It happens randomly and frequently. Sometimes in the dead of night. Sometimes by the simple fact of listening to an old tune on my iPod. Sometimes it even happens when I observe people on the park, in shopping malls, classrooms and the street. The things I touch, eat, drink, and smell also play into this. All these occurrences remind me that I, a Chinese Malaysian, am, have been, and forever will be, a stranger to all.
Blame it on my western education, or my westernized upbringing. I don’t know. Growing up in Kuala Lumpur in a middle class Chinese family, I am too westernized to be Malaysian. At the same time, my yellow skin impedes me from being recognized westernized. I am caught it a perpetual no man’s land. Just the other day, I was listening to an old Asian tune, and I was reminded once again of my teenage years as a member of an oppressed community in Malaysia – and in the US.
As an urbanite in Malaysia, I possess much access to capital. I’m not talking about the traditional Marxist view of capital either. No, this goes beyond mere finances and money as I venture into the realm of Bourdieu. Indeed, I am considered to middle class and enjoy a comfortable life. But I also enjoy other comforts in life, and these capitals include social, cultural, and religion, thanks to the influence of MTV, Marvel Comics, the Simpsons, Michael Jordan and Nirvana. I weave around the community easily with my mastery of western culture. I am, despite my status as a minority in Malaysia, a privileged person – privilege ala Spivak’s definition of the “postcolonial.” The postcolonial, that is, someone who is a product of the culture of imperialism, fluent in its colonial apparatuses. I may not have realized this then, but you know what they say, ignorance is bliss.
My knowledge in western culture and family’s relative wealth helped propel me to pursue my university studies in the US. In the US, I put whatever privilege and knowledge I possess on western culture to good use. I made white friends with ease. I learned to appreciate football, drank beer, went to rave parties, hayrides, and trucking it up on a frozen lake (I was in Northern Minnesota, go figure). Yes, life was good. My acquisition of social, cultural and religious capital does indeed have its benefits. They helped me become a Christian, (I got to go to heaven, what’s there not to like?), win the heart of a white woman, and the love and affection of many “normal” white, Christian middle class, and heterosexist friends.
But life, or God, or who/whatever, has other plans. When I thrust myself in doctoral studies in religion, I began a love-hate relationship with Academia. I learned cool new words like “hegemony,” “habitus,” and “deconstruction,” among others. But at the same time, I hated the whole idea of pontificating one’s newfound wisdom to those whose minds have been colonized, especially through this thing called postcolonial studies. To be honest, it’s not all that bad. But, it did remind me, forcefully, that whenever I look in the mirror, I see a Chink with a white disguise. Fifty years ago, a very wise man by the name of Frantz Fanon from Martinique questioned this very same notion with the black subject trying to escape his/her own perceived inferiority by embracing the white world. It also reminded me that even though I can pass off well as “one of the guys” and have relative access to the white world, I am constantly reminded of who I “really” am on the inside.
Perhaps the use of the word “Chink” is too jarring for some. Do I hate my own kind? Is my mind too colonized for this? I’d like to see my usage of the word as something akin to black folks use the “N” word. But since I’m not black, I must also assume that my struggles cannot be the same as black folks, and hence it’s not a simple one to one direct translation. I want to use that word to bring to attention that the word “Chink,” while not as prevalently used (no) thanks to our status as the “model minority,” still exists within the vocabulary of the colonizer, ready to be called upon to be used against people like me. So, before we get too comfortable with words like “Asian Americans” or “Asians,” I think a little dose of reality is good for the soul, if not just to fuck with people’s heads. My chinky-ness continues to haunt me today in the white world, and my whiteness haunts me when I am back with my community in Malaysia. I am the man with no skin and no home – the perpetual stranger. I am the conscript and casualty of the new fractured, globalized world.
(Un)fortunately, my body cares. My body cares because it serves to remind me who I am at all times. The things that remind me of what I am become catalysts for my perpetual status as stranger, a stranger who is oppressed but is also oppressing. A Chink who inhabits and recognizes his own privilege of being conversant with the colonial structure, knows the instance of his own colonization, and yet cannot disown it. It is, in Spivak’s term, a place “one cannot not want to inhabit.”
Despite my incessant whining about my own identity, and it is hard and stressful, mind you, I often ask myself if all these things pale in comparison who the truly oppressed subaltern. Who cares about “the stranger,” the musings on belonging and identity, when half the world can’t even eat a decent meal and have a place real home with comfortable beds! Indeed, who cares about the incessant whining of a Third World citizen now living in the First World? I must be careful not to elevate my struggles with identity as the “end all be all” of the postcolonial individual. So here’s the dilemma. On the one hand, struggles of identity should and ought to be taken into account. On the other hand, it’s all too easy to reduce the lived realities of communities into texts, and discourse. I’m sorry, but it is a great insult for people living all their lives in a shithole slum in India, or Malaysia if we are to reduce all things to discourse and text. This, I believe, is a temptation for us inhabiting this postcolonial space.
Last night, I was listening to Asian music on youtube, and immediately I was transported back to the time when I was again as my blissful self as a teenage Chinese boy riding the public bus in Kuala Lumpur on the way to school. I must admit, I was very tempted to stay at that blissful state of mind once again, far away from my contemporary struggles with identity, belonging and the abject material deficiencies many marginalized people are going through as I compose this piece of writing.
1:36am on a Tuesday morning
Thinking about home
Damn those Facebook photo albums
What is to happen to me?
What will I (re)discover?
What will I do?
What will I be?
How will I conduct myself?
How will “research” affect me?
Why so serious?
Why not have fun?
Think of the food.
Yes, but 5 months is a long time
Perish the thought
It goes by quick, said a friend
It will be over in no time.
That may be true
But I have many thoughts
Especially at 1:36am on a Tuesday morning
I may be exposed as a fraud
But I do miss home
The morning mist descending on the foothills
The chatter of kids going to school
The paper man delivering the newspaper
Dogs cats birds and critters
Those calorie-busting breakfast foods
Scrumptious Indian-Muslim lunches
And traditional Chinese home-cooked dinners
Skyscrapers that symbolizes the decadence and opulence of the elite
Gigantic shopping malls that are symbols of capitalism
While down the street the poor and homeless are begging in Chinatown
The smoke from the local temple’s joss sticks
Invite me to pay my respects to the institution and places built by people I call “my own”
But “my own” really sounds funny these days
For I am neither here nor there
Yes I have many thoughts
Thoughts about home
Impressions about home
The people faces and places
Being me and not being me
At 1:36am on a Tuesday morning.