There is something special about bumping into a fellow countryman when you are overseas
I TURNED to the waitress and asked, “Are you Singaporean?”
She was not, and the three friends – a Singaporean, a Malaysian and an Irish man – I was having dinner in London with, mocked me.
Of course, they knew she was Malaysian.
“But I lived for a while in Singapore,” she said in my defence.
It was the first time I was wrong at this game – where waiting staff is concerned, at least – I started to wonder if having been away all these months have blurred my ability to connect with a fellow Malaysian.
Regular readers of this column would know by now that I have a staunch love for my homeland and countrymen and women, no matter where I am living.
And while I seldom hang around fellow Malaysians here, I am always excited when I meet one outside of the “international student” bubble of the university.
These are several reasons for this.
Firstly, there is this amazing connection you can always have when you meet someone who has this shared history with you, especially in foreign places.
Then there is also the opportunity for a curious cat like me to discover more about where I come from, from the perspective of someone else who, not unlike myself, has a little distance from everything happening back home.
How do they engage in their ‘Malaysianness’ on foreign soil?
How do they engage with their identities in a place where nobody knows who they are?
What do they make of the current socio-political situation back home?
Are they dreading their return?
These are all questions I often think about whenever I hear and read about the issue of brain drain.
Indeed, our political situation in Malaysia has gotten so ugly over the past decade that emigration by Malaysians seems to be a recurring topic in the news, on social media and among my friends.
That is not to say that I am passing any judgment on those who leave the country.
I have always believed in the idea of freedom of movement and that as global citizens, we should no longer be restricted to our geographical boundaries.
For some of us, this may mean frequently travelling.
For others, it means making a home somewhere else.
In life, we make decisions that are the best for our loved ones and ourselves, and seize great opportunities when they arise.
Staying in Malaysia is not always the best option for everyone.
Don’t get me wrong; I am not advocating that everyone pack their bags and leave just because things are tough.
These are personal decisions that everyone has to make in their lives, and no one can or should make these decisions for other people – especially not if it involves guilt-tripping and shaming.
I definitely do not believe in the fallacy that one cannot contribute to his or her own country while living abroad.
In the case of the waitress my friends and I met, she is ready to go home to Malaysia and be called to the Bar.
When I asked her about the sort of law she wants to practice – corporate and finance, if I remember correctly – I joked about how she should focus on human rights instead.
Without missing a beat, she replied saying how she intends to get involved with the work the Malaysian Bar Council is doing, and contribute to the country.
I did not even know her name at this point, but I swelled with pride.
Feeling like this is not new to me; each time I meet a concerned Malaysian, a proud Malaysian, a patriotic Malaysian – no matter what their values and political persuasions might be – I feel a lump in my throat.
It is always nice to connect – no matter how brief or superficially – with people who feel the same kind of love and affection for my home country.
It does not matter where their values sit on the political spectrum of left to right, or who they support.
The wonderful thing about respecting diversity of views, and living in a modern democracy, is that we can all want a better country without always having to agree with one another.
But most of all, the kind of pride I feel is not unlike the one when any of my family members – whether my parents, sisters or nephews and niece – achieve personal and public milestones.
It is because as Malaysians, we are all, and excuse the cliché, part of one big family.
Sure, there are always going to be squabbles, and every family has their problems, but we must always try to endure and overcome because we all share the same blood.
As fellow Malaysians, we are all brothers and sisters through our collective histories, our shared cultural experiences and our connection to our home soil – tanah tumpahnya darahku.
Niki feels that alongside tolerance and understanding, we need to also have respect for diversity. Connect with him online at www.nikicheong.com/news