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The America that I knew

The America that I knew
'Go back to your country' or 'You don't belong here' was a constant reminder that we are all just visitors here, even in our own country. - FILEpic/REUTERS
HAVING attended schools in England, in the US and now in Japan, previously in Korea has given the writer a sense of a world that has given so much to a young boy he once was. Growing up in the suburbs of Leavenworth, Kansas in 1985 having left his Kuala Lumpur city 13,025km away was a surreal experience for an eight-year-old boy with his family. Being a self-professed military brat, it was one of the distinct privileges to be co-sponsored by the US and Malaysian government under the institutionalised Malaysia-USA Bilateral Training and Consultation Agreement (BITACG) 1984. A military cooperation and understanding to train and consult each other in military doctrine amongst their armed forces and civilian personnel at the US’ Pentagon and Malaysia’s MinDef. In those days, with the threat of communism in the shores of Southeast Asia, it was important that the US had friends and allies in the region, and Malaysia did not disappoint the Americans.

Malaysia’s ideals were built on the fundamentals of the US, our declaration of independence, our national flag and way of life has somewhat modelled to the moral compass of the American ideals of liberty, freedom for all and the pursuit of happiness. Our founding fathers, Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Dr. Ismail Abdul Rahman, Tun Abdul Razak, Tun Hussein Onn were mostly educated in the British system but most of them knew in their inquisitive mind that American might and swagger, post-world war two would be the next super power usurping the British Empire.
From Subang Airport, my family and I boarded the plane to the USA, a brief stop in Taiwan before we embark to Los Angeles, California. The majestic of San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf, with the smell of the seas and fish market, Lombard Street on Russian Hill between Hyde and Leavenworth Streets, where eight sharp turns made it to be the most crooked street in the world. It was exactly like in the movies and TV shows where the young boy had watched on Malaysia’s television. Magnum P.I, Cheers, Happy Days, Knight Rider, A-team and Chips were a constant reminder what America is, and what life would be like in the richest nation in the world.

Of course, it was not to be. Leaveworth, Kansas is an agriculture region, with wheat fields as far as the eye could see. A military base camp of the US Command and General Staff College (USGSC) is located where future army generals are sent to be trained and groomed. A typical American heartland. It is also home to the biggest military penitentiary in America where military personnel who had been court marshalled are sent to serve.
It was totally a different experience from what America is like in TV shows, the raw but pure and good old American way. It was also a reflection for a Malay boy to see the real world. His classroom teacher, Mrs. Vakas at Ben Day School, a heavily built white woman with Polish ancestry who was a kind hearted woman who taught me with kindness and sincerity. She taught us English, Maths, and Arts in the school of about 300 students and 25 students in each class.  And then, there was Alan, my classmate, an African American boy who resides near my house at Halderman Street, Leavenworth. Alan was smart, tall and athletic for an eight year old boy. Being from a working class family, he was rough in the edges and spoke loudly and proudly too. He had one problem, he did not finish his homework constantly and always shouted back at Mrs. Vakas. Mrs. Vakas would ask Alan to calm down, take deep breaths and reflect what he just did when he slammed his chair and pushed his table. It was not a fair sight to see, but that was Alan. It was like that always, either every week or every other week. I also had the chance to visit him at his home about five minutes’ walk from my house, he did not look poor, his house was OK and comfortable as it seems from a small Malay boy’s perspective. But, Alan was always angry, mad at something which I could not comprehend. Alan was the only black boy in my class, and the other white classmates tried but to no avail to be friends with him. But Alan was always nice to me, perhaps because when we talked, this Malay boy listened.

After a year, it was time for us to leave the US, looking back at pictures of my family and I at our home, our schools, the visits to Smithsonian Museums in Washington, D.C. driving across the US continent, Disney World and Universal Studios in Florida, apple picking and drinking apple cider near the farms has been a distant memory. It is as if a dream then, even a dream today. I went on to England to accompany my family five years later, and experienced racism, discrimination and inequality in other forms. “Go back to your country” or “You don’t belong here” was a constant reminder that we are all just visitors here, even in our own country.

Looking at the news today, with more than 40 US cities in curfew from protests due to the death of African American George Floyd in Minneapolis at the knees of a white police officer, with riots and looting had given me the sense of asking where is Alan now? Is he still alive? Is he still angry? Has someone tried to listen to him.

*Afdal Izal Md Hashim is a Researcher on Asia Pacific Security with focus on Maritime Security and the balancing of superpowers in Southeast Asia.

**He is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of International Relations, International University of Japan, Niigata, Japan.

*** The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the position of Astro AWANI.