When I was little, I wanted nothing more than to be white. I wanted to look like everybody else, I wanted to lose my accent, and perhaps most of all, I wanted my parents to act like all the other parents. The kind who would welcome me having friends over to play. Who knew why other kids knocked on our door on Halloween night dressed in all manner of weird costumers – because I didn’t. Who didn’t shop at op shops and garage sales or buy me baby bonnets instead of sporty caps. My parents were by no means stereotypically FOB immigrants, with broken accents, who struggle to catch a bus or dispute a bill. But they were just different enough to set them apart.
I remember borrowing a cheongsam to wear on Cultural Day in my first year of primary school. I wonder if I looked as awkward as I felt in it From then on, I wore my own jeans and a tee.
I hated in-class exercises where everyone was urged to get in touch with their heritage. People would look at me and say, “Oh, you’re so lucky, you actually have a culture!” Uh, no, not really. (This is made even more complex by way of hailing from Malaysia but being ethnically Chinese.) We’re not religious, we speak English at home, the extent of our CNY celebrations are gorging on moon cake (the one time of year I halfheartedly lay claim to my heritage). Name a traditional custom or ritual you associate with the Chinese and I’ll probably never even have heard of it. We ate rice almost every day, though. That counts for something, surely.
And yet, I’m not a total cultural vacuum. Celebrity chef Rick Stein was in Malaysia on his Far Eastern Odyssey this week. Mesmerised by the familiar accents, the hearty laughs, the general conduct of the locals, I watched, entranced, as they whipped up fish head curry and beef rendang. If nothing else, culture, to me, is associated with cuisine. And no matter how long ago, the “aiyahs” and the inability to enunciate the h in “three” still instantly transport me back to a certain place.
There are things that are going to stop with me, that I won’t pass down to future generations. My kids will have straight English names. They won’t hear their parents talking on the phone in another language, or hear foreign words peppered throughout conversation – random pet terms substituted for English for no real reason, apart from maybe habit. They may occasionally eat dishes featuring strange ingredients like shrimp paste, but most likely they’ll eat steak and pasta and my version of Thai curry.
That’s okay. Because what’s really important is that they learn to be decent human beings. Hopefully they’ll be intelligent. Not weakling klutzes like me. And ideally semi-attractive, because life is enough of a bitch as it is. But ultimately, as long as they appreciate the importance of hard work, doing right by others and themselves, and grow up with a respect and appreciation for people of all backgrounds.
Some things may be more prized, where I come from, than they are for others. Family. Pride. Standing on your own two feet. But ultimately, these are values that transcend time, space, and ethnicity.