Exactly Who the Hell Am I?

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.

PenangThe 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.Malini and Kevin Fiji 1980 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.

Challenges AheadFinding 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.

Smiling baby Malini with curl

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 🙂






Comments 27

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  1. what a wonderful ‘cute’ kid you were. Growing up as you did would have been fascinating with the different celebrations going on around you. True friends overlook the ‘differences’ and instead they admire them. Even the overcoming of all the adversity you have gone through. Well done in putting it all to paper!!
    And Greg – you sure you know who you married? Beauty inside as well as outside and you have helped let that develop and increase since you were married (works both ways, by the way). Love to both of you.

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      Hi Robin, yes I was such a cute baby…not sure what happened!!! thanks for your generous responses and constant support, Robin, you’re a treasure. xx

  2. Oh Malini (what IS the right pronunciation BTW) you were seriously scrumptious as a baby – and you look like you were full of character even at that age. Loved your story. As one who grew up with minimal cultural diversity, I can only imagine what it must have been like experiencing that sort of rejection or isolation. The thought of it is so abhorrent to me that I think my soul would have been crushed by it. I remember a story by Sidney Poitier when he says that he grew up on Cat Island in the Bahamas and the only white person was the island doctor. He never experienced even a hint of racial prejudice until the age of 15 when he went to Florida and was then rejected and persecuted purely on the color of his skin. But he said that his identity was so established by then that he could never accepted it as truth and always maintained his dignity. He said that he never strived to be EQUAL to white people – but rather to be BETTER than them. I’ll always remember that story …

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      Actually I didn’t suffer too much at all, it was more bewildering and puzzling than anything else. When you grow up being unaware of ‘difference’ it is strange to be among people who really get into it. I’m so grateful that I had the blessing of being brought up a world citizen 🙂 My parents, like all of us, had many faults, but in that, they were truly wonderful. Thanks for reading my blog, Carol, and thanks for the thoughtful comments, as always. xx

  3. I LOVE hearing you write! yes hearing, because I hear your beautiful voice telling me your stories as I read them to myself 🙂 the cultural thing is really funny in different contexts, while in Fiji I got asked why I had an “old ladies” name by the Indians I met… I felt a bit like an imposter claiming to be Indian (well half Indian) when I didn’t speak the language and clearly didn’t know I had an old ladies name… here in Australia it’s just part of my story of my mixed-together cultural heritage!

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      In Australia you are exotic, in Fiji, you were an oddity! Strange, isn’t it? Fiji is quite a different place now, though, so many mixed marriages and things are far more relaxed. I have to say I LOVED my year there, despite the way I was treated by some of the Indians. Everyone else made up for it, and the bad music and ‘Vaka Pacifica’ was growing on me! Didn’t want to leave! Hey thanks Shanths, for the cool feedback 🙂 xx

  4. Very inspiring as always! I’m very happy that you came to your senses and rose above it in the way that you did 🙂

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      Thanks May. It’s amazing how absolutely AWFUL it felt at the time, but how useful it has been in my life to help me separate my art from art that I didn’t want to make.

      Students are so vulnerable…how great it would be if teachers were able to help in a universally positive way. They are very powerful!

  5. Still curious about the name pronunciation…
    Growing up in Australia, (being half your kind of Indian) I never really felt too different. But I have to say when I first got on a plane to India a few years ago, it was kind of weird but nice being surrounded by so many people that looked (sort of) like me!

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      Yeah, sorry about the name thing – I got so caught up in the story that I forgot to go back to the name. Well, it’ll just have to wait for another time 🙂

      Thanks for reading my blog, Mel! x

  6. Great story Malini! I wanted to read more! Love your cheeky baby photo! You were gorgeous then, and you still are gorgeous!

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      Thank you Maggie! You are very kind (in SO many ways!) I’m going to have to put a PS out on that blog, as I never quite finished the story of my name 🙂

  7. Hi Malini,
    The word ‘create’ has many facets……creations of art, life, emotions and so on. Recycled pieces of ‘ones’ life, take on a whole new direction, given those thoughts.

    I arrived in Australia as a young child with my parents, couldn’t speak english, yet spoke Dutch and German, going to school for the first time was hell, didnt understand one word !

    Colour is a wonderful healer, it has no barriers and sometimes soothe’s away the scratchy bits of ones life.

    Liked reading your blog….. 🙂

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      Hi Marijke, thanks for sharing. I cannot imagine the difficulty of being in a foreign country as a small child and not being able to communicate because of language barriers. It truly would be hell. I admire the way you and countless other immigrants for whom English is a second language, have risen to the challenge and made a new home in a foreign land. For me it was easy as English was my first language.

      I love the way you describe paint/colour as ‘soothing away the scratchy bits of one’s life’ 🙂 It’s especially true in my painting process, as we apply colour OVER the texture! Lots of metaphors there!

      Thank you for reading my blog and sharing your thoughts.

  8. Never realized that I know so little about your early life… feel bad that I don’t even remember that you were ever in Fiji. I do remember though rushing home from school and waiting to play with you as a baby… I thought you were the cutest baby in the world… till I had my own :0
    By the way still waiting to hear how you had been wrongly pronouncing your name… and… you are a brilliant writer,… am your greatest fan. Every time I read anything you write the same thought comes to my mind.

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    Thank you! Not such a brilliant writer as I completely forgot to finish that story about my name…will have to wait for another story! Thank you for sharing my life 🙂 x

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      Thanks K 🙂 It’s an honour that you read my posts 🙂 Thank you for getting me started on this weird and interesting journey!!

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      Your life will be a Bestseller, blossom!
      At your tender age, all I’d done was ‘travel’ – you’ve started businesses, taught yourself more than most people learn in a lifetime, forged your own path and taken courageous Journeys…
      I love you xx

  10. Hi Malini, I’ve nominated your blog for the Versatile Blogger Award. You’re unique ability to share your warmth and incredibly heart online as if I were sitting listening to you is so very inspiring & unique. Thank-you Liza xxx

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      Thank you beautiful Liza! I was just reading your latest post and checking out some of the links…I’m SO new to this world that this honour you’ve done me is a bit daunting 🙂 !! Thank you again!

  11. Hi Malini.
    I’ve been reading your posts rather randomly and really wanted to thank you for them. They are incredibly thought provoking, inspiring and frequently moving. I find they speak to a part of me I find hard to articulate. Thank you for what you offer to the world. I hope our paths cross again sometime.

    1. Thank you so much Janine! What a beautiful thing to say. I am honoured and delighted that you find what I write to be of help in some way. I’m sure we will cross paths again in 2014 🙂

  12. Just read this post. Wonderfully written as usual! My Mum is from Sarawak (East Malaysia) so I certainly know about the obsession about eating. She also speaks fluent hokkien (which I cannot speak at all but do understand some things).

    Thank you for sharing your life with us. What courage you have. Keep sharing and keep inspiring others. You certainly inspire me a great deal x

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