2011 has been an interesting year for me. Among other things, I got married, finished grad school and moved from SF to NYC. It also marks the midpoint in time where I have spent half of my life in Malaysia and half of my life in the United States. While I still very much consider Kuala Lumpur home and have the crazy Asian driving chops to prove it, I do pause a little when people ask me where I’m from. It’s almost always simpler to say San Francisco or California because then I don’t have to go through the whole rigmarole of explaining why it is that I don’t seem to speak with much of an accent. (P.S. – It’s because I spent four formative years in Pittsburgh, PA for middle school while my Dad was in grad school during which time I “perfected” my American accent so I wouldn’t stand out too much from the then not-too-diverse population).
When I first left K.L. and moved to the U.S. in 2000 for college, I felt like a foreigner and I was embarassingly proud of it. My freshman year roommate must have thought I was a freak when I broke out a huge Malaysian flag from the two suitcases containing my meager belongings from home. I would take frequent trips to Malaysia during those first couple of years, because I desperately missed home, family and Malaysian food. Oh, THE FOOD.
Around my fifth or so year in the US, I began to notice a change. My trips home slowed down to a pace of about once a year, and during those trips, I noticed that I had grown increasingly out of touch. I had a hard time keeping up in conversations with my KL friends. They would talk of local scandals, politicians, companies, businessmen, etc., and I would pretty much draw a blank on almost all of them. I suppose I could have kept up with the news, and I generally did for the most major of headlines, but that wasn’t enough to keep me plugged in. I was beginning to feel like a foreigner at home, disconnected.
Meanwhile, it was not as if I was ready to commit to calling California “home”. Yes, I love the Bay Area and I could not have asked for a better place to set up roots after college. And if there ever was a place for transitioning away from home, the Bay Area has got to be one of the best. If I’m ever homesick, I have access to pretty much all of the ingredients I need to make a killer mee rebus or nasi lemak. And of course there was my boyfriend, now husband. Coming from a part-Asian, part-Caucasian family, he and his family have made me feel at home from the very first moment I met them. All of these luxuries notwithstanding, I still wasn’t ready to pull the trigger on calling the U.S. my home. Now that I’m married to an American, I suppose the shift is inevitable.
After living in the U.S. for a total of 15 years, do I feel American? As I start thinking about starting a family, the answer to that question is getting rather complicated. I want my kid(s) to get to know the part of me that is still very much Malaysian but I feel as if that part of me gets increasingly diluted with the passage of time. My Malay language vocabulary was never anything to brag about but now I struggle to carry a conversation entirely in Bahasa. I want my kid(s) to know where my parents came from, the villages they grew up in, the hardship they experienced growing up and the meaning of working hard to succeed. I want them to know the value of education that, in my mind, only an upbringing in Asia can truly impart. Perhaps my fear deep down is that these hypothetical kids of mine will grow up soft.
I digress. Kids are on the roadmap but not for a few years so I have some time to sort these things out I suppose. Meanwhile, it is quite a strange feeling. I’m neither here, nor there. Or, I guess I could say that I am both. Malaysian and American. Hmm.