heritage

[Stop 9 & 10]: Malaysia | Kuala Lumpur & Penang by Amanda Liew

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And finally, finally (a casual 6 months later...) Malaysia! I suppose it's fitting because in this case, I really did save the best for last. Malaysia was by far my favorite country in my entire post-grad trip for a multitude of reasons. The obvious reason being my heritage. My father was born and raised in Kuala Lumpur with one older brother and nine sisters in between. Can you even imagine growing up in that large of a family? Due to the distance, the last and only time I went to Malaysia was when I was one years old. Since then, I've been able to see my various aunts and cousins who live in the US and Australia, but never the ones in Malaysia. As I've gotten older, I've begun relying even less on my dad to get in contact with family. Two years ago, I reconnected with Christine who is Australian but living in London (and actually a London blogger herself!), who then coordinated a series of meet ups with my amazing cousin, Benita, and then I met the rest of her family at Thanksgiving! Getting reconnected with so many members of my family served as a main motivator in planning my entire post-grad trip. I realized how many other relatives I had out there and how little I knew about my Chinese-Malaysian background. I was fortunate in that Madeline/Mallika/Amy were all willing to plan our trip to include Malaysia and spend time meeting my family with me for the first time. Our trip from Ho Chi Minh to Kuala Lumpur was rough to say the least. Long story short, never ever take Air Asia. Hypothetically speaking, they might change your flight time to one hour earlier without notifying you and then ask you to wait 12 hours at the airport and then let your plane free fall for a good 10 seconds while you're in the air. Was pretty convinced I was going to die... Once we finally got there, though, we got settled and explored the next day on our own. Malaysia is an Islamic country and I was absolutely blown away by the way Islamic art influenced the architecture in the country. The Petronas Towers were absolutely mindblowing at night.

_DSC0066We also took the opportunity to go to the Islamic Arts Museum which was stunningly curated and the perfect balance of beauty and education. They had an entire exhibit on textiles, and I thought it was fascinating to learn that cardboard can be used to create the raised surface on embroidery.

I loved this quote in the museum about the way geometry is used in art:

"The repetition, symmetry and the continuous generation of geometric patterns thus became the sacred language in Islamic art, affirming and reflecting the unfolding of God's creation."

I've always been really fascinated with different forms of expressing worship even if I share different religious beliefs. I wrote about Losang Samtem's mandala and how he viewed his art as an active conversation with God since not everybody is able to sit in stillness and meditate.

_DSC0084 _DSC0115_MalaysiaThe first cousin I met was Tony and his amazing wife, Jian. Tony somehow has all of Kuala Lumpur's history stored in his brain and gave us a historical tour around the city. Fun fact, Kuala Lumpur's name means the "mouth of the muddy town." The history of the city is interesting since it was created during the British colonization. The river that runs through literally separated the British side (which literally had a Commons) and Malaysian side (which was a mix of Malays, Chinese, and Indians). The three Asian cultures are still present in the Malaysian population today, but I didn't realize how vast the divide was between them in terms of laws, incorporating businesses, educational opportunities, etc. For the longest time, I never understood why my dad would distinguish his background by saying "I'm Chinese, not Malay," when he was a third generation Malaysian, but now the cultural identification makes a little more sense contextually.

Tony helped organize a family reunion of sorts for me! I got to meet my other cousins Joyce and Emily along with Emily's adorable daughters and four of my Aunties! It was such a blessing to meet them in person.

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Before we left Kuala Lumpur, we went on the MM Adventure's tour to see the Batu caves, fireflies, and monkey sanctuary. We weren't sure it was worth the cost, but again, it was an excellent decision that I highly recommend!

_DSC0311 _DSC0361 _DSC0378 _DSC0395 _DSC0433Finally, we left Kuala Lumpur for our last stop in Penang. It was a short 24 hour trip, but filled with good food and...a freak storm. We had some very specific recommendations from our friend Nicole and made sure to hit up the Gurney Drive hawker stalls.

_DSC0466Unfortunately, after we finished satiating ourselves, the wind starts to pick up. Next thing I know, I look up and see a giant metal tin roof hurting 40 feet up in the air above the other stands heading straight toward our section. Fortunately we were all able to duck or hide in nooks and crannies until the storm passed. Trees collapsed on top of cars left and right, and as freaked out as we were, we thought maybe this was a standard tropical storm in South East Asia. Once we got in a taxi though, our taxi driver was visibly shaken and told us he hadn't seen anything like it in years. What luck!

The next day we wrapped up our morning with a visit to Batu Ferringhi beach and found our way to two must-visits: a roti canai restaurant (my favorite Malaysian food!) and a famous Cendol stand (which may or may not have made Mallika and I very sick...)

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It was finally time to begin our 30 hour journey back to the United States, and though I had some err medical hiccups on the way back, the entire three week journey was possibly the most amazing trip of my life. Now that I've been working for so a while, I'm more grateful than ever that I had the opportunity to travel extensively in between graduation and New York.

I am...an Asian American. by Amanda Liew

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My brother and I circa my sassy days.

While "YOSYO" (You Only Senior Year Once) is usually a term reserved for paaaaaaartying, I've oddly applied the seize-the-day mentality to my education at Penn. This semester I decided to broaden my interests a little bit by taking Digital Photography, but I also decided to sign up for Asian American Communities - a subject I never thought I would look into during my life time.

Admittedly, I originally signed up for Asian American Communities to fulfill a graduation requirement through Civic Scholars. I've always been uncomfortable about my ethnicity and have always struggled with my self-identity (case in point: when asked the question, "Where are you from?"). Despite my hesitation to take a class where I'd have to talk about a community I didn't fully identify with, due to scheduling, not really liking the other course descriptions, and this nagging thought in my brain that You really should do this before you graduate, I signed up for the course. Even during the first week, I was ready to bolt and run. But that panic in itself made me realize something was wrong. Why was I so uncomfortable with the idea of even participating in a discussion about Asian Americans? Why have I spent my entire life trying to distance myself more and more from my ethnicity?  I've been mulling over these questions for the past four years, and I figured it was now or never. I needed to face my own issues head on.

Growing up, I quickly noticed that I was different. I remember asking my mom, "Why didn't God make me beautiful with blonde hair and blue eyes?" From such an early age, I saw and defined beauty as Caucasian. Throughout elementary, middle, and high school, I was in schools where Asians were a minority, but that wasn't a huge problem for me. At my chinese church, however, I was part of a completely Asian American community. Through a SPECTACULAR youth group, my entire life trajectory changed when I rededicated myself to God, grew constantly in my faith alongside amazing friends, and developed a phenomenal community that completely embraced me. Still, even with all of these amazing components, part of me was uncomfortable hanging out with my church friends outside of church. There was this imaginary scenario that always popped into my head: I would be at the UTC mall with my Asian American friends, and one of my non-Asian friends from school would see us as a group. He/she wouldn't even recognize me! Rather, he/she would just see us as "that group of Asians over there." For me, that was my biggest fear. That even being physically present with other Asians would lead to an instant loss of self-identity. I would no longer be "Amanda," I would just be "one of those Asians."

This thought terrified me. I have to admit, it often still does. I'm still overly aware at all times of the Asian to non Asian ratio in the group I'm with. The lower that ratio, the less anxiety I feel. Sometimes I actually prefer to be the only Asian in a group - perfectly happy to be the "token Asian." Because to me, that gives me more of an individuality. I'm noticed as an individual both for being Amanda, and for being the only Asian.

This is messed up. And this is wrong.

I always knew that this attitude was wrong in the back of my head, but I feel like only in the recent past and mainly because of this class do I now acknowledge it fully. It's something I still struggle with, though. You can't instantly shake fears. You can't always get rid of insecurities just by willing them away.

The difference, now: I realize I'm not alone. And I say that in more ways than one. First off, from the stories of my classmates and other Asian Americans in our research, I realize that the way I feel about my ethnicity and heritage is part of a multitude of different feelings and struggles other Asian Americans have. There are the Asian Americans who feel that they will never be accepted by other races, there are the Asian Americans who prefer to be part of an Asian American community because of commonality and tradition, there are Asian Americans who grew up in predominantly white communities but now embrace their opportunity to join an Asian American community at Penn, there are Asian Americans who look down on others who try to be "more white," there are Asian Americans who believe in assimilating as quickly as possible, and yes, there are other Asian Americans like myself who often identify more with the "American" part of our name than the "Asian." I am discovering that there is no one way Asian Americans are supposed to feel. I used to think that I didn't identify with Asian Americans because they didn't feel the same way I did. They loved being Asian Americans! They embraced it! It was great! But that's not how I felt. And therefore I wasn't like "them." But there is no unifying "them." There is no unifying attitude. It isn't "I hate being Asian American" vs "I love being Asian American." There's a lot more in between.

All of this leads to the second part of my realization. I've come to see that despite these very different struggles (and often opposing attitudes), no matter how much I try to run away from it, I am still a part of the Asian American community. Whether it benefits me or hurts me, I look Asian. My mother is from China. My father is from Malaysia. My children will be (at least) half Asian. And my grandchildren will be (at least) a quarter Asian. And because of this, we will face struggles. The world is far from perfect, and America is far from being in a post-racial country. Before joining this class, I didn't think Asian Americans had all that many problems, and it wasn't a pressing issue. Suddenly, though, I'm learning about refugees, attacks on South Philadelphia High School Asian students, entire generations being harmed by the "model minority" myth, and more. I'm learning about the murder of Vincent Chin, where he was brutally murdered days before his wedding in a racially charged attack. Vincent Chin was every bit as much an Asian and every bit as much an American as I am. So what makes me so different?

These stories have made me realize why I should care about the Asian American community and its struggles. Because I shouldn't have to feel conscious about the race ratio around me. Because it's not right that there is so little representation of Asian Americans in the media or Hollywood. Because it's unbelievable that Asian Americans still struggle to get elected to office. Because barely any schools teach about the internment of 110,000 innocent Japanese Americans during World War II. Because it really sucks that if things don't change, there's a chance my own children will grow up being embarrassed of me because I gave them their Asian features. I am part of a much larger picture. Being Asian American doesn't fall into a cookie cutter mold like I used to think. And while my problems and Asian American problems won't be going away any time soon, I can at least take the small steps towards accepting myself and embracing my heritage in the way I wish to.

So here it is. The statement I've been running from, but now want to accept: I am an Asian American.

DSC_0029My brother and I circa my I-wish-I-were-still-sassy-days