So, what are you?

I’ve done it before. I was just hearing about it the other day of how people ask someone what they are, and what they actually mean to ask is what race they are. Generally, the answer to that is, “I am Bruneian/Malaysian/American/Singaporean/Indonesian” and the list goes on. Then, they correct themselves by saying, “No, I mean…what race are you?” Some people may find this annoying (I wouldn’t go as far as offensive, unless you think your own ethnic group is offensive…), and some just gladly answer without the need to go into a debate/argument on the posed question.

I asked that question, today. I didn’t think I would ask in that way, but I did. It was during lunch with a colleague I barely knew, and I asked him, “So, what are you, actually? You speak Chinese but I’m sure you’re mixed as you don’t look Chinese” He looked at me, suspiciously, “What am I? I’m Malaysian” We shared a laugh because we both knew I knew that. So, he told me he’s a Sino-Kedazan. I felt like an idiot after. Why did I pose such a question when I knew better not to? I studied Sociology for many years, for God’s sake.

Alas, I’m not perfect. And my colleague was nice enough not to cop me out on this. And he chose not to get into a debate on my question.

Many people argue about to not differentiate one another by categories such as race or nationality but I think it would be difficult to practice in the long run. While we differentiate between the upper class, middle and lower class, there will always be some sort of segregation in societies. I can’t say that this is true, generally, but it is true to an extent.

In segregation, there is ignorance, too. Let me share with you this experience I had. This isn’t the first time, but the previous time it happened was when I was still in high school. So, to have experienced it in my adult life…is something to think about:

Person #1: Ey, Emie, kau Muslim kan? (translation: Ey, Emie, you’re Muslim, right?)

Me: Eh, bukan lah. (translation: Eh, nope.)

Person #2 to #1: Tapi ia urang Melayu. Bukan Muslim tapi Melayu. Urang Brunei bah. (translation: But she’s Malay. Not Muslim but Malay. She is Bruneian.)

At this point, they started to talk among each other and I couldn’t butt in. I was gonna correct them but I didn’t. I saw no point as I corrected her the first time she asked me. Obviously, she seemed to have forgotten or ignored my correction. Hmm.

What struck me the most is the, “she’s Malay, not Muslim but Malay. (because) she’s Bruneian”. This saddens me.

But, not too sad. I associate myself with my ethnicity i.e. Iban. But, I seem to only associate to it by name because I don’t speak much of the language, I don’t practice much of the customs (except for Gawai), and I don’t even know much about the traditions. Now, that is sad!

Having said that though, I am Iban-Bruneian. There were times when people questioned this; “Ah so you’re from Sarawak? What? How can you be Bruneian?” LIKE REALLY?!

I was born and raised here. I speak Bruneian. I eat ambuyat. I drink Tuak on special occasions. I visit my dad’s longhouse sometimes. I celebrate National Day by praying for us. I wear a headscarf to Malay weddings sometimes. I get defensive when my foreign colleagues say that Yasmine would be a boring film… Haha.

BRUNEI: indeed a land of unexpected treasures.

/E

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