DURING the Merdeka weekend, I did what I suspect thousands of Malaysians scattered across the globe do on a regular basis.
I took the girls for roti canai at the local Malaysian restaurant. (Batik on the walls. Always, batik on the walls.) We read Lat at bedtime. (“Mommy, what is kampung?”)
And I plotted our return someday.
We live in a Midwestern American city. When I married my American husband, we agreed to stay five years in the US, return to Malaysia for a few years, and then see where life takes us.
It was something to tell my parents, but also to tell myself, especially early on, when the homesickness was physical.
Then came the babies. Suddenly, it’s been six years. And we’re still here.
Life is pretty good. I have an interesting job covering healthcare for the local paper. We run, skate and bike in the summer, and scrape ice off the windshield in winter.
But across the world, my parents are not getting any younger, and the guilt of keeping their only grandkids 13 time zones away grows heavier with each passing year.
Where you lead me I will follow (Pic by Chris Beck)
My husband says of course we’ll move if I really want to. But he’ll miss his family. Just like I miss mine.
Years ago, I spent a week with Malaysians in Silicon Valley for a story. They had some of the most sought-after jobs in the world, yet they were toying with the idea of returning home. Some had gone as far as to go for job interviews with technology companies in Malaysia (remember the Multimedia Super Corridor?).
However, they kept encountering things about their hometown they could no longer stomach. It was like wandering around a beautiful garden and stepping in some unexpected squishy dog poo.
Squish, squish, squish
For some, it was the attitude of managers at companies they were interviewing with. Squish. One Chinese Malaysian told me how upset he was when a visiting all-Malay Malaysian delegation treated him like he didn’t exist. Squish.
And inevitably, after heart-wrenching deliberations, and despite the disappointment of aging parents and the lure of D24 durian, none of them returned.
Last year, a Malaysian trade official invited a bunch of us to dinner in Minneapolis ahead of a visit by the trade minister. The conversation degenerated — as it is wont to do — to the usual complaints about our motherland’s immigration policies, which the official defended with gusto: “But we have Malaysia My Second Home!” etc. Until the unexpected confession midway through our sambal fish by the official himself, who said he was trying to leave Malaysia for good and settle in the US.
Why do you want to come back? asked one disgruntled soul whom I recently hit up for a job. Malaysia is only fun, he declared, if you are a Malaysian living abroad coming back for a holiday.
I’m not naive (okay, maybe I am. But, like Obama, I believe “we are a better country than this”). I know that Malaysian laws will make it tough for my husband to find work, for my daughters to go to a local school, for my family to even stay in Malaysia without regular, humiliating visits to our friends at the immigration department.
But I want my girls to grow up knowing they are half-Malaysian. I want them not to feel like strangers in my country.
And so I continue to plot.
Meanwhile, the sharp homesickness has dulled to an ache (striking regularly like PMS).
And we’re still here.
Chen May Yee is a former reporter for The Asian Wall Street Journal and author of Born and Bred in Pewter Dust. She lives with her husband and two daughters in Minneapolis — for now. Write to her at [email protected].