“We can drive it home… with one headlight.”
– One Headlight, The Wallflowers
Something I’ve always taken for granted is this: the fact that I still have considerably strong ties with my motherland. These ties do not only mean I retain my citizenship and hold a valid passport issued by the motherland, but it means that culturally too I am still very much Malaysian: although I still explicitly exclude sambal belacan from my daily diet, I savor the other little things like ikan masin and nasi lemak; I always speak Malay with my mother, never English; I am also Muslim, a characteristic constitutionally recognized in Malaysia as being a hallmark of the Malay identity.
I suppose one of the reasons I decided to focus on Malaysia in my PhD research is so I could get to know my country and my own people better. Having been uprooted constantly, and for extended lengths of time from the motherland ever since my brothers and I were young, I never got to learn about Malaysian history — though from what I could gather, the Malaysian education system actually leaves little to be desired — and there were much of our own family history that we’d been excluded from, particularly critical moments such as the death of our grandparents and the weddings of our cousins, on account of being overseas. Focusing on Malaysia in my research is the best opportunity there is for me to embrace the motherland, and all the good and the bad that comes with it. I think I have certainly made the right choice.
What complicates things, of course, is our own kin: when some bad blood starts brewing within the family, the appeal of the motherland and its constant beck and call disappear almost entirely. Home becomes something you try to escape from, rather than a place that enfolds you close within its embrace in times of great difficulty — in other words, your primary source of comfort.
As I plan the 15 to 18 months I will spend doing fieldwork in Malaysia and also in Southern Thailand, I could feel the suspense building up already. Questions of how things will work out, who to avoid and who best to ask for help, where to set up my own home (for it is difficult to return to the motherland and not live under the same roof as my mother, at least certainly for me) are starting to come to the fore, but this is all part of The Process — The Process of getting to know Malaysia on my own terms, as my supervisor said to me in our last supervision, and to dig deep underneath the surface to find out what my country, and its people, are truly made of.
Whatever ambivalent feelings I maintain towards the motherland, there is no doubt that it is something I will continue to treasure, for to have this is better than to have nothing at all.