Can you miss a place that isn’t even yours to begin with?
This week marks the one-month period that I have been here, living and adjusting to this so-called new life. There are good and bad days as we all know, but honestly in general despite how emotionally out of funk I am, funnily, I am still incredibly functional. I think it’s just the realist in me and quite frankly? Thank goodness for that. Among the upside of things include recent news that I’ve actually secured an advisor for an independent research study I am hoping to do in winter and spring quarters, plus I’m already on the lookout for summer internships – I figured I have nothing to lose – so apart from school just being its typical batshit intense workload self, things are… I guess you can say that they’re looking up. It doesn’t make anything easier – heck, no – but it’s nice when things slowly make more sense.
Given a moment of quiet though, this is the truth: my heart feels an ache. I wonder if it’s homesickness, or it’s simply the adjustment phase in coming to terms and getting to know a foreign locale. Yesterday I overheard that one of my program mates just spent the weekend in Philly where his girlfriend lives. He spoke about the weather, how it’s still pretty warm over there at this time of the year which is a surprise and I could literally hear my heart thud. Ache, then replaced by a kind of longing that doesn’t fade easily.
There’s a part of me that itches so badly, almost desperately, for places I’ve known and those I’ve yet to traverse.
Later that evening, I conversed with a friend about my local and overseas travels; he did his undergrad in London and has traveled heaps himself. That too-familiar pang hit me again: ache. It’s conversations such as this that I miss, where my being an international student doesn’t make me the odd one out, instead that the local and global travels are things to celebrate and discuss. Not to be obnoxious in trying to list cities and places I’ve been to, nothing of that sort. It’s that universal, collective enthusiasm and passion for uncharted territories.
I’ve tried to make time an hour weekly on Mondays to attend a conversational Japanese class and it is incredibly fascinating where people are from – who they are or what they represent versus who and what they identify themselves as. For instance, an elderly man I typically chat with in class is Caucasian-American but spent large chunks of his growing up years in Peru and later, other parts of South America. As a result, naturally he speaks fluent Portuguese and Spanish, with smattering of other languages. Now he teaches international students English and most of his students, he shared, are from East Asia hence he thought it’d be nice to try to pickup one of their languages. In another instance, there’s a woman of Chinese descent from Taiwan, but grew up and live in Argentina. The two of them converse jovially in who would’ve guessed? Spanish. I asked her which one she counts as home and she looked perplexed, trying to come up with an answer before replying that both places carry different meanings to her; I didn’t probe further.
And there we were, a bunch of in-between folks, in a conversational Japanese language class.
Sometimes what frustrates me about being an overseas student abroad comes down to two scenarios: 1) the reality that I am always the outsider looking in, the odd one out among American peers or 2) when I’m surrounded by Malaysians, the overly attached citizen of home.
I enjoy being in the company of friends regardless where they’re from, but I’ve come to realize that not all Americans travel and especially, travel abroad. Perhaps the North American continent is so vast that they see no reason to go abroad, but I’m often boggled by those who tell me they’ve never visited other states in their own country. Perhaps it’s a money thing, which I understand but it is mind-boggling when they’ve never even visited neighboring states and attractions – places they could still reach without a plane ride or hefty amount of money on expensive train rides. For some of them, that I am ‘international’ (I hate this term, I find it an insult) is then something they’ve a hard time wrapping their minds around. I admit that okay, it doesn’t help that very few people actually know where Malaysia is on the world map.
What I hate the most though, I admit, is that there’s differing value and double-standards in where one is from. If one is European, British, Australian or basically, from any Western countries, the response is obvious: there’s an immediate interest and fascination. When you’re from Asia though, it’s often met with a polite “oh” and detached interest. Occasionally I’ll get questions, but they’re often telling of the other party’s knowledge or interest about Asia – it’s like Asia means China, or Asia means Oriental Asians only. I’ve been asked so many times why I don’t speak Mandarin or “Don’t people in Malaysia speak Chinese?” The generalizations… I can’t. I just… can’t. It is like I can never win – there is always a loop hole I can’t close. I have quit trying, but the process and sentiments never get old because each time I meet someone new, introductions are never without “Where are you from?”
I’ll be honest: sometimes I just can’t fucking stand this.
On the other side of the spectrum though, it’s not exactly dandy either. Frankly, I don’t understand what is it with Malaysians abroad who are always so eager and embarrassingly fast to adopt a Western country as their new home. It’s this ‘the grass is greener anywhere but home’ mentality I can’t stand. I’ve met so many peers who like me, have spent teens to twenty-odd years growing up in Malaysia but the moment they’re here, everything is right on this side of the world while nothing is in the motherland. What irony that one has spent twenty years in a place I figure one would call home versus a place one’s lived in for a year or so, only for the latter to be the one deemed as home! A guy I recently met acted this way and it took every ounce of me not to retort that excuse me, but he did his undergrad at home and only arrived for postgraduate which means he has spent a quarter of a century in that country he claims “is only good for two things: family and food” versus a year here.
Excuse me while I roll my eyes.
What’s worse and where I cringe and hold back anger so furiously is when they bitch and bitch and more bitching about “the kind of country Malaysia is and has turned into where everything is so fucked up!” Cue more rants about everything under the sun that’s wrong over there, conveniently forgetting that before they made their way here – they were part of that place, too. Frankly I am embarrassed to associate myself with them, even just by proxy. I accept if they’ve no interest in the country, what more any loyalty to return – honestly I’d prefer citizens who are patriotic over egoistic fools anyway so I don’t think it’s any loss, just shame – but I can’t and refuse to accept it when they continue to bitch and diss about the country, when they are not going to do anything about it. Heck they aren’t going to be part of the solution, conveniently and deliberately having taken themselves out of the pool and yet the bitching. Does. Not. Stop.
You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.
So here I am, in that gray in-between as I always seem to be wherever I am. The half-and-half who’s never really identified and racially accepted by either sides whether Malay or Chinese, the progressive modern Muslim who seems out-of-place in-between naysayers and zealots, the ‘international’ kid who’s whaddya know, not from China and the Malaysian girl who’s ironically too Malaysian for most of these Malaysians students in the US I’ve come across.
But what I have realized and what is perhaps the greatest lesson I continue to learn is this age-old wisdom: stay true to who you are. The reality is complex but the truth is inherently simple: if you accept who you are, it matters little what others think of you. Accept yourself as whatever that you are and hold on to that.
Hold on to your self-worth, truly and sincerely.
It’s not going to be easy and I’ll be the first to act as testament to this but as I am relearning and remembering these days, life is too short for bad company. It’s even shorter to spend it being anyone but yourself.
Be yourself. Never, ever, settle for a second-rate version of yourself for anyone.