Volume 3 Number 4
Struggle for Identity
01 April 1990
It was easier to poke fun at what I didn't believe than to respect everyone's right to a belief, whatever it might be.
By PATRICK STA MARIA
My country, Malaysia, is multiracial and multicultural, but I was not really sensitive to these differences until I became an adult.
I have three brothers and four sisters and our heritage is both European and Asian. My late father was Portuguese and my mother is Filipino.
My father worked for 37 years as a clerk in the railways. My mother - illiterate as a result of the Japanese occupation - was happy to be a permanent housewife. It was difficult to bring up eight children and provide for their individual needs. But my parents somehow managed, though my father eventually had to declare bankruptcy because of his debts. This lost him status at his workplace, and he forfeited all chances of promotion.
When we were children we had to do away with birthdays which, with so many of us, were too expensive. We looked forward to Christmas because it was the only time we got a new pair of shoes and new clothes.
Soon after I turned 12, 1 had to make numerous trips to pawnshops on my father's behalf. It was a traumatic experience. I felt ashamed of what I was doing, and of my father for having to resort to it. Only now do I realize that it was his only way out.
My parents' courage in providing for us is one of my main childhood memories. Our daily family rosary kept us together through thick and thin. Our struggles and family solidarity have made me realize what it means to have the barest minimum - and make full use of it.
I had little difficulty integrating with the kids of different beliefs and background in my neighbourhood. But when I started working -I had six jobs in seven years-religion, race and colour surged to the forefront.
It became evident that belonging to the right religion meant better career prospects. In a multiracial society jokes about people of other races being lazy, money-crazy and untrustworthy do more harm than intended. I found I could either excuse myself and be part of the audience or speak out bluntly against such racist remarks. It was easier to poke fun at what I didn't believe than to respect everyone's right to a belief, whatever it might be.
Being a Eurasian complicated things further, because people thought I was Malay, Chinese or Indian. At first I took it all in jest, but eventually this turned into resentment. I wanted people to focus on the European half of me, but I was more Asian-looking. Silently I protested, `Why wasn't I born fair-skinned like my father and sisters?'
The Asian races, I felt, had been conquered and colonized, and I wanted no part in that heritage. I had to blame someone, so I blamed my mother. But I didn't have the courage to talk it over with her.
Then in 1986 I attended a course to qualify as an instructor for the visually-handicapped. Among the participants were Filipinos who had taken part in the people-led revolution which culminated in the Marcos regime being replaced by Mrs Aquino's. They were full of life and enthusiasm. I avoided them at first, but then mentioned that my mother was Filipino. To my surprise they invited me to their cultural activities and taught me their songs. I was struck by their friendliness and began to feel ashamed of myself.
God was using these Filipinos to help me recognize my prejudice. Surely a person's worth was more than his colour or beliefs, I said to myself. And it was more important to work at one's character and the quality of one's life.
Thus began the transition from denial of my Asian heritage to acceptance. It was slow. Facing my prejudice did not guarantee that I overcame it at once. But I knew that sooner or later I would have to make a decision.
About a year and a half later I plucked up courage and wrote to my mother, explaining what I was going through and asking for forgiveness. I was in tears as I wrote that I loved her and would always continue to do so. And at that point I found inner freedom, and felt reconciled to myself, my mother and God.