Friday, June 25, 2010

Asia for Dummies

We picked the right place, I discovered today at breakfast at The Coffee Bean. We met a Muslim expat family from the UK: Tanzeela, Shahid, and their two daughters. Tanzeela told me that they call Malaysia Asia for Dummies. If you’re living abroad in Asia for the first time, Malaysia is a nice introduction because you can find many of the amenities we are accustomed to back home.

It's also a place to get the flavor of Chinese and Indian culture, the two largest minority groups in Malaysia. I learned that the largest Chinese expat community resides here.

It wasn’t until my family and I arrived at the China Airline terminal at LAX that I truly realized that I was about to step into Asia. I’m used to confronting my minority status in certain locations in the US. (It may sound ironic to say "certain" since most locations in the US are majority white; but remember, I live in a black neighborhood in a majority-black city, I work at a black college for women, and I attend a black mosque).  But this was different. I wasn’t a black woman in a sea of white people, but a black woman in a sea of Asian people. And add my hijab to the mix. 

Just when I was about to put on my ‘People are looking at me because I am different’ hat, a Chinese woman (at least I think she was Chinese) came up to me to tell me in her broken English how adorable my 4 month old is. I was carrying him in my Mei Tai, a traditionally Asian-Style Baby Carrier, as a matter of fact. Lut was staring up at me cooing. The Asian woman was so amused by Lut, and she said with a hearty laugh, "Oooh he is trying to talk to you." She was extremely tickled. She kept saying it over again, laughing, "Oooh, baby is trying to talk to you."

So she warmed me up and I tried on a different hat, the “try not to make assumptions” hat, the one my husband always tries to get me to wear but I usually resist : “I’m an anthropologist. I have to make observations and draw conclusions.”

When we arrived in Taipei, it was very clear to us that we were no longer in the States, confused about where to go to make our connection and frustrated by the not so user friendly arrival and departure monitors. But we had to admit, we traveled with the privilege of English as our native tongue. Yahya, my two-year old, was beaming with a bright smile. He had no clue where we were or where we were going, simply happy to be out of the house and zooming through the airport via train. We finally made it to our terminal for Kuala Lumpur. Not only Malaysians were traveling to KL, but all of Asia was traveling there.

I am in Asia, it truly hit me. Starting to feel like the minority again, I am embarrassed as Yahya decides to put on a show, twirling and shouting in the middle of the terminal. Lut is screaming too, and what usually calms him down, breastfeeding, doesn’t work this time.  Many eyes are on us. A woman with a toddler plays with Yahya. An old man warmly tells Yahya, “Your brother is hungry.” 

Once arriving in KL, on the airport train again, Yahya became a celebrity among a group of young Asian tourists. They pulled out their cameras to take pictures of him and with him.  I talk to one sitting next to me. “Where from?” “Taiwan.” I try to tell her where I am from. “United States…America.” She shrugged her shoulders to say “I don’t know that place.” But when we all lined up to exchange our money at the closest bank, the young tourists pulled out USDs as did we.

KL, certainly a top tourist destination for Asia and the Gulf. I checked out the women from different places in diverse, stylish, beautiful outfits, travelers and flight crews. I sat in the immigration office as we waited to get my husband’s student visa approved. I thought of all the Muslim men and women immigrants in the US that I interviewed and their stories about arriving in the US.  I had a newfound empathy. A new chapter in my life begins.


  1. AsAsalaamualaikum Jamillah,

    I love the blog. I'm very excited to read about your experience. Qadir saw Yahya's picture and was saying Yah in a loud voice, he was also trying to wave to him. I hope things continue to enjoy this wonderful experience.

  2. Awesome blog and post! Can't wait to read and learn more about both Asia and your observations of the same through your lens as a cultural anthropologist.

  3. I contend with your description of being lost in Tawain. I knew exactly where to go.

    The 4th member.