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Author Tash Aw: ‘So many of us have multiple identities’

Tash Aw, author of Strangers on a Pier: A Portrait of a Family, looks at the struggles he’s had in understanding his identity and then in presenting it to others.

The other day at the bus stop at the end of my street I got talking to an elderly man who was leaning on a walking stick. We chatted about the weather and why buses always came in threes – the usual kind of small talk.

When I helped him onto the bus he thanked me and asked where I was from – a rare occurrence, in my experience, because in London so many people possess multiple identities that difference is presumed to be the norm.

If you want to explain everything properly – where your parents were born, where you grew up, where you now live – it takes too long, and people don’t have the time for all of that.

Still, the question hung in the air. Where are you from? I told him. (Malaysia.) Oh, he said, I thought you were Chinese. You look Chinese. Well, yes, I said, my ancestors originally came from China, I grew up in Malaysia, but I moved to Britain when I was 19 to go to college.

Already I regretted giving the full answer, I knew I sounded long-winded, I could see him losing interest. I should have just given a simple answer and rubbed out all the other parts of myself. But somehow I just couldn’t do that.

This reshaping of our identities wasn’t just for other people’s benefit, it was for our own.

In this age of hardening national borders, it seems as though we need to be just one thing: just British, just American, just Chinese, just Malaysian and so on.

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It’s a sentiment I know all too well. Over the years, I’ve often reduced my story and pretended to be just whatever people wanted me to be, because I wanted to make things easy for the listener, I wanted them to understand me, and above all because I wanted to belong.

My parents were the same – as a child I used to hear them deny parts of their family history and cultural background in order to fit in. We were an immigrant minority and had to adjust our story to become the same as everyone else.

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This reshaping of our identities wasn’t just for other people’s benefit, it was for our own, too. I knew virtually nothing about my parents’ childhoods, apart from that they both came from poor families who lived deep in the Malaysian countryside.

Strangers on a Pier: a Portrait of a Family by Tash Aw is out now (4th Estate, £8.99)

They never spoke about their pasts; my grandparents were even less communicative. By the time I was born, my parents had moved to the capital city and found decent jobs.

They wanted us to feel that we were part of Asia’s new, successful middle class. All that tied us to the past – their early poverty, their immigrant background, the sacrifices they and their families had made in order to provide the younger generation with a decent life – had to be scrubbed out. We had to be modern; we had to look to the future.

But how, then, to explain the mess that lay behind this shiny façade: why was it that I couldn’t communicate with my grandparents in the same language?

I spoke to them in one, they replied in another. The more I educated I became, from secondary school onwards, the more I felt myself separating from them.

There were other things, too, that couldn’t be talked about because we needed to feel part of modern Asia: the unexplained disappearances of parents, spouses or children who cracked under pressure because they couldn’t speak about their hurt or suffering, their mental illness, or sexuality, or rejection at work, or the racist insults they faced at school – all the things that meant they were failing to live up to the image they aspired to.

The denial of our histories meant that we had to stick to one narrow definition of ourselves, or not exist at all.

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In my experience – contrary to the belief that immigrants don’t want to assimilate – the desire for integration is so strong that most people who move to a different country are prepared to change almost every aspect of how they live.

You change the way you speak, you change the food you eat, you want to become a different person. I found myself doing exactly the same thing when I moved to Britain to attend university, not because anyone made me, but because I didn’t want to say or do anything that would mark me out as different.

Nowadays things are different. So many of us have multiple identities that it’s tiring and pointless trying to reduce them into an easily digestible explanation; we’ve learned to own and celebrate the messiness of our histories. The long version of the story is more interesting anyway, so that’s the one I’m sticking to, even when I’m rushing for a bus.

Strangers on a Pier: a Portrait of a Family by Tash Aw is out now (4th Estate, £8.99)

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