Half ‘Asian’ / Half ‘Arab’: Reconciling with my Malayness

“Ini anak Along,” Wan would say to introduce me to venders when I accompanied her at pasar malams in Pantai Dalam.

“Along? Yang duduk Amerika?”

“Canada”

“Oh! Canada”

Oh, Canada. Oh, Canada, Our home on stolen Native land.

My Tiger mom was known in my grandparents’ neighborhood as Along. The first-born child of poor village people was the first in the family to get a scholarship to study abroad. Atuk dropped out of high school. Wan was orphaned as a child and stopped attending elementary school to take on domestic responsibilities. Wan became the family caretaker. As her siblings proceeded to achieve social mobility, Wan was left babysitting their children when they went to their white collar work. Wan was acutely aware of how educational attainment held her back in life.

I remember Wan watching me scribble in my notebooks.

“This is the writing of someone who didn’t go to school,” she said shamefully when passing me a phone number in her childlike handwriting. I felt the shame in her voice and I intimately understood the subtext. To this day, a memory that brings tears to my eyes.

Classism is often discussed through the lens of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. What often isn’t explored is the psychological and emotional consequences of classism. Bong Joon-Ho’s film Parasite is my all time favorite film for this very reason. Classism is more than material.

“Laws only apply to the poor,” Atuk used to say.

Learning about “The Feminization of Poverty” in my global development seminars taught me: Classism is more than material, it is gendered. Who is most vulnerable when the costs of education and healthcare increase? Poor Women. Why? Because under a patriarchal socioeconomic system, it’s more cost effective for a poor family to invest in our sons’ education over our daughters. Under a patriarchal socioeconomic system, it’s more cost effective to expect the women in the family to care for sick family members when healthcare is inaccessible.

After all, we need our sons in school, right?

Wan’s life story grounded my textbook theory into a lived reality.

“Kak, belajar rajin tau. You have to study hard. If I continued with school and had a good job, I would’ve taken your mother and her siblings with me and leave Atuk,” she said when I was a child.

I was made aware of the honour and privilege I had to be literate at an early age. At the age of six, I juggled grasping English, Français, Bahasa Melayu, and عربي. Excellence was an expectation.

My grandmother had an elementary literacy level while my mother had a Masters degree.

The education gap had sociocultural consequences.

Intergenerational mother-daughter wounds ran deep in my family.

Wan pushed your mother too hard,” Mak Busu told me. Wan’s internalized classism traumatized my Tiger Mom.

“You think you’re an only child? Don’t be selfish.”

“What? You want compliments like the kids here? I wasn’t raised with praise either!” yelled my Tiger Mom.

A Kak Long myself, I internalized the pressure placed on the first child, the first daughter.

Contrary to Western islamophobic belief: Wan was against Mak’s decision to wear hijab. She was afraid she wouldn’t find a husband given the family class position. Amazing how it all comes down to marriageability.

“Eurocentrism colonized my beauty and body”, I wrote in Half ‘Asian’/ Half ‘Arab’: Reconciling with my Palestinianness.

Hidung mancung (sharp nose) Malay Grandmas say when tugging my nose.

“She’s prettier than the bride,” I once heard when attending a kenduri at eight years old.

“You’ll marry a rich man one day,” said the Mak Cik-Mak Cik.

Inevitably, I developed a pretty-girl-complex. At an early age, I was determined to prove my humanhood through my brilliance in response to constantly being made aware of my beauty.

“This is your daughter? She’s so beautiful,” white women customers say to Baba when we’re seen together at his convenience store.

“Your skin is so beautiful,” said my high school guidance councillor, a white woman.

“Your skin”

“Your eyes”

“Your hair”

And that’s only the rated-G comments.

“That’s a hot mix,” said ethnocentric immigrant bois.

Because I’m a cocktail, right?

Intersectional feminism championed by Black legal scholar, Kimberlé Crenshaw, influenced my identification as an Asian Feminist. In response to the tragedy and domestic terrorism in my racist hometown of London, Ontario, I organized a community conversation called “Asian Feminists Against Islamophobia”.

A Malay boi slid in my DMs to say:

“Saya rasa wanita Muslim tidak perlu terpengaruh dengan idea feminis”.

[I feel Muslim women do not need to be affected by feminism] and proceeded to blast links of bearded Imams discrediting feminism.

Jokes on him.

My Malay Mother centred her Masters thesis on how British colonialism strengthened patriarchy in Malaysian society.

Misogynistic Muslim Men: You have it all wrong.

I speak as a conventionally-attractive, exoticized, orientalized, young woman: The supposed ‘attention’ I receive does not excite me. It scares me, it belittles me. It disgusts me.

If we’re all creations of Allah, are we not all beautiful?

“Beauty standards” as we know it derive from colonial binaries and oppressive systems of power — eurocentrism, colorism: anti-blackness. Beauty standards are dependent on relativity to whiteness.

While my beauty is praised in my Malay lineage, diasporic Arabs discredit my Arabness because of their internalized whiteness. At masjid events, Arab Amtus, the Karens of the Muslim world, ignore my presence as they praise white-passing Arab girls for their beauty. Don’t get me wrong: Mashallahs all around. I say this to say: the 180 degree treatment I receive between Southeast Asians and Arabs enlighten my understanding of internalized whiteness.

Intersectional Feminism taught me: Beauty standards are a scam.

Perhaps Misogynistic Muslim Men are projecting attention they want for themselves? After all, if they were indeed pious men why would they feel the need to assert their piety? By bringing attention to so-called ‘call for attention’ are you not calling attention to a lived experience that you don’t experience? Is it not arrogant to speak for a woman’s lived experience you as wannabe sheikhs have no reference point in understanding? Is it not self-indulgent to feed your foolish egos into thinking you’re saving women from the pits of hell? How about I assert my own agency — leave it to me to do my negotiating.

I answer to Allah, not a muslim man.

As Bryson Tiller raps in 502 Come Up: Only G-O-D can judge me.

Only Allah knows my intentions. Only Allah knows my story.

Misogynistic Muslim Men: You have it all wrong. Being perceived as a manic-pixie mixed girl is not liberating; it’s oppressive. My humanhood defined by what I am and not who I am is soul-crushing. My intellect, courage, and accomplishments are shadowed by my so-called exoticized beauty.

Nevermind that my mid-twenties accomplishments include: leading an equity organizing group at 24, managing a municipal campaign at 25, and producing a web series at 26, all while living under the poverty line in a racist hometown I might add.

My leadership qualities shadowed by my 5'3, Asianesque features and physiology — yellow fever disempowers me.

My upbringing in a white hegemonic society corrupted my understanding of my Asian womanhood. I was socialized to perceive ‘Asian womanhood’ as docile, submissive, and meek. The Asian women in my life do not embody these traits. These orientalizing traits are imposed on us through the white gaze and western imagination.

During my 2020 quarantine in Malaysia, I reflected deeply on my relationship to Malay womanhood. Un ami qui s’appelle Ami was quick to tease me on my Minang-ness. Ami was the first person to illuminate the parallels of my ‘strong woman’ energy and my matrilineal ancestry. Perhaps it took befriending a Malay man to peep these parallels.

“Can Canadian men identify these cultural traits?” he asked.

Frankly, no. Western, cishet, patriarchal masculinity is too fragile to acknowledge my power. Western, cishet, patriarchal masculinity lacks the imagination to understand power beyond dominance and control. That is, after-all, the root of colonialism, imperialism.

I have a limited Malay vocabulary as I was raised in the Global North, the Western hemisphere. During my quarantine in KL, I took it upon myself to take BM classes to strengthen my linguistic abilities. I learned for the first time the difference between banyak and ramai. I learned that Bahasa Melayu is language riddled with classifiers (think: buah, buku, orang, helai, biji, keping) a concept completely foreign to me.

“But you speak English! Why do you need to learn Malay?” I heard from a white collar family member.

I need to learn it because it is intrinsic to healing my existential diasporic wound. As Edward Said, Palestinian-American scholar, wrote:

“Exile is strangely compelling to think about but terrible to experience. It is the unhealable rift forced between a human being and a native place, between the self and its true home: its essential sadness can never be surmounted. And while it is true that literature and history contain heroic, romantic, glorious, and even triumphant episodes in an exile’s life, these are efforts meant to overcome the crippling sorrow of estrangement”.

As my colonized tongue would have it: My strongest reading comprehension skills are in English, French, and Spanish — colonial languages.

Strengthening my connection to my Malayness enlightened deeper understandings of my authentic inner voice. The sassiness in my writing voice is directly influenced by Mak and Mak Busu’s banter. The Minang women in my family raised me to hold my head high. A hater commented on Third Culture Colonialism saying it read as an “ass-whooping”. Indeed. Inspired by our family Minangness, the artistic voice was intended to read as an Asian ass-whooping.

Terima Kasih for stating the obvious.

In writing Third Culture Colonialism, I learned I am my mother’s daughter. My Tiger mom raised me to be une tigresse tenace, a tenacious tigress.

Tong kosong banyak bising, she said in response to lies and corruption.

Tong kosong banyak bising, she said in response to whiteness.

Tong kosong banyak bising, she said in response to ineffective leadership.

My Tiger Mom raised me to love my Malay heritage. I write this overdue love letter in honour and solidarity with the Malaysian civil society, the rakyat.

Sarah Kajani documents the rise of suicide rates, rampant inequality, domestic abuse and systemic failures of COVID experienced by the Malaysian civil society and amplifies the #LAWAN (FIGHT) movement. While courageous activists like Sarah Irdina have been in police custody for speaking out, many folks are reluctant to participate in protest and pushback.

Through my virtual observations, I noticed a lot of statuses opening with: “I don’t normally care about politics…” as a pre-assertion before they explain the importance of #LAWAN. Curious. What is the value of asserting a lack of care for politics?

Following the wisdom of my Palestinian Baba and Minang Mother: We should absolutely care about politics. As popularized by Carol Hanisch in 1968:

THE PERSONAL IS POLITICAL.

As a child, I remember Baba saying: “You don’t know how lucky you are to live in a country that has stable political institutions. People here don’t know what goes on around them and its shameful. When you travel, Sarah, people will ask you about politics and if you know nothing, it’s not nice. It’s unbecoming.”

It is my Malaysian Mother who brought me to my first protest. It is my Malaysian Mother who taught me about settler-colonialism. It is my Malaysian Mother who fostered my love for learning.

My dedication to intersectional storytelling and community organizing began in 2017. ‘Social justice’ was never a trend for me as a working class immigrant daughter of a displaced Palestinian man. My Malay mother raised me to appreciate and honor narratives of resistance and self-determination. Social justice is necessary for my transnational family to have dignified lives.

Reducing decades of profound scholarship to Social-Justice-Warriorship works in service of the powerful and privileged: the oppressors. It is not only our human right to assert our human agency, it is our social responsibility to address inequality and infringements on human dignity.

The impacts of #LAWAN impact my life in so far as it impacts my mother’s entire family residing in our ancestral land. As a member of the Southeast Asian-American diaspora, I am committed to staying informed and amplifying voices. My transnational privilege minimizes repercussions I would face relative to on-the-ground activists. I intend to circulate resources, updates, fundraising initiatives. Please accept my open invitation to reach out and I will do my due diligence to support to the best of my abilities.

I am writing with the intention to leverage my transnational privilege backed by two blue passports to bridge discourse between the Global North and Global South.

I am exercising Allah’s gift.

The gift of cross-cultural communication.

Indeed, what is more beautiful than living a dignified life in communion with our siblings, sisters, and brothers, Muslim or otherwise? What is more beautiful than co-existing in a shared, dignified humanity?

In the words of Black Muslim Revolutionary, Malcolm X: “I’m for truth no matter who tells it. I’m for justice no matter who it is for or against”.

In Solidarity,

Sarah

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Sarah Barzak

Sarah Barzak

Born in Milwaukee, raised in Canada, I am Kak Long, an eldest immigrant daughter of Malay-Palestinian descent. Cultural Critic & Producer @sarah.barzak on IG