By Preeta Samarasan for The Culture Review Mag
I grew up in a middle-class family in Ipoh, Malaysia in the 1980s. My dad was a teacher, mum was a housewife. Neither one graduated from university, but they belonged to a particular aspirational class that I see as very much belonging to that time and social milieu in Malaysia: the house was full of books, they subscribed to British children’s magazines for us and they were constantly seeking to offer us materials and experiences that they themselves hadn’t had.
My mum would see or read about a new educational toy in her women’s magazines or in our Ladybird books, and immediately she would go out hunting for it for us. My parents encouraged us to be curious about everything: to enter writing competitions, to draw and paint. They paid for whatever extracurricular activities they could afford; they couldn’t afford anything in the early years of their marriage and my brothers’ childhoods, but by the time I came along, they managed to enroll me in piano lessons, ballet lessons, swimming lessons and French lessons.
It was no longer possible for them to pay for any of this halfway through my adolescence, but all my teachers knew my parents were struggling and offered to teach me for free. I mention that here because I never allow myself to forget it: I have been extremely lucky, my whole life, to stumble upon people who saw my potential and supported me. There are so many kids with great potential who never get that. It made all the difference for me. Every time my family ran into difficult financial (or other) circumstances, someone with no biological connection or obligation to me would appear out of nowhere to lift me up.
I think my family was also a fairly typical example of the rapid social mobility that was possible in Malaya and then Malaysia in those early years. So many families have similar stories. My great-grandmother left India for reasons we have never known, but what we know is that she arrived in Malaya in the late 1800s and supported the family by selling thosai and kueh until her oldest son – my grandfather – could leave school and help her to support his siblings. He was thirteen or fourteen when he left school, I think, and I don’t know much about his first working years, but he eventually found his way into the Malayan Postal Service, where he began as a clerk and worked his way up to Postmaster General. By the time of his retirement, he was able to have a large and comfortable house built in Taiping. All his children attended missionary schools and several went on to university. From essentially working-class roots, his children entered the middle and upper-middle classes of Malaysia – a transformation that took barely half a century.
But class doesn’t always translate to money, and money was pretty tight for my immediate family during my childhood, for reasons I won’t get into here. My mother was very aware, from the time her children were tiny, that she and my father weren’t going to be able to pay for our higher education. And yet, the changing political circumstances in Malaysia told her that we would not get the education we deserved in public universities in Malaysia. My oldest brother was in Standard 1 during the May 13th, 1969 riots, and those riots completely changed my family’s expectations, hopes, and perception of their place in Malaysia. They knew that as non-Malays, we would always be second-class citizens under the New Economic Policy (NEP), under the forces that gradually took control of Malaysia in the 1970s and 80s. For them, the rise of Malay ethnonationalism was a deeply felt personal disaster. Remember that my father was a government servant: no non-Malay who worked for the government could remain oblivious to the institutionalised racism sweeping across the nation. Regarding who was promoted, who was celebrated, who won the awards and prizes: everything was about race, from the highest administrative positions down to children in primary schools.
My mother took on the responsibility of making sure we would get out of Malaysia. It was – and I don’t think I am exaggerating here — her life’s mission. She pushed us extremely hard to succeed academically, telling us every day that in our circumstances – non-Malay but without the cushion of family money – that we would have to be at least twice as good as anyone else to make it. We had to win scholarships and we had to remain focused on that goal. So, from well before we started school, we were put on this path. She bought the Ladybird Key Words Reading Scheme and taught us all to read by the time we were two or three; she checked out American mathematics workbooks from the Ipoh library and made us sit down and do them every day.
When I started school, I had both my school homework and what she called “home lessons” to make sure I stayed ahead: general knowledge, geography, history, mathematics, science. By the time I was growing up, many kids were attending tuition classes in the afternoon. My parents weren’t able to afford tuition for most of my school years (finally, in Form 3-5, I did have tuition in Bahasa Malaysia and mathematics) and so this was another source of great anxiety for my mother; she worried that we would lose out to the kids whose parents could afford all that. To try to give me the same advantages, she enforced a daily timetable, according to which every minute of my day was accounted for. There was playtime in the afternoons, during which I was allowed to go out and ride my bicycle with the neighbourhood kids, but it was all strictly by schedule. Shower at this time and for these many minutes, eat at this time, practice piano at this time.
My oldest brother was in Standard 1 during the May 13th, 1969 riots, and those riots completely changed my family’s expectations, hopes, and perception of their place in Malaysia. They knew that as non-Malays, we would always be second-class citizens under the New Economic Policy (NEP), under the forces that gradually took control of Malaysia in the 1970s and 80s.Preeta Samarasan
These are the things I remember when I hear Malays – including our former education minister – talk about how easy it is for non-Malays, how non-Malay parents have money, how an overseas education is something non-Malays can afford. I think my story is extreme in some ways, unique in others, but in very many ways it is not unique; many non-Malay parents in the 1980s felt this pressure, and so many of them were planning and saving and worrying and making huge sacrifices. It’s easy to see only the successes and to assume the path was smooth; the truth is, it’s almost impossible to convey the scale of what non-Malay parents put themselves through to give their children those chances of success. It’s also easy to ignore the price we, as children, paid. Again, I can’t tell my siblings’ stories here, and I have left out some of the details of my own story, but what I will say is that though I know I was incredibly lucky to grow up in a house full of books, with parents who understood how important education was – because I fully recognise that that was its own kind of privilege – it was not an easy childhood to have, and some of the effects of such a childhood will never leave me and my siblings. Anyone with a bit of knowledge of human psychology will probably have some idea of what I’m talking about.
The year I sat for my SPM exam, my mother clipped every scholarship announcement from every newspaper, and I applied for everything that seemed remotely possible. I also applied to the local university system, where I was only offered a place in a field I was not even remotely interested in. But I won two scholarships to study overseas, and of these, I chose the one that seemed more likely to lead to the possibility of remaining overseas in the long term.
Again, I was immensely fortunate to have a parent who could devote herself to this search for educational opportunities; if my mother had had a large number of school-going children, or if she had been a busy working mother herself, my life would have turned out very differently. In the US, where I attended a pre-university programme, then university and graduate school, I found that my talents and hard work were recognised and rewarded; from feeling that I always had to stick to the safe, socially sanctioned, or lucrative paths, I was able to move very quickly to figuring out where my interests really lay.
The experience of leaving your homeland is different for every person who does it, but there are two main categories of expatriate Malaysians, I think: those who move on and feel no loss or regret, and those who will always, no matter how much time passes, mourn the loss. I’m in the latter category. In the first few years after I left Malaysia, I was so relieved to have “made it,” and so resentful of the Bumiputera policies and the institutionalised racism that had shaped my life, that I distanced myself completely from my home country. I told myself I hated the place, that I would never go back, that I couldn’t care less what happened to the country. But it didn’t take me long to realise that no matter how much I wanted not to care, I would always care about Malaysia. I would always feel a painful unrequited love, always feel that I had a stake in Malaysia’s destiny. That fierce connection is still there, twenty-eight years on: no other place’s failures and successes elicit as passionate a reaction in me as those of the country of my birth. There is no other place about which I want to write in my fiction, and no other place I think about so much, not even the country in which I’m currently living, France.
At various points, I’ve thought about moving back, but that decision is impossible at this time for me and my family, and I sometimes think it’s just as well; distance gives me a way of seeing, and a way of speaking about, Malaysia that I don’t think I would have if I lived there. Which is not to say that writers and artists who do live there don’t have ways of seeing and speaking that are completely inaccessible to me. Those who stay and those who go, we have things to say to each other, ways in which we can open each other’s eyes. I take my inspiration from all the many writers and artists in the history of the world who have lived and worked in exile, drawing from the very fact of their exile a powerful perspective that distinguishes their work.
I think that if you’re able to stay in Malaysia and fight that fight as a non-Malay, if you’re able to do that without being destroyed by despair, then, sure, do it, but what I see and hear is so much despair, so much loss of hope, so many crushed spirits, and so, to these people I say, you can fight from beyond Malaysia’s borders, too.
I would always care about Malaysia. I would always feel a painful unrequited love, always feel that I had a stake in Malaysia’s destiny. That fierce connection is still there, twenty-eight years on: no other place’s failures and successes elicit as passionate a reaction in me as those of the country of my birth. There is no other place about which I want to write in my fiction, and no other place I think about so much, not even the country in which I’m currently living, France.Preeta Samarasan
It’s not the same fight, it’s a different fight, but you know what they say on the plane: put on your own oxygen mask first before assisting others. If you don’t save yourself, you may not be able to save anyone else. In this fight for Malaysia, you may not get anything back. Increasingly – look at the composition of our new cabinet, for example – it’s clear that Malaysia is not for non-Malays. You should only stay if you can make peace with that: that you may give everything to this fight on the ground and never get anything back. Otherwise, you should leave, knowing that you will always carry Malaysia within you, and never allowing anyone to make you feel guilty for that choice.
Preeta Samarasan was born in Malaysia and moved to the United States to finish high school at the United World College U.S.A, and attend Hamilton College. She was enrolled in a Ph.D. program in musicology at the Eastman School of Music, University of Rochester, and had begun work on a dissertation on Gypsy music festivals in France when she left to complete her novel. She earned her MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan, where an earlier version of ‘Evening is the Whole Day’ won the Avery and Jule Hopwood Novel Award.
Her short fiction and nonfiction has been published or is forthcoming in the Asian Literary Review, Five Chapters, Hyphen, the Michigan Quarterly Review, EGO Magazine, A Public Space, and in the anthology Urban Odysseys: KL Stories.