Reconnecting with my Malaysian roots as a third-culture kid

By Lisa Twang, Aug 06, 2020

For Malaysian Chinese dancer, choreographer and Pilates teacher Joanna Koleth, the question of national identity has always been one to ponder. Born in Kuala Lumpur (KL), she’s  stayed in five countries: Malaysia, the US, UK, Germany, and India. She’s a third culture kid: belonging everywhere, and nowhere.  

Now 30, Joanna is back home in KL, after spending a year in Sabah. In celebration of Hari Merdeka (Malaysia’s National Day) on August 31 and Malaysia Day (the day Sabah and Sarawak were made part of Malaysia) on September 16, she reflects on what she’s learned about Malaysian identity, and what she hopes for her country in future. 

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I’ve always felt like a product of ‘rojak culture’: a woman who’s both shaped by cultures of the East and West. Because I’m Pan-Asian looking, and my accent is mixed, people often don’t know how to place me. I used to question why I belonged to so many places, but now I’ve come to see my multiple identities as my strength. 

I’ve spent the last three years back in Malaysia, which has given me time to get back in touch with my Malaysian side. I’ve missed my family, friends, and the sense of home. It’s been both exciting and nerve-wracking to be back: I’ve been so used to moving constantly, that putting down roots again feels almost foreign. 

Dancing by the beach in Penang. Photo credit: Joie Koo

Dancing by the beach in Penang. Photo credit: Joie Koo

My childhood was spent in different cities, because my dad relocated for work a few times.  When I was seven weeks old, my family moved to the UK until I was two, then lived in Mumbai until I was three.

I spent kindergarten and Standard One in KL, then moved to London a second time. I did middle and high school in KL, and university in the US and Germany. I reached the point where friends could barely keep track with where I was, and I got used to moving from city to city, like a nomad. 

Playing in Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur, when I was five.

Playing in Lake Gardens, Kuala Lumpur, when I was five.

I had a happy childhood in KL, and I remember hanging out with my best friend I-shen, either at her home or at the neighborhood playground. We’d swing on the swings, saying ‘cheese’ and laughing, taking mental photos of ourselves in our heads. 

When I went to primary school in London, my British friend came to me one day and said: “Joanna, can you say this word: ‘three’.” Like my Malaysian friends, I pronounced it as ‘tree’. She pointed to the tree nearby, and said ‘tree’ over and over again, with our other friends watching. I was a bit confused about what was going on, but I knew I was being made fun of.

The memory of the tree still stays with me. Not as something that hurts me anymore, but as the point when I first felt different.

I was one of only two Chinese girls in my entire school. Everyone else, even the Indian kids and the girl whose parents were from Hong Kong, was born and raised in the UK. My UK accent was very strong; I looked at some home videos recently, and was shocked by how purely British I sounded then. But I also spoke with some Malaysian slang I’d picked up from my friends back home.

Being singled out for being different is something every minority race child who grows up in a multiracial climate has to confront. After the tree incident, more bullying ensued; I remember my mum was called into school because a friend was kicking me under the table. 

Life mostly carried on as usual; I still had to go to class, and people still invited me over for playdates. But the feeling of being ‘the other’ stayed with me, even before I knew how to say it out loud.

Thinking back, I’m really grateful that I had Malaysian friends in my church, who looked and talked like me. There was a culture we shared; we ate the same types of food at home (rendang, curry, roti), our parents talked to us the same way, and the aunties would pinch my cheeks affectionately and go, “Why are you so fat?” We also had some family members in the UK, like my mother’s late brother and his wife, which helped me feel more connected to home.

Just as I was getting used to life in London, my father was posted back to KL again, and we returned home. This time, I had reverse culture shock: adapting back to Malaysia, after living in the UK for three years. 

Moving back to Malaysia that second time had a more long-term effect on me. In London, the differences between me and my friends were obvious: I looked and talked differently. In KL, I appeared to be like everyone else on the outside, but my differences were invisible. 

I used to have a lot of confusion about who I was: Malaysian? British? Something in between?

Friends would make fun of my British accent and I’d say: “What accent? I don’t hear it”. I remember purposely trying to put on a Malaysian accent every single day, until I lost most of the British accent. I also couldn’t speak Malay, because I’d only taken French in school, and a lot of jokes were lost on me.

There were cultural differences, too. In my British classroom, I was outspoken because I expected to speak up. But that wasn’t acceptable in Malaysia, and I was told off for being too vocal. 

I also loved performing, but teachers also thought I was overly flashy: “too ‘action”, as they said. One of my fondest memories in the UK was lip-syncing to the Spice Girls’ Wannabe in my friend’s room, but when I tried re-enacting Sister Act in my Malaysian classroom, I was called a show-off. 

I was very self-conscious during my teens, and would question and over-analyse things. I felt caught between Eastern culture, where I was expected to quietly contribute without drawing unnecessary attention to myself, and my Western side, where I wanted to showcase my individuality and stand out. 

As I grew into an adult, I gradually learned to answer the question of who I was. A girl who was ethnically Chinese, but also from Malaysia. I realised my identity was constantly in flux, and that I was a mix of several cultures.

I’d always enjoyed composing songs and dancing, and took my BA in dance at Belhaven University in Jackson, Mississippi. In the deep American South, surrounded by predominantly white girls in my dance classes, my identity was definitely shaken up. 

I learned how to articulate who I was: Malaysian by nationality, and ethnically Chinese. And because I’d lived in the UK and US, I also had a more outspoken side, where I voiced my opinions openly and enjoyed it when others did the same.

I came to appreciate my transcultural identity, which shifted depending on where I was, because it helped me to relate better to others. I learned to make friends more easily; because of my upbringing, I was exposed to a wide range of personalities and ethnicities, and was more sensitive to cultural differences. Being singled out for being different made me more empathetic; I always wanted to make people feel like they belonged, so they wouldn’t go through the same experience as I did. 

When I was 25, I helped my grandfather write his memoir, and knowing our family history helped me reclaim my Chinese identity.

My grandfather was Hakka, a Chinese clan known as gypsies, nomads, and outsiders, because there was little consensus where their roots were. I could immediately identify with that, having moved around my whole life. I’d always felt a little unworthy speaking of myself as Chinese when I couldn’t speak Mandarin or dialects. But I saw that like my grandfather, I came from a line of Hakka Chinese who were used to constant movement and change. 

I also got deeper in touch with my roots through dance. As a dancer, I felt that I needed to be comfortable in my own body, before I could use it to inhabit the stories of others.

In my thesis performance, I showcased my ‘rojak’ sense of self with different symbols: a Western white wedding dress, Chinese takeout boxes, while performing the traditional Malay dance, Terinai Mengadap. In a voiceover, I moved between accents and languages while reflecting on my life experiences as a third-culture kid. I concluded that I am in a constant state of oscillation between worlds.

My thesis performance, Juxtaposition Between Curated Ideals and a Chaotic Reality. Photo credit: Orfeas Skutelis

My thesis performance, Juxtaposition Between Curated Ideals and a Chaotic Reality. Photo credit: Orfeas Skutelis

I’ve worked and danced in so many different cities, like Hong Kong, Osaka, Zurich, and Frankfurt. But I decided to return to Malaysia to be closer to my family, and to give back to the local dance community by sharing what I’d learned abroad. I also wanted to feel grounded again, after moving around for so much of my life. 

I moved to KL first to teach dance in an international school, and then met and married my husband Glenn, who’s a doctor. For his specialist training, he was posted to Keningau, in rural Sabah, and we spent a few years living there and in Sabah’s capital, Kota Kinabalu (KK). 

It was in Sabah that I saw a whole different side of East Malaysia, which is more rural than West Malaysia, but also more warm and open. 

In Sabah, I had to confront my Malaysian-ness head-on, because I was out of an international environment for the first time in years. Most people are more comfortable with Malay, so I taught dance classes in my really bad Malay. I struggled at first, but slowly got better, practising everyday with friends, students, and even the postman. When I went back to KL, my friends commented, “Your Malay is so proper now!” I didn’t use the ‘pasar’ (colloquial) kind of Malay anymore. 

I also saw how kind and generous the people in Sabah were. I learned to slow down and connect with them, because they genuinely wanted to get to know me. It was so different from KL, where my friends would be so busy rushing between appointments. In Keningau and KK, life became simpler; I was usually teaching, or helping to plant a new church in KK. I was deeply involved in the community, and I felt more invested in people’s lives, which was such a nice change.

As a dancer, I also got to explore the local Malay culture in Joget Gamelan, one of the oldest forms of dance in Malaysia, and Zapin, a dance that originated from the Arab Muslim communities. Being trained to understand and appreciate these forms of dance felt really special for me.

Performing in People Without Seasons with Un Yamada Co.and other Malaysian dancers.

Performing in People Without Seasons with Un Yamada Co.and other Malaysian dancers.

At the start of this year, Glenn and I moved back to KL. With the COVID-19 situation, I don’t know how long we’ll be staying for, since travel is restricted. But I’m enjoying my time here, being back in the city I was born in, and living just 10 minutes’ drive from my parents. I’m taking leadership courses, and giving dance and Pilates lessons.

Though it’s been a challenging year with the Movement Control Order (MCO), I’m so glad to be in KL.

For a long time, home was not a geographic place, but a collection of different memories. And as my home country, Malaysia will always have a special place in my heart.

Someone once asked: "Would you ever give up your Malaysian citizenship?" I promptly said, "I have no reason to."

Even though I've always identified with elements from the different cultures I was raised in, there's nothing quite like here: our colourful food, our mamak stalls, how we can have quad-lingual languages in one sentence. The very thought of giving it all up makes me feel dislocated.

It’s hard to say exactly what makes me feel a sense of belonging to Malaysia. A huge part of it is that I was born here, and my family and friends are here. Another thing I love about Malaysia is that we have such a variety of people: whether they’re from the city, like KL or KK, or from rural Malaysia, like Keningau. My overseas friends who visit always comment on how friendly and approachable people here are. 

Exploring my Malaysian side has been a journey, and I’m learning to appreciate my country more as I grow older.

I wouldn’t say I had this epiphany, and can now say: “I’m Malaysian Chinese, and this is what it means”. My journey to understanding myself and my origins continues. The more time I spend here, the more I discover about myself, and what makes me love this country. I hope to live here forever, but I don’t know if things will change if we have kids. We’ll see where life takes us, and what plans God has in store.

My dream for Malaysia is for our country to have more freedom of speech and greater transparency, and be a more inclusive society. I’d like everyone to be given a place at the table. I’ve seen Malaysia from a more rural, native perspective, and how Sabahans feel excluded from the narrative of Malaysia. I also see Malaysia’s migrant workers who’re struggling in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, and wonder how we can do more to support them. I hope we and our leaders can put our differences aside, and work together for the greater good.

There’s power in words, and in people’s stories. I think we all connect on a personal level with stories, whether they’re told with words, or through body language, like in dance. As Malaysia celebrates Merdeka Day soon, I hope our stories will come together, and bring us closer as a nation. That we can all be proud of being Malaysian, and move forward together.

I’m making peace with not having a permanent home, and having ‘home’ be where my loved ones and friends are. Being Malaysian is an important identity marker for me, but it’s one of many things that make up who I am: a dancer, a daughter, a sister, a wife, and a child of God. 

When I see other third-culture kids now, I recognise how they feel different from their peers, and sometimes, insecure about who they are. But just because you don’t spend your whole life in a place, it doesn’t mean you can’t be at home there. Beyond our nationalities, and our ethnicities, we are people, all longing for connections. 

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Writer’s Note:

My name is Lisa, and you can find me at @lisatwang on the Dayre app. On my personal account, I’ve written about how I met my Malaysian husband J, and my favourite hipster cafes and hawker food in KL and Penang.

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