We are all rojak

Updated: Sunday May 25, 2014 MYT 8:23:02 AM

Our columnist concludes that her own being is as colourful as the Malaysian society at large.

IF I had been born in the 1930s, I would most likely be recognised as a “Minangkabau” rather than a “Malay” or “Melayu”.

My paternal family was commonly recognised as Minangkabau, rather than Malay, which seems to be a later oversimplification of my lineage and the history that comes with it.

The Minangkabau people originate from an area of West Sumatra which borders Riau to the east, Jambi to the south and Mandailing to the north. The capital of the province is Padang, from which the famous “Nasi Padang” is derived.

The word Minangkabau itself is thought to have been a conjunction of “minang/menang”, meaning victorious, and “kabau”, meaning buffalo.

The story has it that a territorial dispute between the people and a prince was settled by a fight between two water buffalos.

The prince brought a mighty buffalo, while the people brought a hungry baby buffalo with its horns sharpened.

The mighty buffalo, thinking it was just a baby, paid no heed to it, but the baby buffalo thrust its head against the buffalo looking for an udder, and its sharp horns punctured the belly, eventually killing it. And so, the people won the dispute.

The Minangkabau are further distinguished by clans such as Koto (to which my grandmother Aishah belongs) and Sikumbang (my grandfather Shukur) among many others. However, Minangkabau are not allowed to marry within the same clan.

My grandfather had an old flame who also happened to be a Sikumbang, but his mother would not have it.

She had preferred my grandmother instead, and had “booked” her very early on.

Although it was an arranged marriage, love eventually blossomed between the two and only death parted them. My grandmother passed away in October 2012 and my grandfather, May 2013.

My grandmother’s mother, Dandalina (or Nek Dan, as I remembered her) came from Pariaman, a town about 50km from Padang. She opened the first Padang restaurant in the Jelebu district of Negri Sembilan. My father had piped: “They were kaki buka restoran (fond of opening restaurants),” as my grandmother’s family had opened many Padang restaurants in Johor and Singapore.

The Minangkabau are famed for being savvy business people, and my great-grandmother was no exception.

Often times she travelled back to Pariaman trading batik and other goods.

My grandfather, on the other hand, was born in a shophouse in Beranang (a small town on the border of Negri Sembilan and Selangor) in 1926. His father, Ali, was a Minangkabau from Jelebu, while his grandmother, Kandaharun, was from Sungai Limau in the district of Pariaman.

My grandfather used to travel every day from Beranang to study at the Kajang High School, which was founded in 1919. During the Japanese Occupation, he enrolled at a school near the Japanese navy air base in Seletar, Singapore.

He studied at Nasyo Koen Yoseijo (as my grandfather recalled) for four years, and later taught basic Japanese to new students.

World War II happened while he was still teaching at the school. My grandfather could still remember a little bit of Japanese, and when I used to learn the language, we would trade a sentence or two (I’m embarrassed to call it a “conversation” as I was poor at it!).

My grandfather was due to continue his studies in Japan when he was advised against doing so for fear the ship would be bombed by British forces. True enough, the ship was bombed and if he had gone, I might not have existed!

Towards the end of World War II, the airbase was bombed by B29s. My grandfather managed to escape to Johor, but not before helping to carry corpses, many of whom were workers at the base.

When my great-grandparents migrated from West Sumatra to Malaya, it seemed that they had left the Minangkabau adat and language behind and assimilated with the Malays of Malaya.

Both my grandparents did not practise the traditional Adat Pepatih customs, with which the Minangkabau people are so closely identified. Neither can they speak the authentic Minang language of West Sumatra, although my grandfather speaks the Negri Sembilan version.

The elders of my grandmother’s family still retain the West Sumatran dialect, but the mother tongue was lost with the younger generations.

Indonesian ethnic groups are identified geographically, from their area of origin and the associated culture, language and tradition.

For me, it is important to distinguish that “Malay” as an ethnicity refers to a group of people originating from and inhabiting East Sumatra, which spans Jambi, Riau and Deli.

My family’s traditions, by right, would be alien to the Malay traditions as practised today in Malaysia.

But years of assimilation have carved away what little of West Sumatra they had since the migration.

I can only romanticise and imagine notions of a group that I have no connection with.

Even if I had a choice to identify myself as a Minangkabau, I can neither speak the language, nor have I even been to West Sumatra.

It is easier to assume one’s ethnicity as “Malay” and fit into a box originally created by colonial rulers trying to make sense of an alien society than to write that I am a rojak person who is “part Minang, part Chinese, part Thai and part Arab”.

This month marks the first year of my grandfather’s passing. I was lucky to have been able to document his story and my family’s history while he was still with us. I hope to share with other people who also have similar stories like mine. What do these stories mean today? Why would it matter, if at all?

We may not be able to connect with our past, but we can create the future. And as we grapple to find a unique Malaysian identity, perhaps we should find refuge and comfort in knowing that there is more than one identity, given that we are a society of mixed ancestry and many histories.

There is nothing wrong with being rojak.



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