Who Am I? – From Chiew-Siah Tei
Malaysian-born Chiew-Siah Tei is the author of Little Hut of Leaping Fishes (Picador, 2008), winner of Malaysia’s Audience’ Choice Award and listed for the Man Asian Literary Prize and Best Scottish Fiction Prize. A writer who is keen on experimenting with form and medium, Tei produces works that range across literature, film and theatre, in both Chinese and English.
Tei went to Scotland in 1994 to read for an M.Phil. in Media Culture, majoring in film studies, at Glasgow University. A chance participation in BBC’s Migration Screenwriting programme led to the writing of her screenplay, Night Swimmer. The completed film later won Best Short Film at France’s Vendome International Film Festival 2000.
Returning to Malaysia in 1998, Tei worked as a freelance translator and lecturer of media studies at a local college. In 2002, she left for Scotland again to pursue a PhD in Creative Writing and Film Studies at Glasgow University. In between studies and writing, she penned Three Thousand Troubled Threads for the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005.
Tei’s second book, The Mouse Deer Kingdom, will be published in October 2013. She now lives in Glasgow, Scotland.
Who Am I?
– by Chiew-Siah Tei
Who am I? As a fourth-generation Chinese born and bred in Malaysia, I always know that I am Malaysian by nationality and Chinese by ethnicity, and that I am part of the multi-cultural society and Malaysia is my home. In Malaysia we have a unique Malaysian Chinese culture, which I embrace. Some might say the language, the cultural practices, the food, to name a few, are no longer authentic; but then, that is the authentic Chinese Malaysian culture!
I had never, during my adolescent years, doubted my identity as a Malaysian and a Chinese. My confusion, however, came later during my university years and after entering society, when I became aware of the racial inequalities, and even became a victim of the unjust policies. It’s the politics and the politicians with their unjust treatments towards us that have confused us – the so-called ‘others’: the Chinese, the Indians and other ethnic minorities who, for generations, have been living in the land– not the country or the culture.
Today, living in Scotland, I can loudly declare that I am Malaysian; there is no doubt about it. I follow news from home and am closely in touch with friends in Malaysia who are fighting against political and social injustice, giving them support as much as I can, as well as trying to do my part through my writing. This way, I don’t feel detached from the country – I would if I were to moan and completely alienate myself from it. Scotland to me, is the place I work in, where I can acquire certain degree of freedom, which I will never be able to enjoy in my own country.
I could understand perfectly if you, a child who was born in China and later adopted by British parents to live with them in the United Kingdom, were confused about your identity. This is a common issue among persons who live outside their cultural roots, be they Chinese, South Asians, Africans and the like. History has determined our fates. It is impossible to go back in time and amend, but there’s time to understand, and with that to accept the unchangeable facts. By acceptance, I don’t mean we should deny our cultural roots, but recognise and inherit the culture, while at the same time, acknowledge the place we feel belonged, regardless where it is, to be our homes.
It is natural that you would want to rediscover your cultural roots, to understand and be proud of them. I remember how I had tears in my eyes when I watched the splendour displays that accounted the cultural history of China at the opening of the Beijing Olympics in 2008. I was proud of and moved by the richness of the culture from which my ancestors were originated.
We find ways to help us understand or reconnect with the part of history and culture that are absent from us. Writing my first book, Little Hut of Leaping Fishes – set during the late 19th century in China, where my great grandparents had lived and eventually left for Malaya at the turn of the 20th century – has helped me to understand the history and learned to accept it.
As for you, the Mothers’ Bridge of Love provides a platform to connect with your cultural roots, and to find a balance between the culture you now live in and that of your birth place’s. With that, I hope that you will be more confident, and always be happy and proud of who you are.