Friday, January 25, 2013


The woman in the above photo is tabulating my bill for the delicious lunch I enjoyed at her Nonya restaurant in Penang, Malaysia. In short, Nonya cuisine is a fusion of Chinese and Malaysian cooking styles.

If you ask her where she's from, she'll unhesitatingly say, "Malaysia"--not so surprising since she and her parents were born there. Her grandparents were born in China, though. And she marvels that they made the journey to a new country where their future was unknown. Her family's story of immigrating to another country and becoming a part of its culture reminded me of many families in the U.S.

When she asked where I was from, I mentioned that I used to live in Baltimore, Maryland. To my surprise, she was familiar with the city. She then excitedly told me about her visits there to see her son who works at a school rather familiar to me, Johns Hopkins University. More specifically, he works at its Applied Physics Laboratory (APL). She proudly showed me one of his published articles. I probably would need another degree to fully understand it, but I could see that his work is relevant to a variety of complex projects, including the MESSENGER spacecraft which is now circling the planet Mercury as part of NASA's explorations.

She mentioned she has traveled to places in the U.S. other than Baltimore. For example, she visited the World Trade Center in New York City before it was destroyed by terrorists. And she revisited the site when construction of the memorial there had just begun. It made a large impression on her, especially since she views the U.S. as the world's leading country.

She also told me about her arrival in the U.S. during a recent trip. It wasn't the same as her previous visit. This time, like other foreigners, she was fingerprinted at immigration. She saw it as a sign of the changes in America after the September 11 attacks. But I'm not sure she would have mentioned it to me except for a small problem. She has no fingerprints--something she attributes to years of working with her hands, although the condition can also be caused by a rare genetic mutation. Whatever the cause, her husband passed on through immigration while she was brought to another room.

As time passed without any update on her situation, she worried about missing her connecting flight. After sitting for a while not sure what would happen next, she approached one of the officials and explained her predicament. She asked how they could be concerned about an unarmed woman with proper documentation who was more than 70 years old and had visited the U.S. before without incident. So they decided to try fingerprinting her again. Not surprisingly, she still had no fingerprints. And for that reason there appeared to be doubt about whether she would be allowed to enter the U.S. After much discussion between various immigrations officials, though, they decided to let her pass through. Her husband had been patiently waiting for her, and they were able to make the next flight.

The woman from Penang told me she doesn't expect to see her son in the U.S. again. When I asked why, she told me about her recent knee surgery and her concern that the long trip might not be good for her. But she spoke in what seemed to be an uncertain voice. And after seeing the bafflement in her eyes as she told me about her experience at U.S. immigration and later asked me how a country as powerful and free as the U.S. could now become worried about someone like her, it is easy to wonder whether there isn't another reason she doesn't plan to return.

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