A few days ago, I had an epiphany.
It was the first day of DST, and turning the clock forward had somehow screwed up my internal clock and I had lain awake at 6am (when it was really just 5am), and part of my exhausted brain was crying for me to go back to sleep, when I’d decided instead to sit at my computer and look at my old pictures at Flickr, and I began a journey through time to when I was about six or seven.
As some of you know, back then, I was living with my Koo Ma, my dad’s older sister, at her hair saloon with the swinging doors a la a real cowboy saloon (except this was a hair saloon). Together, we were my Koo Chiong (my uncle aka her husband), my cousin sister, three or four shampoo girls and a family of nine or ten people who rented the floor upstairs.
My cousin was an only child, andÂ she was given everything a child could possibly want. Living with her was bearing painfully envious witness to a life I could never have because, well, my parents were not as well to do.
Because she was their daughter, my cousin was ‘entitled’ to a lot more stuff than I was.
When we ate, she would always have the drumstick or whatever cut of meat was the best at the table, after which was my uncle since he was the breadwinner. And then it was me. My Koo Ma always ate whatever was left that nobody else wanted.
One of the things I remember most is how my aunt would make bird’s nest soup for my cousin. Back then, you had to clean the damn things out yourself. There was none of the ‘clean’ bird’s nest you find in the shops these days.
There is a distinct memory in my head of one of the shampoo girls or my aunt and even me, sitting at the dinner table at the back of the shop, pincers at the ready over a bowl of bird’s nest soaking in water, eyes squinting in semi darkness, pinching out microscopic specks of dirt sticking to the entrails of the’nest.
For hours on rotation duty throughout the day, we would do that until the nest was free of every offending piece of impurity. And then my aunt would boil it with rock sugar and maybe some lotus seeds, and at the end of the day, my cousin would come home from school, and single-handedly finish every drop of it.
It was all for her. All of it. That tiny bowl of bird’s nest the size of an oyster. Neither my uncle, my aunt, and definitely nor I, had ever taken even a small sip of the stuff.
At least I didn’t.
It is a concept I’d learnt at a very young age.
Until recently, I’ve never had a problem with entitlement. I just thought that was the way the world was. Some people had all the luck. You win some, you lose some. Born with a silver spoon or under a lucky star, that sort of thing. There was nothing one could do, and it was certainly not something you could fight. Fate and all that jazz.
Thing is, what am I entitled to in this life?
A job? Two kids? A taste of bird’s nest at 29?
What can we say is really ours without stepping on toes or going over the line? And who’s to say what is ours? There are territorial lines and laws that safeguard the sanctity of life and against dishonesty and bullying these days, sure, but when it comes down to things like wealth and health and real freedom, who’s to say what it is we can and cannot have?
Who’s to say what it is we can do and cannot do?
I come from a country where entitlement is a basis of government. That is the way it has always been, and it will likely remain the same for a very long time.
I still remember my class teacher at Standard Six. Her name was Puan Kalsom. She was also our history teacher and one day, she was teaching us about the Malays and why they were entitled to privileges other races were not.
“It is becauseÂ if you Chinese don’t like, you can run back to China, and if you Indians don’t like, you can run back to India. We Malays cannot run anywhere. This is our homeland. It is only fair we are entitled to these things.”
So you see, quite a few of us have gotten used to the idea of being – and remaining – a second-rate citizen. And to rock the boat would simply mean trouble.
Of course, things are very different today. Sitting here, being able to write about such things, is a very new experience even for me, an ex-journo. Back home, even thinking these things meantÂ riskingÂ being hauled off under theÂ Internal Security ActÂ for inciting racial disharmony and after perhaps a long telling-off in solitary confinement, have May 13 1969 thrown in my face a couple of times for good measure.
And so what do we ‘more affluent’, Malaysians do?
We plan our escape.
And then we go.
To a world where the word ‘entitlement’ still means hope.
Here in the US, at the very least, the girls would be entitled to what was fairly and justly theirs as immigrants.
If they turn out to be rocket-scientist material, they would be given opportunities here in the US that they rightly deserve. In fact, they would very likely be wrestled away to be made into more ‘useful’ human beings than they could ever have been if they’d remained at home.
If not, they would at least be given the chance to try.
Which is, sadly,Â more than I can say for an average-income Chinese in Malaysia.
A lot of people, anywhere in the world, would be of the opinion that it is not unfair that I was never given a drumstick nor a bowl of bird’s nest since I was just a relative. A lot of people, anywhere in the world, myself included, still think that some people are just born lucky.
But I’ll be damned if I don’t try and fight for some of these entitlements for my kids.
And here, at least I can try.