I really meant to write this eight months ago.
I thought about belonging a lot in Malaysia. I think of so many descriptions I use for my life and family: first generation immigrant, only immediate family, hodgepodge of dialects…and all that sort of faded away when I’m in my family of 50+ with people who look a little bit like me. And I belonged in a way over there that I don’t over here.
My parents belong. My parents are one of the rare Asian American families that didn’t emigrate with anyone else, so even though I know the family tree, I don’t often get to see the bigger family to which they belong. So I was surprised by how deeply I was moved just by seeing how much their siblings looked like and sounded like them.
There is so much of how my Yima talks and gestures that resembles my own mom. The way they stare when they make a response, their animated stories, their sharp imitations. Three decades apart and the characteristics of sisterhood remain. I laughed hearing my yima’s version of my mom’s stories, how my mom wanted to go shopping at all these places and take all these clothes with her (my mom likes to tell us that it’s her sister who likes shopping and who gave them to her!). I imagined their times together, the story of how my dad’s family said the earth shook when my mom, my yima, and my ahma would laugh together.
My yima took us out every morning, arranging what she thought was the best for us, finding mangosteens just for me. What would it have been like to have this auntie as a part of my childhood and my life, instead of in summer-long visits and choppy phone calls?
When we first arrived to spend time with my dad’s family, it was like a receiving line at the door. My dagu (oldest Auntie) greeted me as if she’d been waiting a decade for me to come (maybe she had) her voice so tender it made me wonder, “How has it been so long since I’ve seen them?” And I couldn’t get over how obvious it was that these uncles and aunties were his brothers and sisters. The gait, the posture, the dark skin and jet black combed hair. Each one of them reminded me of my dad in a different way; I could see him in all of them. Pieces of my dad, so obvious in his homeland. When we went to dinner with my dabuo, the only uncle older than my dad, I just wanted to absorb and notice all the ways he reminded me of my dad, from the way he made eye contact, the shape of his face, and the way he obviously carried himself as an older sibling. Oh, and the daily cups of kopi, but that’s just everyone in Malaysia (my dad must miss it a lot). Here, my dad belongs.
Cousins. When Darrell and I first started dated, I couldn’t believe how often he saw his extended family. And even more than that, he had cousins! Cousins that he saw growing up, that he played with, that he had memories with. But in Malaysia, I have cousins too. 30 first cousins, actually (I would say “to be exact” except I can never remember how many exactly I have). And while I draw from the same memories of them over and over again, when I’m in Malaysia, I remember I’m part of a bigger family. Our memories are few, but it felt good to be remembered, to know that they (at least the older ones) were excited to see me too.
I think about the support systems that are lost through immigration and lives built across oceans. I watched the kids of my cousins run around and play with each other as if they were really all siblings from one family, and it made me wonder, Was it worth it? My parents would say yes — the opportunities, the freedom, the political system made America all worth it. I wouldn’t change the life they gave me either. And yet, I can see the things we have missed out on: knowing my grandparents, large extended family, and being part of family bound by blood.
Places. We went to the village where my dad grew up. There’s a paved road now. Though his elementary school is no more, the river they played in growing up is still there. I found my brain grasping for the few stories my dad would tell, trying to imagine these two homes side-by-side housing 11 kids. We drove to the middle school my dad would have walked to, now remodeled and updated after years of fundraising in the Chinese community. I agreed to the village visit thinking it would be cool, but when we got there, I was sort of in awe. Decades ago, my dad’s life was here. I remember standing there thinking, This is part of where I’m from, too.
I felt the same when we were snaking through Georgetown streets with my Yima. She pointed out one of the houses they grew up in, and I sort of wished the car would just stop. When your parents are the immigrant generation, it feels like so much is left behind. Which part of her childhood was this? Where was the cafe? What are the stories that don’t get told because they are so far away? Yima laughed when I wanted to take pictures by her old house. But see, that house was where I had the most memories with my cousins there. It’s one of three houses in which I’ve ever laughed at commercials and movies with my cousins. It’s the house of my most Malaysia stories because we stayed there in both 1999 and 2005. Memories and belonging, they’re intertwined.
Food. Oh, how at-home my tastebuds were in Malaysia. How did I acquire the same taste from a life spent in America? Pungent smells and tastes that I have described to Darrell over and over again, spicy and sour and fresh all blended together. All my culinary dreams come true. No explanations needed. Homemade nasi lemak of my dreams. Sambal richer than anything over here. Spiciness that actually pushes my limit. Noodles and mein — so many. The perfect blend of Malaysian, Chinese, and Indian cuisines that I’m always trying to convince everyone here is the best you can ever get. There, I never have to convince, as everyone is in full agreement (except maybe Darrell, who occasionally rolls his eyes at our snobbery). Can foods and what you eat help you belong? Yes, assuredly yes.
It’s like these pieces were left there, left in the faces of my extended family, left in my memories of a motherland I visited just enough times to know what I was missing. Picking up these memories like I was picking up pink seashells on the beach, like I’m picking up pieces of myself, my family, and our story that was left behind when we did life here instead. And though I couldn’t quite bring them back with me, it was nice to know that the parts of life here that don’t quite fit definitely have a piece of belonging over there.