Last December I stepped onto a plane to head back to Malaysia, feeling desperate to get away from Toronto. Ten years’ worth of differentiated treatment, odd looks, name-calling and outright threats to my physical safety had taken an emotional and psychological toll.
I’d developed anxiety from obsessing over hurtful and discriminatory behaviours directed towards me. I was exhausted from bottling up my pain and anger. I was distrustful of new acquaintances, constantly wondering if they were prejudiced against me because I’m Muslim. I felt particularly vulnerable being out at night and had spent hundreds of dollars on Uber rides instead of taking public transit. I spent more and more time fussing with my hijab to make it “look right” and make myself less of a target. Finally, I decided to take it off altogether.
I was terrified that my emotional distress would keep affecting my behaviour. To feel better, I tried exercising, changing my diet and seeing a therapist. None of those things had a significant impact on my well-being. I realized that what I really needed was to go back to where I’d first learned to be a proud Muslim and Malay woman.
I write these words with great trepidation; it wasn’t that I disliked being in Canada, or in Toronto in particular. It is a place that is literally on the other side of the globe from where I was born, and I cherish the privilege of choosing, and being able, to build a life here. When my parents, my two brothers and I left Malaysia, I assumed that my connection to my home country would always be there, and that my identity as a Malay Muslim woman was unshakeable. But, while building a new life in Toronto, I let that connection fall into disrepair. I needed to go home and find my bearings.
Our identities, no matter how malleable or elastic, are rooted in geographical locations—where we were born, learned to speak, fell in love, got our first job, lost a loved one, and so on. For me that place happens to be Malaysia—specifically, my grandmother’s home on the east coast, the northern town where my family’s first home was, and down south where I found some of my best friends at university.
How do you get well when your wellness is connected to home, and home is thousands of miles away? The answer for me, I realized, was to cough up the money that would take me there. Travelling for the purpose of healing mental health issues is a luxury—one that I could scarcely afford, and one that’s out of reach for many people of colour encountering similar struggles. I did everything I could to save money, from cutting back on groceries to joining a micro-lending pool with friends. After four months, I was fortunate to scrape together enough for a return ticket and some spending money. I took time off work and booked my flight.
What happened when I went back? I rediscovered my fluency in several Malay dialects. I nourished my soul with the flavours and foods I’d grown up eating. I visited the neighbourhoods where I grew up, and I reconnected with old friends. Most importantly, I looked into my late grandmother’s life, from her girlhood in British-colonized Malaya to becoming the grandmother of an upwardly mobile brood of grandchildren. I wasn’t able to go back to Malaysia when she died several years ago, and my trip home gave me the closure I needed.
When I stepped off the plane in Toronto eight weeks later, I was rejuvenated. I couldn’t have been more excited to bring my Malaysian-ness to my life here. Gone was the shame I’d felt, stumbling over my English words as I translated my thoughts from Malay. I had a newfound pride, inspired by how my grandmother had weathered British colonization, the Japanese occupation during the Second World War, and poverty. It was a personal transformation I hadn’t expected from a vacation back home.
Living as a racialized minority in a predominantly white Canada ranges from being challenging to life-threatening, depending on where one falls on the spectrum of skin colours. As an immigrant and a brown Muslim woman, I constantly encounter political and media narratives that frame my identity as alien to Canada. Without realizing it, I had unconsciously tried to forget my home in Malaysia in order to belong here. The happy middle between Malaysia and Canada is an elusive place, so I tried to pick one over the other. It was a false binary that caused a tremendous amount of anxiety and low self-esteem.
My trip was simply meant to be a much-needed break to reset my body and my mind. What I discovered instead was how to locate both Canada and Malaysia on a roadmap that’s leading me to better emotional and mental well-being.