Half ‘Asian’/Half ‘Arab’: Reconciling with my Palestinianness
“Oh, your dad’s Palestinian? I have so much respect for you now!” said the Arab girl who sat in front of me in Arabic school.
Disgusted. Small. was how I felt.
She sat in front of me every Saturday and only acknowledged my existence on the last day of Arabic school.
We were 17. Which, frankly, was too old to behave this way under my tiger mom’s standards.
Kurang ajar, I thought. Who raised you?
These interactions didn’t stop in my teens. While working at Baba’s convenience store, an Amtu came in and made small talk as we completed the transaction.
“Oh, you know, the man who works here is Palestinian,” she said.
“Yes, I know. He’s my dad,” I responded calmly, “My mother is Malay”.
She asked: تهكي عربي
I felt sweatbeads forming. My heart started racing. Intuitively, I knew what was to come next.
“No, I can’t speak, I can only read,” I said while talking a breath.
“But you understand?!” She said shockingly.
“Very little”, I responded quietly.
“But why?! My daughter grew up here too and she speaks fluently!” Amtu said arrogantly.
Your daughter also has two parents that speak the same language.
“You should be ashamed of yourself. Our people are dying! We need to preserve our culture!” she said authoritatively.
Beep. Beep. Went the security alarm when she left the store. I bursted into tears.
I felt so small. So ashamed.
“Don’t let her get in your head,” Hasan, my beloved brother, said when I called him in tears.
When I explained the situation to Baba, he said: “I know her, she’s a nice lady. She doesn’t understand, that’s all”.
It was these very interactions that shamed me into silence. I am not ashamed of my Palestinian heritage. No. I am made to feel ashamed when I am around Arabs living in the diaspora. It was these very reactions that turned me away from mastering the Arabic language.
I stopped trying to explain myself. I internalized that shame and placed more emphasis on my mother’s heritage. I can speak Malay (like an 8 year old) and I visited the country multiple times over the course of my lifetime. Being mixed isn’t uncommon to Malay people. Cultural fluidity makes it easier to claim my Malayness. (That’s not to say racism and discrimination don’t exist in Malaysia, I recognize my experience of Malayness comes with transnational privilege of being North American and Malays being the dominant racial group in the country).
I made my first Palestinian friend, Randa, during my third year of university. We attended Western University, a country-club school consumed by whiteness. A social scene made up of affluent private school kids, a-political Asians, and white-washed colored kids. Internalized whiteness, conservatism, zionism was all around us. Respect for higher learning was not.
“Politics makes me anxious,” cried coddled Canadians. Privileged kids from the First World pissed on my experience of ‘higher learning’.
Randa was the president of the Solidarity for Palestinian Human Rights club. The club wasn’t allowed to have ‘political’ exhibitions in the student centre. An infringement of freedom of speech — non? Instead, the club hosted a cultural exihibition about Palestinian music, food, art during Israel Apartheid Week. A group of male zionist students provoked Randa. The number of men grew as they yelled and heckled at her. Marie, our beloved white ally, pushed through the crowd to support Randa. (PS — Randa does not approve of the hyperlinked article title but such is manufactured consent).
Western’s student life was not for me. Anti-blackness, sexism, islamophobia, and basically every phobia was entrenched in the university’s cultural ecosystem. My Faculty of Information and Media Studies, supposedly the radical-hipster-progressive department, was made up of fauxgressives.
Faculty high on trauma porn while nourishing their saviour-complex (I expand more on this in my autobiography).
Students lamenting on and on about class struggle while coasting on daddy’s money.
These same students had never actually experienced poverty.
Their ‘enlightenment’ stopped at discourse. The arm-chair philosophers didn’t do the heavy lifting of translating theory into practice, praxis.
The cognitive dissonance disgusted me.
Nihilism is a luxury I don’t have.
The summer of 2014 was particularly heartbreaking. Baba spent day after after day in the store with the news on replay. Mak was in Malaysia at the time so I felt responsible to check on him regularly. Some nights, he fell asleep with the news playing on his cellphone.
Teta died that summer.
He couldn’t attend the funeral.
I held him as he broke down.
The emotional weight was overwhelming.
I pushed through my summer school classes, panic attacks and all.
Some days, I cried in bathroom stalls.
Summer 2014 was the first time I enrolled in group therapy. A participant recommended the book Scattered Minds: The Origins and Healing of Attention Deficit Disorder, by Gabor Maté, a Hungarian Jewish-Canadian doctor who writes from a narrative perspective of a doctor with ADD. Upon reading his book, I became an admirer of his work on trauma and critiques of medical institutions.
Years later, I discovered my neurodiverence.
In fourth year, I used my student plan to access individual therapy counselling for the first time. My assigned therapist was an Asian woman. I felt seen when she immediately understood ‘tiger mom’.
Mak was the family star child. She earned a scholarship for both her bachelors and masters degrees. Her father dropped out of high school. Her mother was illiterate until her fourties. Her parents were poor village people. She was the first in her family tree to study abroad.
Intergenerational trauma triggered our mother-daughter wound.
“I don’t understand how watching the news triggers you,” my therapist said when I tried to express my trauma towards having to study the news as a media studies scholar. It was too exhausting to explain the dissonance I felt between seeing news coverage and living an exiled reality. My student plan didn’t cover enough sessions for me to unpack manufactured consent to her. My therapist understood my Asian girl problems but couldn’t grapple with my Palestinian problems. I spent the remainder of our sessions deliberating on my mommy issues.
Baba is a workaholic. I believe it is his trauma response. He doesn’t open up but I am his emotional confidante. We share a silent agony and alienation towards Palestinian pain. Baba doesn’t have a lot of Palestinian friends (most of them are Sudanese). Sometimes, I wonder if it’s because he’s not married to Palestinian woman.
It is my Malay mother who brought me to protests. Mak raised us on scholarly lectures not solely about Palestine but indigenous sovereignty. She read books about Tibetans exiled in Nepal. She taught me to question nation states. Mak taught me to love learning and that love deepened my connection to humanity.
When I was 8 years old, I overheard an aunty asking my mom why she lets me have Black friends.
Now looking back I think: Rich coming from a Southeast Asian Muslim woman married to a white convert.
Mak challenged her anti-blackness by saying: Why can’t Sarah have Black friends?
The aunty later spoke ill of my mom (for various pathetic reasons) but I always admired Mak for speaking her mind.
Another time, her South Asian friend made an anti-indigenous comment. Mak, the sociology scholar, broke down institutionalized colonialism to her. The friend held on to her opinion. When she left, Mak said: “Don’t ever let anyone tell you how to think.”
Mak taught us white priviliege before it was mainstream. I had a general understanding of colonialism at the age of 12.
Internalized whiteness was all around me.
My white passing Palestinian aunt is racist towards my Malay mother. My Palestinian grandmother fully accepted her but folks living in the West grasp on to an exclusionary definition of identity. I struggle to claim my Palestinianness because Arabs in the diaspora cling on to ethnocentrism and colorism.
Eurocentrism colonized my beauty and body.
Malay grandmas tug my nose and say: “hidung mancung” (sharp nose).
“You’ll marry a rich man one day,” said the Mak Cik-Mak Cik.
My beauty is celebrated when I visit Malaysia because the sharpness of my nose and cheek bones along with my light-er complexion align with eurocentrism. Conversly, eurocentrism has the opposite effect among Arabs in the West. Internalized whiteness have them upholding colorism. To them, I don’t read as Arab. I don’t read as Palestinian. Their eyes only twinkle when I mention Baba. Without his reference, I am just another brown asian girl.
My feelings of disconnection and alienation towards my Palestinianness speaks to a collective trauma.
How foolish it is to draw divisive lines when like the Amtu said: Our people are dying.
“Sarah, we’re Palestinian, we don’t have a home but we have heart”, Baba said the last time we were in Gaza.
I was 12 years old in 2006. It was the last time I saw my paternal family.
It was the last time I saw Teta.
Mak was in Egypt with Mak Busu because she couldn’t cross the border. Malaysia stands as a formidable ally to the Palestinian struggle. Consequently, Malaysian citizens are not permitted to enter settler colony, Israel, or Palestinian occupied territories.
I remember check-points. I remember bombs in the background. I remember military presence. I remember inflation and impossible living conditions.
I remember the power of the Blue passport. I watched Egyptian officers bump us up the checkpoint lines. I remember transnational privilege.
Baba is an exceptional cook. He is skilled at making Makluba. We film him every time he flips over the rice so he can send it to his sisters. Our Palestinian heritage lives on through Teta’s recipes.
I stand strong with my siblings as Palestinian-Malay children.
Our identity is not defined by DNA percentages or language acquisition but for the love of our people. My Palestinianness is defined by my commitment to championing the voices of oppressed peoples.
This is a love letter for Baba. This is a love letter for Teta. This is a love letter to Palestinians.
This is a love letter to me.
Baba, I love you.