Defining My Subject Position

 

Down the rabbit hole is precisely how I felt this weekend as I contemplated the terms and readings for po-co theory and what they meant for me, an exercise that proved to be a lot harder than I had anticipated.

Defining my subject position as a postcolonial subject is fraught with complications not just because of colonialism and its legacy, but also because I’ve just never thought about it. These are questions that no one back home would think to ask, much less consider their implications and importance.

Much of the reading grapples with defining the postcolonial, the scope and depth of the issues and experiences it includes, as well as the time frame it encompasses. Does the term “post” really connote the end of colonization? What does the term mean for the postcolonial nation? For me, the postcolonial subject? The propositions offered in the readings raise as many questions as they answer.

I am an ethnic Chinese, a Malaysian by nationality, female, student, daughter, Christian, and from a middle-class background. All these different selves constitute my identity and affected my experience growing up in Subang Jaya. It is one of the largest suburban cities in Malaysia, situated about 30 minutes from the capital, Kuala Lumpur. While Islam is the official religion of Malaysia, the country has been open to Western influence and modernization since its independence from British rule in 1957, weaving another intricate dimension into the already diverse ethnic and religious local landscape.  A walk through the streets of Kuala Lumpur reveals mammoth 10 storey malls housing various American and European fashion brands next to small, family owned businesses selling traditional herbs and dresses. Malaysians might slurp Chinese-style noodles in clear chicken broth in the mornings, grab a McDonalds meal to go for lunch, and wash down their dinner of nasi kandar (Malay rice with curried dishes) with teh tarik (Indian milk tea).

Each of these cultural influences affect Malaysians in different degrees depending on their ethnicity and religion. Western culture was (and still is) a dominant force in my own diverse cultural upbringing, a result of my parents’ experience in missionary schools and studying abroad in Canada and Australia. As a child, I consumed Western novels and films voraciously outside of school (where the medium of instruction was in Malay and Mandarin) without thinking to question its implications in shaping my identity as a postcolonial subject. The result was that I grew up feeling disconnected with the history of my homeland and my culture, but at the same time, did not see myself in the blonde haired, blue-eyed characters of the Western films and books that I devoured in my free time.

It is only now, in my final semester at KU, that I am contemplating these issues. For the first time, I am able to give voice to the discomfort and anxieties of my experience of straddling two worlds. As I worked through the readings this week, however, it did not escape my notice that I am engaging with this material in the language of my colonizer, at a university in the United States, the epicenter of western ideology, no less, and in a discipline that was birthed in Western academia. At the same time, I think about how this conversation would never take place back home in Malaysia, where institutionalized racism and rampant corruption continue to perpetrate the marginalization of various minority groups.  In view of the fact that my nation and culture do not provide me with an avenue to unpack this conflict, I feel forced to resort to the language and culture of the West to do so.

This internal conflict is mirrored by the larger national narratives of many post-colonial nations. Once the euphoria of independence subsided, postcolonial states have struggled to navigate the herculean task of reconstructing their identity. Left to face the reality of what it means to exercise and embody that freedom, the postcolonial state has questioned how much of that freedom it can truly claim as its own in light of the utilization of colonial institutions and values to procure and sustain that independence, not to mention the disadvantages it continues to face under a system of neo-colonialism.

Yet, even as I am acquiring the vocabulary to assert my voice in Western education, I have encountered resistance to my right in constructing my identity. As I read Christopher Columbus’ account of discovering America, I was struck by how the mentality of the colonizer still persists today. It is a mentality characterized by imposing one’s biases and assumptions on the colonized, with little to no regard for their opinions and voices. It was evident when I presented at the KU English conference last spring and a student in the audience asked me how it was like growing up as a second generation immigrant, even after I had explicitly said that I was born and raised in Malaysia. I saw it in action again when a doctor at the health center grilled me about how I could speak English so well (“Are you sure you be never had contact with a white person when you were younger?”). Because it is incomprehensible that a non-white foreigner could speak fluent English. Such statements have even come from professors: “It must be difficult for you to translate the material into English”; another assumed I was Buddhist even after I had told him in a previous conversation that I’m Christian.

Like Columbus’ interactions with the natives, the encounters above were not real interactions but one-way streets dominated by the narrative of the West. In my experience, I have found that people here rarely ask me about myself and my culture, and if they do, they’re not really interested in the answer, obstinate in their refusal to change their preconceived notions and rigid mindsets. I am saying this because people deny the continued existence of this mentality (and their role in its perpetration), wanting to attribute it as a thing of the past. But until and unless this mentality is dismantled, my ability to construct my subject position will be an uphill battle.

Nonetheless, even as I tangle with the immensity of these issues and the complications they entail for my identity, I find a lifeline in Davies and Harre’s metaphor of an unfolding narrative, “in which we may be constituted in one position or another, in one narrative or another within a story, or perhaps stand in multiple positions or negotiate new ones by ‘refusing’ the ones that have been articulated by posing alternatives.”

I hope that in carving out this little space for myself on the blogosphere, I am posing such an alternative. And in so doing, perhaps I can navigate these questions and understand myself and the realm of postcolonial theory a little better this semester.