Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation

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IMMIGRANT VOICES

From Malaysia to the United States

by Thea A

When many people think of immigration experiences to the United States, the most prominent aspects that come to mind are stories filled with challenges and heartbreak. Portes and Rumbaut write in their book Immigrant America that an immigrant's move "is commonly portrayed as a one-way escape from hunger, want, and persecution” (Portes & Rumbaut 2006:13). When I began my discussion with Eric Anthony, who immigrated to the United States from Malaysia, he warned me that his story was not one of these, that in fact, his experience was precisely the opposite. “I’m one of those successful immigrant stories. I’ve had very good luck. And hard work, a combination. A lot of kind people have helped me in so many ways, with intelligent thoughts and kind words, and have always guided me. I’ve always felt that I was the lucky one.” What I found through interviewing him, however, is that his success has been a direct result of his amazingly positive mindset, which he has been able to maintain even when faced with challenges many people are never confronted with throughout their entire lives.


According to the 2000 U.S. Census Bureau, 2,429 Southeast Asian immigrants entered the United States in 1981, the same year that Eric made the journey from Malaysia to Texas. 1980 was in fact the beginning of a period of the greatest influx of Malaysian immigrants to the U.S. In 2000, 49,883 Malaysian immigrants were in the United States, with 87% of them having immigrated between the years of 1980 and 2000. Historically, Malaysian immigration has been grouped together within the broader category of Asian immigration. The actual number of Malaysian immigrants who arrived in the United States between the 1860s and the 1920s, for example, is unknown; however it is known that there were quite a few Malaysians mixed in with the first Chinese and Japanese immigrants who arrived in the U.S. Many of them worked with fruit crops in California, and some were sent to Hawaii to work in sugarcane production and with pineapple crops. More relevant to Eric’s specific immigration experience, however, is the fact that 90% of the Malaysian population is literate, which is a clear signifier that the country puts a large amount of emphasis on education and literacy. According to Ronald Takaki (1993), author and professor of ethnic studies at U.C. Berkeley, Asian immigrants as a whole are one of the fastest growing ethnic groups in the United States today, and by the year 2050, they are predicted to be a total of 10 percent of the entire U.S. population (Takaki 8).

Eric was born and raised in the small town of Muar, Malaysia in 1961. He is Indian from his mother’s side and Sri Lankan from his father’s. They met and married after the war and moved to Malaysia when they were young. Eric, who is one of seven children, describes his childhood growing up in the sixties and seventies as having been highly influenced by American culture. He watched American T.V., listened to American music, and learned English. He remembers listening to Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” as a kid and being deeply impacted by the lyrics. “I was just a kid in Malaysia and I related to those lyrics and my parents are not American and I’m not growing up here. It was so crazy, it resonated.” Little did he know back then that he would one day see Springsteen live and drive speedily home on the freeway afterwards, full of joy and adrenaline from the concert.

Eric was always a great student, and after graduating high school at age 16, he spent between three and four years in the work environment in Malaysia, taking positions in grocery stores, bars, waiting tables, and finally working his way up to cashier at a bank between 18 and 19 years of age. At this time, Eric saw people around him getting promoted to better jobs with their college degrees and realized that in order to move up he needed to go back to school. However, there was a policy in Malaysia which favored people of pure Malaysian descent in the educational system, which Eric refers to as “affirmative action for the majority.” Because he did not have the racial background to receive any benefits or compensation, Eric decided to raise money to come to the United States for his schooling. In two years, he was able to raise one thousand dollars by himself. His two sisters gave him each one thousand more and his mother gave him an additional two thousand. After a helpful call from his sister who knew someone in the U.S. immigration office, Eric was granted a one year visa, which he says he “took without question even though he didn’t fully understanding its meaning.” It was not until he reached the United States that it was explained to him that he would not have to renew the visa since he was staying for the entire duration of the year without returning to Malaysia. In the summer of 1981, at the age of twenty, Eric came to the United States with five thousand dollars to his name. He journeyed specifically to Kingsville, Texas, where he had been accepted into the University of Texas’ engineering school.

Eric described the process of assimilating into American culture as an easy transition, which likely had to do with his educational standing and the fact that he was familiar and interested in American culture prior to having moved. “Living here was comfortable, almost like I was meant to be here ... I never felt out of place at all. I feel more at home here than anywhere else, even Malaysia feels uncomfortable.” In fact, Eric says that from a young age, he felt that he somehow was always meant to be in the United States, and it seems that this yearning was stemmed from his feeling of discomfort in his home country, largely due to the fact that he never felt that he truly belonged there. “It was hard to grow up in a place where one felt out of place and the opportunities were limited based on one’s race. It’s a really unfortunate state. And when I visit today I still see that.”

In a way, the experience Eric had immigrating to the United States is a reverse of the experience many immigrants seem to have, in which they feel more comfortable in their home country and out of place and limited in their new one. The history of Asian immigration to the United States is one based on discrimination, with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the Gentleman’s Agreement of 1907, which ultimately excluded the Japanese. Although these acts were not directly targeted towards Malaysians, since they have continuously been grouped together with other Asian immigrants they were undoubtedly affected by these policies. History aside, however, it is not surprising that Eric has had such a positive experience assimilating when, as Portes and Rumbaut state in Immigrant America: “Never before has the United States received immigrants from so many countries, from such different social and economic backgrounds, and for so many reasons” (Portes & Rumbaut 13). Whether people like it or not, the natives of this country have had to grow accustomed to the diversity of people entering the United States.

Possibly because the racial prejudice was so apparent in Malaysia, Eric did not sense any real discrimination directed towards him in the United States. Further, he claims that the prejudices that he did initially sense were based more so on class than on race: “Poverty here is looked upon with eyes that I would see in Malaysia towards somebody with dark skin.” He could often time sense that a person’s assumptions about him would change after he started speaking and they realized that he was in fact educated and eloquent. What is most impressive about Eric’s attitude is the fact that he seems to have been able to let the negative biases of others never discourage him or even affect him at all.

Eric recalls people following him around stores in rural Texas expecting him to steal something. He never took offense, but rather looked at these types of situations calmly, with an air of interest and curiosity, but never with accusation. “I’m not offended by it. Because if that’s how they’ve been trained, is it their fault? I did not sense a prejudice. That’s just their mindset, so I look past that. And things always work out. It’s attitude isn’t it?” Eric claims that the only reason he has had so much success in his experience as an immigrant is because of the help that people have lended him along the way. Without a doubt, the generosity of others has helped him get to the place that he is today, however, his positive way of thinking and willingness to help others are clearly at the root of his success. “If I can help one person every day I think I could call it a good day. Even if it’s just telling someone where to cross the street, it’s doing those simple things that keep my cup full.”

Eric graduated from the University of Texas in four years with a degree in electrical engineering, which, according to the 2010 census bureau, is the discipline with the highest percent of foreign born degree holders over age 25. In fact, according to the same survey, the foreign born population represented 33 percent of all bachelor’s degree holders in engineering fields in the United States (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010 American Community Survey). After graduation, Eric was able to get a job easily with this kind of degree, and began working in the telecommunications industry, which evoked more interest in him than anything to do with the military industry or manufacturing.

While he was still in school, Eric recalls watching the television show Magnum P.I., which was about a private investigator living on the island of Oahu, Hawaii. The show inspired him to the extreme, (not so much the P.I. aspect but specifically the location), and he decided that he would do whatever it took to be able to live in Hawaii, so he made a promise to himself that in the next two years he would be moving there. In order to make this dream more real for himself, he began dressing as if he were already living there, wearing Hawaiian shirts even on cold Texas days.  He said people thought it was a joke, and even admits that it did get to point of ridiculousness. However, two years on the dot later he was on a plane to Hawaii, having been offered a job on the island of Oahu.

Eric explains that the tactic he used in order to make his dream a reality is now referred to as creative visualization. The way he lives his life every day is by believing that his dreams are possible. Again, his positive mindset seems to be the answer to his successful experiences. He says that today, he is teaching his two children that “what is really playing in your mind is what creates your future. The next moment in time is a direct result of the thought playing in your head a day before, a week before, a year before. And if you don’t like what you see in front of you then change your thoughts because otherwise next year will look the same.”

Eric described his years in Hawaii as some of the best of his life. After a few years of working with the Hawaiian company, it abruptly went through an economic downturn, during which Eric resigned. This time in his life was a period of reflection for him. Fortunately, because he had been making a good amount of money the previous few years, he was able to manage without having a full time job, but simply taking smaller side projects along the way. He realized then that up until that moment in his life, he had been living the way his parents had wanted him to live, and he made a conscious decision then and there to take the opportunity that had fallen into his lap and live life the way he wanted. For the next seven years, he explored his interest in art, selling the paintings he made. He took independent projects related to engineering but never worked full time. In this period of freedom, Eric met and fell in love with his future wife, Bente, a Danish woman living in Hawaii. While Eric’s engineering cohorts were buying houses and settling down to have families, Eric and Bente were living simply but enjoying life to the fullest.

“Today, I still in my heart feel that Hawaii is the place where I grew up, because I really became the person that I am, not the person that my parents would mold me to be. Hawaii gave me the safety, and the freedom. America as a country gave me that space. I think I would be a very different person if I was living in Malaysia. In my heart I would be so different, I would probably be struggling. Struggling not economically but struggling being the person that I should be… but not knowing who that was. And that’s a crazy place to be, it’s like being in a white room. And it’s scary.”

After his experience in Hawaii, Eric was offered a job in Sri Lanka. He worked there for a few years and during this time was able to visit his family and return home for the first time since he had left in 1981. It had been almost 16 years since he had been back. This time was very important to him because it ended up being the last time he saw his father and it was important to him to have closure and say goodbye. After working in Sri Lanka for two years, which was war-torn and with constant threats of violence, Eric was offered jobs in both Texas and Boston. Bente and Eric moved to Boston for two years and after enduring the harsh winters they decided they needed warmer weather. At this time Eric was offered a job in San Francisco, where his sister already lived. Eric and Bente were able to buy a small house in Oakland and have lived in the Bay Area ever since.

Like all immigrant stories, Eric’s is highly unique. The places that he has traveled and lived, his upbringing, and the circumstances that he found himself in have all contributed to his perspective on life and living, which is without a doubt inspiring. It is easy for anyone to dwell on the hard parts of life, but when you see someone with such a positive attitude it is something to truly learn from. “You work with the hand that you’re dealt. A lot of times you don’t have it figured out. You’ll never have it figured out, so you have to figure it out as you go along. That’s what I think living is. Bottom line is, I’ve had a lot of good experiences ... the light in your stairwell comes on after you take the first step into the darkness.”


Sources: 

Portes, Alejandro and Rumbaut, Ruben. Immigrant America. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2006. Print.

Takaki, Ronald. A Different Mirror. New York: Little Brown & Company. 2008. Print.

U.S. Census Bureau. American Community Survey. 2010.

Place of Origin
Muar, Johor, Malaysia

Place of Settlement
Oakland, California

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