Why I Say That I Am From New Zealand
Identity has always been a somewhat paradoxical concept for me to express. It is as if I was never meant to be belong anywhere. As of right now, I have lived in 7 countries, over 4 continents. But what is more significant is that I have been a visible minority in every place I have ever lived.
“Where are you from?” can sometimes be an uncomfortable conversation starter for me, invariably because being a person of color and talking about identity becomes a emotionally loaded topic. It invites the resurfacing of old wounds and triggers feelings of being judged and of being different. Race, culture and nationality all seem like stories for people who are fixated on arbitrary human constructs rather than the substance of the human spirit.
I was born in Johor Bahru, Malaysia, at the very bottom of the western peninsula, only a few miles from the Singapore border. Malaysia is a Muslim country with a large majority of ethnic Malays, who speak Bahasa Melayu as their first language. None of that actually applies to me. I am of East Indian descent with roots from Kerala, an Indian state in South India. I grew up learning English as my first language, in a conservative Syrian Christian household. In addition, apart from kindergarten and a year of pre-university, I did all my schooling in Singapore. Singapore is a country with a large majority of ethnic Chinese, all who learn Mandarin in school and may speak a dialect at home. Culturally, the two countries are worlds apart.
Growing up as a visible minority in South-East Asia was a shocking introduction to how discriminatory the region is. I had the dubious privilege of experiencing discrimination due to color, race, religion, language and nationality. I was reminded often that I was different and that I did not belong. I knew at a young age that this was not home nor would it ever be. I would need to find home abroad.
This is not a pity party post, by the way. I’m grateful for my past experiences because it’s given me strength to be who I am today. In fact, I became a feminist and supporter of LGQBT rights long before I found out that it was the fashionable thing to do, simply because I empathized with what it feels like to not be treated as an equal.
I had a chance to go to New Zealand to attend university and I ended up living there for over a decade. I traded up to New Zealand citizenship as soon as I could, a decision I made in a heartbeat. Better to be a visible minority in a progressive country than in a conservative one. Some immigrants unfortunately have to deal with prejudice when they move to a new country. I was escaping prejudice. It was, in fact, the first time I had ever felt at home and accepted in a country. Most people were friendly, genuine and amazingly kind to me. I love the people, the Maori culture, the All Blacks and the quirky Kiwi sense of humor. New Zealand is the country where I felt I grew the most and it’s the place which allowed me to develop the personality and ethics that I have today.
The world changed when the 9/11 attacks occurred. Casual conversations began to shift ever so slightly. I found myself slightly uncomfortable at mentioning that I was born in a Muslim country, as it would inevitably steer the conversation towards religion. This was something that I could not be less interested in, especially after enduring a childhood under two conservative Abrahamic religions. Nevertheless, I felt safe and accepted in New Zealand. I did not mind the questions as I was already in my heart a Kiwi.
An unlikely chain of events led me to randomly come across an opportunity to spend a summer abroad in the upstate New York, working at a special needs camp for adults, called Camp Jened. I embraced it as a privilege to serve others and an opportunity to take a career break. I met some of the most amazing people that summer. And rather than quench it, my wanderlust was further ignited so I decided to go live in Europe for a while.
My first European stop was London, UK. In the second year that I was there, the tragic 7/7 Tube bombings occurred. Londoners were very resilient about it but I did have a few awkward conversations at the pub where I had to assure people that I was not a Muslim, as if that in itself was a crime. It sometimes seems like all brown people need to apologize for radical Islamic terrorism. (So does this mean all white people should apologize for Trump?)
I found myself increasingly exhausted over having to be interrogated every time I said that I was originally from Malaysia. “No I’m not a Muslim. Oh yes, it’s terrible about what happened.” As if by having brown skin, you may secretly be happy for agony and atrocities in the world. Ah, the irony after centuries of brutal European colonization.
On one of my travels, I accidentally told someone at a party that I was originally from New Zealand. It was just the first thing that came to mind and I sort of blurted it out and then it was too awkward to take it back. But then something amazing happened. They didn't ask me what my religion was. They didn't ask me what my opinion was on 9/11 or 7/7 or any other one of numerous awful terrorist attacks. They didn't ask me about my thoughts on Islam. They asked me questions like “Do you like Flight of the Concords” (yes), “Are there really more sheep than people (yes, like 65 million more). You know, amusing questions where you actually want to continue engaging, rather than an interrogation where you want to get the fuck away from all the humans. I became so in love with that peace that I began to forget that it was not the truth.
Obviously, sometimes people are just being curious but the inconvenient truth is racism is not always blatantly obvious. Racial bias can quite often be subconscious and perceptions are easily molded by current events, the media, stereotypes and preconceived notions of value-systems. In simpler words, I've found a few people slightly racist when I tell them that I was born in a Muslim country. The popular term is racial microagressions. But I like to call it “nice people being ignorant”.
After enjoying living in Auckland, I have since felt at home in a number of cities. London. Prague. Toronto. Vancouver. They have been beautiful and exciting in their own ways, all with lovely people that I have been lucky to have spent time with. Rather than be constrained by cultural identity, traditional belief systems, political geography or national borders, I’m connected to the hyperculture of these globally connected cities. Ultimately, I want to live in as many amazing places as I can on this beautiful Earth — it is all our home, no matter what limiting beliefs some humans may have.
Look up to the skies if you want to know where everyone’s originally from. Because you and I are the products of stardust.