WHEN they see my name, many Malaysians ask me questions about my family heritage. I proudly answer: “Born in Brooklyn. I’m American.” Of course, like almost all of my fellow citizens, I can trace my roots back to several foreign countries.
In the late 1940s, my father migrated to the United States from India in search of a world-class education. As it turned out, he also found love. My mother is descended from some of America’s most famous immigrants – the Pilgrims – who came to Massachusetts beginning in 1620 in search of religious freedom. My mother’s paternal grandparents arrived from Norway in the 1870s searching for land and work. Truly, mine is a common American story.
The traditional US motto is e pluribus unum, which is Latin for “Out of many, one.” We deeply believe our resilience, creativity and success are the result of the contributions and interactions of our extraordinarily diverse population, which comes from every nation and culture on our planet.
A few weeks ago, I attended an English language workshop organized by 20 of our Fulbright English Teaching Assistants (ETAs) and more than 120 of their SMK students from Sarawak, Melaka, Kedah, Perak, and Pahang. For three days, the Saya Malaysia/Kita Malaysia storytelling camp explored issues of identity in Malaysia. As I know from my own experience, identity is a highly personal subject that teaches us empathy and respect for other cultures and perspectives. But it can also be used to divide communities by creating an “us versus them” mentality.
At the workshop, as I listened to young Malaysians and Americans share not only their customs and traditions, but also their hopes, fears, and dreams, I was encouraged that the next generation may be better equipped to handle some of these questions than my generation. For the young Malaysian students, now eligible to vote in the next election with the lowering of the voting age to 18, it struck me how engaged and interested they were in cross-cultural dialogue.
Our ETAs also challenged Malaysian students’ assumptions about Americans. We are not all fair-haired and blue-eyed. Our ETAs include a Sudanese-American, a Bangladeshi-American, an Afghan-American, a Moroccan-American, and Chinese-Americans. Some came to the US as young children and some are first generation and, of course, there are many others who represent a wonderful mix of races and ethnicities. The value of cross-cultural dialogue is critical in the complex global world these young Americans and Malaysians live in and will lead. In the three years I have lived in Malaysia, I have witnessed first-hand the growth of each cohort of 100 ETAs from when they arrive in January until they leave in November. I have visited their schools and host communities, and seen that same transformation among their Malaysian students as they learn from and with their ETAs.
Currently, our ETAs are assisting English teachers in nine states in primarily rural schools. So far this year, the ETAs have engaged another 10,000 students at English camps around the country and provided nearly 30,000 hours of activities for students inside and outside the classroom.
In Sabah at our “Beyond the Moon” English and STEM program, I had the opportunity to meet and Erniza Evieyannie Sudiman and Hadie Amiezul Abdullah, impressive students from SMK Pengiran Omar in Sipitang. Not only were they outgoing and articulate, they were comfortable enough to conduct interviews in English with RTM. The Fulbright ETA program, now in its 13th year, represents the best of the US-Malaysia partnership. The Embassy and the Education Ministry are now working to renew the ETA program from 2021 to 2024. I am truly impressed by how effectively it strengthens English and cross-cultural education and builds the bonds between our two countries. I believe we all recognize the value of cross-cultural programs and that a small investment in education produces outsized and long-lasting results. It is with great pride that I congratulate Malaysia on its 62nd Merdeka Day. We are proud to have partnered with Malaysians before independence and deeply appreciative that our friendship continues and prospers to this day.
Americans and Malaysians share many values, experiences, and aspirations, and we strive together as nations toward E Pluribus Satu.
Kamala Shirin Lakhdhir is the United States Ambassador to Malaysia.