The author is a bubbly girl who enjoys midnight mamak sessions with friends and who is surrounded by people who love her for who she is.
I sat quietly in the corner listening to my mother in utter disbelief. She was asking my uncle how to change my ethnicity on my identification card. In any other country, this would be deemed ridiculous; after all, you are what you are. But in Malaysia, ethnicity matters. Having an Indian father and an Orang Asli* mother put me in an interesting situation. The norm in Malaysia is to go with the paternal ethnicity and in my case that would be Indian. But privilege-wise, being an Orang Asli would give me so many more opportunities. This is because in Malaysia, some races are given certain privileges over others.
Was it really necessary to change my ethnicity from Indian to Orang Asli?
I recalled the taunts I faced in school – all the names I’ve been called out of ignorance. Did I really want to be known as the jungle girl who lived in trees? Tarzan’s sister? Above all else, I questioned the unfairness of a race-based system of privileges that I had to play up to.
In the next few months, I noticed that my mother constantly came home late. Hesitating to reveal the matter to us “children’”, she’d dash into her room to hide piles of papers and thick law books. My frustration at being kept in the dark was building. Finally, one evening, she gathered us and informed us that the option of changing our ethnicity was in our hands. But before she could go any further, the pressure that had been building up lately became too much for me to handle. I stormed away. My mother followed me to my room.
“It doesn’t matter what blood runs through your veins; as long as you’ve got a will, you can achieve wonders. You should embrace this uniqueness in you and fight for what is right and most importantly what you believe in.” She kissed me goodnight, switched off the lights and left me staring at the rotating fan above me.
It was a restless night – I found myself fallen into an abyss of identity crisis.
Was it necessary to choose sides? Will the ethnic label Orang Asli explicitly define Agatha? I doubt that. I am an Indian AND an Orang Asli — not half of each but the whole of both — because I was raised with great emphasis on cultures and traditions from both sides, and have never hesitated to learn about others’.
I love Indian sweets, Dim Sum (Chinese delicacy), and Rendang with Yellow Sticky Rice (Malay cuisine). I have a fetish for dark chocolates and enjoy breathtaking sceneries. I especially love it when I unconsciously start nodding upon reading quotes, placing a smile on my face. I wish to experience Cambodian lifestyle, India’s bustling cities and Mongolia’s serenity. I am a film aficionado indulging in all genres, each providing me insight of events from various centuries and countries and shedding light on new perspectives, be it Blood Diamond, Mary and Max, or The Schindler’s List.
My knowledge expands from a daily dose of intellectual discussions on world issues, politics and religion with friends who come from various walks of life. We tend to challenge one another’s belief or opinion, such as one doubts the existence of God while another questions whether God is a he or a she. What started off as a random statement would turn into a parliamentary style debate and it always ends in a tie, hearty laughter and supper for bonding time. Growing up in a melting pot of diversity allows me to accept contradicting perspectives and ideas and through that we become fonder of each other.
Sadly, all these descriptions of me lead back to my questions above. Putting a label on my forehead will never represent who I am. Instead, the Orang Asli profiling will take its toll on me. In Malaysia, the Orang Asli community is deemed the lowest among the low as people still have it in their minds that we live on trees. What they don’t realize is that we have been walking on streets way before the communist invasion.
My mother showed me the positive aspect of changing my ethnic status and she stressed on that label as just being a label. We, humans, are designed in an intricate manner whereby our similarities and differences are like a fine-haired line. The things I love are shared with thousands of individuals in the country and across the seven seas. We are each unique yet closely alike.
Now, a good 6 years since the day I became an Orang Asli on paper, I am very aware of my thoughts about this matter. I rationalized my decision after deep contemplation. I shall make full use of the opportunities lined before me from the privileges vested in Orang Asli status, which will provide me with a stepping stone to the next frontier. I forbid myself to be confined with mindless racial labels and ridiculous stereotypes by proving to people that being a part of an ethnic minority is never an obstacle.
I may be biracial but forced to choose one status, but the entirety of Malaysian culture is rooted deep within me. Today, according to officials, I am an Orang Asli. But that label would define me the least. Though my ethnicity might have been changed, I am still who I am; the Agatha who is always curious and passionate about different kinds of cultures and people, whether she was an Indian yesterday, or an Orang Asli today.
If I am not for myself, who will be? — Pirke Avoth
** Orang Asli are Malaysian Indigenous people.