on being a hybrid australian muslim of malay descent
I am a hybrid child. And no, that doesn’t make me an alien. Actually, it some ways, it probably does. I identify as being an Australian Muslim of Malay descent, and I’ve spent a long time pondering what that really means for me.
I left Singapore when I was 12. Aside from my immediate family, the rest of my family is dispersed in Singapore and Malaysia, so I still have strong ties to that part of the world. I’m also very fond of Malay food – nasi ayam, nasi lemak and mee soto, to name a few. I’m almost 30 now, so I’ve spent most of my life growing up in Sydney, which is very different to growing up in Singapore.
What’s it like, navigating two very different cultures? It’s like running blindfolded through an obstacle course and being expected to know all the rules – oh, and the rule book is in a different language. It gets messy. Infuriating at times. Often very funny. Overall, life is never boring.
There are the cultural expectations from both sides of the fence. What does it mean to be Malay? I suspect it has to do with being able to cook mouth-watering cuisines like nasi lemak, wearing the traditional baju melayu on special occasions, but most of all, having the social graces of a Malay person. The food and clothes are easy in comparison. Figuring out the social graces of being Malay is quite difficult when you’re living in Sydney, and when most of your friends are from every other part of the world. There are the things that I picked up from my mum, like never pointing at someone with my index finger (the horror!), not walking in front of elders, and always calling elders by their proper titles – never, ever by their first name. Despite that, I know I’ve missed many other subtleties that can only come from observing other Malay people.
What does it mean to be Australian? From the vigorous TV ad campaigns, it seems that eating lamb and not getting sunburnt are two major staples of being Australian. Sure, I enjoy going to the beach. I like lamb cutlets. But my highschool experience is a hilarious example of how different I really am. When I was fresh off the plane in Year 7, I vividly remember a schoolmate asking me which cricket team I went for. I made the fatal mistake of asking her, ‘What’s cricket?’ She stared at me and asked if I had a TV at home. ‘Of course I do!’ I said, laughing too loudly. That was one of my many social gaffes that year.
Some other student then asked me what I thought of Kim Beazley, of all politicians, and I remember asking, ‘Who’s that?’ I knew who Pauline Hanson was – oh, she was on fire in the nineties when I migrated. I got the gist that she didn’t like people like me. Things in Singapore were very different. We were into soccer and Tae Kwon Do, and the People’s Actions Party (PAP) was the only political party worth talking about. If you know anything about Singaporean politics, then you know exactly what I mean.
My experiences show that being a migrant child in highschool is not for the faint of heart. When hybrid children like me grow up, does it get any easier? In some ways, it gets easier because we start to accept how we’ll never quite fit in. On the other hand, it gets harder because the expectations only increase. Marriage, for example, is a whole new ball game.
Much to my own surprise (and my mother’s), I married a Malaysian man. I always thought that I would only marry someone who grew up in Australia, like me. Remarkably, my husband fit the bill, despite growing up in Malaysia. He didn’t fit there; I didn’t fit here, so voila, we decided to make our own sanctuary with each other. We first met at mutual friends’ place and we married within a year. Our wedding was a lovely gathering of close friends and family, but of course, we had to go back to Malaysia for my Big Indian Wedding. By the time the make-up artist was done with me, I looked like something out of a Fair and Lovely ad. This is problematic, especially since I’m tanned, and my husband gawked at me in a way that was not flattering when I came down the stairs, in my turquoise lenga. And that was just the beginning of a downward spiral. I found myself in this predicament of looking Malay, but not acting very Malay. My outward genetic makeup led to certain expectations that I was meant to just, well, know. Take this for example. What someone said to me: ‘Please, I want you to have this gift.’
What I said: ‘Wow! Thanks.’
What I was meant to say, several times, and with emphasis, ‘Oh no, no, please, I couldn’t possibly take this! But thank you, thank you so much for offering.’
So that was an epic fail, and that’s just one example. The funny thing about conflict-averse South-East Asian culture is that even when I did offend people, they wouldn’t tell me. The messenger is my husband, who spent most of his adult life in Malaysia and did his postgraduate studies here. He’s getting better at alerting me to the latest awkward social blunder I walked into, and I’m getting better at not taking it so personally. It’s a bit of a disaster, being both a Highly Sensitive Person who isn’t Malay enough for the Malaysians, and who looks uncomfortably Muslim for an Aussie. The secret is rolling with the punches, and accepting that I’ll always offend someone. As long as I don’t go around being malicious, I’m doing pretty okay. Rinse, repeat.
In a perfect world, it wouldn’t matter. We’d all embrace each other’s quirks. But this is real life, where everyone has expectations, regardless where they’re from. My job, like any other hybrid child, is to accept that my constant meandering (and occasional blundering) across different cultures is part of who I am. It’s equal parts joyful and stressful, and on the upside, I have a rich tapestry of faith, culture and language to draw from. Plus, the food is amazing.
By Raidah Shah Idil