Feature · arts

Leaving my birthplace behind, I found a family that doesn’t need a label

Far from her native Malaysia, London-based performer Vera Chok has developed a community all her own.

I still don’t feel comfortable with the word “family”.

At Christmas, I was on stage in London, performing in Philip Pullman’s “Grimm Tales” as a working mum in a middle-class English home, welcoming extended family and struggling to connect with her biological kin. I felt alien for much of that season. How complicit was I in perpetuating the idea that, in a time of geographic mobility and digital connectivity, it is still the biological family that is fundamental?

I was born in Malaysia and am of Chinese descent. At 17, I left Malaysia and got away from what I felt was intense claustrophobia. I feared that, if I stayed, the rest of my life would be dictated by my large extended family and by the culture of nationalist productivity enforced by the state — two immensely powerful forces.

One controlled my access to food, shelter and information, and the other could detain me indefinitely if it thought that I was stepping out of line. It took me a long time to separate my feelings for my family from my presumptions about Malaysians. I crave Malaysian sounds, sights and smells, but I no longer possess a Malaysian passport.

“I feared that the rest of my life would be dictated by my large extended family and by the culture of nationalist productivity enforced by the state — two immensely powerful forces.”

In families, as in the larger world, we take on roles or wear the labels we’re given. In “The Good Immigrant,” a collection of essays exploring what it means to be an immigrant by 21 British writers of color, I wrote about not being able to find space for myself in the UK. I’m one of those first-generation immigrants from an ex-colony in a country that doesn’t have its colonial history in its curriculum.

I worry about being simultaneously too visible, as an exoticized and desired “East Asian” woman, and voiceless; one of those hardworking, law-abiding, submissive Chinese women. Incidentally, I don’t use the label “East Asian” – not only is it a geographical area that no one is certain of, I have never been to an East Asian country apart from Japan. In fact, there isn’t a term in the UK that truly encompasses where I’m from.

Instead, I adopt the somewhat basic term “yellow”, on the basis that while we can’t ever know someone’s race, we do assess their skin color. Yellow people are often held apart from other, more oppressed people of color, deemed too white and privileged — for example, in “Crazy Rich Asians,” the Hollywood rom-com shows socialite Chinese-Singaporeans galloping through cash — to require space or attention.

“My worth is always held in relation to other marginalized groups. But surely everything important is below the surface?”

I experience this bias daily, due to my role as a public figure — my worth is always held in relation to other marginalized groups, based on who appears more oppressed. But surely everything important is below the surface?

Gloria let me draw on her face.

Adrian sends me romantic comedy and US high school movie recommendations. He was the first one who showed me that leaving a party or leaving any space that was uncomfortable was alright.

Sarah opened her home to me. “Here’s my kitchen,” she said. “Do what you want.” And she meant it.

Cressida’s fierce intellect and spirit make me find my place. She reminds me both about the world outside this little British Isle, and about the wild, watery spaces right here.

Gary would hide me in his attic, if it came to that.

And I always grin when David bellows “VERA CHOK!” over the phone. That exclamation mark is pure love that dispels encroaching gray clouds.

Oli, a beautiful outsider trying to fit in, was the first to welcome me into the hallowed halls of Oxford University, where the bells and rugby boys frightened me.

My cousin and his wife allow me — Westernized, bolshie, artist me — to spend time with their impressionable young children.

“I do not believe that socially constructed labels play a part in my bonds. These remarkable individuals actively choose to hold me close.”

The list goes on. I’m so lucky. I do not believe that socially constructed labels play a part in my bonds to them. These remarkable individuals I know actively choose to hold me close.

The word “immigrant” should not hold power over me. I’ve left one land for another, and many people — the media who demand that I write about identity, the person on the street who shouts slurs at me, the audiences who watch me perform — hold an idea of where my rightful place is.

But I feel at home with those who welcome me with undemanding generosity. I am most at home around those who make me feel like family.

Vera Chok is a London-based actor, writer, poet and performance-maker. She grew up in Malaysia and is of Chinese descent.
This is part of a series of features around the theme of family commissioned by model Adut Akech, CNN Style’s 10th guest editor.