Shiila has lived in the U.S. for some years as a graduate student at Syracuse University and is currently pursuing her PhD. We have the opportunity to learn from someone who is from Malaysia and living in the U.S.
A: How long have you been studying at Syracuse University?
S: I‘ve been here for 5 years. I came here in 2016 to do my MFA, under Fulbright scholarship. I was planning to go home after 3 years, but then I decided to apply for PhD because I wanted to do more after taking classes in social sciences and critical theories on gender, race, and disability. I realized it’s a very important tool and knowledge - in some ways I feel liberated and affirmed, having learned the language to articulate my experiences. It’s also empowering and I saw the values in higher education. I’m entering my 3rd year PhD program. It may take up to 6 years in total including my research and dissertation.
I’m from Malaysia and I went back to visit three times in the past 5 years but since COVID-19 lockdown, it’s been too difficult to travel. I’m still planning to do my research back home by end of summer next year for two years.
A: Tell us about Malaysia.
S: I’m a 3rd generation Chinese descendant, and as far as I know my family doesn’t have any mix of other ethnicities. There are different dialects. My paternal grandfather was Hokkien, and my maternal grandfather was Hakka. I grew up in the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, in the 80’s and 90’s. The Chinese community there at the time was highly influenced by Hong Kong media. I grew up speaking Cantonese mostly with friends but I speak Mandarin with my parents and family members. We are a multi- ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religion country. Chinese Malaysian, the last statistic I’m aware of, make up close to 20-30% of the population, and the majority is Malay – an ethnic group that consists of different ethnicities and settlers in the Indo- Malaysian region- Javanese, Bugis, Minangkabau and a few others (they are the settlers from around 500 years ago, so we still have our Kings in each states). Every 5 years we have a new King. I never really know their names. (laughter) They’re always kind of in the backseat. I think they control the military but a lot of our politics is with the Parliament and Prime Minister, who seem to hold more power. It’s a very diverse country. We have our challenges, and we have our race issues. I think the Chinese immigrants came around 300 years ago. There was an influx in the early 1900’s, my grandparents came in the 1930’s, most of the immigrants were mostly working class and came to Malaysia to do labor plantation, but there were also Chinese descendants of different social classes. The government acknowledges that the Malay group as the rightful native landowners, even though we have Indigenous groups too who are quite marginalized and assimilated to Malay culture.
A: Is the topic of racism addressed in Malaysia?
S: It’s mostly suppressed because we are the minority voices. We don’t have a clear group of oppressor oppressing another group in some ways because we were under the British monarch too, before that the Japanese occupation, the Dutch and Portuguese. Before we gained independence from the British, we were one country with Singapore, but they couldn’t agree with how Chinese Malaysian were not going to share equal rights with Malay Malaysian so they detached themselves from our country. I have some relatives in Singapore.
We retain our culture so we still carry our Chinese names. I went to a national public school which means I did not formally learn how to speak and write in Chinese. I speak Mandarin, Cantonese is my primary language, but English is the second language taught in school and has become the language that I can articulate much better in. As a Chinese Malaysian, a woman and a queer person I can never become a Prime Minister of Malaysia because it is written in our constitution that only native (Malay and Indigenous) people can be the prime minister of Malaysia.
A: Tell us how you got into Syracuse and filmmaking.
S: I don’t come from an intellectual type of family background. We don’t talk politics and we don’t carry those conversations in the house. Education is used to provide basic literacy but it doesn’t provide critical thinking because I think that’s how they control people from rebelling. Like many other families that managed to have some kind of upward social mobility in the 80’s, my parents ran a small retail business. My Mom comes from a tailoring background, knows fashion, clothes, sewing, and creating. My parents were able to send me and my siblings, older sister and a younger brother, to college as first-generation college students. I went to a private college in Malaysia and got my Bachelor’s degree in computing. We did what society expected us to do. I got my degree and worked in IT for a few years but it didn’t fulfill me or provide me with the growth that I desired. I took a break and went to work in a resort on an island, (and later in the Maldives) and started scuba diving. I became a scuba diving instructor the following year and I now have made at least 8000 dives after many years. There was a company that does underwater videography for tourists in one of the resorts I worked in and they provide underwater videography and photography services for BBC, Discovery, NGO’s- nonprofit organizations. I wanted to be a part of that. Initially I was operating the underwater camera but I eventually did the editing, directing, producing and writing, learning all the different aspects of the job. I was exposed to different social issues and I realized I wanted to tell stories of the marginalized for social change. At my job in the Maldives, I met my first gay friend and started to understand my sexuality better. I knew since childhood I was attracted to girls but suppressed it because of the stigma but I came out when I was 26yrs old and I moved to Singapore with my first girlfriend. It’s not legal to be gay in Malaysia. I took up a job in Singapore to live with her but it didn’t work out. I went back to Malaysia to work in my diving job and worked for another underwater video company. I became more involved with the management of the company and was constantly drawn to social and environmental issues when producing videos for NGOs. These experiences indirectly helped me build a strong portfolio. From my 2nd ex girlfriend, I learned about a Malaysian government grant created to help people in the creative industry to gain more skills. I applied and received a three- month grant to study at the New York Film Academy in New York City where I transitioned to independent filmmaking, and started working on narrative and fiction filmmaking. I enjoy writing, working with actors and I actually enjoy acting myself. Later, I started teaching part time at a private college in Malaysia. I realized I enjoyed teaching too. I was slowly transitioning out of my diving career and continued searching for grants and scholarships-that’s when the Fulbright scholarship came up and how I became a grad student. I was not a typical academic achiever but my experiences in underwater videography and social impact films, led me to where I am.
I don’t openly discuss scuba diving and being gay with my parents (my parents are on my Facebook and on it I don’t deny my sexuality). My siblings knew and they were always supportive. I have a strong bond and attachment especially with my niece, my sister’s child who is now 8 years old.
A: Tell us about your name.
S: Au Yong is my family name, Seok Wun is my first name and is pronounced in Hokkien dialect. In Mandarin it’s ‘Xu-Wen’, in Cantonese ‘Sook-Munn’. Shiilā is my Sanskrit name, my spiritual name that my meditation teacher gave me. At first I thought it was very feminine and it didn’t feel like me because I have always been more androgynous. I identify as nonbinary and woman. I still feel uncomfortable about pronouns for myself. I feel more nonbinary and don’t ascribe to any label in terms of gender, but I use both they/them and she/hers as a political choice. I can more openly use my LGBTQ identity here in US than in Malaysia. There, it can be used against you like in certain workspaces or in any association with the government. It’s more challenging if you’re Muslim. Islam is the official national religion in Malaysia and Syariah law applies to Muslim people, where you can be arrested or fined for things like not fasting during Ramadhan month or for drinking alcohol, having “abnormal” sex, etc... U.S. in general is more supportive of the LGBTQ community and has more expansive knowledge of diversity in gender and sexuality.
I practice a form of yoga and meditation called Ananda Marga that I started in 2014. It’s been very helpful for me. I practice an Ayurvedic vegetarian diet and meditate twice a day. I learned about it in Malaysia from a yogic nun, Didi Ananda Sampraiina (Didi means ‘sister’ in Sanskrit) whom I met at a local art event. I would say my family practiced a blend of Buddhism and Taoism.
A: What does the term people of color mean to you?
S: You’re not white and you experience some level of struggle with your race. You can use that as a label to find your community and access to certain things such as grants. In academia that gives some direction. I experience microaggressions on an interpersonal level. I feel it when people don’t look at me when I talk, don’t acknowledge my voice, you have to speak louder and sometimes you have to repeat yourself, you’re seen as passive and less intelligent.
Coming here after being exposed to critical theories, I am more aware of how race affects me. I became a people of color here. Back home in Malaysia, we don’t experience racism the same way people experience racism here.
For example, I experienced institutionalized racism when I was made to go through some bureaucracy when I became a Teaching Assistant. Even though I already did work that was similar (even teaching my own college level classes in Malaysia), but I had to take an English proficiency test as part of the requirement for international students who the institution deemed necessary. Someone on the phone told me that the way they assessed my English proficiency was based on my accent, but we know, accent is not an indication of my ability to teach or English proficiency, especially since I was teaching film and art. And is not an inclusive practice. So I wrote the Dean and made a big fuss about it. I felt I had to speak up about it. Otherwise this would continue in the future.
The struggles here are different. I can’t really say which one is better or worse. In terms of a legal perspective, you have to be more careful in Malaysia. There are many issues here I care about like healthcare, racism, segregation, student loans.
In Malaysia, we have almost free healthcare, but as my mother told me, there is a general feeling that public hospitals would prioritize Malay people over minority groups, and people who don’t speak proper Malay may get bullied to some extent. Our private hospitals are not as expensive as here. Chinese Malaysians in my opinion, in general don’t openly talk and criticize and instead try to avoid these issues. We did have our racial riot at one point and it was pretty ugly that resulted in a lot of violence so people try to avoid that from happening again. Since then, there were a number of policies implemented that favor more of the majority group.
A: What message do you want to impart to people about Asians?
S: I think the most important thing is to first learn to love this identity. From there, try to understand our struggles as a result of racial biases without just focusing on the negative and deficit model. It’s important to have awareness of the racial injustice and to be critical on issues around race, and at the same time to use the struggles as strengths to change the system (and healing) and not fall into only a victim narrative is important.
I like to say that I am Malaysian. Around Chinese people I like to tell that I am Chinese Malaysian. I definitely identify as Asian. In fact in my university now, we don’t have a sustainable space for Asians to come together so I am actually starting an organization with a few friends where we can provide resources, information, where we can do activities and talk about different issues.
A: Do you consider yourself an atypical Asian or not?
S: I consider myself very Asian. I sound Asian, I don’t feel I need to sound differently. I think Asian food is better. (laughter) I’ve always been culturally Chinese but my affinity for Asians is separate from citizenship. For me, it has nothing to do with being Malaysian or American. Asians and Asian Americans share similar and different struggles in the U.S. and we need to come together to take care of each other and to understand each other better in order to build solidarity and to celebrate our identity.