Growing Up at No.195: Embracing my roots as a Rojak Malaysian

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By Joanne Tay

There is a stereotype that the Chinese must have their soup daily, master the art of eating rice in a bowl with chopsticks and naturally, speak Mandarin. I was anything but those.

The girl from No. 195. Bubbly Joanne sure knows how to treasure her roots and the rich Malaysian culture along with it.

Give me Sambal Belacan anytime of the day and I’ll gladly have them with anything just like how the Westerners like their cheese. While I master the art of eating rice with chopsticks, I equally excel eating rice on a plate flooded with curry with my bare hands. This way of eating is usually more common amongst the Indians and Malays but as a child, it never crossed my mind as uncommon for a Chinese family. It was just a familiar way of life in my household. This goes to show that a child is not coloured by stereotypes.

Growing up, my father sent me to a public missionary school. Penang, where I grew up, was a former British colony and I was Mandarin illiterate. The vernacular Malaysian education system means Chinese was not taught as a subject in some public schools. I learned the Malay language (my national language) and English, while I spoke a dialect known as Hokkien at home like most Penangites.

The beauty of having Rojak roots

But, Hokkien with my late amah (grandmother) was a little different.

[Hokkien mixed with broken Malay] “Ini kasi lu sambal belacan gua yang buat. Lu bawak balik makan.”

[Hokkien] “Wa ka-ki cho eh sambal. Hoh lu gia tui ki chiak”

Meaning: “Here, this is my homemade sambal belacan for you to bring home and eat.”

Hokkien’s ability to switch, mix and match languages and made them her own never ceased to amaze me as a child. When speaking with the Indian uncle who rented a corner of our pre-war house to operate his little his tuck shop or the Malay couple who sold sheaved coconuts by the side of our house during the morning market, amah would pepper it with broken Malay slangs. Then almost at an instant, she would completely switched to a full-on Hokkien with the Chinese uncle who rented the front of our house for his tailoring business.

The streets of No. 195 saw Joanne’s growing up years – and that also include her dreams and challenges overcome. (Photo-grab from Google)

Claiming that she was a nyonya (Straits-born Chinese who are the descendants of Chinese immigrants in the olden Malay archipelago, now Malaysia and Singapore), she embraced the peranakan way of life – food preferences, language, attire of baju kebaya, sarung and kasut manik (beaded shoes) with her hair dolled up into a bun with decorated pins.

Little did I know then, those formative 18 years of my life growing up with amah would eventually shape a big part of my identity and heritage. Often robust with spices and intertwined with a myriad of cultures, my Taosist family who also adopted Indian gods worship during annual festivities like the Thaipusam, made us such a rojak (a local fruit and vegetable salad dish, which also means “eclectic mix” in colloquial Malay) bunch! I could never quite settle for an identity.

The crammed space at No.195 with cracked walls and crackling wooden flooring was constantly buzzing with people as relatives live together. Situated along one of Penang’s major roads in town, traffic was always a little too loud and the house even shook a little when heavy vehicles passed by. But the aroma of amah’s cooking filled the kitchen (and our stomachs) daily and I always look forward to what’s cooking!

What’s cooking? This delicious rojak is very much a part of the Malaysian culture where food always takes the centerstage. (Photo from The Star Online)

By the time I started school, I had multiracial classmates and was welcomed into their homes. Because of my love for spices and eating with hands, my Malay friends’ families were intrigued by my upbringing. And yet, I was puzzled why can’t they eat at my home?

School had me learn, unlearn and relearn a lot. Sometimes, when your home isn’t as what the school taught it to be, things can be a little confusing. I didn’t understand why race, language or the colour of our skins would be barriers in defining who we are. Because where I grew up, it was multiracial with my neighbours, food and language.

Joanne as a baby in her gangstah-look; one of the few rare photos with her dad while growing up.

Education propels me to search for an identity to call my own. And like all beginnings, I started to question my Malaysian identity and what it means.

“I can’t speak, read or write Chinese (but I’m supposed to be Chinese!). Neither am I Malay (but I eat with hands!). Neither am I Indian (but my family pays respects to the Indian gods!). So how should I call myself? Should I even categorise who I am?”

“Are we so different by our race?”

Malaysian at heart and a global citizen of this world

In the later years of my life, I had the privilege to see the world a little more and worked with international friends. These made me realised that humanity in itself is one global race. We are not so different after all despite where we come from, the language we speak or the stereotypes the society puts on us.

Remembering my late amah and her way of life taught me that despite what are seemingly stark differences, we can live in harmony if we choose to adapt and adopt the cultures that surround us and welcome them as our way of life.

We are who we choose to embrace. I am Malaysian without a doubt because it’s the only home I know. But I am also a global citizen who choose to think beyond the labels of races.

So what if there is a certain perception how a Chinese should eat their rice? Well, I  choose to eat it differently. So what if people say you’re not Chinese enough because you can’t speak Mandarin? I choose to embrace that part about me because as a Malaysian, I can effortlessly string three languages into a sentence!

I hope in your own journey in discovering an identity, you will choose to embrace the cultures that uniquely shape you. Those are the stories that define you. As for me, No.195 was a little chaotic but it was the spices of my roots. And it will always be my truly rojak Malaysian chapter.

What’s a rojak? No other dish embodies the essence of being Malaysian more.

Building her goals one brick at a time, Joanne’s journey is as fascinating as her cultural heritage.

Joanne Tay is proud to hail from the little island of glorious sun and food haven of Penang, Malaysia. She was a humanitarian worker and loves a good conversation, especially with children. Joanne is venturing into the new grounds in the field of science education for her next adventure. She believes FUN is the essence to creativity!

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