I love travelling because I feel the world is my home and everybody in it my family. Certainly, every family has some uncles or siblings you’d rather not deal with, but by and large the family’s fine and I feel kinship with most members of the homo sapiens race.
I’m generally pretty tolerant, and always try to understand people rather than just immediately judging them. When you understand people better, you tend to be kinder and more forgiving, and that’s generally not a bad thing.
In my current travels, I met somebody who ticks many of my boxes for what would make a good travel companion. He probably finds that I tick a few of his boxes, too.
What I find in common is that we feel we clearly belong to Bangsa Malaysia, whatever that term means and as loaded as it may be. Funnily enough, perhaps we don’t even belong: perhaps we’re still in limbo, if not outright in purgatory, as people with doubts about where they belong.
My friend the ‘banana’
My friend, who’s Chinese, comes from a more privileged upbringing than I. Privileges can be a blessing and a curse, and he’d probably acknowledge that too. He’s what is sometimes called a “banana” – yellow, or Chinese, on the outside, but white, or western, on the inside. The word may have been a compliment once, nowadays it appears to be more of a pejorative.
His curse is that he wasn’t Chinese-educated and doesn’t speak any other languages besides English, Malay and his local dialect, Hokkien. That makes him slightly better than I. My command of Malay and English may be comparable to his, but my knowledge of Hokkien extends only up to names of human reproductive organs and exhortations about their various uses.
Travelling in China as a Chinese person who doesn’t speak Mandarin is certainly a disadvantage, setting him apart from the locals and much of what’s going on around him. China is not an easy place to be in (the toilets…) and while there are many amazing sights and sounds, the country’s often not a very welcoming place for somebody who doesn’t look or sound like a native.
Not being an ethnic Chinese returning to the “mother” country, I take my reconnaissance trips to visit my various distant “cousins” with a huge dollop of wonder, amusement but also detachment. There’s the occasional advantage of being a foreigner, but generally for me, some level of detachment has always been part of my personality.
On being Malaysian
Which brings up how things are for us in our own country, Malaysia. I’m a Malay, though as life’s lottery has it, I’ve various mixtures in me, something I’m forever thankful for.
My friend though is more ethnically “pure” Chinese, though I doubt if it’s something he gloats about much. I think for both of us, being Malaysians as intended by our constitution is probably more important than being a pure or loyal Malay or Chinese who happens to carry a Malaysian passport.
We love Malaysia passionately, even if in a rather detached manner, but we also cringe at the many things that go on, especially those connected or driven by our politics of race and religion. Perhaps we’re idealistic, but we often just can’t say “I belong” to much of the madness that passes for normality around here.
Malaysia certainly encourages its sons and daughters to be tribal. The phrase Bangsa Malaysia itself, innocuous as it sounds, is a battle cry for many, both fighting for and against it. The battle’s been raging for decades, and if anything, is probably raging even more wildly now, lighting up fires even in places like Sabah and Sarawak that for long were not affected by it.
Do the meek inherit the earth?
I’d call myself a realistic idealist most times, and also a happy pessimist – a contradiction which acknowledges that we live in very confusing times, and that our own small ability to do things doesn’t amount to much in confronting the forces arrayed against us.
We can’t claim outright superiority over the other dissenting views, because one of our core values is we do care about what others think. We’re naturally argumentative, and love having dissenting opinions battling for the hearts and minds of the undecided, and in hope that the best perspectives and points of view will win.
But if only things were that simple. We know that the loudest and not the sanest or fairest perspective tends to win. Hate often trumps love, and the reasonable people in the middle tend to get squashed by the more extreme points of view.
Where does that leave us? Is there any space left in Malaysia for opinionated but nuanced points of view such as ours? Or do you have to go to the extremes – my way or the highway?
A monstrous certainty
I guess we’ll never know, though perhaps time will tell whether there’s still space in Malaysia for people who just want to live and let live. Given my age, it probably wouldn’t matter much either way, though for my new friend, and for my children and his, it will probably get worse before it gets better.
The fact we’re rather uncertain and ambivalent about many things about Malaysia isn’t a bad thing at all. Us namby pambies and wishy washies aren’t the people pushing the nation to the brink.
Being definitely certain about things can turn you into a monster that brooks no dissent. Malaysia’s problems are caused by those who are so certain of themselves that they couldn’t ever imagine being wrong. They’re certainly not the likes of me or my new friend.
Being the happy pessimist that I claim to be, I’ll just enjoy my friendship with my new “Bangsa Malaysia” friend. Life’s too short to be always bitching and whining about how bad things are – you’ve to be cognisant of the occasional fluke or good luck that throws up a good person your way.
In the meantime, I’ll just continue on my travels, happy, excited, at times overwhelmed, but also with that ever-present sense of detachment from it all – but also ever open to the stroke of good luck that may bring a kindred spirit along.
The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.