Once upon a time, Rona Chandran married Jack Wong, and they had two beautiful daughters. Daughters who people call “Chindian” in reference to their mixed Chinese-Indian parentage.
Nowadays, this isn’t unusual enough to provoke comment, nor is it derogatory. But the girls’ mother holds a PhD in anthropology and she was curious what the twinning of two rich cultures within her two girls means for their lives in multiracial Malaysia.
“I always wondered how my daughters would fit in such a compartmentalised society,” Dr Chandran says. “People are always eager to place ethnic labels on a person, and there is also the omnipresence of ethnic-based stereotypes within society.
“I wanted to know more about what life would be like for them in Malaysia,” says the senior lecturer at a private university at a recent interview.
The result of that passion-driven curiosity is Blurring Boundaries: The Chindian Identity Quest, a book that highlights the life experiences of this unique community.
Dr Chandran feels children of ethnically diverse parentage can be the epitome of understanding and acceptance, as they are exposed from the moment they are born to different languages and, as the grow up, to different religions and customs.
From her research, she has gathered that, “Most Chindians are receptive towards various forms of diversity. They are able to see the good in most things and are respectful towards biological and ethnic differences. They share varied experiences because of their diverse cultural practises,” explains the 37-year-old.
The book offers in-depth knowledge about Malaysian Chindians and sheds light on many erroneous assumptions often made about these people. It highlights that Malaysians (especially on the peninsula) are beyond “Malay”, “Chinese”, “Indian” and “lain-lain” (others) too.
Analysis in the book is based on empirical data collated from 2012 to 2013 from 31 Chindians from different states and territories, including Kuala Lumpur, Negri Sembilan, Sabah, Selangor and Terengganu.
“People were excited when they knew I was doing a comprehensive study on Chindian identity. I got to know some respondents via Facebook while other participants were the children of colleagues and relatives. I also approached random Chindians on the streets to ensure I had a wide range of participants.
“Talking to all of them was an enlightening experience,” reveals Dr Chandran.
The book examines cultural and social factors influencing the development of ethnic identity among Chindians in Malaysia. It is divided into 10 chapters covering, among other areas, a historical perspective of Malaysian Chindians, language proficiency and preference within the community, religious obligations, ethnic identity claims and the social aspect of acceptance.
Dr Chandran discovered that while Chindians are commonly categorised according to their father’s ethnic group, half of the research participants respondents found this practise unrepresentative of who they really are. Often, respondents felt that their identity is a “fluid concept” because they make adjustments to fit into different groups.
“These respondents are a product of two ethnicities and felt it is only fair their ethnic identity is reflected as both. They felt even giving them the option to choose one ethnicity over the other was unjust. Hence, they choose to downplay or highlight their identity as Chinese, Indian, Chindian and, at times, take a neutral stance depending on the scenario,” explains Dr Chandran, who published several joint papers in journals on the subject, (with M. Yahya) “Interface Of Ethnicities In Communication: The Sino-Indian (Chindian) Family In Perspective”, Malaysian Journal Of Media Studies, 2014; and “Beyond Arbitrary Labels: Understanding Ethnic Identity Development Among Chindians” in the Journal of the South East Asian Research Centre for Communication and Humanities, 2015.
When it came to faith, given their ethnically diverse parentage, some participants in Dr Chandran’s research for the book practiced dual faiths based on their parents’ respective religions. Chindian children, the author learnt, are able to transcend superficial boundaries and show high levels of respect for diverse religious beliefs.
“While many parts of the world are experiencing ethnic and religious unrest, Chindians are brought up in a household where two different religions are observed in harmony. However, a fraction of respondents chose to be free thinkers because they didn’t want to submit to the pressure of having to choose between religions.”
Ironically, most participants regarded Chinese dialects as their mother tongue, despite having Indian fathers!
“Perhaps it’s the influence of their Chinese mothers who spend more time nurturing children and due to the encouragement from both parents to pick up Chinese due to the commercial and economic value of the language,” muses Dr Chandran, adding that, usually, English is the language at home in most Chindian households.
In the book, she uses the word “ethnic” to describe Chindians instead of “race” because she felt “ethnic” suited her research area best, as it is closely intertwined with the culture of a community. Plus, she wanted to avoid negative nuances related to the term “race”, such as racism and racist, that are always present in the discussion of lineage.
“In Malaysia, terms like kaum and bangsa are used loosely and interchangeably. It is necessary to be clear about these terms as it is paramount in nation building.
“We sing Negaraku with pride but then again, we are divided into bangsa Melayu, India and Cina. This is an oxymoron and one that needs to be corrected immediately to create a strong national sense of belonging and patriotism, especially within the younger generation.”
Blurring Boundaries: The Chindian Identity Quest (University of Malaya Press) is available at major bookstores nationwide.
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