Saturday, September 10, 2016

Openseam - "Teacher, are you Chinese or Malay?"

This article was first published on Openseam.

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Happy Teachers' Day!

Today's post comes from Aliya Yeoh, an English teacher in Penang, Malaysia. She previously wrote about how she celebrated Chinese New Year. A Chinese Muslim, she reverted at the age of 35, after postponing her earlier plan to do so for 10 years. You can read more of her experiences and thoughts in her blog, Musings of a Mualaf.


"Teacher, do you understand Tamil?" asked Revathi.

I was with a small group of Indian students, on relief duty for an absent teacher.

"No, I don't understand Tamil," I smiled. I knew they just wanted reassurance that I would not eavesdrop on their conversation.

"Would you understand if I speak Chinese?" I asked. Revathi's turn to smile.

"Teacher, you can speak Chinese?" 

"Teacher is Chinese la," Ramanan answered for me.

"Really? I thought you're a Malay."

"I am a Chinese," my smile grew wider. She looked puzzled.

"But... you are wearing tudung?"

"I am a Chinese Muslim... born in Malaysia. I grew up as a Chinese and later..."

"You converted?" Shanti chipped in.

"That's right. I wear the tudung because I am a Muslim woman. But I am still a Chinese and I can speak and understand Chinese." I explained slowly.

"Ohhh..." Revathi nodded slowly.

I've been in this school since 2010. I taught these same students two years ago and strangely, they have not realised that I am a Chinese lady. The reason? I am wearing a hijab, or tudung.

Students, like most Malaysians, associate this garb with Islam and being Malay. In many minds, if you wear a tudung, then you must be a Malay.

And in their minds, if you happen to wear a long tudung, then you must be an especially religious Malay. They associate our clothing with religion.

It's bad enough that Muslim and non-Muslim students are always separated during religious activities. It would be havoc among other non-Muslim teachers if a non-Muslim student were to sit in the hall with other Muslim students, listening to a ceramah (sermon) by an ustaz.

So I can't blame them for their lack of understanding of Islam. They don't know much because we, the Muslims, don't do much. Sometimes we, as adults, are not allowed to.
Students learn best when they mix with their own friends. Which is why our teenagers need to be exposed to doing Islamic dakwah work, and not be scolded nor discouraged just because they 'lack knowledge'.

I wouldn't be surprised if non-Muslim students think that China is made up of only Buddhist people. I used to think that way too, when in reality there are more Chinese Muslims in China than there are Malay Muslims in Malaysia.

Once, I was told, in hushed tones, that there was a Chinese student who was interested in Islam. The ustazah didn't know what to do. Till today, I'm still waiting for her to approach me.

It's always fun watching how Chinese students react when I speak Chinese dialects or Mandarin to them. One day when I scolded a sleepy Chinese lad in Hokkien, his mother tongue, and he was so surprised that he actually sat up straight.
And the Malay students?

They might suddenly realise that it's a fact that there are other Muslims in this country who are not Malay or Mamak.* That there are other once-kafir (non-Muslim) people who have embraced Islam and are now their brothers and sisters in Islam. Because I'm living and walking proof among them.

"So teacher, are you a Malay or a Chinese now?"

"I am a Chinese... and my religion is Islam. There are more than 60,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia today, did you know?"

Ahhh, life is never boring as a Chinese Muslim. Xie xie, wo ai ni,** Allah.

*Mamak: local slang to refer to people of Indian ethnicity.
** Mandarin for 'Thank you, I love you'.

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