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America, Malaysia and the Immigrant Experience

March 2006
America, Malaysia and the Immigrant Experience

This month our cover story takes us on a visit to the Indian immigrant communities of the Far East. Surprisingly, it has been an illuminating exercise in more ways than one. Not only does such a visit shed light on our lives as Indian Americans, but more importantly, it shatters a few myths about America as a haven for immigrants.

The very history and identity of America is laced with the immigrant experience. No other nation on the planet proclaims itself more strongly as the land of immigrants. Quantitatively, this is true. The proof is in the pudding. People from around the world have indeed made it their home, and continue to do so.

And yet, can America make the claim that it is also foremost in the values that make for what truly qualifies as a haven for immigrants? Values such as a liberal, open, and welcoming attitude towards all ethnicities? A truly cosmopolitan make up? A place where people of all nationalities, no matter how different they may appear, feel at home? Would an Arab feel comfortable living and working in the U.S. in his native dress? Can a saree-clad Indian women move about in its hinterlands without drawing attention? How naturally would a blue-eyed blonde engage in a conversation with a saree-clad woman in public?

While the rule of law is certainly in favor of personal liberties to all of its citizens, America is only perfunctory in its tolerance of such differences. The mainstream culture places an unmistakable demand on immigrants to loose their native identities and traditions, and fuse into the homogenous mush of the American melting pot.

Not so in Malaysia, a surprisingly liberal and cosmopolitan nation—despite its Muslim majority. Indians who have lived in Malaysia as well as the U.S. are usually equivocal in stating that when it comes to new-age values representative of a global village, Malaysia is quite the ideal. It demonstrates a genuine, no-holds-barred inclusiveness and acceptance of all kind of people. Besides the three main ethnicities—Malays, Chinese and Indians—the country boasts of a large number of other foreigners who all coexist as Malaysians but each with their own distinct native heritage and identity. While Bahasa Malay, Chinese and Tamil are the predominant languages, the official language of commerce is English.

Not only is there a healthy respect for differences, but it has also resulted in osmosis of cultures, as opposed to the bland singularity that mainstream American culture is about. Examples of such rich osmosis are evident in all spheres of lives of Malaysians: South Indian traditions are often evident in Malay weddings; The Chinese custom of giving ang pau (red packets of money) during festivals is now common during Muslim holidays.

Comparatively, mainstream American culture is exclusive, condescending—and in the shadow of 9/11—even a tad xenophobic. These are not exactly the traits of an immigrant friendly nation. Yet, paradoxically, it is indeed a nation where many immigrants have assembled together. There is a lot that America does have to offer; the great American dream still holds promise. But the price that its culture (if not the law of the land) demands is the surrendering of one's native heritage.

It is another paradox that despite allowing its various ethnicities to vibrantly retain their native roots, it is Malaysia that cultivates strong immigrant loyalties. Namodar Chettiar is one of the "original" Malaysian immigrants cited in the cover story. He thinks he is not alone in expressing the following sentiment. "We may be Indians at the core but our loyalty is with Malaysia. We share more similarities with our Chinese neighbors than we do with recently relocated Indians."

- Parthiv N. Parekh

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