To be ‘different’ is defined as being ‘distinct; separate’, which can be difficult when you are considered ‘different’ by virtue of your parentage. But as the world shrinks due to advances in technology and globalisation, resulting in a generally wider acceptance of diversity, does this perception still hold true today?
WHEN I GROW UP
What was it like growing up as a child of mixed parentage? It didn’t seem to matter whether they came from a Malay kampung in Malacca or a small Johorean town – our five interviewees reported positive experiences, with many fond memories revolving around food and traditional festivals.
“The best part about being from a mixed family is that we get to celebrate all the traditional holidays. We make it a point as a family to celebrate everything," says Joshua Fitton, Creative Director of bespoke fashion label Atelier Fitton.
"We have lanterns hanging at home for Chinese New Year, even though I’m not Chinese, and I get angpows (red packets)! And the big one is Hari Raya, of course."
Born to a Malaysian mother and an English father, Joshua notes that he never felt different while growing up. “We moved to my mother’s kampung in Malacca when I was about four and I grew up in a very close-knit Malay family. I was immersed in Malay culture from a very young age and I never felt out of place."
"It must be different for someone who’s just thrown into Malay culture at 15 years old, but for me it was just fine. It made me who I am.”
“As clichéd as it sounds, you get the best of both worlds, especially if you’re a mix of East and West,” agrees Marissa Parry, co-founder of online health and wellness platform Purely B.
“My palate was spoilt with Asian and Western-style dishes from beef rendang to Yorkshire pudding. I also had rich cultural experiences from Aqiqah (Islamic celebration for a child’s birth) to visiting houses from different British historic eras, which was a hobby of my dad’s and something we still do today.”
While she didn’t encounter any noticeable differences, Marissa, who is of Malaysian-British heritage, says that it may also have been due to education and the social climate back then.
“My mum’s upbringing was quite Westernised and my grandfather was a social science teacher in university who studied abroad, loved anything British and had many British friends. Malaysia was also a lot more laid back and liberal back then, which made people more accepting,” she says.
Another advantage of being multiracial is that one is exposed to many different languages, which are easier to learn at a younger age, especially if they are constantly spoken at home.
“My father grew up speaking Hokkien. He took a keen interest in politics and decided that all his kids should be multilingual. Being the eldest, I was the ‘guinea pig’ and was sent for Mandarin and Tamil lessons,” says Nicole Sia, who is of Malaysian Chinese and Dutch Burgher parentage.
Though her Tamil education was short-lived, the Senior Business Development Manager at Lendlease, an international property company, later decided to transfer to a Chinese school for her secondary education. This helped hone her Chinese language skills and opened doors for her to work in China.
“It was the best thing I’ve done. I wish that I’d attended Chinese primary school because my reading and writing isn’t great!”
Sean Chong, a British-Malaysian Chinese singer, adds that besides being able to speak different languages, understanding the different accents is also a major plus.
“Sometimes my mum will speak with a strong British accent, and once one of my best friends asked me, ‘What language is your mum speaking?’” he laughs. “But I can answer in a Malaysian accent because I’m totally Malaysian!”
THE DARKER SIDE
However, being ‘different’ wasn’t always sunshine and roses, as Sean well knows. “People didn’t necessarily treat me badly, but they did treat me differently. They’d have their own groups of friends and I would be a sort of outcast, which was difficult for me as a shy person," he says.
"The same goes for my other five siblings as we all looked mixed. My sister had a teacher pick on her and my brother had a group of local boys bully him just because they both looked different.”
Though he says things have gotten better for him since he found his best friends at 14 and started booking advertisement jobs at 15, which changed how he felt about being in Malaysia, some pockets of it do remain.
“In one of my early singing competitions, I was told that ‘not looking Malaysian enough’ affected my chances of representing Malaysia. It shouldn’t have happened, even back then,” he says.
There can also be an expectation that being of a particular heritage means you must be fully fluent in the language.
“Sometimes officials speak to me in Malay in government offices. My Malay’s not great, and I don’t want to miss anything when I have to fill out official forms, so I ask them if they would mind speaking English. And they answer, ‘But why? You’re Malaysian; you should know how to speak Malay!’ I just feel that’s very judgmental if you don’t know my background,” says Marissa.
Looking different tends to draw stares as well, which was common among our talents. “In our small town of Segamat, we would walk into a restaurant and be stared at so much, my brothers and I used to wave and say ‘Hello earthlings!’” laughs Nicole.
“Those of my siblings who looked more European might have felt it a bit more as people used to call them ‘ang moh kwee’ in Hokkien, but I wouldn’t say it was discrimination, it was just their word for ‘not-Asian’. It wasn’t meant in a derogatory way.”
It’s an experience that Joshua can relate to somewhat. “Occasionally I’d be called ‘celup’ (dipped) or ‘mat salleh’ (white Caucasian), but I didn’t really get it because I’m not really white!” he exclaims. “Frankly, it didn’t really bother me at all.”
LIVING ON THE OUTSIDE
The debate that most often comes up is whether people of mixed heritages feel ‘displaced’ or ‘torn’ between two cultures, but this question, says Erman Akinci, might be slightly antiquated as being mixed is now so common as to not raise any eyebrows.
“If anything,” says the Singaporean-Turkish CEO of co-working space Common Ground, “it meant that we kind of fit in anywhere. Maybe that’s the greatest gift of expat life. You always fit in but you never really ‘fit in’.”
He believes that what is lacking in a lot of dialogue about mixed heritages is the experience of those who have lived an expat life, which he identifies more strongly with than any particular national identity.
“My father was in the oil industry, so we moved around a fair bit. People who grew up like me, we’re not really linked strongly to any country and the thought of doing that never came up for me. I would say that people put too much emphasis on teaching their kids a particular culture and set of traditions – we have our own expatriate culture, I’m a product of that and I’m proud of it.”
“We live in this sort of in-between world that has its own culture, which is removed from where we physically are. You do feel different – it would be naïve to expect otherwise – but ‘not fitting in’ isn’t necessarily negative."
"Fitting in and being accepted are two different things. And that’s probably one of the best parts about Malaysia. As a culture, you may not ‘fit in’, but you’re accepted, and I think that makes all the difference. Malaysia is probably the closest thing I have to a home,” he says.
Marissa also believes that part of the reason people of mixed parentages may struggle with their identity and image is due to other factors such as the rise of social media.
“Everything on the Internet says that you should be one thing or the other, which I think is where identity crises come from. Luckily, we’re adults and know how to filter it, but children have no filter."
"I feel like your family and your heritage can actually ground you more to who you are. Being a kid of whatever race, culture or mix doesn’t really equate to an identity crisis,” she says.
BACK TO YOUR ROOTS
While Sean believes that the importance of one’s heritage is down to the individual, he thinks that it would matter a great deal to him. “I think it’s fantastic to be in touch with your roots. Not necessarily doing things the way they would be done in that culture, but just understanding and being a part of it," he says.
"If I’d never been to England, I would have loved to go and see what my mum’s country is like. I feel you’re losing out if you don’t. It’s a part of you. And I’m glad that I’m blessed enough to have both worlds.”
Marissa also thinks that understanding her roots and adopting the practices helps her be a more respectful person and lets the family warm up to her children. “If I didn’t understand Malay culture, I think I would come across as quite ignorant," she says.
"Why wouldn’t I want to learn? I live here, this is home, and my family celebrates all the Malay traditions. When I meet a Muslim person, I’ll still shake their hand and bring it to my chest in the formal salam (greeting). It’s just out of respect and politeness.”
“My kids are so mixed now, but they’ve got to know the culture here so they can salam my aunts and grandaunts when they see them. It’s nice to see them do that, and you can see immediate warmth from the family. Here you have a kid who’s so mixed, yet they can still come and salam. Why shun it when it’s done here?”
Having grown up practising Malay adat (traditions), Joshua finds himself still defaulting to them by instinct when occasion calls, even in a foreign country.
“Kissing someone’s hands when you meet them, while normal here, gets a bit awkward when I’m in England and bow down while meeting parents of friends, only to realise halfway and stop. Oops! Now I’m Japanese,” he laughs. “I’m known as ‘the bowing guy’ by one of my friends’ parents!”
WALKING IN YOUR SHOES
Ultimately, the greatest advantage of a multiracial background is that it exposes you to many different cultures and encourages a world view that is more accepting of difference.
“It’s great being so exposed. It allows me to put myself in other people’s shoes and to look at things from their perspective, which has really helped in my career. Plus, I can be a chameleon wherever I go – in Spain people think I’m Spanish, in China they think I’m from Western China!” says Nicole.
“The great thing about being born mixed is that it promotes understanding and being able to adapt to other cultures – not just the Chinese and English. It has allowed me to respect and act accordingly with people from different cultures," says Sean.
"Social media can be a great tool in that respect as you can see the cultures of other people and understand how they speak and act no matter where they may be from."
For Joshua, his journey has helped him realise who he is. “The journey that I’ve been through has been very interesting. It made me more understanding of other cultures and traditions. We make it a point to appreciate everybody’s culture because Malaysia is so multicultural and it’s fun that way," he says.
"Now, I realise that I do associate myself more with Malaysia even though I’m not Malaysian on paper and was born in England. I grew up here, went to primary school here. I do consider myself Malaysian.”
Even as the volatile ebb and flow of the global political tides continues to influence the conversations that we have on race and heritage, it is important to remember that mixed or not, we are all still human.
A greater mutual effort to understand our differences can bring us closer together and create more tolerance if we are to achieve our dream of living in a utopia without stigma and judgment. Only then, mixed or not, can we have the best of all worlds.