IN this new section called Found in Malaysia, The Nut Graph talks to notable Malaysians about their roots in our shared land. By asking notable personalities to tell stories about being Malaysian, we hope to answer these questions: Who is a pendatang? Who is a native? What makes a Malaysian? Why do we call Malaysia home?
In our first Found in Malaysia interview, we spoke to Zalfian Fuzi, Instant Cafe Theatre Company associate director.
ZALFIAN Fuzi, 27, has been associate director for Instant Cafe Theatre Company (ICT) since early 2006.
Armed with a masters in theatre directing from the Russian Academy of Theatre Arts (Gits), Moscow, and Middlesex University, London, he helps ICT founder Jo Kukathas helm their FIRSTWoRKS programme. The programme aims to develop new writing for the Malaysian stage about Malaysian concerns.
In this candid interview, Zalfian shares what it means to him to be who he is as a Malaysian.
TNG: Where were you born?
I was born in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, at a maternity clinic called Klinik Sambhi (pronounces it “zombie”). Not “zombie” like, you know, monsters. I think it’s spelt with an “S”. I need to find out the actual name from my mother. (It’s Sambhi Clinic & Nursing Home, Jalan Medan Tuanku, Kuala Lumpur.)
Where did you grow up?
I grew up all over the world. With my family, I was always in capital cities: KL, the Hague, Canberra, (Washington,) DC, Dhaka, then back to KL. And for my studies — Philadelphia, London, and Moscow. You know, my older sister was born in Moscow, during my father’s first posting overseas in the 1970s.
Why did you grow up in all these countries?
My father is a diplomat. He works for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and will be retiring in 2009.
Can you trace your ancestry? Where were your parents, grandparents, or great grandparents from?
My great grandfather on my father’s side was from Yemen. From what they tell me, he was a trader. He had a wife in Yemen, but when he came to Malaya, at the time, he did some trading and then took another wife. And that’s how we started here, in Penang.
What about your mum?
My mum as well, she’s from the north. Born in Taiping. My father was born in Sungai Bakap and throughout his life he moved around a lot in Peninsular Malaysia. Then later on, only [his family] settled down in Kuala Kangsar. So for me, when I say balik kampung, I mean Kuala Kangsar.
Has anyone in your family met with the family in Yemen?
Yes, two of my uncles and two of my aunties with my grandmother went about three years ago, to trace the family history. So they went through [this person my grandmother knew] and they met the entire generation there. They went to the village of Busraa. My family was known as the Al-Yafa, as in, from the region of Yafa. My uncle told me that in Yemen, your last name is based on the region where you are from. It’s really fascinating. Anyway, I didn’t go on the trip. They came back with a lot of photos and a whole family tree. It was like a mile long. It’s amazing.
What is your strongest memory growing up?
My strongest memory was the first time I saw racism. This was in Washington, DC. It was 1989, and we were on the playground, playing. And there was an African American boy. He was in my class, and there were some other boys in my class, in my grade, it was like Grade Three or Grade Four.
The playground is covered in mulch, soft chips of wood, so that if you jump and fall, you don’t hurt yourself. And they (the white boys) grabbed his head, shoved it and made him eat the stuff. I felt so sorry for the boy, and I was just shocked. And it was happening because he was African American. It was horrifying, and I still think about it to this day.
What are the stories you hold onto the most from your parents that were told to you when you were growing up?
My father’s stories about his childhood. We were a poor family, on both sides. My father would tell me stories about him growing up, because he was the eldest, how he had to walk three miles to school, how he was so poor that he didn’t have a white shirt to wear to school. And he couldn’t afford to buy white school shoes, so he always wore his sandals and he would always get caught by the prefects.
[And he would ask] his father for money to buy a white shirt, because his shirt wasn’t white, it was beige, [and] his father got so angry. [Not] because he didn’t want to give him the money, but his father was angry at himself for not being able to give the money.
And [there are] my father’s stories about growing up in the Malay kampung. Simple things that boys did like climbing up the coconut tree — I can’t see my father climbing up a coconut tree (chuckles). But he did, you know, and he’s a real Malay gentleman from that generation.
How do you connect with your father’s stories as a Malaysian? What meaning do these stories have for you now?
I think I try to emulate a lot of that.
I’ve gone to 10 different schools in my life because I was moving so much. I’ve been able to see the world. I’ve seen the most expensive, grand things, to the poorest, saddest things. I’ve lived in America and Australia and I’ve seen poverty like you’ve never seen before in a country like Bangladesh. Every single day the moment you step out of the gates of your house, poor people are just running up to you.
And I’ve always appreciated that [I have] an understanding of different cultures, religions, people, and backgrounds. And I know where I am and I think that’s why I put a lot of work into what I do because I know that it’s not easy. Because my father used to always tell me, “Life is a struggle.” Life in the Darwinian sense.
What aspects of your identity do you struggle with the most as a Malaysian?
I think it’s my work. I mean, say I tell them I do theatre. Or that I direct. “Oh, TV? Film? Which movie? Acting? Oh, I’ve never seen you.”
I think the whole concept is still quite alien to some people but it is getting a lot more prominent now. As much as I hate reality TV and all this kind of stuff, I think it has done something good in the sense that it’s raised the whole profile of the arts and the performing arts, that people do it.
In terms of who I am, as in racially or whatever, I don’t think I have issues. It’s more that people wonder who I am or where I’m from, and I get that a lot. I find it surprising it still happens today. People are like, “You Melayu? Betul?” I find it surprising that people think it odd that you can be Malay or Chinese or Indian when you look slightly different. We’re all mixed anyway. I would have thought that by now people would be accustomed to this.
Describe the kind of Malaysia you would like for yourself and future generations.
[I want] a Malaysia that is undamaged, environmentally. [A] lot of this is irreversible. [And] I can’t imagine a Malaysia without rainforests.
There’s nothing wrong with development. [But] I don’t think development is just about engineering feats. I think a society that is developed is a thinking society that can reason critically and communicate effectively. I’m worried about us constructing a society that is so one-sided that the soul is left behind. That’s why the only thing that we can do here is go shopping. What else does KL offer, culturally?