Aku Anak Cina Malaysia

Chinese Malaysian race identity self thumbnail

Lu si teng lang meh?

Wow, you speak Malay so well…

Balik China la, Cina!

These are some of the comments I’ve become very familiar with after all these years of living here in Malaysia.

There have been many instances where people from all walks of life have said these things to me.

I remember when I was sent to Perlis in January 2009 for Malaysia’s National Service Training Programme, or PLKN (Program Latihan Khidmat Negara), as it was popularly known. There, I experienced my first major bout of racial segregation and stereotyping.

It was a bit of an uncomfortable time for me, but I took it as a challenge to change a few perceptions some of the trainees there had on race, religion, and even the use of English.

Don’t get me wrong, I did enjoy some awesome experiences there too. This is just an example for this particular topic.

Another moment that’s etched into my sorta traumatised memory bank is the time when I got a Grab in Penang last year (or maybe last, last year).

I directed the Grab driver to my destination in English and a bit of broken Hokkien. During the ride, he kept asking whether I was Chinese or not since I couldn’t properly converse with him in Hokkien or Mandarin. He genuinely couldn’t and wouldn’t accept the fact that I was Chinese.

Why didn’t I say anything constructive to him back then? Why didn’t I “teach him a lesson”, you ask? Well, it was a short ride and it wouldn’t have changed anything in this man’s clouded mind and heart. But that’s not the point of this story.

What I’m trying to say is that these moments, as well as every other moment in my life like these before, got me thinking…

What makes one Chinese?

What makes one Malaysian?


These representations of oneself have always eluded me.

I mean, I’ve never had the most traditional upbringing.

I was born in Germany and moved back to Malaysia when I was about 4 years old. My family’s always been pretty chill, never really pushing me to learn any particular language/dialect I wasn’t interested in. I went to Sekolah Kebangsaan / Malay-medium schools all my life. I speak English and Bahasa Melayu fluently, but Hokkien and Mandarin like an ang moh that’s trying a bit too hard lol.

I’ve become friends with people of all sorts of colours and creeds because when I was younger, nobody ever taught me otherwise – this, for which I’ll be forever grateful.

Of course, as I grew up, I came across the usual stereotypical racist statements, but by then, my world had already grown to include people regardless of race and religion. So I was never swayed by any sort of Us vs. Them whispers.

Thum Yee Lin   Best friends
Meet my best friends, Vin and Queenie.

And all this time, throughout all these experiences, I’ve always asked myself…

What makes one Chinese?

What makes one Malaysian?


Being Chinese is not by choice. I was born into it. I just so happen to have the physical characteristics of a Chinese person. It is a part of my identity, sure, but being Chinese is not all of who I am.

Being Malaysian is technically by choice. I never pursued my German citizenship and decided to maintain my Malaysian citizen instead. It is a part of my identity, yes, but being Malaysian is not all of who I am.

Over the years, I’ve come to understand and made peace with how racial, ethnic, and national identity – as social constructs – can be more important to some as compared to others.

The colour of your skin dictates the way you’re perceived…

The language you speak connects you with those that share the same tongue…

The country of which you pledge allegiance to can open or close doors…

All these things and more play a factor in how you see the world, and how the world sees you.

This is just the ways things are, and how they’ve come to be deeply ingrained in our society as a whole.

Yes, times are changing, but the need to group and be a part of a group is something biological that we can never truly escape from as human beings.

So does this mean I hate being Chinese or Malaysian?

No, of course not.

It just means that I don’t think you need to check off every item on some sort of perfect list in order to “qualify” as being of a certain race, ethnicity, or citizen of a country.

That’s just bullshit.


I still respect Chinese culture and traditions. I still love my country and its people.

And I’m still me.

And that’s okay.

I am Chinese. I have eyes that disappear when I smile, black hair, and I can pick up a grain of rice with a pair of chopsticks. And if you’re thinking, “Hey, I am/can do those things but I’m not Chinese” or “Hey, I don’t have /can’t do those things but I am Chinese“, well, my point exactly.

And of course, I’m not only Chinese.

I am Malaysian. I may not have been born here, but I grew up here. I live here. I have friends and family here. I’ve attended National Service training here. I love the food, cultural and ethnic diversity, and the spirit of camaraderie we all share. My heart, will always and forever be in Malaysia, no matter where I go.

So what if I speak English and Malay well, but not Hokkien or Mandarin?

So what if I’m not a Bumiputera?

Does it make me any less of who I am?

Some may say yes, and some may say no, but at the end of the day, the only thing I care about is what I think of myself.

For me, these things are circumstances of life.

It’s how you choose to respond to these circumstances that matters the most.

Everyone grows up and lives life differently.

It’s not for me, you or anyone else to judge how well someone represents a certain race, ethnicity, religion, or country.

Wouldn’t the world be a kinder place if we just stop trying to impose our judgment of identity onto others?

A naive notion for some, but one, which I’ll always be hopeful of and will try to uphold myself.


What makes one Chinese?

What makes one Malaysian?

You tell me.

Featured photo credit: Azizul Hadi on Visual Hunt

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