Some years ago I discovered that I had been saying my name wrong all my life. It was somewhat of a blow to my identity, which had taken, I now realise, several major knocks throughout my life.
I’ll get to the story of my mis-pronounced name. For now, let me backtrack a bit. I was raised in a very multicultural environment. We think we have that in Australia, but in Penang, where I grew up, this was the cultural chaos from which I sprang:
I had ethnically Indian parents who didn’t speak their mother tongues, and even if they did, they wouldn’t have understood each other as they didn’t share the same language!
Their parents migrated to Singapore, from India, at the very beginning of the twentieth century, when Singapore and India were … well, outlying provinces of England. My parents therefore, being loyal citizens of the British Empire, were brought up speaking The Queen’s English. Some parts of their childhood recollections sounded a lot like they grew up in England, rather than in South East Asia.
Growing up surrounded by Chinese people (our housekeeper, my best friend, my first boyfriend, all my school mates, my favourite food, just about everyone I knew was Chinese), the language, other than English, that I was most fluent in, but was too shy to speak, was Hokkien, the most commonly used Chinese dialect in Penang.
Adding to this complex cultural backdrop was religion. Before I was born, both my parents, from good Methodist families, became members of the Baha’i Faith. So, instead of being taught an Indian language and encouraged to connect with my ‘cultural heritage’, I was taught the oneness of humanity and encouraged to have world-embracing vision. If they instilled any thought of cultural heritage at all, it was that it was almost irrelevant in the face of all the wondrous diversity around us.
The Malaysia of my childhood was a beautiful, riotous, yet strangely harmonious blend of three main racial groups – Malay (the majority), Chinese and Indian (the minority). Back then, there was a relaxed-ness between the cultures, a fellowship and friendship that was particularly evident in the sharing of food and festivities. So it wasn’t too hard for me to extrapolate the ambiguous cultural identity I had grown up with to something that I thought everyone sort of had. Then I left Malaysia and went to University in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
Cultural identity was about to get very tricky.
My first experience of living overseas was a year spent in Suva, Fiji. You’re thinking…aaah, that sounds idyllic, sunny beaches, tropical paradise, how cool is that? Well…firstly, it rains a lot in Suva. Secondly, there were no beaches (but I got to study mangrove swamps close up).
And thirdly, I was soon to become, at the tender age of seventeen, a social outcast.
I was the only ‘foreign’ student in the University of the South Pacific. But here’s the strangest thing. I looked just like anyone else, as I shared the features of fifty percent of Fiji’s population, who are ethnically Indian. However, before long, it was made clear to me that a young Indian girl, armed only with English, a smattering of Malay and a perfect comprehension of Hokkien had absolutely NO business calling herself Indian in Fiji! I had never been among so many Indians in my life (a minority in Penang) and yet, I was a pariah to them! Fortunately I had no trouble making friends with the islanders from all over, including the far-flung nations of the Solomons, Samoa, Tonga and Kiribati, so I wasn’t lonely. But it was a somewhat bewildering experience to someone previously been unaware of ‘difference’.
I arrived in Australia for the very first time, a year later. I was eighteen. There was something about this place that that was so vast and clean and clear that made me feel like I could breathe. And rest. Yes, it’s clichéd, but it felt like I was home.
Finding art more than twenty years later was a bit like that, like coming home. Identity has always been a ‘chameleon-like’ thing for me. I took on the identity of whatever environment I was in. That strategy didn’t always work, as you saw in another story.
Even in my fantastic five years of in art school, it wasn’t all smooth sailing.
Not all of my lecturers were like the Jim I wrote about here. In fact, during the last year of my studies, I was given a terrible assessment by a respected lecturer. It felt like a public flogging, and it devastated me. And in the aftermath of that flogging, I responded like countless others would have.
I contemplated giving it all away. Art. Studies. Creative pursuits. Everthing. If this was what making art was about, then I was never going to cut it, and perhaps now was the best time to leave, before I made a complete fool of myself in the art world.
Fortunately I came to my senses. It took me a long time to recover from this public flogging, but when I did, what emerged what a very clear understanding of the sort of artist I wanted to be, what sort of art I loved making, and why. It was even hugely instrumental in shaping what sort of teacher I would later become. This ‘forging by fire’ forced me to ask myself all sorts of questions, which had at their core this one:
Who Am I, and what do I have to offer?
Interestingly, it was, and still is, the fundamental first step in every single creative offering, every single piece of art I make, every journey into the creative unknown that starts as a blank canvas.
I believe we are all here to create. As we each stumble along our less-travelled road, I am somewhat comforted by this thought:
We all have potential, and none of us has reached it yet.
PS I nearly forgot – How IS my name pronounced? Most people say it ‘Ma-LEE-nee’.
Well, I say it ‘MAA-lyn-nee’. But that may not be right either 🙂