The pan asian look controversy brought me down memory lane. This is the story of my life. These experiences are somewhat personal but have a political dimension to it, so let me share them with you.
I apologise if I sound as if I am “flaunting” my looks, the truth is I am not. I am really nothing to shout about (flutter flutter). I was born at a time when mixed-marriages were not so popular, where the offsprings would look a little odd (to put it midly) coz at that time, our names usually do not match with our skin colors.
It’s either you have the right look or the wrong look, just as you are at the right place or the wrong place. It’s all about timing. Sometimes, no matter how lovely (or handsome) or physically challenged (read: ugly) you are, the skin color you are born with, can either give you fantasies or nightmares.
I had always been mistaken for a Malay, because of my grandparents, and becauseI spoke like a kampung girl, having grown up with Malay and Indian neighbours – a community of government housing residents at No. 9, Jalan Gambang, Kuantan. My paternal grandpa was Chinese, who married his Sri Lankan neighbour. My mom’s genes, Chinese as they are, were obviously not dominant enough to make me look like an Ah Mooi.
My Malay looks and the little language skills that I had, proved to be advantages in many instances, for example, in government offices, hospitals, markets, and even with the authorities. But in others, it proved to be disastrous.
During puasa time hawkers refused to sell me food. I had to explain my mixed parentage and my origin before they were convinced. You’re laughing at this, I can tell. But if you were me at that time, feeling hungry or thirsty and just wanting to have a bite at something, anything, you’d be annoyed as hell.
In school, it proved to be a bad dream. I used to hate home science, especially sewing classes, but since my school at that time did not offer Commerce or other courses of my interest, I was stuck with Sains Rumah Tangga. I often did not complete my homework, for I was hopeless at the skills.
But judgement day came one day, and those of us who did not submit our homework was called to the front of the class. I found myself among several Malay girls. My teacher then, a Chinese woman, adopted by an Indian family, was quite a racist. “Semua sama bangsa,” (all the same race) she yelled, and told us to go and stand on our chairs as punishment. Kejam-nya! (Cruel).
I tried to challenge my teacher, to tell her that I was ethnically a Chinese, just to make the point that a Chinese could also be a recalcitrant at school work, you know. But she refused to hear me out, and summoned me straight to the chair with the others.
I believe that day was the day I resolved to be a Malaysian, and not Malay, Chinese, Indian or “lain-lain” (others). Since that day I knew my destiny: I would not do to others what others had done to me.
Time flew but my looks did not diminish. I mean my Malayness just became more obvious. I was secretly happy at the thought as well, because it always made me feel special, noticed and remembered.
“Your name is Susan? But you look so Malay! We thought you are a Malay!” people would say. It made me smile inside. Happy to have deceived them. Happy also to have been given so much attention. LOL.
In University, this look proved to be advantageous. I was in a competitive course – School of Mass Communications. I was in my first year. There were always countless activities to attend and get involved in – and most of them fun activities. The only problem was one had to compete for it, and compete hard.
Strangely, I got selected for every activity I applied for. My course mates became envious. And one day we marched up to the event organisers and asked this silly question: why is it that Susan always gets to attend whatever she wants?
“Oh, we like to select those who have the Malaysian look,” said the organiser. “We want to promote Muhibbah”.
What???!!! I dropped “Mass-Comm” in my second year.
By then, I grew up always conscious of my skin color. You see, I am not putih-melepak (snow white), kuning-langsat (yellow-skin) or hitam-manis (black-beauty). I am simply a little brownie. Like the color of peanut butter, you know. ( Yummy). But I liked myself a lot.
I liked myself a lot because I could blend into the crowd, even in the oddest of places. During one of my Ethnography project in Tasek Bera (Pahang) under Dr. Hood Salleh from UKM, I sorta found “my people” (Malay = orang kita), (Chinese Hokkien = kakilang), (Tamil = numberkaran) - among the Semelais .
A little Semelai girl, whose father was a Chinese contractor who abandoned her mother when she was born, called me Kakak (elder sister). She was very attached to me during my 5-day stay in the village. I asked her “how come”?.
“Because you look like me. We have the same skin color,” she said, with a gentle smile.
In the same University, I was persuaded to join the ‘Gawai‘ (harvesting) dance because I could “pass-off” as a Sabahan. Yet during my first year as a freshie, I was forced to wear the scarf because the seniors said I looked like Malay and shouln’t show a bad example. I followed without protest and was awarded “Pelajar Teladan” (Exemplary Student) at the close of orientation week.
Needless to say, all these episodes only enriched my character and made me feel truly Malaysian. You could say that nothing, and I really mean nothing – not all the crap that comes out from the mouths and actions of politicians and the powers that be – could take these away from me.
However, a life time of discrimination – positive or otherwise – can be tiresome you know.
These days I am being discriminated for my looks again, and this time I am not happy about it.
In Bangkok, I look so Thai that taxi-men would rather discard me by the road-side and pick up a farang (foreigner) who came later in the queue, though I am standing, soaking wet without an umbrella in the rain.
Why or why must I pay for my looks?
I guess with mentalities like Information Minister “Zam” in the scenes, we don’t have to wonder (or wander) that far.