It’s been just over two months since I returned to Malaysia. In many ways, it feels like I never left.
I flew back to Canada in November 2018, and flew back to Malaysia in September 2019. Ten months is not a short amount of time, to be sure, but it also is not so long. Not long enough to erase the taste of streetside nasi lemak in the mornings, nor the feel of sticky September nights spent drinking teh ais and complaining about the haze with new pals at the same old mamak. Ten months is not a short amount of time, to be sure, but it is also not long enough (or perhaps you are just too cheap) to repair the holes in your shoes where rain leaks in during bursts of monsoon, not long enough (or perhaps you are just too impatient) to embrace the agony/thrill of stand-still rush hour, to know you will not get there on time and there is nothing you can do about it. Ten months is not a short amount of time, but it is also not long enough for your skin to forget the feeling of wet hot Malaysian summer, of walls of humidity that envelop you like a bear hug when you leave home or the office or the mall or the bus; air conditioning means life, but it also means exorbitant electricity bills, so you learn to make do without, and are grateful your skin hasn’t forgotten how to adapt. Ten months is not a short amount of time, but it is also not long enough to forget (indeed you hope you will never forget) the dissonance of feeling Home away from home, the easiness of melting into a sea of brown bodies, the in-betweenness of knowing you will never belong enough in any place, the comfort of realizing this is all you’ve ever known.
There is richness here, in the lush broccoli tops of the forests that crowd the hillsides, gradient-blue layers of bukit silhouettes that speak of histories long before this concrete jungle, this mess of malls and flashing billboards and jammed traffic and air pollution so thick god herself can’t see down through it. There is richness in a mashup culture, many in one, distinct and distinctive, Chinese tea and Indian festival and Malay language, Muslims and Hindus and Christians, chicken rice and briyani and nasi dagang, punctuated by protest cries of “hidup, hidup, orang asli!” that combine to make up all parts of what my Grab driver calls The Tiger of Asia.
The work here is real. For whatever reason and circumstance, the last nine years of my career have brought me in this direction, into this social justice work, to see the world for its beauty and brokenness. For as much beauty as there is here, there is struggle. The plight of migrants in Malaysia is sobering, the situations for most refugees and asylum-seekers bleak at best. Privilege plays a role in living conditions, to be certain; those who left their home countries with money and have access to continued lines of income from family are able to elevate their situations, but regardless, to be refugee in a country that doesn’t legally acknowledge refugees leaves indelible marks upon the spirit. I suppose this is why this work weighs so heavy; for me, it is not merely learning about the Other, but it is an exploration of my own relationship to Otherness, how my Otherness differs and relates to other forms of Otherness, how I am at once both Othered and Other-er in my role as settler colonizer, in my role as Western researcher, with all my privilege and passport and pride. This work will always be complex, to do research at the community level with an anti-oppressive lens. How much more complex it becomes when the lens becomes a mirror; but also, how much more beautiful.
I am fortunate to come back to Malaysia, fortunate to do this work and live and explore in this place. To go/come back Home is a process both unsettling and exhilarating, and am I not in an enviable position to even have the opportunity? In this place where the wet heat steams me like a bao, where the fruit gerais’ rainbow displays induce involuntary tears, where artists and activists claim their space, where the children sing playground songs in three languages, where the refugee community teaches me again and again the meaning of resilience, where my diasporic third-culture understanding of the world is offered another lens, where my duality of Other and Other-er is affirmed and rejected, reaffirmed and respected, where I learn what it means to do work with no end, and where I learn that an end was never the point.