While you’re here, meet Pixie Cigar who can speak five languages, calls the world her home and opens up about identity in a global context.
Text Syahirah Khairuddin Photography Patrick Chan/Blu Inc Sdn Bhd; Courtesy of Pixie Cigar
Moving away can be overwhelming. The thought of starting over, getting used to new surroundings and in most cases, cultural and language barriers can be intimidating. However, for Pixie Cigar — now a COO at Nation Building School and the founder of Community Builders Union in Malaysia — moving is all about exploring and breaking boundaries.
Born in Los Angeles, and a descendant of Canadian-Chinese and Romani-Gypsy, Pixie is a third culture kid who grew up living a nomadic life. Learning to adapt and acclimating herself to different lifestyles wasn’t a challenge — rather, it was something that was embedded in her and her family.
After living in China for a number of years, Pixie decided to move to Malaysia, exploring a whole new territory and making it her home. #TeamCLEO talked to Pixie to know more about her journey and what has shaped her through the peripatetic nature of her life.
Hi Pixie, thanks for joining us today! We want to know, what made you decide to move to a whole different continent?
I started moving around mostly because my parents were moving, so naturally, I would go too. Getting a two week-notice is like my grace period, and when the time comes, I would just have to pack my entirely life and say my goodbyes. So, I got used to it.
There are times when I wish I could stay in a place longer but then again, if I did then I wouldn’t be where I am today. I don’t want to live in a place for too long, it feels very uncomfortable. I’m so used to moving around and I grew to like it.
Tell us a little bit about yourself and your background.
My mix is a little confusing at times. My father is Canadian-Chinese and my mother is Hungarian-Romani. She’s not Romanian as most people would assume, it’s actually Romani gypsy. So, that’s when we realised that it’s actually in the lineage where we love to move around just as how gypsies are often depicted as.
I’m the eldest and I was born in Los Angeles. I lived there for a couple of years and then moved to China. None of us spoke Chinese so that took time adjusting to. We didn’t go to International schools in China, so it was almost like being thrown in the deep end because we had to learn the language in order to live there. We moved around in China too, and it varied from one province to the other. I would get culture shocks just from moving within the country. That’s how big the country really is.
“There are times when I wish I could stay in a place longer but then again, if I did then I wouldn’t be where I am today.”
In 2004, we moved to Malaysia and lived in Penang. That was the time when Penang was hit by that huge tsunami. After living there for a couple of years, my parents decided to convert to Islam. While we were in school, my parents wanted us (the kids) to go for Islamic studies class to learn about different religions. It was my mother’s family that got into the tradition of learning comparative religion.
Do you think there are any significant happenings in your childhood that shaped the way you are today?
Definitely, especially how we moved a lot and we didn’t know how to adjust ourselves. My parents weren’t necessarily there to help us adapt so me being the eldest, I would always be the one that would need to go out and you know, find the local markets, learn the way to get to school and all that. It went to the extent where I enrolled my sisters in school. It was really about learning how to adapt.
The most significant thing I learned is the art of asking. You have to have put aside your shyness when it comes to asking for help. I would always explain and paint a story of why I needed the help in the first place. That way, they understand where I’m coming from. That and also to be open to try new things!
Seeing as you have been to a lot of places, is home something that exists within you or is it something physical? What is home to you?
Definitely something that is within me. I’m totally not bound by geographical location. I’ve always lived away from my family as we all went to different schools in other parts of the country. I actually went to a boarding military school and I loved it there!
For me, I always need to have some sort of routine like eating the same breakfast every morning or making my bed a certain way every day so I can keep myself grounded. I always see myself as an outsider sometimes but anywhere can be home for me. As long as I have a bed for the night, that is my home. Similar to when I was stranded in Bangkok for 18 days, my home was my hotel room and that was enough for me. Instead, I used the time I had to check out different parts of Thailand — booked a 10 hour bus ride and headed to Chiang Mai, another home for the night. I’m big on jumping on any opportunity that comes my way.
What was it like picking up five languages?
It’s not exactly five but for me it’s not a big deal. I don’t tell people that I speak that many languages because it’s like telling people I can walk. I learned these languages because if I didn’t, I couldn’t get around. I needed to know them in order for me to live and be in the society I was in. Although, all the languages I speak actually crafted me as an individual.
For example, my sense of humor comes from my knowledge of Cantonese, I don’t know why. I learned Japanese because it’s my dream to live there.
Each place you have visited must’ve taught you something about life that you never noticed before. What were they?
When I went to Japan, I just loved how they’re comfortable with themselves. Yes, they have both good and bad cultures like being a huge workaholic, which is something I can relate to because I’m the same way. But for me, it’s their comfort with their own traditions. In China, Xian in particular where the terracotta warriors originated from, was actually the first place I experienced true community. You can reach out to people and be as much part of the place as any locals by simply getting out there and socialising.
Sometimes people ask me, “Pixie, why are you doing Nation Building in a foreign country?” and my answer to that is why not? I’m here in the country and I should treat it as my own.
“Definitely [home] is something that is within me. I’m totally not bounded by geographical location.”
What would you say to the people who are scared of traveling or moving to a different country?
Just try it. What’s the worst thing that’s going to happen? You are not going to die. Okay, don’t move to a war zone area, of course. If you don’t try, you will literally not know. Some day you’ll regret the fact that you didn’t try something.