Multiracialism. The subject of my multiracial identity. This is a topic that I was (and still am) hesitant to write about, but after being told (and subsequently repeatedly encouraged) to share my story, here I am.
My name is Melissa Kartini, and with at least seven races running through my blood, I easily qualify as a multiracial.
And being born a Malaysian, I was made explicitly aware of my “Otherness” from a very young age.
Whether we’d like to admit it or not, race plays a large role in Malaysia, and thanks to my somewhat strange racial combination, primary language, as well as my Western/Asian upbringing and religion, my feeling of “Otherness” was exacerbated.
I never really felt like I truly belonged anywhere, and this holds somewhat true to this day.
So a bit of background.
As mentioned, I am made up of, what is in my opinion, a strange and at times conflicting combination of races, values and religion. So much so that I have yet to find anyone like myself outside of my own family.
It is something I have pride in, being different. But at the same time, it can be incredibly alienating.
While I personally identify as Asian, I am technically Eurasian. This fact still seems strange to me despite my family being featured in an issue of The NewEurasian (you can take a guess which issue it is). If you’re curious as to what European blood it is, it is Portuguese.
Malaysians who possess Portuguese ancestry account for less than 0.09% of the population, so when you bring my extreme mix of races, values and religion into the picture, you can understand why I continue to feel so out of place in society to this day.
It is exactly because of this mix that I was raised with Western/Asian values. While I have Asian values at my core, I am liberal enough to question, accept and embrace values that are different from my own.
My identity is further complicated by my culture. Culture-wise, my family celebrates just about all of our cultural roots. Like most Eurasians, we also have a habit of mixing and matching practices. So long as they don’t clash with our beliefs, it’s all good.
How does my multiracial identity affect my life?
For as long as I can remember, my race has been the subject of scrutiny from those around me. My schoolmates, colleagues, acquaintances and even random people on the street have made it a point to inquire about my racial background. Stares aren’t unusual either.
So yes, I can say that being multiracial does affect my life.
Here’re some of the positives:
Amusing nicknames. I’ve been jokingly called “Rojak” and “1Malaysia”.
I get to celebrate just about everything, which is awesome.
It’s a good conversation starter. Malaysians are a curious lot, and 6 to 7 times out of 10, they’d question my racially ambiguous appearance and name. “Guess My Race” is totally a game I play.
Free from cultural constraints. Because I don’t look like anything, I often get a free pass when it comes to cultural expectations.
Better understanding of and more open to different cultures. I love our differences! There’s so much we can learn from each other.
Prying questions. While I usually don’t mind answering questions about my racial background, it can get tiring sometimes, especially when people insist on finding out everything from A to Z.
Really prying questions. Because race=religion in Malaysia, I’m often questioned about my religion- even by strangers. This is an extremely personal question and shouldn’t be asked.
Are you one of us? In school, a good number of Chinese, Malays and Indians would sit away from each other. Some would scrutinise me, wondering if I belong to their group.
Discrimination. I’d sometimes be excluded from activities because, as they’d rudely put it, I don’t “truly” belong to their racial group. People would also sometimes deny my lineage as they are unable to comprehend that interracial marriages exist.
Lack of belonging. Because my family mixes and matches cultural practices, the result is that while I can get along with those from different cultures easily, there isn’t a true sense of belonging. My appearance doesn’t help matters either.
Envy. I admit to sometimes being envious of those who belong to a single race; there is an immediate sense of community among them.
It can get creepy. I was recently called a “rare specimen” by someone I barely know.
It has affected my dating life. Dating outside of your race/religion can sometimes be met with opposition in Malaysia, so this cuts down potential candidates quite a bit. Admittedly, I’m also at fault because I refuse to conform; while I’m open to welcoming a new culture in my life, I’m not willing to give up any of mine.
Neither positive nor negative:
My name. No one else has my name, which, work-wise, makes me easy to search for and stand out to employers. On the other hand, it means lack of privacy, and I’m a highly private person despite my chosen field.
Not knowing which race box to tick on forms. Really no idea.
Not knowing how to answer to “What’s your race?” Nowadays, I usually say “multiracial” or “mixed” and leave it at that unless pressed.
Misunderstandings. When I showed up to certain classes in school, people would try to “correct” me by saying, “Uhm… I think you’re in the wrong class…”
Do things get better?
Yes and no. As I grew up, I eventually stopped trying to fit into an overly simplified box like race. I’ll never fit in any of them. That, and I realised that it’s okay to be different.
The fact of the matter is, I sometimes feel we’re a bit too divided when it comes to race. Malaysia is certainly much better off than most countries in terms of this, but more effort can be made to understand one another. Especially since race isn’t even a factor that should matter to begin with.
Today, I’m making an effort to be even closer to my roots, starting with studying Mandarin and Portuguese. I’ve also shifted from trying to relate to people on a cultural and racial level, to simply hanging out with like-minded people. That’s where I belong, and I believe it’s something my extremely diverse relatives learned for themselves a long time ago, too.
We’re all human at the end of the day; let’s not get too hung up over our differences.
*Cultures mentioned in this article aren’t limited to those found in Malaysia
MELISSA KARTINI ARIFFIN ONG
Melissa Kartini works as a Digital Content Writer for a social media advertising company. When she isn't working, she enjoys reading, blogging, shopping, kickboxing and studying languages- Japanese, Mandarin and Portuguese are her current focus. Hobbies aside, she tries to do as much charity work as possible, and tries to raise awareness of social issues through her writing. Despite being career-minded, she always has time for family and friends.