Rosey Ma

23 November, 2009

“Be the best, and they will respect you!”

I came back from school in tears and ran to my father shouting that I did not want to go to this school anymore. One of the boys always teased us, my sister and me, pulling our long braids, slitting his eyes with his fingers, flattening his nose by pressing his hand on it, thus mocking our small eyes and flat nose. Not all the others joined in, but many laughed at the teasing. My sister and I were the only two Chinese, the only two Asians in the school. This was the late 1950s, in Istanbul, Turkey, where Asians were virtually non-existent on the streets. My father put an end to the complaints in one sentence: “Be the best, and they will respect you”.  So we had to become the best, and as he predicted we were respected and honoured as model students for the rest of all the years we stayed in that school.

It was an exclusive French school, with steep fees, not only for tuition, but for the uniforms, imported books, and many other expenses that came with the prestige of such schools. In the same league were the English High School, the Italian school, and the Austrian School my other siblings went to; schools for the wealthy elite and foreign residents in this cosmopolitan city. Our schoolmates’ parents were prominent businessmen, consulate members, professionals. We were none of these. We were migrants. My parents had escaped communism in China many years ago, taking refuge first in Pakistan; five years later due to political pressure my father migrated again and relocated in Turkey. Father took a professorial position at the Istanbul University. 

The older children were first sent to the neighbouring Turkish primary school, which was free of charge. Not long after, we were all taken out from the Turkish school, and sent to these private foreign schools. With not enough resources to pay school fees on time, my father would rotate among the schools for the payments, delaying this school this term, and the other ones the next, making us feel quite embarrassed. Going to different schools also meant that we couldn’t pass on the uniforms or books from one older sibling to the next. With not even sufficient budget for all the school related expenses there was no pocket money or any luxuries of any kind. We didn’t realize at that time that, to compensate for these material setbacks, there was so much benefit that would serve us all our life and enrich us in universal values: Since we could not communicate with each other in our respective schooling language, we all became proficient in the common language Turkish, and at the same time somewhat knowledgeable about the other different cultures and languages of each sibling’s schooling. Half a century later, I still fail to understand what made my father take on this ambitious decision on his meagre salary. It amazes me even today, how did he have the vision of such a multi-cultural, multilingual education pattern for his children, which is the basis for mutual understanding, acceptance and peaceful co-existence in today’s global outlook. The home education in Chinese and Islamic knowledge complemented the forming of our multi-layered identity.

The importance of a good education must have been engrained in both my parents’ family tradition. My father from Shandong was sent at a young age to Beijing to study until he graduated from the Beijing University. Later as a recipient of a Turkish scholarship for Muslim students he went to the Istanbul University to read a postgraduate programme in history. My mother was one of the rare girls who had attended school in her native Chongqing (Chongking) in the thirties.

My father passed away in Istanbul, leaving Mom as a young widow with eight children to take care of on her own, in a foreign country, with no other support.  She ventured in a Chinese restaurant, the first of its kind in Turkey, which later allowed her to continue with this multicultural education pattern for my younger siblings.

After completing my university studies in Taiwan, I married a Malaysian of Beijing origin, and came to live in this beautiful country of which eventually I became a citizen. What amazed me most of all in this country was her multi-ethnic population; each ethnic community with its own language, religion, and cultural traditions, still bound at that time (early 70s) by the commonly shared English language, not only in inter-ethnic communication, but even between people of the same ethnicity (e.g. Cantonese Chinese and Hokkian Chinese or the Tamil and Punjabi Indians). I knew from the start that this would be an excellent learning ground for our children. My parents had given me the advantage and beauty of western multiculturalism, our children would savour the same in this eastern multicultural society.

Malaysia may be unique in its education policy. To cater to the needs of the various ethnic groups, besides the national public schools where the medium of instruction is the national language Malay, with additional POL – pupils own-language – classes for the Chinese and Indian pupils to study their respective mother tongues, there are also Chinese and Indian (Tamil) primary public schools, where the students also get a heavy dose of Malay. In all these schools English is taught as a core subject from the very beginning. Therefore, every Malaysian child has the opportunity to start his schooling life with three languages, incorporating three different cultures.

However, it quickly became apparent that this, so I thought, politically correct setting did not naturally conduce to multicultural interaction, even less mutual understanding, as majority of each ethnic group chose to send their children to their respective schools. We needed to find other ways to make our six children conscious about the diverse cultures they were so fortunate to be part of, just by being Malaysian. Difficult to have that in schools, we encouraged them to take on activities where there would be a mixture of children of all races. They went into team sports, ballet and modern dance, martial arts, theatre activities, outward bound programs, scouting, etc… They also brought home friends of all races and religion. For many of them my children were the first Chinese Muslim they had ever met.

The year each of our children finished high school, they applied for a student cultural exchange programme that took each one to a different country. Thus, one went on a Southeast Asian and Japan friendship ship that sailed to Japan and six Southeast Asian countries for 8 weeks. The others went to France, Switzerland, Holland, Japan, and Egypt for a year programme each, during which they stayed in a local family’s home and went to a local school. Each one came back armed with one additional language, understanding and appreciation of a different culture, a new family and many new friendships. Further university education was completed again in a few countries, including Turkey, USA, England. Many of our friends were sceptical about the wisdom of letting our children lose one or more years in their formal education progress. But we believed that a big part of life education does not lie solely in educational institutions. The world is a school, a school that addresses and caters to all human beings, and unless children are sent out to explore, they will remain confined in their own little cubicle that limits to own culture, own language, own religion, and the most dangerous thing, own perpetuated stereotyped thoughts and beliefs.

I strongly believe that this type of multicultural learning process is conducive to creating responsible young adults deeply conscious of the global citizenry composed of hundreds of different peoples, cultures, faiths, and languages. My children are just a few who proved the truth in this outlook.

One more dimension to be mentioned in my story is the aspect of female education, especially in a Muslim family. Both my father and my husband, as knowledgeable and devout Muslim men, followed the demand of the religion rather than the tribal traditions seen in so many Muslim countries. In my family home, we were six girls and two boys. Even on an extremely tight budget, there was no discrimination about who was going to go to these elite schools. In turn, my husband did the same with our five daughters and one son. The girls had to be educated. My husband often jokingly said: “I am assuring my way to paradise.” I would not be doing justice to my late husband if I did not add that he not only supported, but encouraged my own decision to pursue Masters, and later Doctorate studies, both after we had six children. I am grateful for the privilege of an excellent education – in and out of school – given to me, my sisters and my daughters, in line with the dictate in the Qur’an, as our right, and not in spite of being Muslim.  

Another issue that had come about was the sending of us, Muslim children, to schools of other faiths. Especially for my third sister and me, going to a Catholic convent school run by nuns had given concern to our home religious tutor. My father trusted us, and that was it. The same concern was voiced when our daughters chose to go to countries that were not Muslim, and stayed with local families of different faiths. We trusted our children and let them go. At the end of their stay, their host families and the small communities they interacted with came to have quite a good understanding of Islam, and respected their devotion to the demands of their faith as the only Muslim in a non-Muslim environment; at the same time our children also had the opportunity to observe and understand, and most importantly to respect faiths other than their own, and they cultivated enduring ties with their host families. All this multifaceted learning process contributed to their becoming responsible global citizens, confident of their own identity, understanding and appreciative of those who are different, and possessing the skills to reach out to others.

Knowing deeply the positive influence that an educated mother can have on her children extending to future generations, I grieve for the millions of girls and women who have not been and still are not given the opportunity to even have a basic education, due to the apathy of parents, poverty or wars. I deplore further when in some Muslim communities, keeping the girls and women ignorant and inward looking is justified in the name of religion. Fathers and husbands must also be educated towards the truth and must be convinced about the benefits educated womenfolk can bring to a household and community. I aspire now to be a proactive agent of change. At this stage of my life, I believe this is one of my most important missions, in a way, giving back a little from the ample blessings I was awarded by the Almighty. I will feel gratified even if one man will change his attitude in a positive step, if one girl will be educated as a result of my doing.