May072021: Malaysianness in fiction

“Hey so I’m writing this fanfic and the OC I created for it is Malaysian (one of her dads is a first gen immigrant, the other is Caucasian and American born and raised). I saw your post, I loved it, and I’ve been thinking heavily on how I wanna write her being bilingual. As someone who’s first language is English, do you find it easier to understand Malaysian when its spoken rather than speaking it? I wanna do this properly as someone who is not Malaysian but wants to give proper representation.”

Hm, it really depends on her dad’s ethnicity. A Malaysian Chinese wouldn’t have the same linguistic experience (whether with their mother tongue, or Bahasa, or English) as a Malaysian Malay as a Malaysian Indian as an Orang Asli/Asal etc etc, and it gets even more complicated when you bring up dialect, which is connected to state. i.e Kuala Lumpur’s Bahasa is different than the one from Kelantan or Sarawak. All of this to say: there’s no one Malaysian monoculture or language (kind note: there’s no language called ‘Malaysian’ – it’s like calling English ‘American’), so you’ll have to move even further back from square one and figure out who her dad is. Because in Malaysia, your ethnicity, sometimes your religion, your state and then finally, your class, determine your particular Malaysianness for the rest of your time living in this place, your relationship to its Annoying Societal Structure and the languages you acquire. Speaking as a first gen immigrant, this is baggage you carry till you’re finally disconnected to the country.

Which brings us to your question. As a Malaysian Chinese person who speaks English as my first and main language, I don’t at all have trouble speaking or understanding Bahasa. My difficulty only comes because I haven’t spoken Bahasa in 5 – 6 years while I was in Australia, which is normal of any underused language (just have to sit down and revise my skills). But I’m not a ‘typical’ Malaysian Chinese, in that I actually can’t speak any Chinese dialect. Most of my same-ethnicity friends can, though, whether Hokkien or Mandarin or Cantonese. So if your character’s dad is ethnically Chinese and not a banana like me, he’s more likely to converse with her in his mother tongue + English. She would not know Bahasa. HOWEVER, if her dad is Malay, it’s a whole other thing. She would then know Bahasa, because Bahasa would be her Malay dad’s mother tongue. She would not necessarily know Chinese or Tamil or any of the other languages. Hence why I am asking you to take a moment to explore who her dad is (and thus, her). It’s not enough to call them ‘Malaysian’ and leave it there, just as it’s not enough to just call a character ‘American’, because that word changes depending on your race, class, etc… If you can understand how an American from Texas is different from an American in New York, and if you then interrogate how their class, their family history, their race interacts with their relationship to American society and the languages they are able to speak, then you’ll be able to transfer that understanding to what it’s like being Malaysian.

Anyway, hope this helps, good luck with your research!

Addendum: Second-gen Malaysian diaspora experiences are way different than first-gen. So I can’t help you with the daughter here.

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

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