“I’m half-Malay and half-English!” my eldest daughter announced with delight. I sighed. “Actually,” I corrected her gently, “You’re Malay and Indian.”
She blinked at me in surprise. “Indian?”
I nodded. “Wappa is Indian and Petha is Indian. I’m Malay. So you’re both. Isn’t that amazing?”
She looked at me sceptically. I don’t blame her. She knows that I look different to her father and grandmother, but we all speak to her in English. We read English books to her, she listens to English audiobooks, and we watch English cartoons together.
When I do read Malay books to them and watch Malay cartoons with them, I am continuously interrupted by “What does that mean, Mama?” or outright “No, Mama! Not a Malay cartoon!” Not as relaxing. I can’t wait for the day they can read English subtitles when they watch Malay cartoons, the way I do.
I feel so self-conscious when I speak in Malay. It brings back memories of being teased for my hesitant Malay when I grew up in Singapore.
I feel so self-conscious when I speak in Malay. It brings back memories of being teased for my hesitant Malay when I grew up in Singapore. I was from the Malay minority and I learned from a young age that I had to speak English to do well. The cost of that was my mother tongue. I still remember the humiliation of being teased by my Malay teacher, laughed at by my Malay classmates, and not having the words to stand up for myself.
Moving to Sydney felt like the final severing between me and my roots. There, I was just another Asian girl to be stereotyped. Moving back to Malaysia and giving birth to my children has been a very healing journey of reconnecting to my ancestral roots.
Moving to Sydney felt like the final severing between me and my roots. There, I was just another Asian girl to be stereotyped.
Speaking of roots, my husband doesn’t speak much Tamil, his mother tongue. When I asked my husband about what it was like for him, growing up as an Indian boy in Malaysia, he shrugged and said he was bullied for being Indian and Muslim. Being Indian-Muslim – or Mamak, as Malaysians call it – puts him as a minority within a minority. His Malay is much more fluent than mine, and more fluent than his Tamil. He is relieved that our children can pass as Malay. This breaks my heart.
Being Indian in Malaysia is not an easy thing. To this day, there are still Malaysian Indians dying in police custody. These are men who look like my husband, his late father, his uncles and his cousins. I didn’t have the privilege to meet father-in-law because he had already passed away, but his compassion, patience and wisdom live on in my husband. My children will continue to benefit from their late grandfather, their Appa. My husband’s cousins are kind and hardworking men, and most of them have not been able to progress to the very top of their career ladders because they’re not Malay.
My biracial children teach me the importance of self-acceptance, and reconnecting to our roots. Embracing all the parts of me, even the ones still struggling with shame. It’s never too late to learn my ancestral language. I am no less Malay, even though I was born in Singapore and grew up in Sydney. My husband is no less Indian, even if he doesn’t speak much Tamil. It is never too late to learn. We are a fusion, a distillation of generations of resilience.
My biracial children teach me the importance of self-acceptance, and reconnecting to our roots. Embracing all the parts of me, even the ones still struggling with shame.
I start by naming things in Malay to my one-and-a-half year old. When he repeats my words the way only an adoring toddler can, I am encouraged. I want him to remember me speaking to him and singing to him in Malay. I want to tie positive memories that I don’t have to my mother tongue. My parents did the best they could, under very difficult circumstances. The only Malay lullaby I remember from childhood is a TV ad. When I sang that song to my kids full of nostalgic vigour, my husband cracked up laughing and asked me, “Why are you singing a Fernleaf ad?”
Ibu. Ibu engkaulah ratu hatiku. Bila ku berduka, ….engkau hiburkan selalu.
Mother, mother, you are the queen of my heart. When I am sad, you comfort me always.
I remember craving that as a child – hugs, kisses, and being joyfully celebrated for being me. In reality, I didn’t get that from my parents, likely because they didn’t get that from their parents. Both of my parents grew up as one of many children, and there simply wasn’t enough love and sometimes even food to go around. My late grandparents on both sides survived the violence and poverty of the Japanese Occupation. I am so grateful for their resilience. I am alive because they survived, and I break that cycle of emotional hunger with my own children.
My kids are helping me rewire my brain to get closer to my ancestral roots. My ancestors as well as my husband’s have been here for centuries. We are still here. Now, we are safe to playfully reconnect with our roots.
My kids are helping me rewire my brain to get closer to my ancestral roots.
Recently, I tried to teach my kids an important Malay word.
“Ken-tot,” I said to my three-and-a-half year old — the word for fart. “Can-tot. CAN-tot,” she repeated, insisting on speaking with an Aussie Malay accent, just like me. I had to laugh.
Another fun entry point into learning more Malay has been through watching Malay cartoons and local Malay productions. It’s thrilling seeing people who look like me in familiar settings. Hantu Kak Limah remains one of my favourite horror comedies because I love the supernatural. Watching old P. Ramlee classics with my husband while my kids are asleep has been comforting, too.
My eldest daughter starts primary school next year, where her subjects will be taught in Malay. There’s nothing like immersion to learn a language. My speech therapist friend and my daughter’s preschool teacher says that she will pick it up by virtue of daily exposure. Part of me hopes it doesn’t come with the shame and criticism too. Even if it does, she’ll have me to confide in, and advocate for her. And when she gets older, we can both scream and laugh at Hantu Kak Limah.