By Eunice Tan
“Hi… my name is Eunice. I am Malaysian, but I am not Malay. My great grandparents actually came from China, so I am a Malaysian Chinese. Oh, and… I do not go to a local school. I attend an online American school.” From person to person, I answered the same questions, reciting my perfectly configured, pre-programmed answers. Inwardly, I cringed when responding to questions about my origin and education, anticipating reactions of bewilderment and confusion. Almost every single time, I anticipated correctly. In 2016, at the age of thirteen, I accompanied my mother and sister to a Creation Science conference in Seoul, Korea. All in all, it was a fantastic cultural experience, interacting with Christians from dozens of nations congregating together under a singular great purpose. As I conversed with various people, I got to know them as “Nepali,” “Japanese,” or “American,” and their direct, complete identification with their native country’s culture strangely startled me. I began to question my own cultural identity.
For the first time in my life, it dawned on me that I do not identify as a purebred “Malaysian.” I live a life completely separate from other Malaysian students who attend local schools where they learn about and are immersed in Malaysian history, culture, and language. Don’t get me wrong. I am extremely thankful to my parents who decided instead to homeschool me and bring me up in a classical educational way. I’m really blessed that my parents do not subscribe to the “kiasu” mindset of academics being the first priority (of course it is still important), but they rather place emphasis on my godly character and relationship with God. Their gracious parenting and a biblical curriculum have shaped my mind critically and drawn me closer to God, things I would have never experienced if I had gone through the typical public school system. I would never change my background if given the chance. I am proud of my position on a bridge between cultures.
However, sometimes, I feel extremely confused and misplaced, especially in the Malaysian and Chinese culture. Countless times, I am caught off guard when someone dishes out a Malaysian joke or declares a Malay phrase because I simply cannot understand what they mean. Awkwardly laughing and pretending I understand their conversations have become a routine. Among Malaysian friends, I am known as the girl with the “American” accent and “Western” thinking. In local homeschool communities, I still feel left out because of the difference of curriculum and culture. Many of my friends from both public and home schools sarcastically commend me for my innovative “western” thinking skills, scoffing at me. But the truth is, many times, I wish I was not any different. I can no longer count the number of times I have wished so desperately to fit in. I live in their world, and yet, I am not a part of it. Unintentionally but regularly, they exclude me.
Additionally, I cannot identity as a full-blooded “Chinese.” Sure, I grew up in a Chinese family, but unlike my cousins, I do not attend Chinese school. My constant English interactions in The Potter’s School and all-around having English as my first language distinguish me from the youths in my church who have a strong Chinese educational and linguistic background. This cuts a deep chasm between me and all the other teenagers in my church because our linguistic and educational differences set us off on different social paths. They value conformance and collectivism, while I thrive in an environment that encourages critical thinking and voicing my personal ideas. When I make an effort to connect with them, I am often brushed off as weird and odd. In Chinese communities, I am labeled a “banana”—yellow on the outside but white on the inside. I thought that I just need to try and assimilate into Chinese culture better by making an effort to speak Chinese, but it always backfires when all the fluent Chinese speakers laugh at me for sounding like a foreigner.
My public school and homeschool peers have voiced their perceptions of me as “mature” and “articulate,” but it is evident that because of these labels, they see me as from a completely different social category. I do not believe I am better than any of them, because the fact is I simply have a different upbringing which emphasizes critical debate, vocal discussions, and public speaking more than theirs. Unfortunately, they do not believe so, and I do not blame them. My mannerisms in conversations and certain elements of my mindset undoubtedly originate from my American education, but at the same time, I definitely do not identify as a full-fledged “American.”
When I traveled to America, I thought that perhaps I would fit in better with the teenage crowd there. I was in for a disappointment. To my surprise, people were openly distributing hugs and overtly expressing emotions, sending me into intense culture shock. In front of Americans, I seemed shy and reserved, and I felt intimidated at times. In such situations, my mind and soul feel incredibly messed up, as if I have no anchor onto which I can secure my self-identity. What social group do I belong to? What does it even mean to be Malaysian? What about being Chinese? What “box” do I fit into? I sense the Malaysian, Chinese, and American parts of me all at the same time. Can they synchronize together in harmony? Does it even make sense that I relate to bits and pieces of all three at once but cannot identify with all the components of one fully? Who am I? I felt like I didn’t belong anywhere. I felt… homeless.
This aching need to have an attachment to a particular social group irked within me, stifling me more and more in social situations. I would feel pressurized to find common interests, and if they did not exist, I would lie to create them. I developed mild social anxiety when having one-to-one conversations, and I always entertained the fear that others thought I was strange and secretly disdained me. To this very day, I struggle with feeling accepted, mostly because I am, in definition, a loner without a close group of friends whom I can genuinely relate to. It was always a wish of mine to find the “perfect” social group, where peers would understand me and share common ground, but that has yet to happen.
However, I am reminded in Philippians 3:20 that “Our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ,” and Hebrews 13:14 says, “For here we have no lasting city, but we seek the city that is to come.” (ESV). After meditating on these verses, I questioned my assumptions: What requires me to conform to one of the world’s pre-conceived social identities? My identity is in Jesus Christ, the King of kings, and I need to start caring about what He thinks of me rather than what others think of me. Yes, I do not fit in one of society’s hard-set molds or stereotypical boxes. But, eventually, I asked myself, “What is wrong with that?” I have not found my dream “home,” and I still do not fit in anywhere. But I have determined that even though I may not have a friend who loves me for who I am, I can become a friend who loves others for who they really are. Perhaps, God is training me to root my identity and happiness in Him and not people because they will always let me down. My real home is in heaven, not in a country or social group! People are not perfect. I will never have the perfect friend. Instead, some day, God will bring me to a community where I can learn and grow alongside sincere friends and mentors.
Maybe you are going through a similar problem of not fitting in and feeling awkward in your current social situation. Believe me. I understand. I am still a loner. But remember that you are not homeless. There is nothing wrong with not fitting perfectly into a stereotype. Having a lack of friends is so hard, especially as a youth, but press on! We may not understand why we are lonely, but we can be sure of the fact that God is good, and while we only have a limited perspective of life from the valley, God can see everything from the mountaintop. Think about Joseph from the Old Testament! His life was the epitome of struggle: sold as a slave by his own brothers and then falsely accused of a crime he did not commit! But he stayed faithful, and God meant it all for good, as seen when he rose to become second-in-command of all of Egypt! In the end, all things work together for good for those who love God (Romans 8:28). So, persevere! Good things are yet to come! Till then, I’m the odd one out. Maybe you are too. But we are not homeless.
Don’t steal the last slice of pizza!