be hungry!'
He went on to lecture me about the ideals that fasting month represented; that I would never be considered as a proper Muslim adult until I fasted properly.
My parents taught me manners. It was rude to interrupt adults when they were talking. So I listened quietly and nodded, like I was taught to. When he had finished, I simply told him, 'That's nice. But I am not Muslim or Malay.'
I watched him splutter a bit. Then, he snapped at me and asked me why I did not say so in the first place.
'Because you did not ask?' I had replied. Fuming to himself, he left me alone and walked off.
I cannot tell you the number of times this scenario has been repeated over the past 29 years. Every fasting month, I armed myself with my identification card whenever I go to grab a bite during the day. The conversations on the 'Why aren't you fasting?' issue between me and some random self righteous Malay people remained more or less the same. It is so much more fun to make people feel foolish than to lose your temper!
When I was aged 13, my family moved to England while my father studied his doctorate. This is probably the only time people other than myself, declared that I was Chinese. Never mind that I was brown in colour. Never mind that I had eyes that could actually open! To everyone there, I was from Asia and pseudo-fair therefore I had to be Chinese! Well of course they did not use a big nasty word like Chinese. They thought Asians could not comprehend so many syllables. So they shortened it to the easier to understand: 'Chink'. Very considerate people; the whites are.
Moving a few years ahead, I remember on the last day of school everybody was signing our uniform shirts; as was the tradition. There was a particular message on my shirt that still brings a wry grin to my face. A friend of mine had taken a yellow highlighter and coloured a dot on my shirt then added an arrow pointing at the dot with the word 'hole'. Hole? Yellow skin revealed by the hole? Get it? Never mind. I thought it was funny anyway.
After high school, I returned to good old Malaysia. I was now in college and finally old enough to start dating! Awesome! Okay fine, it was not an age issue. I was too shy to ask anyone out when I was in England. Anyway, a whole new world of problems opened up to me when I decided to play my hand in the dating game.
The Chinese did not want to date an Indian and the Indians did not want to date a Chinese. Obviously due to language barriers I could not ask any Malay girls out properly. With my proficiency in that language, if I were trying to say: 'I would like to take you to a movie,' I would have probably ended up asking her if she would spend the night with me in a hotel. Definitely a Freudian slip! Regardless, it is still not a very good way to ask someone out on a date.
When I eventually managed to get someone to go out with me and the relationship was pseudo-serious, there were problems with her side of the family. Her dad would have probably disowned her if he knew she was dating an Indian. I do not know if it is possible to half disown a daughter since I am only half Indian but I am pretty sure she did not want to risk it.
Eventually, when her mother had not-so-softly nailed home the fact that their daughter was seeing me and would continue to see me whether he liked it or not; her father finally consented to having a meal with me. I was both elated and terrified. He was a very traditional Chinese man and one that I wanted very badly to impress. I was already well versed in Chinese culture and could speak fluent Cantonese but there was one big problem. Actually, two big problems: chopsticks!
I practised my chopstick skills for a good two weeks, forcing myself to hold it the 'correct' way. My fingers felt dislocated and my wrist was decidedly limp by the end of two weeks of the self-enforced exercises. The best part is that when the day for the big dinner came, he took us for western food. Till today I cannot look at a pair of chopsticks without inwardly cursing.
Speaking of traditionalist and prejudices, I remember in particular, this one conversation that went on in our local mamak9 with some friends and a few new acquaintances. One of them, who obviously did not know I was mixed, spent a good twenty minutes discussing the demerits of the Indian race. Mostly stuff she probably learned from her parents or stereotypes on television.
'Indians do nothing but drink all day... They beat their wives... Indian people tap rubber trees and are all dirt poor....'
I was disappointed. Not to hear her slandering my half race but mainly because she did not have any insults that were unique, creative or vaguely interesting. A mutual friend of ours knew me a little better and that I was half Indian and tried desperately to steer her away from her bitching but she persisted.
Finally, giving up the subtle attempt to stop her, our mutual friend very bluntly announced 'Jonathan is half Indian.' The look on the girl's face was quite priceless and she silently mouthed an 'Oh', while furiously thinking of how to extract her whole lower body from her mouth.
She began apologising profusely, saying she was only talking about 'full' Indians. I laughed and told her, 'I guess that makes me an empty Indian. And do not worry, I am only half offended.' Somehow she did not look less guilty at all. I wonder why?
Even amongst my closer friends, the whole Indian thing was not given a rest. I used to be able to hold my alcohol pretty well. They used to tease me about being able to drink like an Indian and I would retort that their weak Chinese blood meant they would get drunk on a mug of beer. They got back at me for that though. Big time!
It was at my 21st birthday party in a club. They all ganged up to get me drunk, as is the usual tradition with young people. By the end of the night, I could barely stand and badly needed to go to the loo to throw up. Okay fine, I could not stand at all and begged my friends to carry me there. They teased me outrageously, asking me, 'Chinese can drink or not? Say Chinese can drink. Then maybe we will help you go!'
Sheepishly, I said what they wanted to, but they made me repeat it louder and louder until probably half the club could hear me even with the bad hip hop songs blasting in the background. In the end, even with their help, I did not quite make it to the toilet. The cleaners were not happy at all. Needless to say I did not go back there for a very long time.
We were not racist in our group of friends but we enjoyed playing with stereotypes and prejudices in our conversations and jokes. Not because we believed in them but because we found them so ridiculous that it was fun to talk about it and provoke people into reactions.
The Malays in our group were nicknamed 'Stupid Machan10', 'Sophisticated Malay,' and so forth. I was simply known as 'Indian bugger.' It has been shortened to plain 'bugger' now. I still cringe when I get introduced to new people as 'bugger'. I normally very quickly clarify that I am very much interested in only women and not men.
When you come to a certain age, your family start asking questions about when you are going to settle down. I remember very clearly what my father said on the topic. 'Make sure you marry a Chinese or Indian girl. Life is bad enough when you are mixed, as you would know. Don't confuse your poor kids even more by marrying a Malay girl. If you think you are confused about whom you are; your kids will be completely lost!'
I wonder about that, really. Sivaraja Chong bin Ahmad Vethamani a/l Jonathan does have a certain stylishness about it.
We recently had a new addition to our family; Suki. Unfortunately she is not a hot Japanese woman that my brother or me were dating or married to. On the other hand, perhaps fortunately so, have you seen the kind of things they do in the bedroom? Not that I have.
Anyway moving along swiftly, Suki is an English-American Cocker Spaniel mix. Yes, she is a mongrel just like her two daddies. My brother and I that is; her parents were purebreds. I have yet to hear of a male dog getting knocked up by another male dog but weirder things have happened.
When I walk her around the neighbourhood, I get the oddest looks. When she sits next to me in my car, rubbing her wet nose and slobbering on the window, people raised eyebrows and stared. It never occurred to me why at all. That is until I met a little Malay girl who enlightened me as to the reason.
I was walking Suki when I bumped into a little Malay girl who was being walked by her father. Oh? Children do not get walked by their parents? They go for walk with their parents? No wonder she did not have a leash.
She very loudly exclaimed in Malay, 'Eww a dog! Why is that Malay uncle walking a dog? HARAM11! HARAM!'
I think I was more offended at being called an 'uncle' than what she said about my little Suki. Oh come on! She is a dog! Do you really think she would care that her saliva forces people to scrub themselves clean before being able to pray? At my age being called an uncle hurts!
I love how kids are so pure and innocent that they just blurt whatever is on their mind. I think if I let the little girl talk more, she would have told me that I was fat, drink too much and was a letch too. Yup, got to love children!
You would think when you go to job interviews, the interviewers by virtue of holding senior positions in the company would be open minded and have some semblance of intelligence. Well then, you would be wrong. Most of the time the first question I get during interviews is not 'What qualifications do you have?' or 'What made you apply to this company?' or even the simple 'What is your name?'
Nope. Their first question is: 'What are you?' Please note that it is not 'What race are you?' it is the more direct 'What ARE you?'
I always get flashes of a dashing white actor standing up to the 6 eyed, pink bodied giant mass of rotting fish and saying in horror, 'What ARE you?' whenever I get this question.
That brings me back to the question again. 'What am I?' Am I kopi-susu12? A mongrel? A pariah? Am I Chinese? Indian? Or even Malay? I do not really think about it very much anymore but I guess I am still trying to figure it out. I think I will marry a Malay or white girl... and pass the fun on to my children! I cannot wait to hear their stories!
4 A traditional Malaysian game
6 A derogatory name for Indians and Hindus
7 A favorite local dish
8 A religious teacher of Islam
9 An eating place much like a hawker store
10 Derogatory term for Malays
11 Forbidden by religion
12 Derogatory term for Chinese – Indians