Anyone who has read about or watched the TV kungfu series ‘The Yang family warriors’ would know about how the women of the family used their intelligence and fighting skills for the family to survive after the death of their warrior husbands and sons. I grew up being fed with their tales, and was fascinated with their loyalty and bravery. My own family is not that famous but we share the same surname. And yes, we are proud of our own lineage.
My great-grandfather’s mother was a Penang Nyonya who used to wear a baju panjang and batik sarong, tying her hair up in a tight bun. I supposed being a Nyonya had certain privileges at her time; she had servants to serve her, jade, gold and silver jewellery to wear, and a big household to command. Nyonyas and Babas were different from the normal Chinese because their sons were mostly English-educated. Great-grandfather himself was given an English education. He became a British court-interpreter, being able to speak, read and write in Chinese, English, Malay and Jawi. It seems that he was so successful and influential in town that the British gave him a house near the court for him to live in with his growing family. The house still stands today and in it was great-grandfather’s portrait; he wore a suit and sported a moustache that curls up at both ends. He actually looked very distinguished and fierce. No wonder youngest grand-uncle used to tell me that the Malays in town were in awe of him because his translated words in court would decide the outcome of their cases.
Grandfather was the firstborn son, a handsome scholar who was en-route for China University when the war broke out between China and Japan. He then became a very strict and respectable headmaster of a Chinese school. That was when he met grandmother who was a village girl at the place he was teaching. It was a matched-made wedding based on the compatibility of their Chinese horoscopes. There must have been a lot of persuading and compromises made because contrary to the normal tradition of the bride moving into the groom’s house, grandfather made himself comfortable at grandmother’s family house, becoming the favourite son-in-law. During the Japanese occupation, grandfather became a newspaper reporter. Grandfather had three sons with grandmother. Unfortunately, his life was short. He died in his sleep a week after youngest uncle was born.
Dad, a salesman, is the eldest son with two younger brothers. Therefore as the first grandchild with no aunts before me, I was the pet of the family. Second uncle was a civil-servant while youngest uncle flew for the Singapore Airlines. We were luckier than most families; our larder was always full, we had good reputation among relatives, and we performed better in our studies compared to other cousins. In a way, we were proud of our achievements.
Nobody from my family had been other than Taoists or Buddhists. Grandmother was a staunch believer of the Tao gods and Buddha. She still believes in them, and that they have helped her to survive all the hardships she had since grandfather’s death. Although grandmother no longer wears the kebaya, she still dons special cotton corsets that flatten her chest instead of brassieres. And boy, grandmother is steep in traditions.
Despite being a governess for the children of several British families, grandmother has not forgotten her roots. She still prays to her gods and faithfully observes all the festivals. She would give special preference to the men in the family and insists on red garments for Chinese New Year. The only difference is, she acquired the ability to speak English, and a taste for Western food. She is better with a fork and knife than I am when we eat chicken chop. So being raised by grandmother who stayed with us for the first nine years of my life, I learned about how to be a good girl according to grandmother’s standard, how to dress modestly, how to pray to the gods, the proper way to show respect to the elders, how to cook pork and Nyonya dishes, and how to be a good wife according to grandmother’s standard. All the things she learned from her own mother, who was a typical pampered Nyonya with a faithful servant-girl. Grandmother used to tell me that when they ran into the woods to hide during the Japanese occupation, the poor servant had to carry a heavy mattress because she could not sleep soundly without her comfortable mattress.
Grandmother didn’t approve of the way I was married off without the huge presence of my large number of relatives, claiming that I was married off like a servant-girl. True to her Nyonya tradition of the groom presenting the bride’s family with a roasted pig on the day of the wedding, she even demanded for one from D, my baffled husband when he came to take me home. She believes that a marriage is for life, the belief that she lived by for she had never remarried after grandfather’s death.
So I knew I had a tough fight ahead when I decided to convert to Islam. Grandmother would never understand and allow it to happen if she could prevent it. For years she had been looking down on people who have children who married Malays, and warning that she would never accept such behaviour from her own brood. And being a filial son, father would do and think the same way. He would roar, threaten and use force, whatever to stop me from ‘disgracing’ the family. Even being a Christian is frowned upon, and not a single person in my large family of relatives has been other than Taoists and Buddhists who pray to the ancestors and keep an altar at home. I am to be the first to turn my back on a long line of traditional believers. It would be tough. Perhaps that is one reason why I had to wait 10 years to be a Muslim. Perhaps being a Muslimah in my 30s is more acceptable because I would be considered more matured in thinking than a 20+ young woman in the prime of her life. Only Allah swt knows best.
I guarded my secret wish to be a Muslim from my family, most of all, my grandmother who loved me in her own way. Even my problems with my husband mustn’t reach her ears or she would create more trouble by enlisting help from so and so in the family. On top of her list would be to save face at whatever cost, another Nyonya belief. Face-saving and ‘what will people say’ have often prevented my family from doing what they wanted to do. Therefore, my decision to divorce was met with disapproval from both father and grandmother. I was accused of being selfish and never thought of the effect on my father’s good name. Nevertheless, I went ahead with my decision and as a result, have never spoken another word to neither father nor grandmother since.
It’s not that I have no intention to speak to them but to do so, I know for sure that I would be greeted with curses in Hokkien, my mother tongue. Another trait of my family is to have a huge vocabulary of crude words, which we hurl like machine-guns, at people who have made us cross. Grandmother is the most skilful among us, so I really do not want to spoil my day listening to her abusive words. I myself have learnt to keep my tongue in check, being so polite that to incidentally say one bad word aloud is usually greeted with laugher among my naughtier family members. Still I am considered a good debater in school, so it must have been passed down to me too.
Really, it’s tough being a Nyonya with a proud family background. It’s difficult to convince family members who see converting to Islam as a betrayal of the family and the Chinese community. It’s not easy to let go of the family connections, wanting to preserve it but knowing that they will not accept me back so readily. Things will not be the same. I now look different, think differently and behave differently. Now, I am first and foremost a Muslim woman. I may even walk past them on the streets and they may not recognise me in my tudung.
Therefore, I have not met any relatives from my father’s side of the family after being a Muslim. I have not entered my grandmother’s house since. My heart is still with them but only time will heal the rift. I pray for the day I can sit together at table with them again and not have them turn away from me in anger and disgust.
It is a small sacrifice I have to make to be Muslim but I don’t regret. I have gained a lot more and Allah has given me the grace and the strength to continue with my life without my family by my side… alhamdulillah for that.