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It was a typical Friday evening where my aunt would come over to our house for a short visit. The news reporters on Buletin Utama looked rather comical being muted by the roaring thunders and rain coming from the outside as we all moved closer so we could hear each other better. The lightning and pour sparked a flash from the past, a constant problem of my mother’s and her six other siblings’, the flood.
What was it like back then? Why did flood happens all the time?
In an attempt to put ourselves in their shoes (or slippers), my sister and I removed some stacked boxes and finally dragged out a large box at the bottom from the store room to the living room where we formed a little circle earlier. Pinching our noses trying to stop our sneeze from the dust, we started flipping through pages on the photo albums. And there it was, one of the moments captured showing a startled-looking young lady in T-shirt and shorts, with a broom in her hands and muddy waters covering a quarter of her long, lanky legs. That lady put at work during the crisis turned out to be my mother when she was in her early twenties.
We acknowledged how the flood kept destroying their furniture and how they never gave up repairing the damages, but other pictures caught our attention. Dull, reddish-brown photographs of a very fashionable woman posing with her long and wavy dark hair had to be taken out from the album for closer inspection. This fair skinned woman who had the height of a runway model and definitely the build for it looked shy in some but boldly fearless in many. The claims of my mother’s old acquaintances who we would meet by chance about her beauty cannot be more than true. Oh, she was beautiful indeed.
There were other pictures of the family during their younger days; the “Charlie’s Angels” photo where mother would be at the centre with four of her younger sisters posing as if they just came up with an album, young handsome lads with bright smiles who turned out to be my uncles charming the ladies, and then there were pictures of them with my grandparents whom I never got the privilege to meet. A tiny old lady with pale skin and her grey hair gathered in a neat lower bun, dressed in light-coloured dresses and a tall brown-skinned man, barely had his eyes open from some drinks he had moments before the photo was taken.
From a multiracial background of Chinese, British and Thai, my grandmother married a Punjabi man. Back in the 60’s at a small village in Ipoh, families and extended families of my grandfather were constantly bitter about this couple brought together by love, but they went on with their lives being the “rebels” people would call them and later had beautiful children.
Fast forward to today, here I am squinting my small brown eyes with my freckled hands typing away on my three-year old laptop. “Brazilian” was the wildest guess I’ve gotten in my experiences of strangers going on a good ol’ race-guessing pursuit. “You Melayu ke?” “You Chindian ah?” “Sabah?” “Sarawak” “Philippino?”
“No.” “No.” “No.” “No.” “Philippi-NO!”
Boy, it was difficult and it is still difficult growing up (and old) as a mixed race. At the age of five, my mother sent me to Mandarin classes at a teacher’s house nearby in hopes of having me learn the language to communicate better with my father and his family. Instead, I was sent home following complaints of me not knowing Mandarin characters of the word “tiger”, which I eventually learnt at kindergarten, no thanks to her. She gave up on me without even trying, so Mandarin school work got a little harder as I just couldn’t grasp Mandarin. At night after dinner, my father would chant away words from the books and I were to follow but kept messing them up. Of course he got angry and I got scared. I didn’t like learning the language one bit.
Mother than decided to enrol me into a Chinese school. “Just great!”, I thought to myself as I spent the remaining nights before school officially begins sobbing myself to sleep. Six years of primary education was a hell of a ride. Speeches during assemblies in the morning was a continuous murmur to me; reading out loud sessions in class were the most dreadful minutes of my life as my classmates had to fill out every pause I had, after laughing at me of course; the word “ugly” in mandarin was a daily reminder referring to my dark wavy hair and tanned-skin; and not forgetting being a constant example of anything in the books referring to Deepavali or Vaisakhi.
Yes we eat Chapati and there is this sweet called Laddu, which authenticity of information teachers had to clarify every year! Other than being called “broom”, “mop” or “toilet flush string” by peers referring to my long braid, secondary school was great.
However, being out of school wasn’t all delightful either. Dinners at my grandparents’ house were some of my nightmares. The elder sister of my father would always pull me aside as a child and whisper into my ear about diseases my mother would bring and how bad she is. She would never fail to tell me how my long hair was hideous and my scrunchies were “Indian”. “Who bought you these clothes?” “Who got you these shoes?” “Who bought you these scrunchies?” “They look so Indian.” It amused me and disturbed me as a child about how she related my plain clothing to ethnicity. My clothes were nothing out of the ordinary and my footwear weren’t boring flip flops all my other cousins would use.
My siblings face similar fates from other members of the family. We were shooed away from family dinners for not knowing the dialect, given leftovers for being different, and fed with ugly lies for being a mixed race child.
After playtimes with my cousins comes the time to clean up and this aunt of mine would insist on bathing me. She always had a rough towel and tried her best to scrub the “dirt” off my skin. Not a bath went by without me leaving the bathroom with prickling pain on my skin. Not a bath time ended without grins of disappointment about the colour of my skin which remained unchanged.
Having experienced first-hand racism from my father’s family, dealing with people outside was a whole lot easier, now that we have mastered the languages. Moments of buffering must be expected (sometimes a little longer than expected) from the hawkers and waiters at Chinese restaurants in shock of the fluency of my mother’s Cantonese. People would refer to my mother as the housemaid, some would scream at disbelief when my mother reassures the nosy naysayers that we’re her children, and others would serve us cold stares from head to toe. We were too odd of a family in a small little town called Bercham, but still survived the community till today.
On more personal experiences, wearing a red T-shirt at a local store where all the foreign workers had their red uniforms on, I was called for assistance by at least three customers along with their attempt to speak simple Malay word-by-word. Helping out as a teenager at my father’s food stall also made me a foreign worker by default. Accusations of me being a kidnapped child must be fought off among the people in town who didn’t know better. As the adult I am now, police officers often stop me in roadblocks to have me present my passport. Needless to say stares of disapproval from the “Kuih Mak Cik” and “Kuey Teow Pak Cik” are common, must be my missing hijab.
Father eventually left us, which means no more racist family dinners. Other than the inescapable frustration to have forms filled up with information on my ethnicity and religious beliefs, my mixed race self is immune to racism. Having met more people of similar fates, I don’t feel too odd anymore. Although we are in 2019 now, racism is still lingering amongst us like an annoying block in your nose, suffocating our progress towards an equal world. As I switch off the plug connected to my laptop charger at a Mynews.com outlet where a Bangladeshi lad works as a cashier, a Chinese elderly man pays for his pack of cigarettes and exchanges a few words, an Indonesian lady is seen crossing the road holding a box from 99 Speedmart next door towards a Chinese lady waiting at the car, I pray that the world will one day come to senses about how all of us are equal and unique individuals.