By N. RAMA LOHAN, WONG LI ZA and SHEELA CHANDRAN
So, what does this year’s Merdeka theme Sehati Sejiwa tell us about who we are, where we came from and what we’re about? In reality, it doesn’t say as much as it reminds that each of us is woven into the fabric of our society, and has contributed to the greatness of this nation.
We may come in different shapes, sizes, colours and persuasions, but our hearts beat as one, as they always have. And our souls are irrevocably Malaysian, no matter how far we go or what we achieve.
It matters little that we could be typecast by individual ethnic communities; even less so for those who have been cross-pollinated through mixed marriages. Now and forever, we stand together with a singular identity.
These are the stories of our people who, while made up of a multitude of varying fibres, are Malaysians in the purest sense.
All in one
Nothing spells unity quite like how Sufiya Ismail and her family embrace culture. Her maternal Chinese grandmother’s wedding saree was passed down to her mother, Thai sister-in-law, cousins and aunts, too, for their special day.
“I think that’s the nicest tradition we have. That definitely draws us closer as a family and provides better understanding of cultural diversity,” said the 28-year-old.
Hers is a heartwarming tale, not of tolerance but whole-hearted acceptance. You couldn’t write a script better than her life story.
Sufiya studied in a school that was predominantly Chinese in its ethnic makeup, yet assimilating into the environment was a breeze.
“It was easy to fit in for me, but I think the environment is important and I definitely had a positive one in my school,” she said.
The writer is the perfect embodiment of 1Malaysia, made up of the three major ethnic groups Malay, Chinese and Indian. The Malay in her comes from her dad, who is himself made of the same mix.
She rues only being able to speak two languages, however, although both her maternal and paternal grandparents could speak Mandarin and Tamil.
“My mum used to speak Tamil when she was younger but lost the flair after a while. I’m still upset that I didn’t pick up any of it.”
Festive seasons are highly unique for her. Although Hari Raya is her favourite and the one most grandly celebrated (along with other Muslim festivals), Chinese New Year and Christmas are observed in her home, too.
“The more festive parties, the better, right? I think tradition is important, we can be as modern or western as we want, especially here in the city, but I still love tradition in all aspects.”
Food and culture are inextricably part and parcel of the Malaysian way of life and Sufiya is in the opportune position to enjoy the best of all worlds here. She cites mutton briyani, sayur masin chicken soup and ikan masak lemak cilipadi as her mum’s specialities.
“If I had the chance now, I would definitely try and learn a traditional Malay dance or some sort of art form.”
Merdeka Day celebrations are family affairs, and the public holiday is always put to good use.
“We’re at home most of the time because traffic is usually crazy. So Merdeka to us has always been family time.”
Appreciating different cultures
When theatre director and actor Hans Isaac was in primary school, mixed-race families were an anomaly.
As Hans is of Indian, Eurasian and Filipino parentage, his schoolmates couldn’t quite place his identity because he didn’t resemble a typical Malay, Chinese or Indian youth.
“In the 1970s, children of mixed parentage were few and far between. My classmates couldn’t comprehend my mixes nor my culture and lifestyle (food choices and language used at home). Since I didn’t look like an average Malaysian student, I used to get teased for being a child of interethnic marriage,” said the former student of St John’s Institution in Kuala Lumpur.
Over time, his peers were more receptive and accepted him as one of them. Hans said sport served as a binding factor.
“In secondary school, I was active in football and athletics. Through games, my peers – especially my Malay schoolmates – and I connected really well and we got along like a house on fire. Though we were culturally different, we were fundamentally similar in our outlook as Malaysians,” said Hans, whose nickname in school was “Hans Solo”, after the much-loved miscreant from Star Wars.
The theatre director – famed for award-winning productions such as Lat Kampung Boy The Musical, Cuci The Musical and Supermokh The Musical – feels being of mixed parentage has enabled him to have a better appreciation of different cultures.
“Growing up, my late mother prepared dishes ranging from Indian to Eurasian, to Filipino cuisine. On Sundays, we were always treated to Chinese, Western and local dishes,” said the 44-year-old, who speaks English and Bahasa Malaysia.
“Every year, my Malay, Chinese and Indian friends come over to celebrate festivals with my family. Their standard question would be if my mother would be cooking her signature dishes such as popiah, roast lamb and turkey. Through these celebrations, my friends got to know more about my mixed parentage and cultural makeup,” said Hans.
Hans considers himself a true blue Malaysian and has a range of traditional outfits that represent the 1Malaysia spirit. In his closet, he has 14 sets of baju Melayu, Chinese tangzhuang, Indian jippa and barong tagalog – traditional formal wear for men in the Philippines.
“It’s all about the 1Malaysia spirit. When the country celebrates local festivals, I make it a point to wear traditional outfits to suit each occasion. What better way to forge solidarity among races?” said Hans, the second of three siblings.
Celebrating cultural diversity
It is quite hard to place an identity tag on teenager Alessandra Daveena Jitt based on her looks. She could easily pass off as a Eurasian, Chindian (one of Chinese and Indian parentage) or North Indian.
However, Alessandra – whose father is of Punjabi-Chinese parentage and mother, Filipino-Chinese – admits it can be complicated to select a particular box for race and ethnicity on an application or school form.
“Sometimes, I get confused on which box to tick regarding race and religion. My birth certificate indicates I am Punjabi. However, in most school forms, I need to specify my race as Indian. It’s complicated as my racial mix-up is Punjabi (25%), Filipino (25%) and Chinese (50%),” lamented the 16-year-old, who is home-schooled in Kuala Lumpur.
But with her exotic appearance, her schoolmates are always in awe of her mixed heritage and exotic features.
“My family background and ethnicity make good ice-breakers among my peers. Most of my friends are often in awe of the ‘mixed blood’ element in me,” said the eldest of four siblings.
Growing up with mixed parentage has allowed her to have a deeper understanding of cultural diversity. This includes learning about the dos and don’ts of each culture.
“My Chinese grand-aunty doesn’t allow us to sweep the floor on the first day of Chinese New Year as it is believed that we will ‘sweep away’ good fortune. As for Deepavali, I have learnt the significance of the festival of lights,” said Alessandra, who, growing up, was treated to a variety of cuisines, including Filipino, Indian, Western, Chinese and Mexican.
Another benefit to being of mixed parentage is that she gets to celebrate many festivals such as Chinese New Year, Deepavali and Christmas.
“Christmas is my favourite because I enjoy visiting my relatives in my mother’s hometown of Seremban. It gets very festive as my Chinese and Filipino relatives make the environment very enjoyable.
During other festive seasons, I get to put on different traditional outfits such as cheongsam during Chinese New Year and salwar kameez and lehenga during Deepavali and Vaisakhi,” she said.
Rich blend of cultures
Kindergarten operator Nancy Simon, 60, led a very interesting childhood in Taiping, Perak. She was born in a Buddhist temple and lived there until she was 18.
Her Thai-Chinese grandfather was the temple caretaker and she lived on the temple grounds with her mother, who passed away when she was seven. Nancy’s father worked for a railway company and was often away for work.
Growing up, she had friends from various ethnic groups and remembers having loads of fun playing traditional games and climbing fruit trees.
“We would walk in and out of each other’s houses and have our meals there sometimes. It was a great childhood,” she recalled.
During Merdeka, Nancy would also take part in the National Day parades, held at Taiping Esplanade every year, with her schoolmates.
Of Indian and Thai-Chinese parentage, Nancy speaks Hokkien, English, Bahasa Malaysia and Thai.
“It wasn’t uncommon for people in Taiping to speak Hokkien, even Indians spoke Hokkien there. We all grew up listening to different languages,” said Nancy, who studied at Convent Taiping.
When she was in secondary school, her schoolmates were surprised that she could speak Hokkien, as she sported a tanned complexion.
“Many people didn’t believe I was Indian because I spoke mainly English and Hokkien,” said Nancy, who practises Buddhist principles.
She met her husband, of Hungarian-English descent, while she was working at a hotel in Kuala Lumpur. They have two children, Lara and Russell.
As her children look more European and went to an international school, they did not have much of a problem fitting in and have friends from different ethnic groups until today.
When Russell got married, it was according to Chinese customs in a Buddhist temple. He also had a church wedding.
Every year, the family celebrates Chinese New Year, Wesak, Christmas and all the Thai festivals. Nancy’s favourite festival is Chinese New Year.
Her signature dish during the Lunar New Year is ju hu char (cuttlefish stir-fried with shredded jicama and carrots). Other must-haves include pork stew and chiap chai, a spicy and sour dish cooked with leftover meat and fresh vegetables.
“From young until today, I love the food, the prayer rituals, the family gatherings and the fireworks too,” she enthused.
Best of both worlds
Telling her friends her ethnicity used to elicit raised eyebrows and questions from friends when Lara Sarevon Boyd was young.
“Both my parents are mixed, so my ethnic make-up was very unusual and unique. Mostly I would say that I was Malaysian-English, but really I was Hungarian, English, Chinese and Indian. Hence, I used to get a lot of confused and bewildered (reactions from) friends!” shared Lara via e-mail.
The London-based 23-year-old, who is training to be a development and planning surveyor, grew up and studied in an international school in Kuala Lumpur. She then furthered her education at Reading University in Britain, taking up real estate.
Despite going to an international school and having a European parent, her mother Nancy (Simon) made sure she grew up in an Asian household.
“I grew up with very strict Asian morals and values. I had to get As or else!” she jokingly added.
Lara speaks English and Bahasa Malaysia, although she also understands Hokkien and Mandarin.
“Mum also scolded us in Hokkien when we were small, so we learnt to understand it!”
“Everyone’s favourite festival is Chinese New Year and as most of mum’s family resides in Malaysia, there’s always a big family gathering.”
In terms of traditional wear, Lara’s favourite is Thai, which she describes as “intricate, kind of like my family”.
The best part about being of mixed parentage, she added, is the food.
“I get the best of both worlds, and have the pleasure of celebrating so many religious festivals and holidays,” she said.
When she started dating, one condition was that her partner had to be someone who could tolerate spicy dishes.
“I had to make sure my boyfriend liked spicy food and all the Asian cuisine. That was the absolute dealbreaker, because for any Asian family, food is the centre of our relationships. Also, I had to make sure he would eat durian!”
What does Merdeka Day mean to her?
“Before I moved to (Britain) and lived at home, Merdeka did not mean a lot to me and I considered it as just another public holiday to relax as a family and watch the fireworks.
“However, now that I live far away from my family and friends, it has become more important as it is a clear reminder of my true home and identity,” she said.