Growing Up Rojak: Narein Yong-Tharumarajah
“Please don’t doubt yourself. Doubt just makes things worse. Always think; think before you speak, think about the choices when you need to make a decision. There is no harm in asking people for help; make sure you can trust them!” - Narein Yong-Tharumarajah
Narein is a Chindian born and raised in Penang. He is from a South Indian (Chennai) and Cantonese (Guangxi)/ Baba Nyonya descent from his paternal and maternal side, respectively. He speaks 4 languages - English, Malay, Penang Hokkien, and basic Mandarin.
He shared his love for Malaysia, especially food (a true Malaysian indeed!). His favourite food ranges from Malay food like masak lemak cili api, South Indian cuisine like thosai, upma, uttapam and idli, served with spicy coconut chutney and piping hot dhal (yum!). Not to forget, the spicy and sour rasam!
Narein talked about what it’s like growing up as a Chindian and shared about his high school experience. As someone who is proud of his identity, Narein gave sincere advice about dealing with self-doubt and how he embraced his mixed heritage.
Can you share what high school was like for you? Did you have any troubles fitting in?
I attended SMK St Xavier’s in Penang. I had a good high school experience; I had teachers who cared, and great friends. I was the responsible child/ teenager that did the work and somehow was very social as well. I was involved in many co-curricular activities because I was committed and hungry to learn and do!
I honestly did not have issues fitting in, especially with my peers. I think there may have been a language barrier especially with some of my Indian schoolmates; but, thinking back on it, I think it would have been better if I pressed on to being relational with them. How different would we have been honestly? I never had trouble fitting in but I may have been prejudiced which then excluded myself from certain groups.
What is like growing up in a mixed culture?
If someone asks me about my background, I straight up tell them I’m from Penang. I loved being of mixed heritage. I loved the exposure to both cultures. My parents raised us to be independent thinkers. So, I take the best for both cultures and fuse it together. I think that this is a product of being raised as a Christian; always being assured of myself as a beautifully made (mixed culture person) and never having to choose either one culture.
I loved being able to understand the culture from both groups and there was no need to choose between cultures in my family. I personally enjoy observing human behavior. Another thing that I really enjoyed was the exposure to different types of cuisine! Because of such an exposure, I like to have variety in the food that I eat in a day. I won’t be very happy if I end up eating the same thing for a few days.
We don’t have any unique traditions (as a mixed cultured family), but my family places importance on staying connected. My relatives have always been welcoming – though I must say that there is a language barrier. Nonetheless, when all of us (immediate and extended family) go out together, we will make time to sit together to talk/ catch up with each other.
Have you faced any stereotypes or discrimination?
People usually assume I am Malay, and get surprised to learn that I am Chindian! Otherwise, I’ve never experienced negative stereotypes. They may make assumptions about me - maybe it’s the way I look - people get intimidated due to my size or face, but those who get to know me would say that I am friendly and jovial, it’s just who I am.
I may get upset if people choose to be discriminatory, but I don’t think it will consume me for long. I will try my best to focus on the necessary rather than the discrimination faced!
How has growing up in a mixed culture influenced your choices and decisions as an adult?
I think growing up in a mixed culture has made me skin-colour blind. Due to the exposure to different cultures, I don’t see others as weird/ strange. I genuinely dislike the prejudices or false beliefs some cultures have on other cultures. I admit that due to these prejudices/ false beliefs, I’m trying my best to assess and think about my actions during and after.
Have you thought about settling down with someone from a different cultural background? Would you also encourage your children to marry people from different backgrounds?
I wish I knew the answer. Communication is important to me when it comes to my future partner. I'm a big talker. In terms of talking, thinking, and listening, I hope my spouse and I can complement each other.
As for my children, I want a united Malaysia, free of all prejudices and the system's intrinsic racism. I'd let my kids marry whomever they want as long as their spouse is someone with whom they can have a healthy open discussion! Communication, in my opinion, is essential for a happy marriage.
What does "home" mean to you and why?
My heart absolutely loves the UK as I have spent quite a lot of time there for education and work. However, home is where family is. So, Penang is home! Although I would love to live in the UK, I think the lifestyle here in Malaysia is so much better. Plus, I have family in Malaysia – I don’t think I can move so far away.
How do you think we can embrace each other better knowing we are different?
Having found mutual ground between my two heritage – I am all up for inclusivity. This is what I love about KL because by virtue of population distribution; it is more cosmopolitan with many more races and cultures in any given place!
Everyone has a role to play – compromise on both parties; work together with the common goal of being united. Everyone also needs to be genuine with each other. Why ‘ada udang di sebalik batu’?
What are your visions and hopes for Malaysia and fellow Malaysians?
I hope that Malaysia will be a country where the people are united! I wish that all the ‘1 Malaysia’ and the ‘Malaysia Truly Asia’ slogans actually do come true. I think this sort of unity has to start from a very young age – a good way would be to stop the vernacular schools and incorporate them into a major stream of the national schools. Disclaimer: I don’t consider the vernacular schools to be inferior. In fact certain systems vernacular schools employ would be excellent for the national schools. This would mean a lot of work for the government as this will lead to a whole revamping/ restructuring of the education system. No longer two languages are a benefit! Children need to learn so much more to be competitive. If we as Malaysians pride ourselves as a multiracial country (as always portrayed by the politicians/ government); we need to be inclusive of everyone! Every race is to be considered!
I also feel that this racial sentiment has to go! Malaysians should not be immediately classified into races. It's like experiencing prejudice/ racial assumptions by your own people! It does not make sense to me at all! Another good way to get rid of such racial sentiment, race based politics must be abolished and/ or even outlawed. This was a tactic employed by the British during colonial times. In this day and age, England has left that segregation tactic. It is all about inclusion now. I don’t see why our country still continues to practice archaic practices and conventions. Why can’t we as a nation be inclusive?! The multicultural element is already present – start thinking to promote unity among all races! If everybody plays their part, everyone's future in Malaysia will be safer!
Can you share some positive messages / advice for people who are confused about their identity?
This may sound cliché, but it really does get better. Do not react emotionally, but work on improving yourself. Your reaction is all that the naysayers want to see. Just keep moving forward unless and until there is a need to move to another direction.
Also, please don’t doubt yourself because doubt just makes things worse. Always think; think before you speak, think about the choices when you need to make a decision. There is no harm in asking people for help; make sure you can trust them! Answers never come immediately unless you are damn prepared; take your time (not too long) – think, you can even seek advice from trusted people. At the end of the day, people can make assumptions about you. But how those assumptions affect you is entirely your control! Hope this helps.
Interviewing Narein was a lot of fun! It was great to hear his views on culture, identity, and unity.
Ramisha Adil: For me this interview was more special as I was able to relate to him on a lot of things as I grew up in a mixed cultured family. It felt great to know about someone who grew up in a mixed culture family and had similar thoughts like me.
___ Interviewee: Narein Yong-Tharumarajah Interviewer: Ramisha Adil and Alex Oi, supported by Faye Lim and Evelyn Chen Written by: Ramisha Adil and Alex Oi Edited by: Yasmin Mortaza