I came here from Malaysia in 1994 to pursue a college education, with the intention of going back eventually. 15 years later, I’m still here.
I have grappled with my decision to live here in the States for years. Fiercely proud of my nationality and my ethnicity, I felt like I knew who I was as I struggled to make my place in this world. But the more I tried to hold on to the last shreds of what set me apart from everyone else, the further removed I felt from the life I left behind. My own Malaysianness lost somewhere inside as I slowly assimilated to a culture I grew up to revere through rose-colored TV screens. Involved, understanding parents. Independent, fashionable women. Architectural Digest furniture. Expansive lawns. What’s not to love?
In the process of pursuing The American Dream, I’ve also inadvertently traded in my own family in Malaysia. So now, not only do I have to deal with my own (now fading) homesickness, I have to live with the fact that my own daughter will never be able to identify with many of the things that shaped who I am today. My Little Miss will not know what it’s like to have a loud, raucous Deepavali or Chinese New Year celebration, playing Black Jack with cousins and uncles into the wee hours of the night, eating delicious meals prepared by women of various generations who woke up before the crack of dawn to toil over a hot stove, but laughing and chatting at the same time.
She will never know what it feels like to get together with a family so huge that when everyone stayed over at the grandparents’, they slept on straw mats anywhere there’s space on the concrete floor, but completely contented and exhausted from the day’s play. She will never know what it’s like to speak four languages by the time she’s five just so she can converse fluently with her parents, her dad’s family, her mom’s family, the fish guy at the market and the neighbors across the street. She will never know what it means to eagerly anticipate the arrival of the “roti man” to peddle bread to her family as well as 50-cent treats, such as stale coconut buns and spicy, licorice-flavored hard candy called Hacks, to salivating kids.
I ache for my daughter and all that she will never know from my past. And for her, I yearn for a childhood that isn’t rife with materialism and competition, but in a Hannah-Montana-American-Girl-Doll world, I doubt that’s even possible.
Immigration stories usually involve people escaping persecution, poverty, or intolerance to start afresh. So I ask myself, why am I here? What was I running from? I had a great life back home, where overeating scrumptious meals at hawker stalls was my biggest vice. But perhaps I’m asking the wrong question. Perhaps it would make better sense to ask, what was I running to?
As I look at my daughter, and also the life I’ve built with my partner, the answer is akin to Whitman’s “barbaric yawp over the roofs of the world”. I am here because this is where I belong.
Sure, Little Miss may not have her extended family with her, and I probably robbed her of a life rich with cultural heritage. But she’ll at least have me. I know it won't always be enough. However, as she reaches for me, longing for the familiarity of my voice, my skin, my scent, it will do for now.