Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle

Kaleidoscoping identity

When my close friend, fellow Australasian mate and sometimes-madre Tessa suggested that I write for the Identity Issue of the Gazelle, I laughed and ...

Dec 5, 2015

Graphic by The Multimedia Desk/The Gazelle
When my close friend, fellow Australasian mate and sometimes-madre Tessa suggested that I write for the Identity Issue of the Gazelle, I laughed and told her that I wouldn’t even know where to start. Are we talking about my cultural identity as a Malaysian-Chinese-Australian? My identity as an NYU Abu Dhabi student currently in New York? Or better yet, my identity as a single 21-year-old who recently downloaded Tinder and is gradually becoming addicted to the power of swiping left, but balking at the idea of swiping right? With more than five final papers and projects approaching, however, the need to procrastinate became more pronounced, and I decided to try and tackle this difficult question.
When thinking about the issue of identity, I realized that there were six moments in which I have truly questioned who I was.
  1. When I became aware of Fathers’ Day.
I was born and raised by a single mother who, bless her, had no idea what she had signed up for when she decided she wanted a child. However, even though I grew up with a single mother, I was never lacking in the parental department. If anything, I had that in abundance.
I had a set of godparents who looked after me during the day when Ma was at work. There was also my benevolent uncle, who was not related to Ma and who never had children, who treated me as though I was his daughter and helped Ma out financially. Then there was a work colleague and close friend of Ma who lived with us and who I saw as a mother. And of course, my Ma, who would pick me up after she finished work and always made sure that she was the one to tuck me into bed every night.
As a child, I was showered with love and affection and never thought myself lacking in the area of family. Who else could claim to have three mothers and two fathers? This perfect family tree fell apart during my first experience of Fathers’ Day in Australia, when I realized having the five parental figures was not "normal." I began creating a web of lies.
“My father is still in Malaysia, working. He’s in the furniture business. He has a great position in Malaysia and couldn’t leave to come to Australia with us but I visit him every year. I really miss him, I hope he moves to Australia eventually.” I invented layer upon layer of reasons for my unusual family situation, creating a father character that was a mixture of the two father figures I actually had. I did anything to avoid explaining why it was only Ma and I living in the house.
But cracks appeared. I lost track of what I had said. There were no photos of the three of us. I avoided talking about my dad. My perfectly curated family fell apart and I no longer knew what was normal or abnormal.
  1. When I returned to Malaysia, and realized that I couldn’t understand most of what was being said around me.
Ma and I were always proud of how quickly I picked up English. All it took was reading a chapter or two of a children’s book every night and voila — in a year I was able to fool all the students in my new class into thinking that I was born and bred in Australia.
But at what cost? The realization, during one visit to Malaysia, that speaking to my extended family no longer came naturally was unsettling. I struggled to find words to describe my experience in Australia. I had to look to my Ma for a translation whenever my grandma spoke in Hokkien, a Chinese dialect, and thus I felt myself losing my Malaysian-Chinese identity, even as I kept trying my best to fit in.
  1. When I realized that I was only going to church for the sake of following Ma.
How do you tell a 7-year-old girl that, instead of praying to great-grandma and great-grandpa using incense sticks at the temple, we would now be praying to a t-shaped piece of wood, sometimes with an almost naked man hanging from it?
The thing is, you don’t. Just bring her to the children’s service at the local church every Sunday and eventually it becomes the norm. That was what happened to me when I arrived in Australia. My fourth uncle, a devout Christian who had been in the country for over a decade, suggested that Ma go to church and meet some of his Malaysian friends and their children. This friendly gathering turned into a weekly ritual in which Ma and I began calling ourselves Christians.
This only became an issue when one day, someone asked me why I was a Christian and my only answer was “because I go to church every week.” I began to realize that I did not feel comfortable with Christianity and that I was only holding onto it in order to hold onto the friends that I made through church. And thus I lost my identity as a Christian.
  1. When Ma asked me if I wanted to change my name.
It was in the process of getting my Australian passport, hence the opportunity to change my name. My initial reaction was, “What? What do you mean? I’m Yi Yi, why would I want another name?” But then I found myself investigating English names. Ivy, Gwendoline – Ma had initially planned to call me this – or Yvonne.
Nothing sounded right. I didn’t respond to any of them. Above all, it felt as if I was throwing away a name that Ma had thoughtfully given to me, just to make it easier for people to pronounce my name. I couldn’t do it.
  1. When I arrived in Abu Dhabi for Candidate Weekend and found that introducing yourself by one country was not sufficient for some people, especially when you have an Asian complexion but comes from a “white” country.
It was the first time that I questioned what ethnicity I was exactly. I am racially Chinese, was born in Malaysia but spent most of my life in Australia. Ok, easy, so I would introduced myself as having been born in Malaysia but moved to Australia when I was young..
Conversations went something like this:
“Oh, nice! So do you speak Malaysian?”
Uh, it’s Malay and no, I don’t speak it.
“So what do you speak with your family then?”
“What, so that means you’re Chinese, no?”
Well, no, because the way we communicate in Chinese, it’s a weird mix of Mandarin, Hokkien and Malay, which is unique to Chinese-speakers in Malaysia.
“Oh, then you’re Malaysian-Chinese!”
Yeah, I guess so.
“Awesome! Tell me a bit more about Malaysia! How did it come about? How’s the politics of the country?”
Uh, I don’t know. I could tell you something about Australian politics instead?
I’ve found that I introduce myself differently depending on where I am in the world and who I talk to. When I’m back in Australia, I’m all about that Malaysian-Chinese pride. When I’m in China, I’m definitely Malaysian, period. When I’m in Abu Dhabi — let’s not go there. At what point does all of this become a lie, or a facade for me to hide behind and escape the fact that I don’t really know how to think of myself?
  1. When I started writing this personal essay.
Isn’t it funny that even when I am in New York, rather than utilizing the study tables in Bobst, or taking advantage of the splendid view of Washington Square Park from the 10th floor of Kimmel, I find myself sitting in 19WSN and watching the screensaver of the computer in front of me show photos of NYUAD?
Recently, the new Dean of Students asked me, “Do you see yourself as an NYUAD student studying abroad in New York, or just an NYU student?” I immediately answered the former. There was no doubt about it. But then, when my friend created my Tinder account, he asked whether he should put down NYU Abu Dhabi or NYU and I hesitated.
Trying to explain NYUAD to someone that I will probably never meet is too much of a hassle, but I worried that they would catch me. After all, I’ve only been in New York for a semester. Then I asked myself why I even cared. I was just using Tinder for fun — it’s not like I would ever meet these guys.
My identity as an NYUAD student had been so solid since my acceptance into the university, despite the backlash from family and teachers, yet I was hesitating because of a dating app. Weak, is what I thought, I’m so weak.
Conclusion: Perhaps the reason why I am struggling to find my identity is because I am not satisfied with just one word embodying the kaleidoscope of who I am.
I am Chinese, Malaysian and Australian. I am a daughter to three women and two men. I am an agnostic whose beliefs are slowly moving towards Buddhism. I am the name which my mother gave me. I am a single female who has a penchant for swiping left on Tinder and waiting for guys to start the conversation. I am the chameleon that changes its skin to adapt, the mood ring that changes color when you hold it.
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