Flora Tan

Our lives experienced together binds us

I am a quarter Iban from my maternal grandmother and three quarter Chinese. Growing up, the Iban side of my family tree never registered high on my consciousness. It was just something that was in my blood but I never really gave it much thought partly because I wasn’t really close to my grandmother.
People I meet sometimes ask about my ancestry due to my look as a friendly gesture and lucky for me the conversation seldom goes further than that. If it did, I would probably have been very lost considering how little I knew of my heritage. Most people I meet do not seem overly interested in my ancestry and I see that as a heartwarming sign that as Malaysians, we see each other beyond the colours of our skin.
I took up photography as a hobby about two years ago and met Alex during a workshop. We hit it off pretty well and soon started seeing each other. I was genuinely surprised when I discovered that he too was a quarter Iban! What a small world.
Unlike me, Alex was much more in tune with his roots and I started to learn about our shared heritage from him. It was fascinating learning about my roots from him and it felt refreshing to connect with this unknown part of me.
That being said, I recall a book by Amy Tan in which she wrote about how the American protagonist underwent a spiritual journey after rediscovering her Chinese root. I had no such epiphany. Perhaps it was because I have been living in Malaysia all my life and the cultural shock was just not there. Or maybe it is simply the fact that writers tend to go towards hyperbole.
As I continue to discover my roots, I started to give more thoughts about what makes us Malaysians. What is the link that binds us and the history that unite us?
I remember two specific incidents that I should share here. I meet plenty of tourists in my work and I recall this particular white American gentleman a couple of years ago who mentioned that he sees plenty of segregation in Malaysia during his time here. The comment came as such a shock to me and I remember that I did not know how to reply. Incidentally, just a week later, I hosted an African American gentleman and he remarked on how amazing to see people of different races living in harmony.
Make what you will of the two incidents. I know that it is not enough to draw a conclusion on how the world view us and there is probably no further meanings to be drawn other than the opinion of two people looking at a scene and arriving at different conclusions.
This revelation is very interesting as looking at the world through the camera lens, I begin to pay more attention to what I see in front of me. I am by no means any good at taking pictures and would love to have more time to explore the art.
However, the few times I had the chance to walk around in Kuala Lumpur, I saw many scenes of people from all walks of life rubbing shoulders with each other. People of all races dined at the same stalls, bargained from the same vendor and walked along the same paths. Everyone just going about life in the best way they know.
As Malaysians, we talk a lot about our multiracial society and our unity. Once a while we read about stories of racial tension, and there are times where we also read about stories that highlight our racial harmony. But at the end of the day, do people really think that much about their race as they go about their daily lives?
Maybe I am the odd ball here who is never particularly interested in exploring my roots. Not that I see it as inconsequential, but I value the experience I lived and am living with those around me.
My friends and I from school laughed about the same jokes and funny things that happened in our lives. My colleagues and I work towards our collective vision for our work. And my fellow Malaysians and I strive for a better tomorrow for all of us. After all, we are a relatively young nation and the future will be built upon our shared experience going forward.
Lastly, I like to share with you a picture I took on one of my walk around in KL city. I don’t know if the picture is any good from an artistic point of view, but it is one in which I really like.
Flora Tan