where the writers are
A Question of Identity
Amazon.com Amazon.com
Powell's Books Powell's Books

This is an extract from my email reply to Xujun Eberlein's question regarding the issue of cultural identity raised by her reader:

I read your Singaporean reader's letter with much thoughts. Confusion of one's identity is a common issue among persons who live outside their cultural roots, be they Chinese, South Asians, Africans and the like, especially for those who are not first-generations. History has determined our fates. It is impossible to go back in time and amend, but there's time to understand, and with that to accept the unchangeable facts. By acceptance, I don't mean we should defy our cultural roots, but recognise and inherit the culture, while at the same time, acknowledge the country we were born and grew up in to be our homes.

As a fourth-generation Chinese from Malaysia, I can understand how she (I'm under the impression that that's a lady) feels. I myself was once confused, too. After all these years, I've come to realise that, over my adolescent years, I had never doubted my identity as a Malaysian and Chinese, and that I was part of the multi-cultural society, and Malaysia was my home. Here in Malaysia we have a unique Malaysian Chinese culture, which I embrace. Some might say the language, the cultural practices, the food, etc, are no longer authentic, but then, this is the authentic Malaysian Chinese culture! My confusion, however, came later during my university years and after entering society, when I became aware of the racial inequalities, and even became a victim of the unjust policies. It's the politics and the politicians that have confused us, not the country or the culture, and that is part of the reasons of your reader's confusion, as she mentioned of her disappointment at the Singaporean leader.

Today, here in Scotland, I can loudly declare that I am Malaysian; there's no doubt about it. I follow news from home and am closely in touch with friends in Malaysia who are fighting against political and social injustice, giving them support as much as I can, as well as trying to do my part through my writing. This way, I don't feel detached from the country - I would if I were to moan and completely alienate myself from it. I see Scotland as the place I work in, where I can acquire certain degree of freedom, which I will be never be able to enjoy in my own country.

Your reader has no reason not to be proud of the cultural displays at the opening of the Beijing Olympics - in fact I was in tears watching the ceremony. I, like her, a Chinese, recognise our root culture that was once, and still is, a splendour.

My thoughts might be quite different from most people, but I think after all these years, I have grown to see things more clearer. I hope your reader will be clear of her doubts. Accept and understand, these are the two things I wish to stress. In fact, writing my first book has helped me to understand the history and learned to accept it.

3 Comment count
Comment Bubble Tip


Obviously, this has always been huge, huge question here in the United States as well. What I find unfortunate is when natives (for lack of a better word) in the country in which you find yourself see you as suspect because you don't fully buy in and discard your core national identity. It strikes me as fear-based. How is that in Scotland?

Also, is there anywhere we can read Xujun's part of this conversation? I'd love it if she blogged about it here on Red Room. Thanks.

Huntington Sharp, Red Room

Comment Bubble Tip

Political-oriented rather than fear-based

Dear Huntington,

 Thank you for your comment. The situation in Malaysia, as in a few other Southeast Asian countries, that we, descendants of immgrants, are being viewed suspiciously, is the result of political games.  People of my generation who are born in Malaysia, see ourselves as native Malaysian, as we have long adapted to the country's multi-cultural environment.

The situation in Scotland is rather different.  The immigrants are comparatively new, and the first generations inevitably tend to huddle together.  There are insititutions for the elderly and for the general well-beings of the Chinese community.  However, when it progresses to the second and third generations, the need to integrate into the wider community arises, hence come the confusion of identity.  In fact this is the subject matter of my play, Three Thousand Troubled Threads, staged at the Edinburgh International Festival in 2005.

Xujun has posted the letter I responded to on her blog, as well as my reply above.  Please refer to: http://www.insideoutchina.com/2009/05/vertigo-of-foreign-born-chinese.html



Comment Bubble Tip

Interesting. I come from a

I come from a very close and loving multicultural and multiracial family. Family is family.

I've never felt confused about who I am. None of us have.

But it is funny how others have been confused about us.

My baby sister is part white and part African-American (we have different fathers). But due to recessive white genes, her skin is light and she has blond hair and blue eyes.

When official forms require she choose one race and don't give an option for biracial or multiracial, she chooses African-American.

Once when turning in such paperwork, the woman processing her papers looked it over, looked at my sister and said "Honey, you picked the wrong race box."

My sister looked at it. Shook her head and said, "No. It's right."

The lady looked at her and ARGUED that matter. "No. It is wrong. You put down the wrong race."

My little sister looked the lady in the eye and said, "I am black!"

The woman shut up and processed the paperwork.

I think everyone in our family has at least one story like that one.