Who are you?
It’s a question that haunts us at every stage of our life; a question we’re all desperate to find the answer to, while we navigate this world, sandwiched between what society feeds us and our own interpretation of our experiences. We’ve constantly been shaped, genetically, environmentally, psychologically.
For a long time, after I had returned home to Mauritius, at the end of my Bachelor’s degree in Malaysia, I wondered why it was so hard for me to fit in, to get back into the Mauritian culture. Why did I feel more at home in Malaysia and not in Mauritius? Why couldn’t I find my place in my own home?
Malaysia is also a multi-racial country, comprising 3 races: Chinese, Indians and Malays. It’s not a perfect country and it’s often criticised for being quite divided (e.g. having Chinese schools for Chinese people, while in Mauritius, schools, if they are ever distinguished from one another, are divided by region). I won’t dive into the politics involved, but at first, this led me to believe that Mauritians were quite united, in comparison.
However, living in Malaysia taught me a lot about my own culture, well I guess I should say ‘sub-culture’, that of the Chinese culture, based on my origins. It taught me to honour my ancestors and appreciate what they left for me in the shape of traditions and festivals. To never forget my roots. It’s the least I can do for everything they have sacrificed for me to be living a better, more comfortable life today.
Someone once asked me: “Indian people in Mauritius… where do they come from?” Dumbfounded, I replied: “Er, well from Mauritius?” He said, “No, what I’m asking is where do their descendants come from? Are they from Southern or Northern India?” At that time, I thought to myself, why does it matter? In the end, we are all Mauritians. We are one people.
I think it’s quite ‘tricky’ for a country to have a multi-cultural population. Cultures often clash; division ensues. But uniting all cultures under one also comes with the loss of various distinct cultural aspects. What I really loved about Malaysia was that the division of races somehow compelled each race to celebrate their differences… in harmony. Being different, but together on one land, without compromising on the distinctive cultures.
When I came back to Mauritius, I was lost, because as a Chinese Mauritian, or ‘Sino-Mauritian’, I am part of a cultural minority which appears to be slowly fading (we only make up 3% of the population!). And as much as I acknowledge being somewhat part of the generic ‘Mauritian culture’, my true cultural identity lies in the more distinct Chinese sub-culture, which is what I relate to the most.
Mauritius is rich in sub-cultures and the ones I can think of are the Chinese culture, Indian culture, Muslim culture, African culture and French culture; each of them consists of a unique race. So much variety on a small island! So much we overlook by trying to put everyone under one label.
From my experience, I’d say that the typical ‘Mauritian culture’ fits our African friends the most, with its colourful patterns, added with a touch of Indian cuisine and Latino-type music. (No, you won’t hear any K-pop song in a Mauritian mall.) And our norms are more European than Asian (yes, we wear shoes in the house).
This means that if I try to fit into the ‘Mauritian culture’ as I see it, I will either lose a huge part of my own cultural identity or disrupt the current culture. Disclaimer: this kind of identity crisis will not apply to every Sino-Mauritian out there, of course. But at least, this is how I felt when I returned to my little island after having lived in a highly Chinese-cultured city in Malaysia.
I just couldn’t find my community anymore, thus that sense of belonging was non-existent.
Who are we, as Sino-Mauritians? Most importantly, where are we? Where do we stand?
If you have been brought up as a Sino-Mauritian like me, you may (or may not) have been raised with the following ‘philosophies’ and ‘ground rules’:
- Hard work above everything: work hard to get perfect grades at school so you can get a degree at a prestigious university so you can get a well-paid job so you can get rich.
- Yes, money matters. A lot. Whether it’s choosing a life partner or choosing which shampoo to buy at the supermarket. Also, bring on the foong bao (red envelopes)! In fact, the best gift you can give to any of us is $$$.
- Cheap and useful and efficient: the triad of qualities of the ideal product you should buy. But free is 100% better.
- Being sceptical about people of other races (sad but true; a lot of us, especially the older generations have been brought up to be racist). Except for white people.
- Having to get a scholarship and study abroad (a.k.a. study in England or in any other ‘white people’ country), unless you want to die uneducated.
- Don’t study arts or you will die on the streets. However, you can take on a musical instrument as a hobby. No painting, please.
- ‘Have you eaten?’ is how we show that we care, since we never say ‘I love you’ or show any sign of affection whatsoever.
- Family matters most.
- Food (like, a LOT) is what brings people together. And not to forget Chinese New Year.
As a sub-culture, we are not perfect, but the older generations did teach us some important values which are mostly seen during traditional festivals, such as our focus on unity and bringing people together. And as the new generation of Sino-Mauritians come in, as small of a community as we are, we can treasure those cultural traits of ours, while we dismiss the racist/old-fashioned/narrow-minded ones.
What I’m basically trying to say is… we shouldn’t forget where we come from. I know a lot of us just want to dismiss all of it since most of us were brought up, as one of the bullet points showed, with the belief that it’s much better to be ‘Westernized’, to aspire to become like ‘white’ people. So it seems. And it’s neither our fault nor our parents’, not entirely. For a long time, white people were known as being the ‘superior’ race.
But we now live in a world where we can celebrate our differences, and yes I’m re-writing that phrase because it is so beautiful to see a world of different cultures, with no one trying to be anyone else but their own. In the end, it feels good, no, it’s empowering, to be proud of who you truly are, culturally.
My Creative Writing teacher once told the whole class: “Your stories are all very nice and well-written. But there’s something missing. It’s the cultural aspect. I know we are constantly exposed to Western stories and novels. But try not to write like you are a white person. Write like you are you. That will make all the difference between you and other writers.”
Her words have had such an impact on me, even back then. Since then, I have been more aware of local authors, Asian novels, and general Chinese representation in the media. There’s still a lot to be done for our voices to be heard, especially here in Mauritius, but choosing to be more culturally conscious is already a step forward.
So yes, as from today, dare to be yourself, especially if you are part of a minority, just like me. Dare to wear your culture, show it to the world and let it live on.
Today, I can say that I am proud, not only to be Mauritian but to be Sino-Mauritian. And I want this unique culture of mine to be known out there.
Now, it’s your turn. Tell me…
Who are you?
D. K. Waye.