Compared to my parents’ generation, I have led a more international lifestyle. The first time that my parents traveled overseas was to attend university in London. Due to a combination of technology and budgetary constraints, my dad told me that he had to transit in four airports in order to get from Malaysia to the UK. In contrast, I cannot remember the first time I traveled overseas, but it was certainly before the age of 10. By the time I went to the UK for my studies, I had visited a few Asian countries, Australia, Disneyland in Los Angeles, etc.
I feel very fortunate – I’ve been given ample opportunities to see the world and experience different cultures. I have thoroughly enjoyed my travels and it has helped made me who I am today. I’ve lived abroad for many years, where I get to enjoy my freedom and a comfortable lifestyle. Despite this, I sometimes envy my cousins and friends who have lived in Malaysia their whole lives. Their lives seem much simpler – Kuala Lumpur is their home and they get to spend lots of time with family and friends who are nearby. At a glance, it may seem that they have a poorer quality of life and fewer opportunities and interesting experiences compared to me, but they are certainly less confused and torn.
Due to my diverse experience and having lived in different countries, I struggle with a few key things in my life – my identity, my home and my future. I am a Malaysian with Chinese ethnicity but I no longer think of Malaysia as my home. However, when I was given the opportunity to take up British citizenship a few years ago, I passed on it because I did not want to give up my Malaysian citizenship. It’s hard for me to explain why. I have not lived in the country for 15 years, I have no intention of returning to the country and I no longer feel a sense of belonging when I’m there, but when faced with the choice, my immediate reaction was ‘I’m a Malaysian’.
I lived in Kuala Lumpur until I was 19, spent the next 12 years in the UK before moving to Hong Kong 3 years ago. I’ve been asking myself – where is home? In my mind, London is probably the closest thing to home but it doesn’t really make sense because I don’t have family in London and I’m not British. My husband’s answer to me is – home is not a place, but where your closest people are. So currently, our home is here in Hong Kong. I guess that’s one way of looking at it.
Culturally, I’m also a mixed bag. I am a third generation Malaysian and was brought up with a mix of Chinese, Malaysian and Western culture. This was true in all aspects – food, festivals, religion, education, etc. Take language for example, I never know what to say when I’m asked for my mother tongue. The closest answer I can come up with is ‘Manglish’ which is Malaysian English and that’s not generally recognized as a language. I can speak Cantonese and basic Mandarin but can’t read or write. I now speak English with a slight British accent because I had to adapt my accent in order for my housemates in university (five British girls from all over the UK including Liverpool) to understand me. However, I revert to a strange mix of British and Malaysian accent when speaking to fellow Malaysians. When I’m back in Kuala Lumpur, I sometimes get weird looks from waiters when I speak because they cannot place my accent.
With globalization, we are getting increasingly mixed communities, especially in major cities. While we can live comfortably, immigrants or expats like me and my family may not necessarily fit in and are at risk of discrimination. This is exacerbated by recent uncertainties such as terrorism, protectionism and geopolitical issues. Therefore, not having a place to call home where we naturally belong can become an issue if current worrying trends continue.
Where do I see myself in 5 years’ time? Or 10 years’ time? I don’t know. I not only have to consider my husband and I and our careers, but also my daughter’s future. As my parents are getting older, I have to add them to the equation. What about my in laws? So who knows where we will end up? This question does not keep me up at night but it is a nagging thought at the back of my mind.
I’m certain that I’m not alone, I’ve met lots of people with similar backgrounds. Even though it is positive and fortunate that we’ve had plenty of opportunities and ‘the world is our oyster’, sometimes it’s nice to have somewhere to belong to. With the world becoming more connected, this will become increasingly common. I don’t need to look far – I think of my daughter who was born in Hong Kong and has lived here all her life (well, the two years since she was born). She has British and Hong Kong passports and we are in the process of applying for her Malaysian passport. When she turns 21, she will have to decide which one(s) to keep. We are already thinking of where next to move to, so she’ll probably grow up in at least three different countries. She’ll have lots of choices but maybe one too many.