It’s been nearly fourteen years since I was last in both Kuala Lumpur and Penang, and I clearly remember writing in my journal that I was headed for Malaysia, Australia. Having relatives in both countries made my six year old self steadfastly believe that Malaysia just happened to be a part of Australia. Older now, and wiser at least in geography, I set off on my final Southeast Asian trip with my mother in tow.
Malaysia, unlike my previous destinations, is a country of roots, making my week there rather different than my other travels. Things felt somehow more significant as we explored, almost as if I was looking for something here. Choosing to study in the region was largely because of my degree concentration, but learning about places I’m partly from and my country’s role in certain events began to reshape the way I view my heritage, my family, myself.
Anyone who’s known me well knows that I’ve never been a fan of extended family. No individual in particular, of course— rather the concept itself. This is likely a result of having an extremely large web of fairly closely related people – I have 22 first cousins – none of whom happen to live even remotely nearby. For as long as I can remember, my concept of the word “family” has been limited to my parents and my siblings, while all other blood relations are just that— blood relations. Once I learned of how little genetic similarity one shares with one’s extended family, the concept of biological obligation cemented itself as ridiculous. I found little value in those outside of my home, instead seeing such connections as burdensome or irrelevant. With age, though, I’ve begun to understand the worth of extended family beyond places to live while traveling.
Both of my parents have long encouraged me to find out more about our family histories, promising fascinating, poignant, unique tales of war and love and disappointment lying in the pits of my relatives’ memories, spanning crucial eras of history and many countries. I struggled to understand how this was significant to us, to our story. The solipsism of youth, one might call it. However, as time went by, my budding interest in collecting others’ stories grew, and I was drawn in by how so much of human endeavor is an attempt to imitate reality.
Now at this stage, roaming the streets of Penang, hearing stories of my mother as a young girl, visiting her old school, sloshing buckets of cool water across myself, digging into fresh, creamy durian, I was instantly more aware of how my mother became who she is, why no location can ever have enough trees for her, how her environment and her family shaped her worldview. Because I now increasingly find myself becoming more like my mother, I could now better understand who I was, where I was coming from. It was shocking, really, to see how certain personality traits or habits or mannerisms could be traced right to the stem. I learned that my grandfather – who died long before I was born – loved poetry, just like I do, and though of course these proclivities are not really passed down, it’s pretty to imagine that he held his pen the same way I do before writing, that he would gaze out his window at his sister playing or the warm rain falling and think of things.
It’s nice to think that there is at least some explanation for why we are the way we are, that our fumbles and missteps are not original. It isn’t fair for us to blame any of our shortcomings or disasters on nature or the past, but it’s comforting to know those who came before us may have struggled with similar things. Our time in Malaysia has revealed both pleasant and unpleasant facts about my roots, however removed these roots may be. I’m beginning to understand the value of blood beyond my home, as a point of reference, a source of access. I can think of blood as family.
This ends a collection of writing about my time in Singapore (and surrounding countries). For visual documentation of my adventures there, follow me on Instagram @mayisrad.
If you are a member of my family and have any stories you’d like to share, please contact me through email or Whatsapp. I’d love to chat.