The academic racial quota was a routine proceeding during my fundamental years at my all-girls high school in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia. When our teacher asked students of each ethnic group to raise their hands, we obliged without a second thought. The majority of students in each class were Malays, followed by Chinese and Indians. According to public school protocol, Eurasians or Chindians were required to choose which part of their identity was to be documented on paper. The classroom census was merely a formal form of documentation.
When it was time for Indian students to raise their hands, my right hand shot up! At the same time, another Indian girl in my class stood up to object. She directed her sharp words at our teacher, saying, “But Amanda is not Indian; she’s Christian !” as if to warn the other few Indian girls in class that I was, in fact, not one of them because of my faith.
I grew up as a third culture kid in Malaysia. Here, the conception of identity, culture, religion and nationality were intertwined with each other and inseparable from our collective cultures. At such a young age, I learnt the distinctions of nationality and ethnicity despite my South Indian roots being planted in Malaysian soil for three generations.
Many of my relatives back home attend Tamil churches of various denominations where they adorn themselves in cultural attire while celebrating both their cultural heritage and their religious practices. My parents, however, were committed to a specific brand of evangelicalism inspired by a trip to America in their early twenties. As a result, they engaged with evangelical churches that were English speaking and inspired by American and Australian church plants.
My family adopted an extremely conservative brand of Christianity, one that did not allow space for secular media including books and movies like Harry Potter or music written and sung by non-Christian artists. I had no autonomy over the beliefs I could adopt. I love dancing and performing, but I was told that it was not appropriate to do so outside of the church. I always felt stifled. I constantly struggled to negotiate my identity in the church, especially when it came to creative expression. I gave up many opportunities to participate in cultural performances in school because I often felt like I had to choose my allegiance to Christianity over my culture.
The evangelical tradition my family adopted prioritizes proselytizing. It builds up a culture of superiority among many of its followers to ‘save’ those who do not know their truth as the ultimate Truth. We were discouraged from associating ourselves with many of our cultural traditions and histories as they were considered demonic and spiritually perverse. I was sent to a kindergarten that prioritized teaching in English and Mandarin which was considered more valuable than learning my mother tongue. As a result, a subtle divide was created between my other relatives who enjoyed connecting with their mother tongue and other cultural aspects of being part of a Malaysian Tamil diaspora.
As a third generation immigrant I have no access to my lineage before my maternal grandmother. She was a Christian by the time I got to know her. I remember her as a healer, who transmuted her energy through her hands with the food she made, the coconut oil she massaged into my scalp and the herbs and seeds she offered me for physical pain. I remember her closet full of cotton and silk sarees, threads of our lineage folded into one another to create beautiful designs and imagery to adorn the frame of our existence. I remember how she prayed in Tamil and the grief I experienced as a child from never understanding what she was saying. Somehow between my ammachi and my mother, this vortex of memories seemed to have evaporated. Somehow between my mother and my sisters and I was born into a culture of self-loathing and shame.
My personal cultural identity is an important part of my spirituality and is connected deeply to my maternal grandmother, or ammachi, as we used to call her. I believe our memory, also known as karma, allows us to live in psychological realities fuelled by fears and limitations of our trauma from the past and projections of the future. Our constant anxiety to be distracted from the present moment can be calmed and regulated through spiritual practices that allow us to safely engage with the now. I often felt off balance and my energy was often sporadic and I could only imagine what my ancestors went through with their hefty share of trauma. What’s worse is the ignorance towards generational trauma because you can’t ask certain questions about your heritage or have open communication about your own trauma in a silencing culture. My disappointment in the community of adults who raised me is fuelled by grief. The grief of never having healthy relationships. The grief of never experiencing unconditional love. The grief of my memories not being remembered or validated.
Food was truly the only form of cultural lineage I had access to through my mother and grandmother – that’s how it became my love language. In this way, I consider my connection to food as a way of grounding and rooting myself in the cultural heritage I so yearn to experience. Malaysian cuisine is rich in complexity and stories of migration, land relationships and hybrid cultures that have been impacted since colonial contact. So exploring the Malaysian delicacies my mother and grandmother prepared was my entry to decolonization and resistance. How could such delicious flavours and textures come out of something plagued with such violence? And soon enough, I was hungry, but for knowledge, knowledge about myself and the lineages that prepared for my very existence.
A local pre-university social science course opened my eyes to see the harm abusive theology has on our perceptions of self, community and healing. I recognized the divorcing of culture and personhood to enforce religious doctrine as a rigid, superior form of righteousness. I realised that I can be both Indian and Christian, if I want to. But the truth is, I don’t want to. I am not. Since living with these intense clashes of realities, I’ve made it my personal business to unlearn and deconstruct the teachings that I was force-fed in the evangelical church. My food journey continues to expand as I deepen my knowledge of my family recipes and experiment with recreating them. I enjoy telling stories while sharing my experiences with Malaysian food and international cuisines on my food blog @foodventureswithpanda!
A significant part of my spiritual healing journey is unlearning and unmasking the notions of salvation and saviourism and reclaiming my indigeneity. I reject any belief that ancestral practices are demonic. And instead hold my body as a vessel connected to so many other lifetimes and the memory carried in my DNA is a collection of lived realities passed down from generation to generation. I have changed my perspective towards my non-homogenous cultural identity to one that is full of acceptance, love and healing. I am weary of romanticizing my longing for ancestral connection. But instead of shame and loathing, I choose to explore my Malaysian and Tamil cultures as well as my subcultures with honour and curiosity.
Religion for me will no longer be for behavioural modification, shaming or control. I have accepted for myself that there is no one truth, but that there exists multiple truths and collective healing is rooted in a connection to our cultural histories and spiritual lineages. I now give myself permission to explore my cultural and spiritual heritage. I owe myself the responsibility to question and delve curiously into my seemingly objective beliefs as an extension of my authentic self- I do not have to give up my cultural inheritance to further my spiritual experiences within and outside of Christianity. I am worth undoing the chains of oppressive religious indoctrination and living out my generational truths and blessings. I hope that one day I will reunite with my ammachi and we will embrace our freedom together. In the meantime, I will savour and enjoy every bite of sweet heritage until we meet again.