Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The importance of multiculturalism

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As we celebrate our 52nd year of Merdeka, I can’t help but reflect on my children growing up in multicultural Malaysia today and my own growing up experiences more than 20 years ago.

Coming from a bicultural background, I am extremely fortunate to have grown up experiencing two cultures: Chinese and Eurasian.

Speaking to my mother in Chinese and switching to English when I spoke to my father was as natural as the act of switching TV channels. So was eating koay teow thng or chapati with dhall for breakfast or nasi tomato with beef rendang or rice with sweet and sour fish.

While I lived in a predominantly Chinese neighbourhood, I had friends who were Chinese, Malay, Indian, Punjabi, Punjabi-Chinese, Chinese-Indian, Indian-Malay, Malay-Chinese and other mixes!

We were so muhibbah that we often joked about the day we would get our shot at fame when we would be featured on Malaysian TV for National Day advertisements ….

My multicultural mix expanded during my university days where I met and made friends with students from Sabah and Sarawak. Since my knowledge of the Bidayuh, Iban, Kadazan, Orang Ulu and other tribes were confined to our geography textbooks, it was an eye-opening and enriching experience to know and learn about the languages and cultures from the people themselves.

When I became a parent, I began to notice that I needed to make a conscious effort if I wanted to provide my children with the multicultural experiences I had been lucky enough to experience:

Starting from the first solids, I would introduce a variety of foods to my children. I started off with the iron-enriched rice cereal, moved on to the pureed fruits and vegetables and then to the colourful combinations of carbohydrates, proteins, fruits and vegetables that closely resembled food for a healthy adult’s palate.

Unfortunately, I made the mistake of constantly sticking to the “healthy” combinations, which were quite bland and closely resembled Chinese cuisine. The result: My firstborn prefers the Chinese staple diet of rice, steamed fish and stir-fried vegetables. Even the lightest of dhall curries is too spicy for him!

You can imagine how bored we were having had to stick to Chinese cuisine for many years until our second child came along.

This time, I am determined to introduce a variety of tastes to her and the Malaysian recipe book What and When to Feed My Baby by Mrs Gill has helped me do this.

Now that my son is older, he’s more open to new tastes. He still prefers his Chinese diet but he will now opt for spaghetti bolognaise, macaroni and cheese, plain chapati and roti telur when asked. We’re still working on the dhall curry!

We love to take our children to play outdoors when we have the chance and one of our favourite playgrounds is one in a residential area that is maintained by the residents themselves. It’s not surprising to find parents and children of various races heading for this playground too because it has a huge football field, a basketball court, an open air gym, jogging and cycling tracks and a substantial toddler and children’s play structure.

I find it fascinating that children who do not understand each other’s language can still play very excitedly with each other. My little boy speaks only English and Hokkien but he loves hanging out with a group of Malay boys who are as boisterous as he is even though he doesn’t understand when they yell:
“Mari sini! Cepat! Ambil ini!” (Come here! Hurry! Take this!")
Their mothers and I would try to teach the kids to be patient with each other since they couldn’t understand each other but in the end, we’d just sit back and laugh at their hilarious antics; the boys were oblivious to us. They still had fun and they looked forward to playing with each other again.

Although we think that children are innocent, the groundbreaking study The First R: How Children Learn Race and Racism (2001) by Debra Van Ausdale and Joe R. Feagin describes how children as young as three years old are already aware of racial concepts like skin colour and facial features and that they are also able to display racist behaviours in their interactions with their friends.

“Little pitchers have big ears” is a wise saying that reflects children’s ability to pick up adult language and behaviours simply by being around them and the above study emphasises the important role we parents have to play in encouraging and guiding our children about living in a multicultural society.

My son’s preschool is not as multiracial as I would like it to be but I am happy to see that this is gradually changing as more and more parents find it a great preschool. While we are entertaining the idea of sending him to a Chinese primary school, we are looking into one that is multiracial – it wasn’t easy for me growing up Eurasian in a Chinese neighbourhood and we definitely do not want our children to grow up with stereotypical views of other races.

Following up
Parenting is a full-time, lifetime job with no annual or medical leave. With the world becoming more and more diverse and complex and less and less “black or white” or “right or wrong” as we speak, it’s definitely not easy to guide our children along their journey of self-discovery.

From the food that enters their mouth, the books that they read, the TV that they watch, to the doctors who treat them to the teachers who teach them, we need to be aware of every decision that we make and its impact on the little people we live for and the multicultural society we live in.

It’s a dirty job but somebody’s got to do it, right?

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