Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The American Abroad

My favorite color is the navy blue of the American passport.
One of the most beautiful sights to see is the fifty white stars flying in the wind. Fireworks on the Fourth of July never fail to stun me, and the bald eagle is without a doubt the most majestic creature ever to grace the American blue skies.
But I also love the other side of the world. I have a second home ten thousand miles away, that I miss everyday. The Malaysian flag makes me feel patriotic. I have a soft spot for Hindu festivals, and strains of Negaraku conjure up deep feelings of nostalgia.
In the ancient days of cartography, when quills and parchment assumed the role of today’s GPS devices, the world was largely unexplored. Ocean borders stretched on for full pages, the ends of the page serving as the end of the earth. Flat, vast, and largely unexplored, the ancient mapmakers would fill these empty spaces with drawings of dragons and looming beasts. The unknown was more fearful than the known, in the blank areas of the maps, people would write in “There be dragons.”
But where be dragons today? Are there even dragons anymore? Perhaps there are dragons in the deep Amazonian rainforest or the barren tundra of Siberia; the unknown still scares us as a species. But any dragons that once existed have long since been tamed, conquered, divided and labelled on a map. The world is ever changing: shrinking, condensing, becoming less about borders and more about the connections between them. Things that used to be reserved for wealthy diplomats or missionaries are becoming available for the common people. Leaving the country is as simple as a 2 hour flight or ten day cruise to sparkling beaches in once-exotic locales. Tourism rates are rising-- even in less travelled lands in Asia and Africa. But besides the tourists, who tote around their fanny packs and bulky cameras, and hang on to their language books for dear life, people are moving abroad to work or live.
And when these people go abroad, they find themselves not fitting in. Whether the differences are pronounced-- pale skin and red hair in a sea of dark ponytails and almond shaped dark eyes-- or the differences are more subtle, going abroad isolates you and can rip you of your identity. For Americans, people who call a melting pot their home, it is even more challenging.
I am an American paradox: an American born, Malaysian grown, Irish and Russian and Scottish and Hungarian descended walking contradiction. My passport says one thing, but my heart says another. It’s a problem that more and more people are facing: how do we identify ourselves? The Choose Your Own Ethnicity Boxes on standardized tests are confusing, forcing labels to be put on something that is never black or white (or Asian Pacific Islander or Native American or Hispanic). As complex as the definition of “American” is in America, it gains a whole new level of complexity when sent overseas.
The ideas that foreigners have about The United States are things that probably seem pretty funny here. It is amazing how quickly they lose their lighthearted humor when one realizes how a crazy stereotype is what someone actually believes is true. The media is often the only “reliable” source of information that people in other countries have about The US. But of course, the media only shows one side. Newspapers and magazines are quick to print startling headlines: “26 Elementary School Children Killed in Shooting,” “Military Veteran’s Funeral Picketed by Christian Hate Group,” “American Government Official Caught Sending Nude Photos.” These headlines are being consumed and swallowed by people overseas. It is easy to see how America as a country can become a monster in other people’s eyes: a violence ridden, corrupt, obese and backwards country pretending to be freer than free.
Besides the more serious beliefs about the US, there are the more absurd. People in some places of the world fully expect Americans to be obese and Caucasian, stuffing their faces with McDonald’s and pounding down Wendy’s Frosty’s every day. And at the same time, they expect everyone to look like Taylor Swift and talk like Sarah Palin. Movies, books, and TV shows have left people with an unrealistic and impossible definition of what an American is.
I was eating breakfast at a hotel in Asia one time with some American exchange students fresh off the plane from LAX. A very sweet Iranian lady came up to our table and started conversation, asking the usual questions: how long are you here for, what brings you to Malaysia, and where are you from. Beaming, we answered, The United States of America. She burst out laughing, then appeared a bit puzzled when our faces showed we didn’t see what was so funny. “You,” she said placing her hand on my African-American friends shoulder, “are from Africa!” “And you,” turning to my friend who was adopted from China but had lived in America her whole life, “are Chinese!” “And you two,” gesturing to my Mexican-American friend and my very tan Italian-American friend, “Are from South America!” Finally she turned to me and patted my head, “This girl is the only real American here!” My very white cheeks flushed as she brushed my light colored hair out of my face and walked away. I apologized profusely for the incident, although I’m not sure if it was even my fault. Here’s the thing about being an American overseas: the very things which once defined you have the potential to rip you apart.
People are not shy to ask you questions if you don’t fit their preconceived idea of what an American should be. “Why aren’t you fat, why aren’t you blonde, why doesn’t your butt look like Kim Kardashians, why don’t you sing on tables the way they do in High School Musical?” And for those, there is no good answer. Trying to explain the incredibly diverse land that we originate from is nearly impossible. When the foreign country you’re in is the size of Michigan state, how can you explain the vast nation that stretches from sea to shining sea? America is a country founded on differences. It contains deserts and glaciers, Native Americans and Mormons. It is a struggle to explain this to someone who hasn’t visited The United States, hasn’t attended a Memorial Day barbecue or seen a hundred caps thrown into the air at a high school graduation ceremony.
The idea of being an expatriate is confusing to many. Americans wonder why people would leave the states and people overseas wonder why people would go to their country. Even the word itself is scary, suggesting a complete cut off from a country that once was home. Whether it be a matter of wanderlust or work, Americans overseas are the best representation of this country that can be offered. They offer a genuine American perspective, one unmuddled by reporters or headlines, one that is as unique as the person sharing it. Every time an expat tells their story: who they are, what their family is like, a memory from school days, they are saying more about The United States than any movie ever could. Because when you arrive in that new country, step off the plane, and hand your navy blue passport to the immigration officer, you become a window into what may be considered the greatest country in the world. For people that have never interacted with an American before, you become America. And being America is one of the most difficult, but rewarding experiences in this world.
Being America is a hundred questions, from a hundred different people, every day. It’s answering questions about everything from math class to make-up, high school to hot guys. It’s laughing at the ridiculous, blushing at the awkward, and struggling to find answers to the tough ones. The questions you never thought about, questions that make you question yourself or your country, questions that you have to say “I really don’t know” to.  It’s trying to put things gracefully and diplomatically, acknowledging someone’s points while still being honest and real.
Being America means dealing with the stereotypes I talked about before. It’s laughing at the thought of eating only hamburgers, laughing at the thought of everyone in your high school having a boyfriend, and laughing at your friend’s expressions when you tell them you’re laughing because these things are so farfetched. It’s imagining a New York City where you meet a celebrity when you step out to get your morning paper. It’s people expecting you to act like someone from Mean Girls, or Gossip Girl, or High School Musical. It’s realizing that in a weird way, some of the stereotypes are true, even though no school you’ve heard of lets the students sing and dance on the lunch tables.
Being America is dealing with the really difficult situations as well: situations that leave you sobbing because you don’t even know what to say or do. It’s explaining the fact that even though there are Americans who hate Muslims, or hate Christians, or hate Jews, for the most part we’re a pretty accepting nation.  It’s watching your flags burn on TV, stars and stripes overtaken by flames from people that point blame at the collective rather than the individuals. It’s hard to swallow, and even harder to talk about. It’s defending your country, but it’s also acknowledging its shortcomings. Becoming America means being the voice for your country when everyone is against it.
Though there are days when you feel like everyone hates you because of your nationality, or days when you feel like you can’t even explain what being an American is like, being American is something that doesn’t leave you. The pages of your passport may fill up with visas and stamps, but the golden eagle on the front cover will serve as a reminder of where you came from. Each day that you pledged allegiance to the flag in elementary school, each time you took off your hat while singing the National anthem, each time you said Murica? That stuff doesn’t go away. The most beautiful part of exploring dragon-inhabited lands is coming home afterwards, and knowing there’s a place where you can call home. Being an American abroad is taxing, exhausting, humorous, and crazy. It’s a red, white and American passport navy blue adventure every day.

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Some Shameless Promo

It's been awhile, but hopefully soon I'll have very exciting things to share with everyone!!
I can't say much yet, but good things are in the works.
As part of this super secret adventure I have coming up, could I ask you all a favor?
If you're from the U.S, ages 13-25, could you fill out a quick survey for me?
It's all yes or no questions! Super easy. AND just by filling it out you're entered to win $200. Pretty cool I think.
Thanks so much and I'll keep you posted on things!

(Survey ini untuk orang Amerika yang umur 13-25 tahun sahaja! Terima kasih!)

Monday, April 14, 2014

Exchange Never Leaves You

2 years ago, on Friday the 13th, I got the email that changed my life.
I wrote this blog post and couldn't wait to tell everyone.
So 2 years later, I thought it would be fitting to blog again. I haven't in a while, though I have a good ten or so drafts in my blogger queue. It's hard to write about being back in the US, probably because it's hard being back here.
When I got off the plane into the freezing New York weather that I hadn't missed at all, I was greeted with a life where very little had changed. But I felt different. In some ways, this was comforting. I figured it would be easy to fall back into old friendships, routines, and American habits, but it wasn't. It isn't. It's been nearly a year since I left Malaysia behind, and I'm not sure if I feel like I fully belong here yet. I've been scared to write about the whole re-adaptation process because I'm worried it will come across as whiny or ungrateful, when in reality I have some pretty amazing people in my life and I've been blessed with some pretty amazing opportunities. But I'll get to this later. For now, the nitty gritty hard stuff.
To sum it up in a word, return is achy. I find my mind wandering off to random people and places in Malaysia. Night markets, school teachers, late nights on the beach. I think what's hardest to swallow is knowing that it will never be that way again. I'll never stay up late talking to the Europeans, wandering around KL Sentral and taking the LRT to wherever. I'll be having a perfectly fine day, when bam, all of a sudden my mind is 10,000 miles away. To say I miss it is an understatement. I would kill for one more night of roti canai, watching tv with my host family, seeing KLCC's lights go off at night. It's a very common sentiment, but I wish I had enjoyed everything more while I was abroad. Breathed in the scents of jasmine flowers, and incense,and hawker stalls. Gone more places, done more things. Made more friends. But there's nothing that can be gained from regrets, and it's easy to lose sight of the good in a sea of what if's.
Exchange never truly leaves you. It's something that you carry with you in your heart, for the rest of the life. There are people, have been people, who hold it against me. It really got to me at first, how could they insult my experience? But it went away with time. No one can understand what it was like because no one else lived the second life I did. Exchange never leaves you. It's in the flags and ticket stubs and postcards and bangles that clutter my room. It's in the friendships I made, it's in the joy I get when I receive a text from my host mama or from my partner in crime.
Exchange never leaves you because in a lot of ways, it keeps on going.
This past month, I had the privilege of volunteering at the YES Abroad In Person Selection Event. I saw a lot of myself two years ago in this new pool of applicants. It was a bittersweet interviewing them. Though I learned a lot, I couldn't help being extremely jealous that some of them had this experience sin front of them. Notifications went out yesterday, and everyone that received the scholarship was very deserving. If you're reading this, congrats and well done!
In early March, I went to DC for a sponsored programs conference and an Ashoka Youth Venture Workshop. I was surrounded by exchange-minded people and some really amazing alum. The workshop was short, and I'll hopefully get around to posting something about it, but I left with a set of friends around the globe. Special shoutout to Shehab (kebab), Turki, Noah, Hannah Cecilia and Aadil. When I left DC, I was fighting back tears. It's hard to leave behind people you love, and sometimes it feels like that's all I do.
 In October, I went back to Malaysia. I volunteered at the World Marketing Summit Malaysia, and had a fantastic two weeks. I ate as much char kuey teow as physically possible, and took that familiar train ride back to Ipoh. I went back to school, and got kicked out of class by the ever-loved Add. Maths teacher. It was, in a lot of ways, a reminder that I still have another home. Even though it's two very long flights away, it will always be there for me. Sometimes I need to treasure that.
23 all exchange related school absences later, I think it's safe to say that I'll never really go back to life the way it was pre-Malaysia. And that's okay. I love spending time with the exchange students hosted in my chapter, and I'm hosting a girl from Indonesia which is a fun way to keep the Southeast Asian love alive in the house.
I think maybe I need to apologize here. I don't know if any of you will end up reading this, but to my friends, my darlings, thank you for putting up with me. Thank you for listening to my stories and telling me to shut up about Malaysia once in a while. If I live in the past, I won't be able to make new memories. Though I always talk about going abroad again, you make Brewster the best place I could possibly be staying when I'm not jetting off somewhere.
So that's about it. A lot has happened in two years, and it's interesting to go back in my blog and reading my story from the very beginning. I am very blessed, and infinitely grateful for everyone around me.
Exchange will never leave me, because it made me who I am today.
Casual UN pic because this post was very cheesy

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

12 Years Later: September 11, 2013

Read the original post here: Musings from Malaysia: 11 Years Later- How Living in a Primarily Muslim Country has Changed my Views of the World....

Has it really been one year since I wrote this post? 365 days, and thousands of miles away. How things have changed.
I've been back in the U.S. for almost 4 months now. People ask me questions about my Malaysia all the time, but sadly the questions, especially at school, range from "Did someone try to set you up to be in an arranged marriage?" to "I'm surprised you came back, you know, living with terrorists for a year."
It's heartbreaking. The people I called mom, dad, brother, sister, friend, teacher last year are labeled as terrorists here, simply because of their religion. Trying to convey a message of acceptance and tolerance can be difficult. The human race is one that likes to draw their own conclusions.
This isn't every American. Not at all. In fact, the attitudes are changing. I presented at a college fair with a colleague program last weekend about the YES Abroad Program. When I said the words "American high schoolers live in countries with significant Muslim populations for one year," I was humbled to see that parents and students alike weren't bothered by this. Maybe a little surprised, as Southeast Asia and Africa aren't common study abroad locations, but they were willing to hear me out. This is a response I doubt I would've gotten as little as 5 years ago. Acceptance is growing; it makes me proud to be an American.
As much as it has become a part of it, September 11th is not a religion based day. Muslims, Christians, Jews, Atheist, Hindus alike were victims of the attack. We all bleed red. Osama bin Laden was Muslim, Hitler was atheist, Westboro Baptist Church is Christian. Each religion has hate. Evil people doing terrible things. That doesn't change the beauty in the holy fasting month of Ramadan, or the empty tomb on Easter, or the menorah burning for eight long nights. It doesn't change the photos of the Christians in Egypt holding hands to make a human wall while Muslims pray, and then Muslims doing the same later. Religion may define a person, but a person shouldn't define a religion.

Tomorrow, I will stand with my schoolmates, wearing red white and blue, seeing the flag of this great nation fly. Tomorrow, we will respect the fallen, the wounded, the mourning, those who 12 years later, still live with the aftermath of this tragic event every day. Tomorrow,  is a day to remember. A day to respect, honor, and mourn. Tomorrow, our nation will be united, hearts beating as one. And all over the world, we must remember other countries are with us. Tomorrow, maybe we can put aside our differences for once, and remember that day 12 years ago, view it as citizens of the world, regardless of our backgrounds.