I usually sit next to Shim during the linguistics class with Jean Brick, partly because he is such a good partner when it comes to discussions and the other part is because we happen to laugh and sneer at the same thing.
So as usual, during the 15 minutes break (due to the fact that LING316 is a 3 hour seminar class and you're lucky if I don't give up and go home during this break :p), we chatted and talked about stuff that are happening in our lives. Suddenly, a fellow classmate sitting in front of us turned and jumped into our conversation not by saying hi but just simply this:
Lady In Front (LIF): You're Chinese right?
Shim: errr.. I'm a Malaysian
LIF: yeah.. but you're a Chinese Malaysian right?
Shim: I would just say that I'm a Malaysian
LIF: And what are you? (directing her look at me)Are you a Malay or an Indian?
Me: I'm a Malaysian too
LIF: (looking exasperated) yeaaah.. but what are YOU?
Me: Well, my dad is an Malaysian Indian and my mum is a Malaysian Malay. So, I guess I'm a Malaysian
LIF: (looking even more exasperated)So you're an Indian Muslimlah right?
Me: errrr.. (murmuring under my breath) I'm a Malaysian
LIF: Ok, What are you? Are you a Muslim or a Hindu?
LIF: So you're an Indian Muslimlaaaah... (with a sense of triumph as if she has solved a mysterious puzzle)
I just changed a knowing glance with Shim. It was pretty obvious that we both WANTED to appear that we weren't particularly happy with her labels and were uncomfortable with the conversation. Then she jumped to what she really wanted to say..
LIF: I was really amazed to hear the both of you talking in Bahasa... Don't you use English when you speak? I mean, I was born in Malaysia, in Ipoh, you know? But I have been raised in Singapore and I can't use the language except when I'm dealing in the market and I only can use very limited expressions
Shim: We do use English but the both of us are also comfortable with codeswitching since we're both bilinguals. Some topics are nicer/better discussed in Bahasa
LIF: Do they teach Bahasa in the school? I mean, is it compulsory?
Me: Yeah, it is and so is English (then I went on explaining a good deal of the Malaysian schooling system including the existence of vernacular schools and the recent introduction of ETEMS)
LIF: But then again, we don't use as much language in Mathematics and Science, right? Quite useless, right?
ME and Shim: Erkkk?? (jatuh kerusi sat)
LIF: They do teach our mother tongue in schools in Singapore but it's only an hour a day and quite purposeless because we don't really use it, you see?
Me and Shim: hurrmmm (nodding our head)
Luckily, the awkward situation was brought to a halt when Jean called for everybody's attention and started teaching again.. Pheeewww.. What A RELIEF! It was weird to have someone insisting that you have a race because clearly the both of us wanted to be known as something similar. We were both proud to be Malaysian because to say that I'm an Indian or Shim is a Chinese, we would necessarily be tracing down the origins of our ancestors who came to Malaya for the hope of a better life. They made the switch and we benefited. We were born in Malaysia so why do we actually need a tag that goes back probably a very, very substantial LONG time ago? Of course we are proud of our heritage but we're no doubt even more proud of our nation.
But to hear her complimenting on our proficiency of a unifying language, I was filled with a funny sensation. I noticed that both Shim and I were smiling at each other when she made that comment. I came to realise that it doesn't matter what they say about us or how they would like to question us. For me and Shim (and I'm sure the rest of my fellow Malaysians), we are indeed the same regardless of how we appear to the world.