Whenever I meet someone new it’s not long before I tell them I’m married to a Malaysian. Their first question is always the same. If you’re Malaysian you might be able to guess what it is.
“What race ah?”
“What race is your wife?”
For the first few years of hearing this question inevitably come up time and time again I wasn’t sure what to think. My impulse was to say, “My wife is Malaysian full stop!” As an American, it just felt wrong somehow that the most important thing about my wife was whether she was Malay, Chinese, or Indian.
It took me a long time to get used to this. Now I honestly see it as the fastest, although not always most accurate, way to understand who my wife is and therefore where we fit into the Malaysian experience. Essentially, it’s a great question if you want to get to know who we are.
If my wife was Malay then you could assume I converted to Islam to marry her.
If she was Chinese, you might guess that we are in business of some sort.
If she was Indian you could easily assume that I eat very well! In fact, I may enjoy curry a little too much.
I realized from this that Malaysians know instinctively the importance of cultural difference. Which is why they care to ask at all. At the same time many Malaysians are jelak of hearing race over-emphasized constantly and just want to be done with it. The result of this is that many are now moving towards a colour-blind mindset, which if taken too far will disregard the importance of race altogether. Whether we make the issue of race all-important or disregard it we will end up disrespecting people around us. So where is the balance?
I’ve been learning the answer from my two-year-old son, Judah.
As a two year old Judah obviously doesn’t have a handle on the race thing just yet, which is fine. However, he does interact on a regular basis with Malay, Chinese and Indian people. We want Judah to be polite so we are teaching him to greet people and call elders appropriately. The tricky part is that how you greet others depends on what race they are. For example, when do you salam* and when do you shake hands? It depends on race.
So we have to tell our son,
“You can’t call your Chinese uncle, Pak Cik.”
“Your abang won’t respond to anneh.”
“And your mei mei probably doesn’t even know what a thangachi is.”
But of course, this is Malaysia, so when in doubt just call everyone Boss!
My point is this. We want our son to see race, not to show disrespect, but greater respect. And of late I have come to realize that by growing up in a multicultural environment, most Malaysians already intuitively know this.
It may be natural to use race as a starting point to guess at who someone is. So if we go that far we should use it as a way of knowing how best to respect one another. We should emphasize race only as far as it serves to honour and respect one another.
Co-developer of the Lepak Game
*Salam is the Malay handshake where for a young child, the child takes the hand of the older person and touches it to his forehead. Judah learned to salam at a young age and it’s always fun to watch people’s faces light up when he greets them in this way, regardless of their race.