Beads of sweat drip down my girlfriend Nightingale’s bright red cheeks as she devours the chicken curry and rendang1 from Jayakarta Restaurant in Berkeley, our regular hangout when I am feeling homesick. She opted for Spice Level 4: supposedly “pepper-spray”-like for Americans, but tolerable for Indonesians — and her, a White American queer trans* woman who has never left the country.
Her huge grin sparks similar delight in me, giddy with anticipation over how much wider her smile would be (and how much sweatier and redder her face will become) when she tries cili padi2 and sambal3 and all the Spice Level 5-and-up things in our Christmas trip back home to Malaysia.
A country I never thought I’d ever want to return to, let alone eagerly bring a lover to show off as home.
Malaysia seems like an odd choice of place to bring your queer trans* girlfriend along for a visit. The Malaysian authorities have always been antagonistic to LGBTQ people, and their efforts have ramped up in the last year. Schools are receiving guidelines on spotting and curbing homosexual behaviour in children while playing host to a state-sponsored play that paints LGBTQ people as hedonistic predatory deviants. “Effeminate boys” are being sent to re-education camps, trans women are frequently targeted by law enforcement, and the closest thing to Pride in Malaysia is now banned. Of course, it’s all part of a foreign-led conspiracy to divide and attack Muslims.
Homophobia and transphobia aren’t exclusive to the Government. Trans women are attacked while walking down the street. Slurs such as “bapok” or “pengkid” are common. International ex-gay organisation Exodus International has a branch in Malaysia. Having hardly any representation of LGBTQ people — let alone positive ones —combined with strong cultural messages of not rocking the boat or rousing rabble means treating anyone potentially fitting the stereotypes as defective, deviant, dangerous.
To be honest, though, I never really had to deal with violence or bigotry over my sexual orientation or gender presentation. Rather, as a child of Bangladeshi migrants, my racial identity became my main battleground. For most of my life I had to deal with institutionalized and societal racism against Bangladeshis, commonly shunted into the “Other” category in racial quotas4 (if they’re ever counted at all) and decried by the Government, the media, and society as being untrustworthy criminals.
School teachers constantly interrogated me about news reports of Bangladeshis committing crime, and often threatened me with expulsion claiming I did not have the right papers — even though I was legally required to attend public school.
“Go back to your country!” and “speak the national language!” were common refrains.
“Bangla”,a word meant to refer to a language that sparked a revolution, now became a slur.
Even the supposedly more progressive Opposition coalition and their supporters were no allies to me — Bangladeshis were again scapegoated for allowing the ruling party to regain power via ‘phantom voting‘, and calling out my peers on this behaviour led to me being told that I was too “emotional” and that there were “more important priorities” than not throwing entire races under the bus in the quest for political reform.
Yet in Bangladesh I felt similarly alienated and disconnected. Being born and raised outside Bangladesh meant having few opportunities to be immersed in and appreciate Bangladeshi culture. I can’t read Bengali and I speak like a five-year-old. My relatives consider me the “interesting” oddity. When one of my cousins married a French man she met living in England, I was placed in the ‘foreigner’ contingent with the French family and English friends who came to Dhaka for the reception. Dhaka, with the overwhelming chaos and noise and dust, is the only city that makes me consistently homesick.
Malaysian culture is what I’m most familiar with,from the food to the fluent command of Manglish.Bangladeshi culture is where I am meant to find affinity,with a large extended family centered in Dhaka and histories of culture being key to independence and national pride. Yet in both places I have to view everything through the filter of the Other: expected to assimilate, but never fully welcome.
As it is, my personal interests and beliefs — from my ambitions to fully pursue the arts, to my radical-leaning left wing political activism — were deviating from the norms of both Malaysia and Bangladesh. I was becoming too Westernised, too non-conformist, too queer.
People talk about motherlands; I felt like I am someone born of a surrogate mother(land), who has estranged herself from her biological and surrogate mothers, and is now trawling the world looking for someone to adopt her.
So I left Malaysia,and sought to find home.
So much time and energy was spent dealing with racist backlash that I had no space to think about my gender and sexuality. My burgeoning feminism was more of a reaction against the gendered expectations of society: I didn’t want makeup or skirts or any sort of femininity markers whatsoever, and decried typical feminine pursuits such as fashion or sewing in a holier-than-thou matter.5
My knowledge of sex was perhaps slightly better than the average young Malaysian, given our abysmal lack of sex ed and the national attitude of studies being our only priority — over hobbies or relationships or life in general. However, paranoia over being the 0.000001% that gets STI-riddled babies despite using ALL THE PROTECTION and denial over being in love with one of my best friends meant that I identified largely as asexual: sex seemed like way too much of a messy hassle.
My first stop, Brisbane, Australia6, gave me the space and opportunity to explore my gender and sexuality without feeling like I had to risk arrest or deportation. I was in a loving relationship7 and found sex to be enjoyable (and my paranoia largely unfounded). My feminist politics grew more nuanced, being more inclusive of the “feminine pursuits” I once derided, and I even began to accept and nurture my femme side. When we opened our relationship (a great decision for many reasons), I was able to explore my interest in women,which led to a total reevaluation of my sexual identity.
In Brisbane I dived into my artistic and political ambitions, with a budding burlesque career characterised by my combination of the erotic with social justice — with a debut performance that blew people’s minds by merging my Muslim background with my growing eroticism. I became more involved with the queer community through volunteering and art. At one point I was a rising star.
Then things started to fall apart. I was being ostracised in the burlesque scene for being too vocal about its white-washing and constant cultural appropriation. Even the queer and activist communities were White-centric: I recall being the only non-White person at a meeting organised by radical activists meant to organise a protest against a White supremacist event. I was sexually assaulted and went through a traumatic breakdown of a relationship that had barely even started. Election season stirred up a lot of anti-migrant sentiment thanks to the rhetoric of “stopping the boats”.
Once again, I was alienated. Once again, everything became filtered through the lens of the Other.
I spent the summer of 2011 in San Francisco via an artist residency at CELLspace8 to nurse my heartbreak and alienation, and also because so many of my artistic inspirations were either based in the Bay Area or had spent significant time there. I quickly saw why: it seemed that every identity intersection had some sort of representation, activist community, or artistic presence. From queer artists of colour working with disability, to feminist fat activists, to community centers for culture and sexuality.
The people there quickly took me in as one of their own. I went on an ecosex workshop in the woods with Annie Sprinkle and Beth Stephens, and was rescued by Carol Queen and her partner Robert (whom I was interning for) after a bad pot incident at Dyke March. I performed at the Femmes of Color Symposium and at Oakland Pride. I befriended a ton of people and got laid, a lot. I felt appreciated, affirmed, accepted for the very things that got me pushed out from Brisbane — being a loudmouth rabble-rousing weirdo. Three months was not nearly enough, and I vowed to return.
I knew it was time to move on when hardly anyone noticed I had returned to Brisbane yet people in San Francisco were asking me to come back.
I got together with Nightingale about a month after I arrived in the Bay Area for graduate school9. We met just after Folsom Street Fair10, hit it off extremely well, and sparks flew a few days later at my birthday gathering when I made out with her halfway through singing Garbage’s Queer at karaoke in El Rio.
Nightingale charmed me with an intensity that matched mine and her sincere enthusiasm for life. I was impressed by her brazen complimenting of people’s attire: our walks together are often peppered with “Nice shoes!” or “Great dress!”. She is the first person I’ve met who is able to out-talk me. Her immense love and knowledge of music11 has led to impromptu lessons about syncopation and her ability to quote a song lyric for any situation (as she calls it, “life indexed by soundbite”). Her ability to recognise systems and make connections makes her an excellent Production Manager, giving me the means to actualise my Artistic Director dreams into reality12. She is equally as passionate about social justice, especially around sex worker rights and trans* equality.
Nightingale’s sincere, passionate curiosity and her deep love for me was what led to me gaining a renewed interest for the Malaysia I thought I had left behind.
Nightingale geeks out over languages — she has a fairly good command of French and Spanish in addition to English — and she was genuinely interested in learning more about Malay. Usually people don’t realise that the Malay language exists, let alone have any interest in learning any part of it, so Nightingale’s interest was a surprising and refreshing change. She quickly picked up on the numbering system (though she misses a digit or two sometimes), and random Manglish or Malay phrases have entered our joint language — from “I pukul you!”13 when someone’s being extra punny, to “sayang” as a pet name.
She also acquired a taste for Malaysian food. A love for food is practically baked into the DNA of most Malaysians; a recent survey of Malaysian students who are studying or have studied abroad14 showed that food was unanimously the thing they most missed about the country. While most foreigners do also appreciate Malaysian food, there are some parts that are a harder sell — such as the spice level, or durian. Nightingale eats spicier food than I do (in fact, I only started eating extra-spicy food in the US when I found myself pouring hot sauce on everything to make up for the lack of flavour), and not only does she willingly eat durian, she loves it. Even my parents can’t stand the taste! I had taken Malaysian food for granted, but Nightingale’s interest allowed me to really appreciate Malaysian food for its myriad flavours and its ability to be healthy, tasty, and affordable at once — try hitting one out of three in the US!
Sometimes the interest in food and the interest in language coincide. My explanation of kueh lapis and the existence of rainbow kueh lapis, filtered through a few injokes about ducks and the French language, led to her renaming the item “queer lapis”, with semi-joking plans about making these to sell at queer events.
A turning point for me came one afternoon while we were enjoying hot dogs at Berkeley. The topic of Malaysia’s National Service program came up, and I ranted about how young people in Malaysia were mistreated and how I hated the country for it and so on. Halfway through the rant I realised that I didn’t hate Malaysia: in fact I had a lot of love for the country. What I hated was the way its culture and its people were being erased and harmed by the People in Power: the clashes between races and religions, the scapegoating of youths and migrant labour, the slut-shaming and discrimination against gender and sexual minorities. There is so much beauty and spirit in Malaysia, in its food and languages and people — yet so much of it is disappearing,often without choice.
This growing appreciation for Malaysian culture ironically made me realise just how much of a misfit I was in the Bay Area. I often felt out of place at POC-centered places because they were working from a US-centric view of race politics, which I could not easily relate to. I walked into Eastwind Books, which stocked books by and for Asians, and found nothing about Malaysia. South Asian groups had Bengalis, sure, but they were more familiar with Bangladesh or India — not Malaysia. In a city that attracted me for its inclusive diversity, I still felt alone.
Nightingale’s support, love, and honest appreciation makes a huge difference. She listens to my stories with an open heart and sincere interest, never accusing me of “not being Malaysian enough”, while understanding the particular set of filters that define my experience. When my own peers struggle to understand me, she — as culturally different from me as you can get — accepts me wholeheartedly. She joins me in celebrating the discovery of the small shards of mirrors that reflect any part of my story: from connecting with Gloria Anzaldua’s description of mestiza,to Fikri’s story in Autostraddle of being a queer Singaporean of Muslim background. She cares about me and my culture, giving me the space to care about me and my culture too.
Interesting, that in the quest to find places that accepted the outsider parts of me, that it took another outsider to accept the parts I thought I couldn’t call mine.
I am somewhat concerned about Nightingale’s safety when she comes to Malaysia with me. On the one hand, her White privilege, the fact that she’ll be constantly be accompanied by me and others, and the likelihood that we’d stick to cosmopolitan areas affords some level of safety. On the other hand, I don’t know what it’s like to navigate Malaysia as a potentially visible queer couple, let alone as a trans* woman whose gender history may or may not be obvious.
I do know what it’s like to be constantly catcalled walking to and from work in Petaling Jaya. It’s not that dissimilar to being catcalled walking around 16th and Mission. Having company could make a lot of difference. It’s also possible that Nightingale’s gender and sexuality would be classified in Malaysia the same way mine are in the US or Australia: Foreign.
At the same time, there’s so much positive change happening in Malaysia that are supportive of the LGBTQ community. Trans* people are being appointed into political positions, community campaigns for trans* people and their allies are being built, and sexist and homophobic remarks are being called out openly in humorous ways. Resources such as Seksualiti Merdeka, the Malaysian AIDS Council, and the PT Foundation are still going strong. For every instance of bigotry there are plenty of people willing to challenge it and provide allyship to those affected.
Besides, there’s so much about Malaysia that I want to share with Nightingale, in her first trip outside the United States. The potential to meet my family and all my most important people in my life (including the best friend who I was in love with as a teenager and my Australian matey who’s also thinking of coming over). The waterfalls and beaches that were equidistant to the house I lived in in my teens. The fashion that’s more likely to fit her frame than mine. The music of my country — whether dangdut or Bollywood, full of the syncopation that makes her dance. More Manglish phrases, more pet names, more injokes. A history that I tried to avoid but know is intrinstic to who I am.
And of course, the food.
I tell everyone who considers visiting Malaysia that if they do not gain 10 kilos they’re doing it wrong. Even if Nightingale doesn’t quite gain that much weight, I’m sure she will gain life-changing experiences. She’s surely given me a lot of life-changing experiences — especially the opportunity to change how I viewed my life thus far.
The grin on her sweat-soaked face, red from the heat of the curry she wolfed down. Such a beautiful sight to behold.
I am raising funds and collecting resources to pay for Nightingale’s flight to Malaysia this Christmas. Please contribute and spread the word — every little bit helps!
1 Rendang: a type of beef curry popular in Malaysia and Indonesia, made by stewing the meat in coconut milk and spices for a considerable amount of time.
2 Cili padi: a type of chili pepper that’s really small (think pinky-sized), often green, and very VERY spicy.
3 Sambal: chili paste commonly paired with all sorts of Malaysian dishes.
4 Most of Malaysian bureaucracy separates people into Malay/Chinese/Indian, with Other sometimes tacked on as an afterthought. In many places, particularly Government-funded areas, Malays get either exclusive or special rights. Look up Ketuanan Melayu (Malay Supremacy), hardcoded into the Malaysian Constitution, to see the context behind Malaysia’s racial quotas.
5 From a blog post made when I was seventeen, talking about the things that fascinate me: “The dynamic “force” in female-female relationships (I’m not gay, but the connection between two girls fascinate me endlessly)”. TIARA. SERIOUSLY, TIARA.
6 I was there to pursue a Bachelors degree in Creative Industries, but really I picked that city because my idol Darren Hayes is from there. Recently I participate in a project with the Queensland Museum about personal collections and contributed my Darren Hayes and Savage Garden collection. Go check it out when you’re in town!
7 We are no longer a couple, but we are still close best friends. I consider him my matey and my platonic life partner.
8 Formerly an artist warehouse and working space in the Mission. Seems to be closed now though!
9 Official reason: MFA. Real reason: to be in the Bay Area longer than three months.
10 Folsom Street Folsom Street Fair: a massive street fair by and for the kinky community.
11 She loves pretty much any sort of music, but has a soft spot for Erasure the same way I have a soft spot for Darren Hayes.
12 Creative Industries class in Brisbane, 2007: “The Artistic Director goes ‘For this year’s festival I want BLUE DIAMONDS ON TRAMPOLINES!’. The Production Manager has to figure out how to do this under budget.” Soon after I told Nightingale this she talked about making this happen through tarps and school gym equipment. I waited 5 years for her!
13 “I pukul you!”: “I slap you!”, usually said in affectionate teasing when the other party is being silly. “sayang”: love/sweetheart
14 I participated in the survey but I can’t seem to find the specific results now; it was from a couple of years back.
Creatrix Tiara considers herself a platypus: made up of parts that shouldn’t go together, but do, and (unlike unicorns) actually exist even when no one believes they do. She’s actively exploring liminality and intersectionality in art and activism, particularly around being a queer gender-WTF femme(ish) migrant minority. Say hello at creatrixtiara [dot] com.