written by x.y.
The author has chosen not to reveal themself.
‘Miss Lim*, your first language isn’t English.
You’re Malaysian, therefore your mother tongue is Malay or Chinese.’
Mr Whitman* was one of the best Maths teachers I have ever had the pleasure and honour of teaching me. He was a patient, kind and humorous man who made sure I understood Maths when I was struggling to continue the subject during A-Levels. But, Mr Whitman was also a white man born during the Baby Boomer Era, a man who held traditional views of the world that people today would deem to be controversial and slightly offensive.
When I was younger, I used to visualise ‘the West’ to be this charming magical place where people were accepting of all kinds of culture, less conservative with ‘taboo’ topics (i.e sex education and LGBTQ+ discussions) and a place where all aspects of equality were advocated for and practiced. Unbeknownst to me, I had been influenced to believe that these were the things the West stood for and what Malaysia could do better in. College [the school I took my A-Levels in] definitively shattered this illusion: instead, I was thrusted into this small, conservative community of less than 10,000 people.
Some people called this small town home, where mountains and hills were the first thing you would see upon looking out your school window. Snow would cover this place during winter and it would produce the purest, most breathtaking shade of white on my college’s vast field. Although the nearest train station was located 30 minutes away by bus, many people loved and boasted the attractions my little town had -- kebab restaurants, a Morrisons supermarket, a Gothic Cathedral, a Chicken Takeaway* (that substituted the lack of fast food chains in this small town), Chinese takeaways and a locally-owned cinema. Lo-and-behold, situated in this small town was my co-ed boarding school.
In high school I always knew that I would one day want to study at a UK university. Family friends advised me that going through UK colleges would increase my chances of admission. Of course, being the odd one out who dreamt of studying a Humanities degree at university, I leapt at the chance to study at this school. I thought to myself: ‘2 years studying in the UK baby, it’s going to be the best!’ I was quite wrong on that. When you leave Malaysia, people often advise you to take good care of yourself when you study overseas and beware of ‘culture shock’. I always thought the term ‘culture shock’ referred to the sudden ‘child gone wild’ phenomena, where teenagers went hunting for new quests to conquer every month upon receiving their newfound freedom. Little did I know, my culture shock would run in a very different direction from this phenomena.
During my years in high school, it was very easy for me to make friends with boys and girls alike. College was the exact opposite for me: here, boys and girls hardly ever talked to each other unless you were deemed ‘cool enough’ by both genders. What seemed to me to be the most ridiculous aspect of this ‘cool enough’ concept was that only one Asian student was allowed to be part of the popular clique. (Yes, you read that right -- one Asian student.) It was almost as if there was a racial quota for the popular clique and that to cross that quota, especially with that of Asian students, was social suicide. Naturally, I was deemed ‘not cool enough’ to fulfil that ratio. In their eyes I was too unsophisticated precisely for the reason that had to do with my ‘boisterous’, class clown personality -- apparently we had different definitions of humour. As the cherry on top of this bigoted cake, I was alienated and shelved by these sixteen, seventeen year olds into the stereotypical ‘Asian community’ of this college.
Perhaps I am being too harsh on my past year-mates; they were after all taught by the same adults who had shoved me into this community I did not feel belonged to. Plus, the Asian community was not all that bad -- most students were from Hong Kong anyway, and they were friendly for the most part. My problem did not lay in my inability to vibe with them, it lay in my inability to communicate with them. My fatal flaw at this college was that I could not speak a word of Cantonese. Sure there were some students from China who were in my position too, but they were comfortable being in their own space, and that left me to fend for myself at this college where Cantonese-speaking minds dominated the voices of the Asian community, leaving a Malaysian student who had big dreams of studying in a Russell Group university to fight and create a world where she could shine.
There were not many Malaysians in my institution -- there were probably only five of us in the history of my college. It was a very lonely two years of my life. Friends were not hard to make at this place; friendships were hard to maintain though. When it came to studying, I focused like a bull because I really wanted to get into my university. After AS Levels, I started drifting away from my group of friends in both college and in Malaysia-- plans without me in it would be made in front of me, people were invited to parties I had received no invitations to, my friends distanced themselves from me because I had become too ‘hardcore’ to be around with etc. In their defence, my eyes were on the prize and when I could not comprehend my culture shock that was the generalisation of my individuality into a stereotypical ‘Asian’ setting, I turned to snacks and my parents for comfort. It did not matter that I was eating unhealthily, that I had put on 10-12kg during my two years at college. If it meant that this was the price that I would have to pay to stop feeling butthurt about my limited opportunities and alienation at this institution in exchange for my acceptance into a Russell Group university, it was worth it. In the span of two years, I had become a recluse, angry, bitter student who felt limited and stuck in a place she hated.
In the simplest terms, my Asian community members were not equal to my European classmates. There were no equal opportunities for us to shine because while some of my Asian friends had language barriers to overcome, people like me were so tired of the generalisation of Asian students that we simply just gave up on voicing out our opinions. As far as this institution was concerned, allowing girls the option to wear formal trousers instead of formal skirts and naming a (white) female student ‘Head of School’ for the very first time in the school’s history was as revolutionary as this school could get. Misogyny was still rampant, cocky students constantly fought over the supremacy of STEM and Humanities subjects in the classroom, and students of other ethnicities cooking their homeland dishes would make the majority of students scrunch their nose up in disgust. Despite being the only Asian student who was capable of taking History and English Literature during my A-Levels, I was still forced by my college to take IELTS classes as if I could not comprehend the English language. Can you imagine being alienated by people who you thought would stand by you and give you opportunities to advance yourself? Culture shock comes in many different ways, and this was my harsh truth.
My point is, culture shock is prevalent everywhere you go -- the ‘wild child’ (buy earplugs when you can, you WILL need it), the ‘I cannot vibe with Europeans la’, and the ‘eh mummy, I don’t know how to cook rice, can teach me ah?’ are the ones you would probably encounter more often, especially in uni. What is often harder to come by is the limitations people try to put on you precisely for the reason that is your ethnicity. I’m glad to say that ever since I started university in London, I am now happier than I ever was. For all the unhappiness I had experienced in college, three things stuck with me for the better.
One, I have now learnt the art of being brutally honest, one of the many things I taught myself and came out of English Literature class with.
Two, I no longer binge-eat -- instead, I have opted to live a healthier lifestyle.
Three, I have grown to love Malaysia for all its flaws and problems, because honestly, there is no place like home.
I have been lucky to be blessed with parents showering me with all the love and support I could have gotten. And it’s not as if I lost all my friends in college; I managed to keep in contact with a handful of them and they have been nothing short of being supportive for my happiness. My piece of advice? Don’t ever let anyone silence you for who you are; be proud of your heritage and your seemingly unorthodox upbringing. Get help if you need to, but most importantly, never stop loving yourself.
* Names have been changed by the author in order to conceal the individual’s identity.