If Only

I was reading this striking essay by a childhood classmate, about his recent trip to London (the place where he went to university), his melancholy about coming home to Malaysia – after having grown into a queer, non-gender conforming, self-realised person – and the ever-present panopticonic fear that creeps into every action, every expression, every word he says. This is my response in agreement with him, as we more or less have the same life experience, and the sorrow we share is mutual.

Among the urban lower middle class and above in Malaysia, there is a general aspiration put upon millennials by our parents. Study hard so you can go overseas, get a job there… and don’t come back.

This was a wish expressed to me by my parents in my youth, and had also witnessed being said by my peers’ parents.

Implicit in that wish is our parents’ grief that Malaysia had not become better, economically, culturally or reputationally (in fact – it is becoming somewhat worse). This grief is rooted in a reality that many of my peers have witnessed, and as we age into the bracket our parents were in when they had us, it is a reality that we’re starting to comprehend (more on that later). Implicit in that wish is the hope – both our parents and therefore, ours – that unsubscribing from our country will mean freedom: the ability to live again.

The wish was reified into our ultimate goal: the light at the tunnel that will signal to all the aunties and uncles at the family banquet that you have made it. Almost everything in our studies were optimised for the best chances to get good grades, a scholarship, a good pre-university program, an international university placement, a degree for a job that is hopefully high in demand enough in the market and also in the Department of Immigration’s desire list to secure you an employment that will hopefully lead to a more permanent position and a permanent visa and and and and

I look at classmates from primary and secondary school and pre-university, and most of them who had gone off to Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom etc, they have come home.

A close friend of mine – who spent over 7 years studying medicine – and her boyfriend – an engineer – left the UK because they just couldn’t find a life for themselves there; the UK had either turned them away, or more specifically in the case of my friend, she walked out.

My best friend – a fertility technician in the US who went through all the steps and did everything right – just cannot seem to strike the green card lottery (apparently you have to submit an expression of interest into a lottery before you can ‘win’ the opportunity to apply).

Another close friend – a lawyer who studied in the UK and Japan – is thinking of coming home… or closer to home.

And then, the classmate I mentioned at the start. He studied sociology and international politics. That’s not what the UK job market and therefore, the UK government considers worth keeping.

This is the reality our parents never mentioned. The reality of being homesick. Of experiencing a government that still hates you, because this time, you are a migrant (not an ~expat~). Of having to endlessly apply and pay for a visa renewal/reapplication that is not guaranteed. Of immigration requirements becoming harder to do, at such a level that even their own citizens wouldn’t pass. Of doing everything right and still not getting the prize. Because our parents didn’t experience it: afterall, they are still in Malaysia.

So many classmates who I knew and last saw before they studied overseas have all come back and resumed adulthood in Malaysia. We haven’t made it.

Very soon, I will be one of them.

A lot of what I did before I was 24 can be explained by the wish. I had other reasons too (a close friend who I love deeply lives in Melbourne, and I felt belonging in Melbourne on my first visit as a tourist), but they were just additional stakes. For the wish’s sake, I had passions that had to be kinked and bent into the shape that fitted the end goal. If you had been reading my blog, you’ll recall what happened: the disillusionment of academia and the questioning of ‘What the hell am I doing this for?’ that became my quarter life crisis.

I was halfway in the journey, at the ‘get the degree so you can get a job that will eventually get you a visa’ point and I just couldn’t keep going, if I wanted to preserve my sanity and my spirit. All my youth I was working towards becoming the person most Asian parents would see as respectable, safe and a trophy to brag about – an academically intelligent person in a STEM field who’s now staying overseas. Meanwhile, I had relegated my true calling to the side, putting it on hold until I reach the end point of the wish.

So I did the unorthodox thing and revamped my entire life path. I took the only thing I knew and that was actually already becoming my job – my writing and my art – and…

I became an artist.

Thank god that worked out. I am doing very well for myself now. My art has given me all the things I dreamed of and brought healing, joy and self-actualisation. I can see a future now, when before I saw a dead end.

But my art has potentially condemned both my prospects in Australia and Malaysia.

I keep thinking about a peer who spoke to me at CAFKL in July 2023. He is a lecturer at a local art school, and he has been following my career since I was 18 or 20, somewhere around there. He came over to buy Alexander Comic, and while we were talking, he said:

You’re one of the most accomplished comics creators in Malaysia. Yet, how come you’re so low-key about it?

I think he was referring to both or either how my table was designed (I only had my books out and some flyers, no fancy table decoration that shouted who I was) and how most of the people visiting a comics festival had no idea or maybe no interest in browsing original comics (CAFKL was mostly prints and merchandise galore).

I gave him a reply gesturing in that direction: I don’t really want to decorate my table, and I am happy with fewer people knowing me, I don’t like being famous haha, and besides, those few people actually appreciate me and my work for what we are.

But in me saying all this, I was saying in my head:

I am happy being low-key because if I was any more well-known, I will be in actual physical danger.

I am a minority in Malaysia, and all my life I have heard my government and my fellow countrymates call me and others of my ethnicity names. Pendatang, pengkhaniat, kafir, makan babi (Invader, traitor, infidel, pig eater). Orang Cina, bukan orang Malaysia (Chinese but not Malaysian). Apa orang Cina mau? (Why are you Chinese so greedy, so ungrateful, so noisy, so annoying)

And it’s not just me and the minority group I belong to either: the Malaysians of Indian ethnicity, the Orang Asli/Asal, etc – they all have it worse. Even being a majority isn’t a guarantee for your safety either: anyone who strays a little bit into Isu Sensitif territory risks becoming a target to vitriol and institutional violence.

All this when the Petronas ads and Pendidikan Moral classes and murals and rose-tinted nostalgic memories celebrate our muhibbah – our ability to co-exist peacefully and integrate our diverse heritage into a unique Malaysian culture. Manglish – my true English vernacular – is an embodiment of this muhibbah. It represents a weirdo alternate fantasy that sometimes makes itself known in this universe, when I hear a tinge of a Malaysian accent while overseas and finally let down my guard to speak in my true voice, when I sit down at a mamak, when Malaysians show up and support each other as a community.

But it is hard to hold on to this muhibbah when you are staying alert to the danger that will get your arms ripped off.

I am also in the body of a woman.

I am queer.

My art is rooted in my experiences and the experiences of the people around me. My books are a reflection – many of my characters are informed by observations of friends, family and strangers. Many of whom would be an Isu Sensitif at home, if they were Malaysian, if they already are Malaysian. Myself included.

I have avoided writing about myself as a character or story in my longer works. Much of it is due to Publishing World Annoyances that I want to avoid, but part of it is self-preservation.

So far my books are subtle enough that the queerness could fly by to the culturally unobservant. (Alexander and one of my future GNs will be explicitly queer, but that’s another, future thing)

Still, that makes my books and therefore, me, something to punish.

It wasn’t very long ago when someone made a big fuss on social media over Kinokuniya (a big bookstore in the city that is also my childhood bookstore and where my books currently are on sale) stocking Heartstopper, causing a wave of indignation that led to Kinokuniya having to hide all the other queer young adult and children’s comics from their shelves. And I can understand why Kino did that: otherwise, the government would shut them down.

It wasn’t also long ago that the government made a fuss over rainbow watches being sold by a Big European Watch Company (also a cultural brand in Malaysia – as a kid you always knew someone who had that watch), because rainbows are queer-exclusive now?????

Then the more physical dangers, like constant police raids of queer festivals and parties, rounding Malaysians up like cattle into their trucks (it’s really the same kind of lorry that transports livestock).

This is why I don’t link to my classmate’s essay, even though it is a piece so raw and striking that it prompted this blog post. He’s in more danger than I am, right now, and comparatively.

My government and many of my fellow Malaysians keep telling me my personhood is a pest that they barely tolerate, and they show it all the time in the news, on social media, in parliament.

Meanwhile the economy is crumbling, the minimum wage is frozen from the 90s in spite of our currency free-falling and inflation rising, the skyline is becoming crowded with skyscrapers that reflect little of our actual wealth and economic power, our social infrastructure is at the verge of collapsing, our health institutions are underfunded and understaffed, the education system is brain-draining, … the list goes on.

This is the grief our parents meant. Not entirely – theirs was mainly economic. But the danger hunts them, too. We all have the habit to self-censor, to not say or do or be anything out of what our traditional, conservative, religiously-anxious, draconic society deems ‘appropriate’. (Even me writing this blog post can be perceived as threatening) All this charade to preserve peace so nothing changes, everything stays the same… to mistake peace with the absence of justice, as Martin Luther King would put it.

In Malaysia, to live as your true self and speak truth is to endanger yourself.

For my entire 8 years in Australia, I have lived my true self and spoken my truths.

Sure, Australia is bad too, with its own pockmarks and stupidities – just like any nation. But I am grateful to it for giving me a safe crucible to witness alternative ways of self and to be openly among people who conceptualise their inherited and chosen identities in such nuanced, incisive, revolutionary, creative ways that are just not possible to nurture in Malaysia. If Australia has given me one thing, it’s valor.

It saddens me that I cannot entirely bring this home. I have to smuggle it in a box, and I have to keep the box close and only open when it’s safe to do so.

I stay low-key. I have to. Both for myself and my peers, who are also not safe. There are consequences to making art that speaks and embodies truths. I have seen it with many Malaysian media – films and books that would go on to win international awards and be recognised, but be banned or barred from public distribution (this is punishment from the government). Every one of these medias that gets punished is further discouragement to the wider society. It’s like how historically, authorities leave pirates or criminals hanging on their nooses to warn the general public: if you commit crimes, I can do this to you!

I saw the Miss Saigon musical last month.

The main motivation that ties all the Vietnamese characters together is the desire to go overseas, to do all the things right and get a temporary visa which will allow them a job which will hopefully secure a permanent visa and and and

This is all in the narrative context of the Vietnam War, but I couldn’t shake off the familiarity of that desire. A desire born from your country and your people getting so messed up that you will do anything to leave. You have dreams and hopes of what overseas will be like, what it can do to save your future. You will express this desire to your child in the hopes of sending them away. Sometimes you will use the child as the proxy, so you can go too.

In the meta of the musical, that desire is presented in an uncritically, stereotypical, Orientalist manner (obviously – it’s a Western, colonial, white play that is itself a take on a Western, colonial opera that is itself rooted in Western, colonial fantasies of what the Orient is like). To the majority Western audience who sees Miss Saigon the desire for the Southeast Asian to go overseas is proof that their Western country is superior. There is nothing redeemable and salvageable in the tropics – where to live as your true self and speak truth is to endanger yourself.

But no. It’s more than that.

Southeast Asia became like this because of our colonial trauma. All the things that push us out are the byproducts of colonial law, especially in Malaysia, where all ills can be traced back to the British.

It manifests differently across time, but in post-independence, it is still being considered a third world country. It is still being behind economically, culturally, reputationally – because of the agency, resources and time the colonial powers stole from us. Meanwhile, everything about being at home – the food, the culture, the specific ways we speak English, no daylight savings, the uniquely-shaped bricks the trees the fences the signposts the plastic chairs we have that enables me to pick up from a photograph that it’s from Southeast Asia – is perfect, even the mundanely frustrating ways our people behave. These are the things that make us stay.

If only if only if only…

So we fly off to formerly colonial empires from our cages to find our wings. Only to turn back.

I don’t want to think too hard about when I have to really go.

My bags are packed for my trip home. I am bringing two big luggages this time. I am slowly moving out.

The silly little trinkets, the clothes, the things that represent the 8 years of my life and my becoming. I put as much as I can so for the last time I zip up my luggage in this house, I will not be too burdened (I still have to deal with the books but better less boxes than too many).

I don’t know what will happen. I have sort of constructed a 5 year plan to mitigate the disappointment. So I am not lost.

But there is a melancholy, a bittersweet pang to say goodbye to a glimpsed future that could have been. A community that could have been forever.

I am an Australian and Malaysian artist.

That’s a reality that’s embedded into me.

Why don’t you come away with me? asked the swallow to the nightingale. Why reject a life under the roofs of mankind, and not this wild abode where you know no comfort?
The nightingale wept in despire. You’re very kind. I was like you once, living among Man. But the memory of the pain I’ve endured brings me grief, and alas –

I can no longer return to the place I used to call home.

Hello, hello

  1. Reply

    This is such a beautiful post. Thank you for writing this and sharing it – I hope your move goes smoothly.

    • Semper
    • January 10, 2024

    I read this when it popped up as a notification in my RSS feed two days ago, but I didn’t know what to say then. I hope you have a safe trip back to Malaysia. I hope you can return to Australia soon. I hope this all gets easier. I am wishing you the best Reimena <3

    • Ren
    • January 8, 2024

    Sending you so much love, this post was beautifully written.

    • cat
    • January 8, 2024

    i don’t have anything to add to this. you have captured all the thoughts and feelings i also have about this country as a small, queer artist. thank you, Reimena

    • Reply

      Urgh yeah, our country is so good at that push and pull between sayang and toxicity. I am in solidarity with you Cat!!

Reimena Yee is a graphic novelist, artist and flamingo enthusiast.

She writes and illustrates quite a few webcomics and graphic novels. When not making books, she lulls away her time with essays on craft, life and experiences in the publishing industry. Some of her thoughts of art and life are rather unstructured and will evolve over time as this blog matures, as they should be.

Currently committed to being Alexander the Great's death doula. Is a nerd for all things spooky and historical.

Melbourne / Kuala Lumpur

Upcoming Events

Perth Comics Arts Festival, July 27-28

Comic Arts Workshop, September

Melbourne Comics Art Jam, every Saturday 1-3pm

Follow My Blog

Pop your email in the box below and be notified of my next post.