This experimental writing explores the meaning of home and belonging in the context of border, margins, and migration. Rooted in the politics of memory, this essay explores the messiness of human emotions and the complex ways in which the self is (re)configured between and within border spaces. Through journeys in Penang, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem, I turn inward to unpack the multilayered intersections of gender, race, class, nationality, and religion that color my life's journey, shedding light on moments when encounters generate questions about agency, humanity, and identity, and when, sometimes, the longing for home involves the unmaking of the longing itself.
In Medias Res
Poet and anthropologist Michael Jackson, in his book The Wherewithal of Life: Ethics, Migration, and the Question of Well-Being (2013), documents the existential and ethical quandary of three immigrant men. Moving from Uganda to Denmark, Burkina Faso to the Netherlands, and Mexico to the United States, these men narrate their own life-stories in an emotional and transformational manner. Questions of belonging, agency, survival, resistance, and memory are guided by the larger framework of (re)thinking the concept of migration and home, as well as the ethics of humanity and the politics of possibilities. In this essay, I draw heavily on Jackson's sublime ethnography as I meditate on my own migrational journey and search for home. Jackson writes,
Journeys from the global South to Europe and the United States dramatize, in often harrowing details, a number of ethical and existential issues that will be familiar … if for no other reason than that of vicissitudes of attachment, separation, loss, and renewal are unavoidable aspects of every human life. Our life oscillates between transitive and intransitive extreme. Whether planned or accidental, desired or dreaded, the passage from one place to another, one life stage to another, or one state or status to another often figures centrally in the stories we tell about our lives and who we are.1
The self is haunted by a life left behind, always reimaging it differently from the one currently lived. Sins of a nomadic existence, evading cleansing, invariably desiring redemption in the remaking of home. The complexities of movements, messiness of human emotions, and ethics of agency are all bounded up in the injury of (non)belonging, of habitually seeking, and unfailingly hoping, in the desire for life against life itself.
Every year for a few weeks, I embark on a ritual pilgrimage to my hometown of Penang, an island in northwest Malaysia. As someone who has resided abroad for most of her adulthood, questions of home, border crossing, and belonging are elemental to my sense of self. These are life questions I have grappled with since relocating to the United States, questions I do not expect to secure definitive answers to. I think of life not in absolutes, but in moments, in the bits and pieces that shape, rupture, and transform my relationship to people and places.
For almost two decades, I have dutifully journeyed through the Penang airport immigration lane, where patches of my lived experiences, when stitched neatly together, provide a mapping of complex border-crossing moments that mark the limits of my own agency. In encounters with (loquacious) immigration officers, I have accustomed myself to two inevitable outcomes.
The intrusive questions, suspicious looks, and scathing remarks (couched in concern for my welfare):
Nama Melayu, muka Melayu, pasport orang putih?
// Malay name, Malay face, white person's passport?2
Macam mana nie? Tak laku ka pasport Malaysia?
// How does this work? Is a Malaysian passport worthless?
Tak mau jadi orang Melayu lagi ka?
//Are you no longer a Malay?
Orang putih jugak, orang Melayu takdak ka?
// Another white man? Isn't there enough Malay men?
The recognition of self-exile canceled any signifier of communal and religious belonging (headscarf, language, mannerisms), thus undeserving protection of the imagined community of Malays/Muslims:
Americans are very welcome. Malaysia is a safe country.
Is this your first time on Penang Island? If so, you have chosen the perfect location for a holiday.
Have a pleasant stay in Penang. Enjoy the “Pearl of the Orient.”
Los Angeles International Airport
US Customs and Border Protection
Airports make me uneasy. Immigration counters unsettle me. The architecture of such spaces is designed to intimidate and instill trepidation in those who dare to cross borders, be they physical or emotional.
And as much as one yearns for pastures new, one also yearns, in an alien land, to be at home again or, at least, to recover a balance between being an actor and being acted upon—a balance … refer[red] to … as “being at home in the world.”3
The desire to belong is tied to the ability to find equilibrium between owning agency and allowing the mediation of such agency without surrendering one's dignity. Along with all that orbits the notion of home and migration, this desire is humanity's essential element of survival, made messier by the intersection of gender, race, class, sexuality, and religion. The balance, of “being at home in the world,” is also a privilege, a complex web of knowing, and of being, that is often available only to a select few.
If my blue passport produced suspicion and alienation, as well as nullification of identity when crossing borders in Malaysia, it takes a different life-form at the US Customs and Border Protection section in the Los Angeles International Airport. It is a testament to my legal existence as an immigrant. Yet, not any type of immigrant. The exemplary immigrant—model minority, upwardly mobile, appears assimilated, heterosexual family, et cetera—who translates into a productive citizen, one who came by ownership of the blue passport through the “rightful” channel. My passport is a testament of America's success story, the melting pot of a nation that welcomes those seeking opportunities (as long as there is an understanding of one's place in the vast landscape of whiteness).
In the cosmopolitan city of Los Angeles, my race/ethnicity, which falls under the census classification of “other Asian,” is not uncommon. Born and raised in a Malay Muslim family in Malaysia, I view faith within a cultural context instead of religious edicts and bear no normative marker of a Muslim woman (e.g., headscarf). If, in Penang, the lack of headscarf translates into misrecognition of the self, an exile from religious and communal belonging, in Los Angeles this allows me to pass for “other Asian,” an identity alien to me. I longed instead to be a (visible) Muslim, to be in solidarity with those whose marker of religiosity lends itself to a different form of misrecognition, one that brands them as irredeemably different and, to a certain extent, a potential threat to the nation's freedom and liberty. Yet, at the same time, my mind revolts against the idea that recognition equals solidarity, which compels the question of whether a deep-seated desire to belong can coexist with one's feminist interpretation of faith and normative androcentric practices.
In an age of xenophobia and Islamophobia, the social and political burden of “passing” is heightened when border crossing. Post 9/11, my travel from a Muslim-majority country raised eyebrows, produced a line of questioning (prior to the introduction of automated passport control) designated to tease out potential threats …
Malaysia, where is that? What is there?
Scary part of the world, isn't it?
You have family there?
Bring anything strange back with you?
… but my gender and the company I keep—the sandy-haired, blue-eyed man and the hapa child—validated my sense of belonging. Such a validation doesn't extract the alienness, courtesy of overzealous patriotic performances of those who view themselves as protectors and rightful inheritors of the United States of America, and who determine who belongs to it. The paternalistic state, channeled through the authority of border-control agents, seeks to enfold the brown woman into its protection through the trappings of saviorhood.
The politics of passing, of belonging, morphed into a sense of betrayal when identifiable Muslims are stopped, incessantly questioned, sequestered into sterile rooms for inspection, and drained of their sense of self and worth.
All because they need/want/desire to border cross.
In the global age of terror, the airport warning system continues with its droning messages about not leaving one's baggage unattended and reporting suspicious activities, objects, packages, and more.
Some of the holiest sites in Islam, Judaism, and Christianity can be found in the Old City of Jerusalem. Islam's third holiest site (after Mecca and Medina) is housed in this area—the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine, along with the ruins of the biblical Jewish Temple. As a child, I was taught in Qur'an classes that the mosque is important in Islamic history because it marked the Prophet Muhammad's Night Journey from the Al-Masjid al-Haram in Mecca to the Al-Aqsa Mosque and back (reportedly on a hybrid winged mule-donkey, al-Buraq). Imagine my excitement when I finally made my way to such a historical site …
As much as I looked forward to entering the Al-Aqsa Mosque and performing a small prayer, my hope was marred by a guardian who decided that he alone could determine who was “Muslim enough.”
I was asked to provide irrefutable proof of my Muslim heritage by reciting verses from the Qu'ran. While this was surprising, my desire to enter the mosque was greater, so recite the verses I did. It did not satisfy the guardian. He opined that my Arabic pronunciation was abysmal and, as such, he doubted my Muslimness. Moreover, he proclaimed my mode of dressing “shameful.” The modest attire (long skirt and shirt with headscarf), in which I have entered mosques across the Muslim world, has failed me. My explanations fell on inhospitable ears.
The verdict: I was “not Muslim” and/or “not Muslim enough” to enter the mosque.
Jackson suggests that “to speak of a shared humanity is not to invoke a transcendent category or universal essence but to recognize the extent to which human beings are able to work out ways of communicating and coexisting with one another in the face of seemingly insurmountable differences.”4
The lack of effort of the mosque guardian to reach across the gender, ethnic, and religious divide did not take us to a negotiated space where we could both coexist. Where does that leave the notion of “shared humanity,” especially when women within religious communities are, more often than not, looked upon as receivers rather than shapers of a faith tradition?
The guardian's declaration of my inauthenticity evoked a different sense of (non)belonging, a visceral dislocation meshed with shame and humiliation that has stayed with me. I am unable to relive that particular experience without connecting it to (Muslim) women's history of exclusion from their own faithful communities, of those who dared to live faith on their own terms, of those who desire to imbue their faith with their own interpretations of it.
Religious sites and communities often amplify one aspect of modern life that most prefer to speak of in hushed tones, lest they come across as unsophisticated in the 21st century. After all, religion and piety within academic circles as a subject of research is desirable, but not as a realized practice within an individualized belief system.
To share my experiences in Penang, Los Angeles, and Jerusalem is to make myself vulnerable. Anthropologist Ruth Behar writes of her ethnographic research, “Vulnerability doesn't mean that anything personal goes. The exposure of the self who is also a spectator has to take us somewhere we couldn't otherwise go. It has to be essential to the argument, not a decorative flourish, not exposure for its own sake.”5 My identity and subjectivity are often suspended in a migrational and citizenship dilemma, replaced by claims of knowing that are unfamiliar to me. I see the exposure of the self as an epistemological intervention, one that illustrates the boundaries of personal and professional, and mediates between who we are as humans in all their complexities, and who we are expected to be as academics. I hope my lived experiences and memories of the self that I have shared do not function as a “decorative flourish” and that they have the potential to take us into a fertile space of how we make meaning of lives, fragmented selves, and humanity at large.
IN REMEMBERING …
A sense of belonging, or not, to a community, culture, and nation illustrates the unstable landscape of identity and how it shapes an individual's relationship to people and place, a relationship that is continuously in flux.6 The thread that pulled through my movements in Southeast Asia, North America, and the Middle East remained about the desire to belong, to navigate and affirm who we are in this world, and how we can better engage our shared humanity, as well as how social, political, and religious misrecognition deeply scars forms of belonging that we seek as humans. Jackson suggests:
As for most of us, the struggle for being plays out in small ways, in everyday life, as a matter of gaining a slight edge over the forces that threaten to deplete, disparage, and degrade. Life is never a secure possession.7
My blue passport is not just about me. It is about the spaces I am allowed into, and the spaces that are forbidden to me. There are also the betwixt and between. My passport is tied to memory and history, of remembering and forgetting, and of embrace and exclusion, with a web of privilege tightly woven around them. It tracks the (rather official) life that I have lived, different from the one I would have surely lived had I remained in my country of birth. It is connected to my uncles, aunts, cousins, nieces, nephews, and friends who lived a divergent life and the spaces they were not allowed into (but have opened up to me in various ways, with all its complications). I am living this life, a life that is a condition of migration, of the slippages between the borders and the margins, longing for something/someone that I knew not of.
I think about the bodies of my kin, circulating in their specific locales, longing to know them again—not as I knew them, not as if they are frozen in my imagination, but as having the ability to know them untainted by the forms of knowing wrought on by migration. I think about Pak Cik Zali, who is still working at 70 years old, his gnarled hands chopping the ingredients for the mee goreng (fried noodles) that he sells at his roadside stall. I consider cousin Amara who worked two jobs—one on a multinational assembly line and another at a posh resort hotel—juggling the demands of youthhood and saving for marriage while being the breadwinner for her family at 20 years old. I am reminded of my nephew Ritzlan, who scoffed at anything and anyone local, preferring instead to worship at the altar of the “West” (which, in his mind, equals progress, opportunities, and freedom). I contemplate cousin Helwan, who emptied his bank account for a business degree, only to discover that it was a scam and the university was unaccredited. I ruminate about Mak Cik Raza, who spent her days in a wheelchair while managing her production of bedak sejuk (rice mask) and selling them at markets across the city.
Would I have known them differently, had I not experienced the condition of migration, of Hiraeth?
When I think about the life I had, the life I am living, the life that could have been possible, an indescribable feeling begins churning within me. It starts deep in the recesses of my belly and very slowly, in an almost excruciating manner, snakes itself through my insides, moving into my throat, sometimes lodging there for a time, threatening to cut off circulation, but almost always ending in the part of my brain that has been neatly compartmentalized to survive the memories, the fragmentation, and the possibilities. It is a feeling that comes without any caution and refuses to dissipate when I need it to. The agony, the discovery that one can become unknown to oneself, whether through moments of encounters and/or misrecognition, is a reflection on how life itself is a mode of epistemic injustice that an absence of moral imagination leaves bare to forces that seek to dismantle and affirm meanings of home, border crossing, and belonging.