Fatin Amilin, 24, is more comfortable eating with a pair of chopsticks. She celebrates both Chinese New Year and Hari Raya, and enjoys eating Chinese delicacies made by her maternal grandmother, who is Chinese – albeit made using chicken stuffing.
She is a Kelantanese Malay-Chinese who decided to come to Penang, where she stayed with her grandmother, to pursue her tertiary education in a private college. At varsity, she realised that she was the only one wearing a headscarf in class, but despite the cultural and religious differences, Fatin’s classmates were largely very supportive of her.
Not all were though. Fatin also recalls being gawked at when she visited coffee shops with her grandmother; some hawkers even refused to serve her food out of fear of repercussions.
“I initially felt uneasy about how people looked at me, but I slowly realised that instead of trying to make people understand me, stepping back and letting them understand me through their own initiative would be better. I have learned to accept my unique cultural identity, and I don’t feel very different from others. You should always be proud of who you are and never let other people’s negative perceptions get in your way.
“I generally feel that Malaysians are excessively sensitive and judgemental at times when it comes to the subject of race and religion,” says Fatin. “We should not be afraid to openly discuss these two subjects; after all, we have been living with each other even before independence.”
Echoing Fatin’s sentiment is Yuvindra Durairaj, or Yuvin for short, who is Indian on his father’s side and Chinese on his mother’s. “Many people choose to fight out of their fear of being persecuted or losing certain rights. We should accept people for their differences rather than make preconceived judgements on others.”
"You should always be proud of who you are and never let other people’s negative perceptions get in your way."
Fatin (middle) and her family.
Yuvindra (far right) speaks at least four languages.
The 32-year-old is affable as he recalls growing up around stereotypes. “When I was in primary school, my classmates asked about my name because they couldn’t compute why I looked Malay, but didn’t have a Malay name. I was too young to notice the misconception, and I just accepted the fact that I was a little bit different. Everyone is also different in certain ways, and this made me accept people for their differences, which shouldn’t limit where we want to go in life.
When it comes to religion and celebrations, Yuvin is twice blessed. “I am lucky to have grown up in a family where everyone accepts each other’s faith. In my house, you can see Hindu gods on one side of the altar, and Chinese Taoist deities on the other,” he says, adding that as a child, he was sent to a babysitter who was of Catholic faith, and that he used to tag along to mass and that he also explored the Bible.
“Many people choose to fight out of their fear of being persecuted or losing certain rights. We should accept people for their differences rather than make preconceived judgements on others."
Yuvin is also impressively multilingual: “Other than Malay, English, Mandarin and Tamil, I can also converse in Hokkien, Teochew, Cantonese and a bit of Japanese. It’s all about exposure and the willingness to try – I realise that a lot of people are afraid of making mistakes when taking up a new language. Don’t be afraid of mistakes – that’s how you learn.”
He cheekily reveals that when people make assumptions about his race, he enjoys throwing them off. “Based on your first impression on me, you wouldn’t know what language I can speak. I can speak to you in English for the entire conversation, and surprise you at the end by speaking Mandarin or Tamil. It’s actually the perfect ice-breaking tool – in my line of work, I face clients, and if I speak to them in a language they understand, they’re more comfortable with me.”.
Even so, Yuvin is not spared racial prejudice. “I have been through experiences where people discriminated me for being part Indian. One of the funniest things in the job market is that some companies specifically state that they prefer to hire Chinese, which doesn’t make any sense because at the end of the day, it depends on how well you do your job. Fortunately, all the employers I’ve had never judged me based on my skin colour.
“There is no need to feel angry or frustrated about the negative comments one hears. I think you should show people who you are through your actions rather than through words or anger,” he says.
Alexander (far right) picked up Cantonese from his friends.
Alexander Fernandez, 24, a Eurasian, never felt much like an outsider either. “I think it’s because Eurasians have been part of Penang’s society for so long,” he says. “One of the most interesting perks that I get with my Eurasian identity is I get treated differently in a positive way by others. It makes me feel more confident of myself,” he says.
While he was born in Penang, Fernandez moved to Ipoh at 14, where he attended secondary school. There, he found himself among peers who spoke mostly Mandarin and Cantonese. As Fernandez could only speak English and Malay, he initially found it difficult to fit in. “But after a while, they began to accept me, even calling me ‘ang moh’ because of my facial features which were visibly different from theirs. It was awkward at first,” he says.
"If you find it difficult to blend in with other people due to language barriers, then you should motivate yourself to learn additional languages just like I did."
That prompted him later on in life to take up Mandarin and other dialects such as Cantonese – both informally and formally. “At university, the language barrier worsened drastically,” he says, “which prompted me to enrol myself into Mandarin classes at university for two semesters. I ended up scoring an ‘A’ in the final examination. As for Cantonese, I learned through my friends whenever we mingled, which was a rather fun way to learn a new language. If you find it difficult to blend in with other people due to language barriers, then you should motivate yourself to learn additional languages just like I did.”
Fernandez urges the Eurasian community to preserve their unique heritage. “Having been an important part of Penang’s foundation, the Eurasians should not be forgotten. There are lots of ways to preserve our heritage, and I think one of the most effective ways is to promote Eurasian cuisine such as devil curry, kuih kochi and sugee cake, just to name a few – although I’m not really a big fan of sugee cake!”
Enzo Sim is a Mass Communications graduate who has an unwavering passion towards International Relations, history and regional affairs of South-east Asia. His passion has brought him to different South-east Asian capitals to explore the diverse cultural intricacies within the region.