Satu Malaysia: Rocking Boats and Eating my Way through the Motherland

Guest article by Shaina Mackin
Seattle Pacific University

The girls of SMK Kenering at an after school dance workshop in the canteen
Turmeric stained fingertips saturated in gold carry with them evidence of fish curry; I am reminded of my breakfast as I lift marker to whiteboard and find I am, once again, out of ink. I reach for my Hydro Flask carrying with it my single greatest secret in this country: ice cold water that helps settle the daily debate of whether I have a fever or it’s simply eleven o’clock and I am in Southeast Asia. Lips still burning from this morning’s sambal find relief when hit with liquid paradise. I am ready. I begin to loudly dictate the egregious list of vocab words I was planning on writing on the board. Improvisation is necessary for survival in these parts.

Class is finished. My voice is raw from shouting over the whoops and hollers. Noise levels aside, life carries on much softer here. I consciously slow my movements, trying to match pace so as not to rock the boat (too much). I took first in my town’s independence day 5k last month and all of my teachers witnessed it, however, so I’m not doing a very good job at this. At school, I make my steps more leisurely, my presence more gentle, my breaths more shallow. On my way back to the teacher’s room, I see the pile of shoes outside the cooking room: score! There’s a potluck today. Though I shouldn’t be surprised; for some reason or another, there always is. Last week’s justification was that the government education officers were supposed to come to our school the day before but didn’t; today’s was – as I found out halfway through my bowl of soto ayam – in my honor. Yes, Malaysia. I’m here for you.

An infamous Kenering potluck in the bilik masak (cooking room) : Shell Out edition. These teachers know how to stage the perfect seafood feast! 

I add my shoes to the mass and enter the room, instantly instructed to eat. In the beginning of my grant year, I was shy in these spaces. Now, I boldly charge to the vat of rice to assemble my plate. I have spent nine months assuring my Malaysian coworkers that yes, it is in fact possible to find rice in the U.S. and yes, many Americans (even the white ones!) enjoy spicy food. This week is peak durian season, so the potluck is, um, aromatic. I pile the tempoyak (spicy fermented durian) onto my plate along with sticky rice and the creamy flesh of the pungent fruit covered in a rich, coconut-y broth. Delicious! I emote. All eyes on me.*

It feels right using my hands to eat. When I was young, I remember my grandmother coming to my rescue when my mom would chastise me for forgoing my fork and spoon at the dinner table: “God made hands before man made utensils. Let her eat.” Thanks, Nana, for having my back. Part of me likes to believe my elderly, white grandmother who went to mass, made clam chowder and meatloaf, and volunteered at rotary events was fighting to let me be more brown than anyone else ever would. Subconscious perhaps, but a profound premonition on her part.

You have strong Asian blood! I check back into the present. The teachers cheer. I take pride in my biracial identity in this moment, though it’s not always so easy to do so here.

*This scenario also happened for petai week, and mangosteen week, and pekasam (salted, fermented river fish) week, and all other influxes of seasonal Malaysian foods. The truth is, I just love to eat, especially here. Nature or nurture, who knows? To my palette, the bolder and hotter and richer the flavors, the better. Perhaps it is in my blood; perhaps I just have good taste.

— — —

When I landed on the shores (read: tarmac) of Kuala Lumpur in January, I had no idea how much I’d be rocking the boat over the next ten months. I took this Fulbright grant for many reasons. I had an academic background in international relations and development (specifically in SE Asia) and I knew a program like Fulbright was reputable (and boy oh boy did I need reputable on my resume after finishing undergrad at a small liberal arts university in the pacific northwest). I also knew a competitive application to an opportunity like this needed a strong angle and that I had one: I am half Malaysian. My father is Indian Malaysian and immigrated to the U.S. in his twenties, but my parents separated and I stayed with my mom, so I never knew much about my paternal lineage.

Prior to arriving at my school, I wasn’t sure I was going to tell my students about my ancestry. I didn’t have access to the cultural components that are expected to accompany the racial features I did inherit. However, I soon realized the following: nature versus nurture my face (quite literally)! I am half a first generation U.S. citizen and regardless of the cultures, languages, or religions I was or was not exposed to, I have and will always move through time and space encountering perceptions based on my race. These perceptions bring with them expectations, most of which I have never been able to meet. I could not hide my genetic roots even 8,000 miles away from home; almost immediately upon arrival I discovered I would not be accepted as American without an explanation for my brownness. Sure, I could have left out the Malaysian part and cut straight to the Indian chase, but that would be sheepishly dancing around the very thing I signed up for: truthful, raw, uncomfortable, genuine cultural exchange.
Shaina with her team of students at National Creative Action English Camp after co-teaching the first hip hop workshop of the weekend with ETA Matt Lim

— — —

At one of my school’s infamous potlucks, a Malaysian teacher friend told me the reason for my many food allergies is “because you’re mixed.”

A teacher’s cousin once pitied me over lunch in her home for claiming an American nationality, soothing, “Hmm. Ok, Indian. But American only in heart.”  

Aunties at food stalls chastise me for not speaking Tamil. Uncles at restaurants stare because I don’t fit into the schema of brown that they are familiar with. I’m allergic to beef but not Hindu; that one sends heads spinning across demographics.

My little neighbor friends, with chocolate smeared across dresses with Anna and Elsa’s faces on them, find a way to work “teacher tak cantik sebab teacher hitam” into daily conversations. Translation: “teacher is not beautiful because teacher is black.” Last month, a young man grabbed my wrist at the night market and proceeded to rub samples of whitening cream on it; he genuinely thought he was doing me a favor. My students tell me the reason their crushes are handsome is because they are fair and light.

In the U.S., people imply I am not brown enough to claim an Asian identity; here, people tell me I am not American because I am not white enough.
Shaina with her neighbor girls, ages 4 and 3, and quite possibly the closest friends she’s made all year. 

— — —

During Ramadan, I joined my community in fasting for a school week. Even in that short time, I learned an incredible amount about the human relationship with food and water, empathy, discipline, and worship. It was an impactful experience and not one I would have learned from my Indian Malaysian family. In the beginning of my grant, I was frustrated because there are very few Indians in my community; now, I recognize I am getting a deep dive into parts of Malaysia I would never have known even had I grown up with my paternal relatives. Malaysia’s favorite tagline is “Satu Malaysia.” One Malaysia. All races, religions, cultures. While I have experienced first-hand some of the judgments of people groups not part of the Malay majority, I wouldn’t trade this year of experiencing “Malaysia Truly Asia” for anything. I’m living in my Malaysia; not my father’s, not my ancestor’s, not my community’s, not my fellow cohort’s. Its table is set with chicken rice and fish curry and nasi lemak; char kway teow and laksa and thosai. It is uniquely mine and uniquely mixed and uniquely brown-ish and uniquely clueless and uniquely semi-home.

I am my most poetic self here. I am reminded of this during my daily commute to school down a jungle highway in the northernmost mountains of Gerik, Perak. The sun rises in colors more intense. The sweltering heat leads me to stretch my gait a little longer as I stride down the open breezeways, allowing my baju kurung to restrict my steps just enough to scratch my ankles perpetually swollen with the inflamed badges of mosquitos (Please note that my neighborhood was fumigated for dengue last month. At least that’s what my roommate and I have attributed to the cloud of smoke that engulfed our home and seeped through our windows one evening, so we should be fine).
I have had the opportunity to traverse the poetic expanse of this country all year. On weekends I drive transnational highways to help put on English programs. On holidays I explore the jungles and mountains and rivers and islands of the peninsula and Borneo. Everywhere I go, I get to find pieces of myself. The food, the language, the people; it all resonates with me. And that’s how I find myself in Gerik, Perak – some two hours from the village where my father grew up. That’s how I find myself learning “how to Malaysia” not from my bloodline but from these ethnically Malay strangers-turned-family who are so far from my heritage yet closer to it than I’ve ever been. Surely I am rocking the boats my forefathers rowed to these Malaysian shores. I am moving mountains and shaking seas here, defying schemas of what it means to be brown and what it means to be American and what it means to be both of those things together at the same time. The daily explanations of who I am and how I got here force me to wrangle my words into a concept of self in relation to the spaces I inhabit. Sometimes, I get lost in the colorism and thrown about by the churnings of the deep but narrow waters. My heart is content and confused and lonely and heavy at the expiration of my time here. This is my Malaysia. Every day is a fight for my brown-ness, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Students from 2SC1 celebrating the end of the ETA year at the hottest spot in town: the Lawin River. Not pictured: barbecue chicken, flour & egg fights, and Teacher Shaina’s embarrassing dance moves. 

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