KATHY Rowland gets asked a lot about where she’s from. It wouldn’t be an issue but for the fact that she is Malaysian, has a Caucasian surname and doesn’t look white. And so in racially-defined Malaysia, with its obsession for categories, Rowland is the odd “dan lain-lain”.
In an interview on 15 June 2009 in Petaling Jaya, Rowland shared with The Nut Graph the story of her ancestors’ journey to find home in a new land.
TNG: Where were you born and who were your parents?
Rowland: I was born in Assunta Hospital, Petaling Jaya. My mother’s Cantonese Chinese, and her father and mother came over from China. My grandfather had this herbal tea business, a tiny shop serving medicinal tea to tin mine workers, and apparently it was a very good business. He married my grandmother who was his second wife. She didn’t know it, she only found out when she came here.
Eventually, my grandfather died, apparently he was killed, and my mother ended up in an orphanage with her sister. So my mum doesn’t speak Chinese because she wasn’t raised by her mother and father. She only speaks English and Malay.
My mum came to be raised in an orphanage because after my grandfather was killed, my grandmother, who was a very resourceful woman, had to get a job because as the second wife, she didn’t get anything. She became a midwife at the Chinese Maternity Hospital.
Her eldest daughter was 12, besides another daughter and then my mum, the baby. My grandmother went to Convent Bukit Nenas and said to the nuns, can you take care of these two [younger] kids while I sort myself out. And later, when she went back to get them, she was told they were no longer there.
Apparently, it’s a very common story. The nuns baptise the orphans as Catholics and raise them as Catholics. I guess, in those days, the view was that it was better to raise the child as Catholic than to release them back to the mother where they’ll be raised a heathen.
My dad is Eurasian. A lot of Sri Lanka Singhalese blood. My paternal grandmother was from Kandy, Sri Lanka and her name was Cecilia Diaz. She spoke Portuguese and she was Buddhist. My father was Anglo-Indian. His grandfather was English, or so the family story goes. And the rest were Indian. This kind of mix is fairly common with Eurasian families, there’s just a little bit of white blood and then a lot of Asian blood.
What generation Malaysian are you?
I’m second generation because my paternal grandmother came over from Sri Lanka and my grandfather from India, and my dad was born here. My mum is also first generation Malaysian and so I’m second generation on my maternal side as well.
Your paternal side, the Sri Lankan side, what is the story of their journey to Malaysia?
For my grandfather, it was always about looking for opportunity. Malaya was seen as a new place where if you were smart, you could make a new life here. And that’s what my grandfather came to do.
My grandfather worked as the chief clerk with a British company, Harrisons and Crosfield, and he was an absolute Anglophile. He loved to ballroom dance, he was a ballroom dance teacher at BB Park, which was once a famous place in the 1940s or 50s. His brothers, my uncles, all of them came over, and they served in the British army fighting the Japanese. And they saw themselves as Malayan.
How do you connect with these stories?
My paternal grandmother Cecilia Diaz from Sri Lanka was a very strong woman and she went through a lot of heartache in her life. It was the same kind of migrant story with my maternal grandmother, we call her Ah Poh, I don’t know what her name is. Both these women came with their men and experienced a lot of heartache. But they are so culturally different.
This is not an unusual story. I don’t think the idea of being a migrant and tracing your roots to different parts of the world and finding home in one place, is an unusual story. It’s only being made an unusual story in Malaysia because it’s not being embraced.
Politically, it’s become something where we keep having to tell the story. I mean this series (Found in Malaysia) is essentially a reclaiming of something that we shouldn’t be fighting to claim. You think about great migrant societies like the US, Australia — the migrant story is celebrated. As much as there are difficulties with new migrants, there is a narrative that says we are a society that is made up of migrants.
How do you find migrant culture being embraced in the US in ways that are not embraced here (Rowland lived in the US for over two years because her spouse was posted there)?
The Malaysian story is not yet defined as a migrant story, it’s a contentious migrant story. I remember being asked many years ago when I went to see a doctor, he was an ethnic Indian Malaysian doctor. He read my name and he said, that’s not a Malaysian name. The irony is, someone else may say that this doctor’s name is not Malaysian. I’m constantly being asked where I’m from. It never happened to me when I was younger, people just assumed I was Malay.
In America, the difference is that migrant success stories are incredibly celebrated. I don’t want to say the American experience is all good because there is a very xenophobic underbelly towards new migrants as well. But what is celebrated are the successful migrants. Sometimes here, there is a kind of resentment towards successful migrants.
What are the stories you hold on to now and which shape your identity as a Malaysian?
It was more the stories by my aunts, my mum’s sisters, about how my grandmother clawed a space for herself. It was the stories about the position women often find themselves in. Migrations in the past were always a very male endeavour, the women just came with them.
Like both of my grandfathers who came to this country for business opportunities, but they brought with them these women who were completely dissociated from their society and support network. And when those relationships fail, as they did in both my grandparents’ cases, what was left for these women in a foreign country? They had to make a world for themselves and for their children. And this is the story for my grandmothers from both sides.
So for me, it is a story about making a move when you don’t really want to, or having to make a move for your family, when you have very little options, and then finding a way to survive in a new place.
And you can relate because you had to uproot and live somewhere else?
My life is a lot easier — I can’t compare it to what they went through. But I have a real reluctance to leave. Although I’ve been living in the US for two-and-a-half years, my headspace has really been in Malaysia, and I never really made a huge effort to make a life in Miami where I was. It’s not something I say with pride.
But coming home to Malaysia is very important. Yet, I find it difficult to be home. You know, I said I get questioned a lot about where I’m from? The irony is that in Miami, I was never questioned. Because they don’t have a fixed idea about what is Malaysian.
But here, because of my name…there’s such a huge gap from my name which is Kathy Rowland, to the way I look and what I am. So that’s always an issue. I don’t want to come across as “woe unto me”, because I have a very good life here, but intellectually and emotionally, it’s challenging, because the idea of my belonging is contested.
What do you think makes you Malaysian?
When I think about being Malaysian, I think of it being really, a desire. It’s not about citizenship or birthright, but it’s a desire to be here. And it’s a desire to be here and to almost force myself on to it.
This is the point of meeting of two very different worlds that came together in my story. Actually, it’s three worlds. Singhalese, then very distant European, and Chinese. And these three cultures came together here in this particular spot in my family’s history. This is home, I always identify with this place more than anywhere else.
How do you feel looking at Malaysia from the outside the last two-and-a-half years?
Oh, embarrassed. I found myself constantly trying to explain to people that the things making the headlines was not Malaysia at all. Like when Gwen Stefani‘s dressing was an issue here or when there’s a yoga ban [for Muslims], in the US it feeds into people’s ideas about what a Muslim country is.
I thought we were doing a great disservice to the country’s image. But we also have an immense amount of things to be proud of. I’m proud to be Malaysian, because when we lived in Miami, there were lots of migrants trying to get a green card, and people would always ask us if we were also going to. But my husband and I have never had the desire.
Have you ever felt your Malaysian-ness threatened and under what circumstances?
On the everyday, lived, street level, I never feel threatened. What I do feel threatened by is the wider narrative about what is Malaysian. It bothers me that the politicians, the media, my nephew and nieces, cannot talk about anyone, without the pre-fix “that Chinese boy” or “the Malay boy”.
I accept that we are Chinese, Malay and Indian, but it’s taken on a form of labeling. And in the act of labeling, we’re saying something about what is not Malaysian instead of saying that all this is Malaysia.
We’ve compartmentalised ourselves. It’s not just the politicians, because I accept that politicians everywhere will play the race card, but it’s us, as citizens, we’ve been labeled, and in turn we’re labeling ourselves and others.
Are there aspects that you struggle with, such as gender, race, sexuality or religion?
What I struggle with is the fact that I feel Malaysians should know better. In conversations with friends, it’s not uncommon for one to make a passing racist comment about someone. Sometimes, I make it myself as well.
And yet, when challenged on it, we know that it isn’t true that this race is like this, or that race is like that. But there is a lot of political rhetoric and racist comments coming towards us daily, which we then redirect against others. It’s the responding to racism with racism. That I struggle with when I encounter it, when I find it in myself.
What kind of Malaysia would you like to have for your children and the future?
My daughter is adopted. So I would like a Malaysia where people don’t come up to me and ask me where I got her from. It’s a privilege for my daughter to hear the Muslim call to prayer and ask me what is that, and I say to her, oh that’s when Muslims pray. And she asks, do they pray to Jesus, and I say no, they pray to Allah. And at the age of five, she’s understanding on a very lived, visceral level, that people have different religions. It would be difficult for me to give her that kind of upbringing in the US.
I would like a Malaysia where, it’s so clichéd, but where people don’t judge, where there is no gradation of authentic Malaysian-ness. That anyone can be Malaysian. I would like it where someone from Albania came here, and decided that he liked Malaysia and wanted to be Malaysian. Someone from Nigeria came here and said that this was going to be their land. Like my two grandfathers when they came, they wanted to be Malaysian. I want a Malaysia where all the children of the Bangladeshi workers and Indonesian workers who are in our primary school system, and who are born in this country, are Malaysian.
There’s a whole new wave of migration happening underneath our noses and we’re not talking about it. The migration wave into Malaysia didn’t stop when the British left. It has continued progressively and increased incrementally. Maybe in 20 years time someone will interview the child of a Bangladeshi worker who says that, yes my father came here to build the twin towers and stayed on.