Hannah’s baby vs. an ‘East Indies’ Chinese
Written by Dr Boo Cheng HauSaturday, 25 June 2011 08:13
My widowed mother was a rubber tapper who took care of me when I was growing up. My younger sister and I used to sleep on the grounds of the rubber plantation in the dark because we helped our mother to tap rubber at dawn. After finishing the work, we headed to school. Neither we nor my mom ever groaned about our poverty. All by herself, she managed to put me through medical school.
I did medicine in Jamaica where the University of the West Indies (UWI) charged an annual tuition fee about RM3,000 (the amount at that time) – which was more of a token sum really. I obtained a seat under the two places reserved in the medical faculty for non-West Indian students.
In 1986, I arrived in the West Indian isle of Jamaica, completely unknown to me and I daresay to most Malaysians. Being the first ever Malaysian to study at the UWI, my classmates held me as a ‘novelty’. Among them were Indian and Chinese Trinidadians and Jamaicans who sometimes saw me as a long lost relative from their ancestral lands – they termed me as ‘the East Indian’. It was a new and rewarding cultural adventure.
When at first I had hard time in communicating with the locals, my accent was unfamiliar to them. Some were puzzled and asked: “Man, what island (of the English-speaking West Indies) are you from?” They somehow still thought that I was from their neck of the woods as the region has hosted immigrants of Chinese descent.
“The East Indies,” I took to replying creatively.
A few ordinary Jamaicans in the Kingston streets had initially annoyed by calling me ‘Chinaman’. My standard answer then was, “Hey Man, mi ‘ave a name”. Easing myself into my adopted Jamaican environment, I gradually learned to adapt to the West Indian way of looking at interracial relations.
Race in a black country
Jamaicans might be class conscious but they are much less racial in that there was no official distinction of Negro or half Negro in a population that was over 95 percent black when I was there.
Nowhere else but in Jamaica would you find people with Afro hair but Mongolian eyes. Mixed Afro-Chinese children tend to have dominant genes from each of their parents.
It was in Jamaica that I learned to live as a ‘man’ – a world citizen rather than a Chinese or a Malaysian.
There is no race bar or systemic racism that confers native status. Bumiputera-ism is not a rationale the Jamaicans would have understood, and admittance into their sole university was based on academic merit. I got into UWI to do medicine when the racism perpetrated by Umno & Co. would have denied me upward mobility for lack of education.
How could I then not be grateful to these new people that surrounded me? Thus, it was natural that their way of doing things have had a great impact on me. I enjoy reggae music to this day as well as miss their national dishes such as curried goat and ackee-n-salt fish.
Being in Jamaica for five years of my formative youth, I pondered on my identity against the backdrop of racism that was a de factoif subtle national policy under the Umno-dictated government.
Evolving to multicultural
In Jamaica, I asked myself: Am I Chinese? Malaysian? Chinese Malaysian? Malaysian Chinese? More profoundly, my ‘East Indian’ joke was perhaps (when you think about it) more reasonable than race and religion – a term that referred to geographical location vis-à-vis Jamaica as the locus.
In Jamaican patois, we simply referred to each other as ‘mans’ which means men. In Jamaica, Hannah Yeoh’s predicament would not have arisen. All are Jamaicans or West Indians regardless of one’s parentage, ancestry, skin colour or religion. In Malaysia, all are Malaysians as long as we are citizens.
The case of Hannah concerns stating a race in her newborn’s birth certificate. Her determination in choosing for her child to be Anak Malaysia (son of daughter of Malaysia) carried a significant anti-racial connotation.
Why should Malaysians be still forcibly classified according to race? Is it merely part of a statistical exercise or is it to later be a criterion enabling official discrimination?
Hannah – whose baby is registered Chinese when the father is Ramachandran Muniandy – would be well respected in Jamaica, a predominantly matriarchal society. In the olden days of slavery, it was the women who ran the households because the men were traded between slave masters.
In a case of mixed parentage, why should the ethnicity of the child automatically be that of the father’s? Is Shay Adora Ram a Chinese, Indian or Chindian? Will race be used discriminatively against the Malaysian child later in life for jobs and university entrance?
Can’t we visualize an alternative scenario where the race box is discarded?
It was in Jamaica that I began to ponder at length on what apartheid meant. My intellectual curiosity stemmed from the unusual circumstance of my being in Jamaica due to the denial of education opportunities by my own country.
On Feb 11, 1990, I was in the Jamaican capital Kingston when Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Jamaicans were overjoyed by the news. Cars on the streets switched on their headlights and drivers honked in celebration as if Mandela was their own national hero of liberation.
That event was a catalyst for my reading up on the nuances of apartheid. Before that, I used to perceive apartheid only in its physical manifestation of segregated public facilities like buses and public toilets, the argument used by Umno politicians in attacking me when the two regimes are equated.
After going through a lot of literature on the topic, I was stunned by the similarities between what was called apartheid in South Africa and what is disingenuously packaged as Bumiputera-ism.
Does nationalism today encompass Malays fighting against their own countrymen?
In the American South half a century ago, seven-year-old Linda Brown could not enrol in a school seven blocks from her Kansas home but had to walk a mile to a bus-stop to take a bus to a black school. There were only four schools in the city of Topeka for African-American children in a state where $150 was spent on white children for every $50 spent on black children in overcrowded classrooms.
How different was Topeka, Kansas in 1950 to Malaysia in the 21st century where Malays demonstrated to bar ‘non-Bumiputeras’ from entering public institutions of higher learning like Mara which are well endowed with funding and state-of-the-art facilities?
Race decides how the Umno-led government will treat your child. It detects how you state your child’s race in our system of official documentation where the aborigines are not recognized as Orang Asli, a formal ethnic group. Or we are labelled Chinese in courtesy but ‘non-Bumiputera’ in humiliation. Bumiputera is a term that never appears in the federal constitution. Therefore diminishing us as the ‘non’ flip side to the NEP-coined term shows just upside down this country is.
We are all ‘mans’
This country is so upside down that Malay ultras can see the speck across the ocean in South Africa and loudly condemn apartheid but fail to see the beam in their own eye. It was not be off-the-mark when the Afro-Jamaican lady I know married to a Malaysian described Malaysia as “a land of racism” even though we refuse to admit this ourselves.
Yet there is hope in the new generation that have been educated to see man as Man, transcending old race prejudices. You can understand how proud I was when my ten-year-old son asked for direction (to the toilet) from a brown-skinned worker at the Kota Kinabalu airport with “Abang, tolong tanya mana tandas?”
Abang? I was surprised my son used the term so naturally and appropriately at that moment. It would have been extremely embarrassing if my son greeted him something like “Hey Melayu” or “Si Hitam Manis”, wouldn’t it? The man could have been a Malay, Melanau, Sino-Kadazan, Kadazan, Bajau, Chindian, Eurasian or someone from the Philippines.
And I could see the man’s eyes sparkle maybe because he was thrilled that a little Chinese boy knew to greet him ‘Abang’. As a father, I too beamed with delight to see that my son appeared at ease with people of different skin colours.
So let me recall my command of Jamaican patois: ‘Hey man, mi ’ave a name. If ya dunno mi name, call mi bruder”.