We recently explored the experiences – and in particular, the challenges – of Japan’s hafu demographic. But the experience of growing up biracial is by no means limited to the homogenous island chain. To the south, in melting pots like Malaysia and Singapore, the experience is quite different – yet also fundamentally similar.
Some cultures tend to mesh well, such as the Chinese-Malay hybrid Peranakan culture, while others are like oil and water. Somewhere in the middle of this spectrum comes about when Chinese and Indian marry and have children (commonly referred to as “Chindians”).
Kevin Bathman, a social entrepreneur based in Sydney, grew up in the middle of this cultural crossroad – his paternal grandfather, an Indian-Tamil, and his grandmother, a Chinese-Nyonya. Spurred by the desire to explore his own family tree, Bathman launched The Chindian Diaries project, a growing compendium of the experiences of this community.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Bathman spoke with The Diplomat about this project, essentially a collaborative work of ethnology; what it’s like to grow up Chindian, and the ways Chinese and Indian culture have both blended – and repelled each other – within this community.
First off, could you briefly describe the Chindian Diaries project?
The Chindian Diaries project is an arts and community project that captures the stories of individuals and couples who identify themselves as Chindians. “Chindian” is an unofficial term for those with a mix of Indian and Chinese heritage.
The project was born from the lack of documented Chindian stories. By capturing these stories and photos, The Chindian Diaries hopes that these stories will act as a resource for future generations, and ensure they are never forgotten. The stories vary from identity crises, cultural clashes, struggles and misunderstandings, to stories of love and acceptance.
The project aims to collect and document stories from Chindians in Malaysia, Singapore and other parts of the world. It is focused primarily on Chindian culture, but is open to stories from other mixed marriages as well. By gathering these stories, it is hoped that they will form a greater, overarching cultural narrative.
What inspired you to really start exploring your family history? How did this lead you to launch the Chindian Diaries?
I started this project in June 2012 after participating in a weekend storytelling workshop aimed at digging deeper into my ancestors’ story. It forced me to delve into my family history and I learned new things about my family.
Reflecting on my life, I was intrigued by my grandparents – my paternal Indian-Tamil grandfather and Chinese-Nyonya grandmother. My father used to tell me about their union and how my grandmother was disowned by her family for marrying my grandfather, a dark-skinned Indian man.
Initially, I started to write and share some of my own stories and eventually did a call out to others. It eventually spread to other networks.
What are some of the challenges unique to those growing up with mixed Indian-Chinese ancestry? Were there any stories that came forward through the Chindian Diaries project that really stand out for you?
This is one of my own stories:
“When filling in my School Report Card, my teacher wrote ‘Eurasian’ in the race section. When I took the card home for my Dad to sign, I remember him making a remark about the Eurasian race section. Being 8 years old, I had little understanding about race at that stage.
My teacher later had to white-out the section and write ‘Indian,’ as ‘Chindian’ was not a common term then. She had assumed I was Eurasian because of my surname and skin colour.”
Another one was this:
“Over the weekends, my mother would take me swimming at the Bukit Batok swimming complex. Dorothie, my maid, would also tag along with us.
I remember one incident when some people thought that Dorothie was my mother, and my mother, the maid. They had assumed that because I was darker in my complexion that my Mum couldn’t possibly be my Mum!
– Sai Amrita Balachandran, Perth