by Shakila Rajendra
I am a child born in Malaysia to mixed parentage. My father is of Indian descent and my mother is Chinese. To make things more confusing, my parents gave me a common Muslim name (although we are Christians).
This leads me to identify culturally as Malaysian, but equally too with both my Chinese and Indian ethnicities. All this makes me one perfect ‘rojak’ (a wonderful street food snack here in Malaysia that combines various fruits in a sticky dark sauce of molasses and shrimp paste).
I have always been in some way, thankful for being mixed-race. My mix of cultural and ethnic backgrounds has opened me to diversity from a young age. I can’t imagine ever growing up in a household that doesn’t speak more than one language or have a variety of world cuisines featuring on the dinner table!
However, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up, I was caught between the two worlds of what someone *should* look like if you’re either Oriental looking or South Asian looking.
I remember being chastised when I was five-years-old by my Indian grandmother for playing out in the sun for too long as it would make me “blacker than you already are”. Up until that point, I never gave a second thought as to my skin-tone.
I was even more baffled when I put my arm next to Grandma’s and pointed out that I was lighter-skinned than her! Of course, back then I had no idea about why or how fair-skin was perceived to be more beautiful than dark skin. And to be honest, I still don’t!
My puberty years were especially hard while trying to negotiate the typical traits of both my ethnic heritage. The worst feeling in the world for a teenager was to feel like you didn’t belong. And because I wasn’t fair enough to be Chinese or dark enough to be Indian, and sounded too Chinese to be Malay, I was a misfit.
I was always being made aware of what parts of me looked more ‘Chinese’ or which bodily traits ‘came from my Indian side’. So I ended up being thankful for my Indian genes because I have larger eyes and a higher nose than my Chinese friends, and thankful for my Chinese genes because I have more manageable hair and a high metabolic rate.
However, the traits I was NOT grateful for were my especially hairy arms and legs (an issue I am still acutely self-conscious about) or the fact that all my female cousins on my Indian side had very well-developed err, assets. I waited well into my 20s before I realized that ‘the girls’ were well and truly never going to arrive and I had to make do with padded and push up bras!
As the world gets smaller and multi-culturalism increasingly common, there’s a belief that eventually all of us are or will become racially-mixed. The more of the world I see and the more people I meet, I have learned over the years to start accepting my mixed heritage and skin.
There are still days when it would irritate me if someone takes one look at me and blurts out, “So, what ARE you exactly?” If you catch me on a bad day, I would snarkily reply “A WOMAN”. But generally, I’d indulge the question by acknowledging that most people are just genuinely curious and confused by my accent and appearance.
I like to think that the more comfortable you are in your own skin, the easier it is for people to look beyond your appearance and vice versa. It has certainly taught me to look beyond skin-deep beauty. Having this skin has given me the opportunity to learn and celebrate beauty and bodies in all forms (and colours).
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