My nephew Ah Lam was born last year, around the Chinese New Year holidays. Born in the year of the monkey, he is such a cute little monkey himself. Curious, stubborn, fearless and witty – Ah Lam is a joy to everyone in the family.
We waited a long time for my elder brother to settle down with the love of his life and start his own family, so Ah Lam’s arrival delighted us no end. Truth be told, I never really believed I would ever get to be an aunt, for my brother never fancied kids, what more babies. I still remember him referring to mine as “aliens” some twenty years ago, refusing to even touch them!
Ah Lam is one year old today. And he is a lucky boy to have such a loving family – a loving mom who cries every time she has to work away from home, a devoted dad who religiously changes his diapers (whilst taking note of the colour and consistency of the poop), a warm Popo who loves playing with him every day and Gemma Gempa who visits and Skypes regularly.
Everyone in the family adores Ah Lam, so much so that everybody wishes to contribute something to his upbringing. Gempa loves chanting Quranic verses to him; Popo has begun teaching him Mandarin words; Gemma introduced him to Bollywood songs; and his uncle gave Ah Lam his first private tutorial on professional drumming when he was just eight months old.
Sometimes I look at Ah Lam and I catch myself wondering if he will ever be confused about his identity.
I mean Ah Lam may grow up being told that he is lucky to have a good combination of Mamak and Chinese genes – good looks, brains, calculative but hardworking – and to top it off, his genes will allow him to enjoy the privileges of a Bumiputera.
But does being a Bumiputera Chindian in Malaysia make him “lucky”?
I observe my darling little monkey playing while forcefully rubbing his sleepy eyes and I foresee a future where he will have to endure being shoved into a category which does not define him wholly.
At school, Ah Lam may raise his hand when asked if he is Indian just as he would raise his hand when asked if he is Chinese – most likely, without his consent, Ah Lam may end up being categorised as a Malay like most other Muslim students in our schools.
Although these categories may mean little to him, he could very well end up being confused of his own identity at such a tender age. Perhaps when he is a little older, he’ll gladly re-categorise himself as “Lain-lain”, although still confused about what it actually means.
It’s funny – I look at Ah Lam now and I don’t see an Indian, a Chinese or a Malay. All I see is a little adorable monkey who loves peeking through the shower glass door and hiding behind the sofa.
I wonder what he would say, if in the future, someone asks him about his race. Would he say he is a Chindian like most Indian-Chinese would say; or would he specifically say Muslim Chindian? Or perhaps he’d say he is an Indian or Mamak just like his dad – but of course that would only trigger more questions about why he doesn’t look like one.
But why should his paternal heritage matter at all?
Having been Ah Lam’s official nanny since his birth, I see him growing up not fitting comfortably into any category forced upon him. Being exposed to many cultures and traditions and belief systems, Ah Lam will create his very own unique culture and tradition – he will celebrate Chinese New Year with his Popo, dressed in red, lining up to receive ang pows with his cousins; he will fast during the month of Ramadhan, help Gemma make pulut kacau as Syawal draws near and celebrate Hari Raya by waking up early and going to the mosque with Gempa; he will glue himself to the couch watching Rajinikanth and Kamal Haasan during the Deepavali holiday with a bowl full of muruku and omapodi on his lap; and he will celebrate Christmas, enjoying fruit cake and stuffed roast turkey while happily exchanging gifts with family and friends.
Malaysians have for the longest time taken pride in being a melting pot of different races, religions, cultures and traditions and with the percentage of interracial marriages slowly rising, even our families have become a delightful mix of people of all races and religions.
As I write this piece, I look at the red lanterns hanging from my ceiling before my eyes alight on the blinking lights decorating my Christmas tree. Thanks to Ah Lam, now my home too has become a melting pot of sorts.
I hope one day, when Ah Lam is a big boy and looks at himself in the mirror, he doesn’t see a Mamak, an Indian, a Chinese or a Muslim. I hope he sees Himself and is proud of the person He has become.
Cultures and traditions change over time. But characters and attitudes stay with us forever. As much as I wish for Ah Lam to be proud of his mixed background, I hope he can strive to erase those lines that divide us.
And looking at how he consistently points to his mouth when hearing the word “nose” and vice versa, I can tell, Ah Lam is not the kind who will easily oblige to being stuffed into any particular box. He is clearly one who will create his own identity.
Gong Xi Fa Cai, Ah Lam.
See you at the big dinner tonight, you little monkey!
Fa Abdul is an FMT columnist.
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