Nicola Koh

Eurasian Splendour


Sunday morning. There’s a hundred places I’d rather be right now, and ninety-two of them involve beds. But here I am, in this makeshift pew of linked, gum-coloured chairs; another Pentecostal, Calvary Church service; another half-an-hour waiting for the rest of the fam.

Even by Malaysian standards, they run late. When the festivities get underway at 10:07 a.m., our corner by the aisle only features aunty #4, cousin #6, and me. The older brother and cousin #1 are on the stage in the worship band, my mother (aunty #2) is wrapping up Christian ed, and my father (uncle #4) and uncles #1 and #2 are ushering. The sanctuary’s almost three-quarters full before the rest saunter in, like royalty, resuming their untouched seats, the gaps between us empty. This is our spot, and we’re hardcore, baby, seventeen strong—and no one messes with us.

In Malaysian Eurasian, family is a comprehensive term, roughly translates to superglued. For us, it’s Nanan and four sets of two parent/two child combos. We get together all of Sunday, for dinner at aunty #1’s on Tuesdays, and for Friday prayer meeting followed by late night/early morning supper—and that’s just the mandatories. Extended family means adding another layer of generations, great-aunties down to the future children of the second cousins I’m closer to than most people are to their first.

We’re the descendants of the children abandoned by colonial men after they were done raping, whoring, and concubining. But because the British hired us as porters and conductors and maids (presumably because if they had to interact with the locals they’d rather ones who looked and spoke a little more like them), Eurasians treasure their European blood, enshrining the “marriages” of their colonial forebears. We’ll rattle off every Western nation we’re remotely related to: England, Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, Scotland. We worship Jesus, celebrate Christmas (turkey, tarts, and fruitcake). You can even catch some line-dancing in full cowboy regalia, as if that makes any sense.

We’ve been Malaysian for centuries—living by Indian and Chinese societal values, wearing sarongs, cooking curries—but we still sneer at every nonwestern holiday and are barely literate in any of the language but English, and proud of it. We are prone to use local as a synonym for uncultured. Not that other Malaysians care, mind you. We’ve never been anything but mongrels and pariahs to them, lapdogs to the British when they ruled and irrelevant when they left. Most Malaysians don’t even realize we exist, and to those that do we’re pink chinks and white devils and dragon eyes. On government forms, for our race, we check “Lain-Lain.” Other.

For centuries we’ve existed neither inside nor outside Malaysian society, but in the walls, stitching a ragdoll heritage from the scraps left by all the peoples who don’t want to claim us. And this is the culture we’ve come up with:

…..1) We’ll kiss every member of the opposite sex on the cheek for greetings and goodbyes.
…..2) Said goodbyes will take upwards of thirty mins while meandering towards our cars, with frequent stops, like Stations of the Cross.
…..3) We like big get-togethers.
…..4) We have a tendency towards alcoholism (which might explain the line dancing).
…..5) And we stick together.

Above all, in a world where no one else will have us, Eurasians stick together. No matter what.

And that’s why you’ll find me in the same chair, every Sunday morning–second row, seven seats in–singing the harmonies during worship to have something to do, pretending to take diligent notes of the banal sermon so Nanan doesn’t smack my knee, trying to manipulate the moving lines on the projector with latent psychic abilities. If I were Catholic (as most Eurasians are, and all the adults had been), I might think reliving these two-and-a-half hours week-in and week-out was some kind of Purgatory. Here I am, again and again, walled in by all this family.

Worship takes thirty minutes. A few in the congregation flail about in ecstasy, but the majority sing with frozen faces. But when the worship leader stops to pray, the masses rouse into a caterwaul of the Holy Spirit’s twisted tongues, arms stretching, hands swiveling, scanning for the Lord’s wavelength.

The preacher today is none other than the head man himself: Reverend Dr. (hon) Dato’ Senior Pastor Prince Guneratnam (which is how his name should always be written, though he graciously allows us to omit the honourary). People have called Pastor G many things, but short of breath isn’t one of them. He paces restlessly as he barks life-changing epiphanies, leaves the stage to prowl in front of the audience, loves catching out daydreamers. He speaks in the kind of American accent you might get watching old movies. His theology is a quilt of Health-and-Wealth catch phrases.

But to the fam, he might as well be the Pentecostal Pope. And God have mercy on your soul if you breathe a word against him, because they surely won’t. My parents seem to be the only ones who have reservations, which is somewhat ironic since they’re by far the most active Calvarites. They’ve taught the basic doctrine class and taken care of visitors since my mother was pregnant with my brother. They directed three of Calvary’s Christmas presentations, the ones so gargantuan they had to be held in stadiums. Pretty much my whole life I’ve been “Michael and Yvette’s son.” My brother managed to step out of their shadow by doing the whole Youth leadership jazz and becoming a Christian rockstar—which for me means that occasionally I’m also “Jeremy’s brother.”

But maybe it’s because my immediate family have been a part of Calvary leadership for so long that we aren’t enamoured with Prince. Maybe it’s having to deal with the constant nepotism, or all the late nights scrambling to implement one of Prince’s sudden whims, or knowing enough about theology to track the shallowness of his. Maybe stage makeup doesn’t look as good when you’re up too close.

But back to the service. The altar call’s begun, and you should have to suffer too.

“The Lord has impressed on my heart that some of you are suffering from illness,” Prince says. “And there are others struggling with sin or burdens in their lives.”

Many in the audience are awestruck by Prince’s insight to so precisely name afflictions that couldn’t possibly belong to anybody else. The keyboardist steals onto the stage and begins playing around with moody thirds and minor sixths, occasionally flirting in the fifth, but always retreating, leaving the sequence of chords short of completion. He plays as directed by the Spirit–who must have singular tastes because it sounds the same every week.

Prince tells the stricken to raise their hands. “Eyes closed; heads bowed. I see you sister. I see you brother.”

Each nervously raised hand disappears the moment it’s recognised. If you peek, you might see that Prince has the power to spot hands even when none are visible.

When he makes his summons, the convicted shuffle through the pews to gather at his feet, heads hung, some crying. Prince descends from the stage to place hands on their foreheads, reminding the wracked flock in a soothing tone that God is forgiving. Some collapse under this touch, slain by the Spirit—occasionally, he has to push a little. When he makes his way back to the stage, his voice grows and the keyboardist responds in kind. Standing with his hands raised before the crowd, he beckons, beseeches, cajoles God’s mercy, shouting against the rising clamor of the keyboard.

Finally, Prince roars in an ear-splitting crescendo. “For all have sinned and fallen short! But your transgressions have been wiped clean by the blood of jay-EEE-sus!”

The keyboardist strikes that sweet, sweet home chord. A wave of relief passes through the crowd as they rejoice at their new leases on life. They shuffle joyously back to their seats and resume their indifferent affects; some might be back to re-restart afresh in a few weeks.

It’s well past noon, but we’re still not there. The offering bags are passed around: maroon sacks attached to a metal circle with two handles, with a smaller metal circle to prevent temptation. There’s a musical special number to jolt us from our exhaustion and rouse us to put our money where our alleluias are. The quality ranges from mediocre and down and, on particularly bad Sundays, my mother, sitting in the front row, will put her hand over her face; she’s convinced it looks like she’s praying.

Sometimes I wish the fam hadn’t left the Catholic Church. They know how to do a service: call, response, sing some hymns, a splash of preaching, mass, the Lord be with you and you and you; forty minutes tops: in, out, the peasants rejoice.

Here, we still have to endure a ten-minute-minimum round of announcements, everyone clinging to their moment in the spotlight, ignoring the slow writhing of the congregation. And still it’s not done. The band climbs back on stage to strike up the Lord’s Prayer, sung to a lackluster tune at a pace that seems designed to remind us that God’s mercy does, indeed, last forever.

Now, only now is it finally, finally, over. The masses charge for the door, but I don’t rush. Instead I savour another triumph of endurance, letting the fam mill their way out of the pews. Only then do I stand to murmur my personal benediction: good riddance to bad rubbish.

* * *

It’s the third of July, the summer after my second year of college in the States. Tomorrow is an independence day, but not mine–if I can even really claim Malaysia’s anymore.

I rarely talk to the family outside of my cousins; I don’t really know what I’d say. For most of my life, the adults haven’t seen me as anything beyond cousin #5; how many of them could name a single thing I care about? They seem to assume that, after our respective studies, the children will slot right back into the weekly litany of meals at our designated table. What would they say if I told them I didn’t really want to come back at all?

Can’t they see I’m just doing what I’ve always been told, chasing my dreams, self-actualised and centered, the Western ideal? Shouldn’t they be proud that I’ve finally made it to the land of all these people who look like the ancestors who abandoned us? Here I am, living in all this Eurasian Splendour.

But Nanan’s had a heart attack, and she’s too old for a bypass. Cousin #1 calls; we talk about her options, but there don’t seem to be many. We move on to the family, then Calvary Church.

It’s been four years since my parents were forced out of leadership at Calvary when they wouldn’t publicly support Prince’s ego-stroking building project, whose budget exploded with the cascade of his whims: twenty million to two-hundred million in months. When unease in the congregation grew, Prince demanded all church leaders publicly promote the project or step down, and my parents chose to leave.

But the family took his side, especially aunty #1, my mother’s sister, the most loyal of devotees to Prince and his wife. That Christmas, she and my mother had a three-hour yelling match that left Nanan in tears. For more than fifty years, they were as close as twins; now they do little more than small talk.

And now, it turns out Calvary is being torn apart by protests over that same building project. Church meetings have become screaming matches, and Prince is a target of derision, even accusations of embezzlement. Now, there are places my family isn’t welcome anymore in the church we called home for decades. I’m almost surprised how sad it makes me.

It’s 10:25 a.m.. Faint shimmers of premature fireworks disturb the blue-grey ceiling. And across the Pacific, there’s a church service going on, four seats left empty, as if saved for people running late. There’s a lot of good reasons that we’re never returning, but tonight some part of that hurt.

Tonight, some part of me wishes we’d remembered we’re Eurasian.

And Eurasians stick together.




Nicola Koh is a Malaysian Eurasian, seventeen years in the American Midwest, a seminary-educated atheist, and a minor god of Tetris. Nicola takes too many pictures of dogs, crafts pun, and listens to audiobooks after injuring their neck reading (because, of course they did).