I used to loathe coming back to Malaysia. In past trips back to this house, I remember hiding upstairs with my brother, listening to my Discman, allowing it to transport me away to a world of self-tortured grungey rock songs and the familiar culture which they embodied. Together, my brother and I would lament our predicament: the odd food, the cold bucket showers, the over-attentive relatives and the heat…that relentless, humid Borneo heat. Summer trips back to our parents’ homes were to be endured, not enjoyed. We had long since shrugged off any efforts to teach us Chinese, and Malaysia’s combination of poverty and foreignness repelled us long before these same characteristics would, somewhat perversely, draw me back to it years later.
Four years ago, fresh out of college, I returned to Malaysia with a newly discovered desire to re-connect with the very roots I’d actively ignored in past trips back. I wrote posts that leapt from solemn immigrant story to ethno-political analysis to exuberant travelogue. In the mean time, I began to consciously attempt to develop friendships with my myriad cousins—on my Dad’s side alone I have 13 uncles and aunts, meaning dozens of cousins. In a certain way, it planted the seeds for my move to China: I had found my inability to communicate utterly frustrating, and had yearned to learn more about my ancestral origins.
Now, almost four years after that last trip, I am back once again and still trying to develop those family ties that never really grew in the first place. Prior to coming, I’d spoken excitedly to friends in Beijing of how nice it was going to be to actually communicate with my extended family for the first time, now that I speak Mandarin. My tutor and I coined the term “immigrant’s tragedy” to describe the irreconcilable disconnect between me and my long-deceased grandparents, with whom I never shared a single sentence, and I arrived eager to unveil my newly acquired tongue with all of my relatives, but particularly my cousin brothers and sisters.
On my father’s side, other than himself, no other siblings emigrated, and so most of my cousins all grew up together. One another’s best friends, they make for a tight knit young generation of Hiews: the boys sit around betting over late night card games and watching ESPN, the girls go shopping in town together. One lives in Brunei with his wife, a number are migrant workers in Singapore, and despite limited economic opportunities, many have stuck around Sabah. Though far from being wealthy, they are on the whole far better off than our parents, who grew up malnourished, my Dad’s older siblings sacrificing their education at a young age to help their parents to tap rubber for income.
While only a few days in, I’ve found this re-integration process harder than I’d imagined from back in my frozen Beijing home, where I’d romanticized the approaching trip as much for the emotional warmth of a Chinese New Year spent amongst family as the meteorological type promised by their equatorial location. I’d somehow neglected to consider the first problem: just because I speak Chinese does not mean I have solved our communication impasse. Naturally, when the clan gets together as they do over New Year, they speak our mother tongue, Hakka, which is much closer to Cantonese than Mandarin. While I can often guess what the topic of discussion is (Malaysian Chinese scatter their speech with seemingly random English phrases, like “open-minded” or “second hand”, words that have definite local equivalents), Hakka is different to the point where I can’t pick it up simply by listening. It’s only in one-on-one conversation that I can get them to speak Mandarin with me. And even then, of my uncles and aunts--some of whom spent little time learning it in school--they speak it with such a heavy accent that I struggle to understand them.
If I had to choose one thing I envy of my cousins, as the supposed ‘lucky one’ whose parents made it to university and the West, it would be their natural bond, the obvious close-knit camaraderie that they share together. The mischievous eight-year-old cousin brother I recall playing hand-drawn dice games with is now toughing it out in an electronics manufacturing plant in Singapore, but at least he has a number of other cousins there to support him. Tragically, my two youngest cousins—now 16 and 11—lost a father and mother respectively (from different families) while mere infants; thankfully, the extended family has helped to fill the void as well as possible.
This is what family used to be all about, ever since hunter-gatherers first got together around the fire to discuss Aunt Mildred’s divorce. It’s what the various Asians in my hometown sought to replicate through the community ‘Chung Wah’ association group dinners and events that we’d put on. It’s what expats like myself find ourselves instinctively recreating, having consciously left our previous social circles behind. Ironically, I had to first try to connect with the citizens of the P.R.C. and then various backpacking hosts across India and Iran before I decided to come back and do the same with my own blood.
And yet, after forging cross-cultural friendships with mafia bosses in Amritsar and young freedom fighters in Mashad, I have found it surprisingly difficult to break the ice with those supposedly so close to me: my own cousins. Somehow, my global citizenship can involve a loose Facebook network that spans the five continents of abstracted “one human family” goodwill yet can’t remember all the names at the “one Hiew family” New Year dinner. On one hand, it’s still a language and culture barrier issue. But it’s also in large part simply the fact that, for the last 25 years, I have been only an occasional blip upon my cousins’ otherwise closely connected lives, and all the ambitious family-embracing intent in the world can’t make up overnight for all the emotional capital that they have built up with one another over this time.
And so I start from the beginning, getting to know my cousins’ English names and learning about their careers and lives. With those living in Singapore and Chongqing, we find commonality in our perception of Mainland Chinese (in an example of diasporic snootiness, we agree that they tend to be noisier, spit a lot and have less manners). With Ken--who I taught dribble moves on the basketball court four years ago--I discuss his favorite NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers. And with Hua, the beloved youngest cousin of the clan, I rehash our one shared trip to a crocodile farm four years ago. There’s certainly no revelatory “So that’s what your childhood was like!” discussions taking place, but gradually, I am establishing a rapport with each of them.
For some of my fellow immigrant friends in Australia and the United States, they have lost touch with their extended family back home and are not particularly concerned with reclaiming it. That’s fine. About 10 years ago, when my family stopped here en route to our new lives in America, I was still unequivocally that way as well. But, like so many of us carrying hyphenated identities, somewhere amidst America’s multicultural mash-up I acquired the compulsion to explore questions that had always felt half-answered. In Washington, when people enquired as to my accent, I’d robotically respond: “I’m from Australia, but my parents are Malaysian-Chinese.” I often wondered if I knew what that second clause truly meant. About what sort of historical and cultural depth I could fill in for myself, beyond the token exoticism that my answer might have offered to others.
Two and a half years after I set off to satiate that nagging curiosity, I’ve gleaned plenty of insight into just what those obligatory ethno-cultural identifying tags actually represent. I’ve devoted significant time to learning about my family at a broader level, through studying Mandarin and visiting my grandparents’ Chinese hometowns and reading books about Chinese emigrational history. Now I just need to spend a little time getting to know who my family is at the individual level, each with their own dreams and struggles and distinct personalities. And that, at a most fundamental level, may be the most satisfying discovery of all.