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Travelling To The Roots

Sometimes the best journeys are the ones that take us to places we think we know, and teach us about them in new ways. Louise reflects on her heritage, the stories it tells, and the joy of reconnecting with it.

By Louise Cheung, Second Year, English

The Croft Magazine // Sometimes the best journeys are the ones that take us to places we think we know, and teach us about them in new ways. Louise reflects on her heritage, the stories it tells, and the joy of reconnecting with it.

My father and mother migrated to the UK from Hong Kong and Malaysia, respectively, when they were young. Appearing as the land of opportunity, the UK became a country held so high in esteem as my parents imagined it to be utopia. However, what greeted them immediately were racial slurs in school and in the workplace, shattering the idealised dream. The racial abuse was ceaseless, never-ending and exhausting. The constant fear of being racially attacked, either with snide remarks or physical fights, caused severe worry for my father and his siblings.

Adding onto the heightened stress was the all-too-common feeling of loneliness, as the answer to ‘where is home?’ occupied my father’s mind constantly. Once called home but was now great distances away was Hong Kong, whilst the bustling city of London, was in reality, unwelcoming and uncaring, appearing like the root of all his anxiety. This same feeling also presented itself in my mother as she packed her bags and flew across the continent by herself, spurred on by her determination to obtain a better future, ignoring the growing apprehension that gnawed away. Decades later, calling the UK home feels natural to my parents, with friendships built and a family created.

I was brought up in Malaysia for the first two years of my life, attending nursery there and learning Mandarin as my native language. I began to think of this country as my homeland, but this was short-lived as it was decided that I should grow up in London; thus, the deterioration of my relationship with my heritage began.

Ⓒ Louise Cheung

In an attempt to preserve both the connections to my family overseas as well as my early childhood, my family took an annual summer trip to Malaysia. The intimacy created between my early memories and this country was longing to be rediscovered and reconnected; however, the growing Britishness in me was unfamiliar with sharing my identity with my ethnicity and consumed my adolescent self entirely.

I recognise now that I had a warped perception of what being British meant and didn’t realise until later in life that despite having a different nationality and heritage, the two were in fact compatible with one another. Every part of me wanted to remain in London each summer. From the unbearable humidity that soaked the air from the monsoon season to the pesky mosquitoes, desperate for a taste of your blood, it took a long while to acclimatise to this tropic, alien climate that belonged to Malaysia. I spent my days lounging in my grandparent’s house, thankful for the invention of the aircon, counting down the days until I could see my friends in London again.

As a child absorbed by her own wants, I never truly appreciated the time spent with my grandparents, who spoiled me daily with fresh coconuts and sweet treats, fresh from the local market. I instead wondered why I was forced to be in a foreign country that was far too hot and didn’t speak English as a first language. My ignorance blinded me, and Malaysia slowly detached itself from my core identity, turning into a distant memory, a shadow of a former life.

Ⓒ Louise Cheung

The sad truth is that to this day, Malaysia remains just a country to me, with no real sense of belonging attached to it. Unsure of my identity but eager to fit in somewhere, I subconsciously buried any good memories of Malaysia, and with it, my own ethnic origins. The yearly trips gradually stopped, which only continued to widen the great gulf between me and this country. Now as an adult, I can see the emotional cracks that increased in my relationship with my grandparents, worsening over the years I didn’t return to Malaysia. What remains are fragments involving one-minute phone calls (which involve feeble attempts at speaking broken Mandarin and English to each other) and yearly ‘happy birthdays’ over WhatsApp.

I am painfully aware and incredibly ashamed of my lack of connection to my grandparents who did nothing but love me, communicating this through home-cooked meals when language barriers were particularly difficult, and my parents, who suffered severe abuse for being a different race to the majority, only for me to abandon my own culture by choice. Having not been back since I was fourteen, I plan to visit Malaysia next summer in the hopes to rekindle the relationship with my grandparents and in time, engage with my heritage that I once found uncomfortable about myself.

Featured image: Ⓒ Louise Cheung

Where do your roots take you, and have you explored them yet?