Finding More Than Just Myself In Malaysia


Researching family trees and ancestral blood lines has always been a popular hobby. Especially for those whose families moved to the new world - finding connections to ancient lands is incredibly novel. More often these days, in full "everything is illuminated" style, people are travelling to their distant homelands in an attempt to feel a closer connection to their past.
This is not so simple for me.
I grew up in a single parent household with my mother of British descent. From the very limited information I could get from my mother, I learned that my father was of Chinese descent and lived in Malaysia. I had even seen one photograph. But that was all that I knew.
Growing up, I found it very difficult to relate to my Asian ancestry. I am very tall, with fair skin, light coloured eyes, and thick curly hair which I dye a copper red colour. Other than my very small nose and ever so slightly elongated eyes, you would never guess that I am half Chinese. My mother never spoke about my father, and I grew up in a predominantly white community. Eventually I started to doubt my own ancestry. Am I really mixed race? If people inquired about my ethnic background, I would almost feel as if I was lying to them if I revealed I was part Asian.
Fast forward many years, until I am age 24. Thanks to the wonders of social media, and a curious boyfriend, I ended up typing my father's name into - can you believe it - Facebook. One result was returned. A Chinese man, with lighter than usual skin, and a smile that was eerily familiar to my own was staring back at me from the screen.
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Over the next year, my father and I emailed each other back and forth, and I became slightly more comfortable thinking of myself as half Asian. I had no real intentions to seek out this side of my family - at least not yet. Until one fateful day, Air Asia was advertising a sale, and my travel friend was insistent that we go to Malaysia.
I flew to Malaysia a few days earlier than my friend. I met my father and his girlfriend the following evening. My time in the Sakura restaurant in Kaula Lumpur was perhaps the most awkward of my life. I felt as if everyone was staring at me, the lone pale skinned girl sitting at a table with an Asian family. I think very few people end up flying half way across the world, to a country in which they stick out in like a sore thumb, for a family dinner with people they have never met before! But that's just what I did.
Over the next week that I spent in Kuala Lumpur, I would meet my father several more times. I was delighted that he took enough interest in me to go out of his way to meet up with me again. But the most memorable of these encounters was when he took my friend Mel, and I on a day trip to the historic town of Melaka. Lacquered doors opened up to antique shops filled with dusty treasures. Smells of pungent Durian wafted from the fruit sellers, and incense filled the air near the temples. Melaka is a UNESCO heritage town where you can spend an entire day just wandering the streets, marvelling at the architecture, and revelling in the culinary delights. And that is just what we did, while getting to know each other at the same time.
I didn't know what to expect flying to Malaysia to meet a father that was a stranger to me. But I think it worked out in the best possible way. We got to know each other, slowly, as two adults with very different, but very interesting lives. I told him of my travels, and he told me of his past. When I finally did leave Kuala Lumpur to return to my work and life in New Zealand, we parted with hugs.
Slowly and surely, when people ask me what my ethnic background is, I feel less and less awkward telling them. I am half Chinese, half British.

J Johnston

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