To say I was scared of the US was an understatement. I was downright terrified.
The first time I went to the United States was back in 2016. I was accompanying my family to send my eldest sister in enrolling into the University of Chicago, where she would stay and live for four whole years.
Initially, I was ecstatic. I mean, it was America, land of everything-that-isn’t-available-in-Malaysia! Oh, how I dreamed of biting down on a strangely-flavoured oreo cookie, watching American shows on TV live (on American soil; there’s just a weird feeling of pleasure you get from watching a show in its original homeland) and walking into the magical lands of Target and Walmart.
But then, fear kicked in. If you can recall, 2016 was the year of the United States presidential elections; in which Donald Trump came out as the victor.
At a time where ISIS-inspired attacks were more rampant and constantly made headlines, Trump had called for a “total and complete shutdown” of the entry of Muslims to the United States “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.”
Trump had also made a statement suggesting that American Muslims shield terrorists from being turned in. According to a database compiled by the Muslim Public Affairs Council, “The idea that American Muslims are systematically shielding terrorists is unfounded. The community has actually been active in preventing terrorism. In the 12 years that followed the September 11 attacks, almost two out of every five al Qaeda plots in the United States were prevented thanks to tips generated from American Muslims.”
According to The Guardian, Islamophobic sentiments from the past 15 years had then been crammed into the past 15 months leading to the presidential election.
Could you blame me for feeling scared for my family’s safety?
I arrived in Chicago high strung – constantly vigilant for the slightest glance in my family’s direction. I walked across the street worried someone was going to call my family derogatory terms. I unconsciously rested my fists on my chest, close to my headscarf, prepared to defend myself against someone who might try to pull my headscarf off. I put my head down; eyes glued to the floor, voice quieter, actions more subtle, in an attempt to not bring so much attention to myself.
But to my surprise, my trip to Chicago ended smoothly. People opened doors for me, said hello to my sisters, treated my family well.
By the end of the trip, I learned two things.
Firstly, I probably had looked too fearfully at the world, and only realised near the end of the trip that there were plenty of good people around me who outnumbered the bad. I began to realise that actually, I had done exactly what the people I was against had done: I was too fearful.
Not to be said that fear is bad. Looking out for yourself and for others is, of course, an important thing. But in being afraid, I had worsened the experience of being in an entirely different country for myself- I distrusted the civilians around me, expected the worst might come every day. I didn’t give them the chance they deserve.
Fear is a powerful thing. When people have something to protect -whether that be their lives or the things they identify with or feel they belong to- they’re willing to do crazy things, like call people names, or physically harass them- anything to drive the people they’re fearful of away. It gives people an odd sense of power- by being able to drive what they’re scared of away, it gives them back the control they felt they lost.
And usually, this fear is targeted to minorities who haven’t done anything wrong besides looking or believing in something different. Things like being a little quieter than others, feeling that you had to be more polite than others (to make up for their discomfort) -All of these were things that minorities had to do every day, and that was normal to them.
All because some people can’t accept those who look different from themselves, or who have different beliefs.
Secondly, I learned to be more thankful for my circumstances, as well as to be more aware of the minorities around me. I, who had grown up in a generally peaceful country. Where I was part of the majority. I had had it pretty easy, being part of the dominant group. And therefore, I felt like it was up to people like me, to use the influence I had to help minority voices to be heard, and let them live a life just like everyone else.
If you find yourself to be part of the majority, do your part, even in simple ways. Standing up for each other, not tolerating hateful behaviour – let’s be the pillars of support to eliminate issues of prejudice.