A petite, gorgeous and soft spoken lady, she was first introduced to me in the summer of 2013. We met at our friend’s place, Tia Faisal, in California. She appeared shy at first, but I later realised she was not. Thirty minutes later after the introduction, we both simply rocked. She is Nor Sharif, a Malaysian who has lived in California since 1988 and made California her home.
Nor Sharif, 51, is one of our Malaysian diasporas, crossing border and living away from home. The diasporas in reality are making their presence at every nook and corner of the earth. Many studies are inclined to state that the diasporas leave their own countries mostly for economic reason. Interestingly, an economist, Dilip Ratha, who studied on remittances of international migrants stated that in 2013, international migrants sent $413 billion home to families and friends — three times more than the total of global foreign aid (about $135 billion).
Due to the fact that both my children are living in California (also can be considered as members of diasporas), I had the opportunities to meet many of them who live in California. I have learned and realised that there are many other reasons, besides the sole economic factor, that have made them decided to make another country a home away from their own home in Malaysia. This time I interviewed Nor Sharif on the subject matter.
JOURNEY OF A STUDENT
Nor Sharif, a mother of two grown-up boys, had studied at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) in California. She majored in Business Administration with the emphasis on Management Information System. She hailed from the southern state of Johor, specifically Johor Bahru. She had her schooling years at Sekolah Kebangsaan Nong Chik and Sekolah Menengah Engku Tun Aminah, Johor Bahru.
Upon finishing her Sijil Pelajaran Malaysia (SPM), she spent 2 years in Kuala Lumpur under the American Associate Degree (AAD) program. On completion of the program, she left for the USA on December 30, 1987. Also, that was her first time setting her feet on the soil of the American Dream.
Life as a student had been demanding; added by the fact that was her first time living away from her parents and not seeing them for a very long time. Nevertheless, she found her courage and instilled positive energy in her to move on and excel with her studies. Hence, she had a wonderful life as a student in Long Beach.
Prior to graduation, she further extended her stay through a practical training program offered by the university. In addition, she met a Sarawakian, Ishak Japar, who was studying Civil Engineering in the same university. Ishak was from Rajang, Sarawak. He had his schooling days at Sekolah Kebangsaan Abang Galau in Rajang. Later, he attended Sekolah Menengah Sains Penang and was a former headboy of the school in 1981.
Love blossomed between these two individuals during Nor’s last year in the university. Ishak was working as an entry level engineer in a local company at that time. Upon Nor’s graduation in December of 1990, Nor started working with a private local company as an entry-level system analyst in Santa Monica. Since the company was small, she had to do multitasking, including doing clerical, billing, quality assurance, and shipping.
On March of 1991, a stream of events happened. Nor and Ishak went back to Malaysia to be engaged, but ended up tying the knots. Simultaneously, luck was not on their side when their education sponsors, the Public Service Department (PSD), ended up releasing their contract due to the economic crisis at the time. The PSD officers advised them to continue working in the USA due to high unemployment rate in Malaysia and jobs were scarce too.
After much thought, they decided that making California as a based was appropriate for them to start living as a married couple, at least for a few years. To their mind, going back to Malaysia for good and raising a family there was still among their priorities.
In the beginning, it was a challenging journey living in California for the newly married couple. As entry-level professionals, they were lowly paid in their respective jobs. Ishak’s workaholic character rubbed off onto Nor and they both would work more than 80 hours (individually) a week on most occasions. They had a few good friends they saw on Saturdays and that was the extent of their social life. On days when they were not working, they were into outdoor activities, such as playing tennis, fishing at local piers, camping, or simply hanging out cooking with friends.
A couple of years later, Ishak had secured a good permanent job in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) as an officer in the facility environment technical unit whilst Nor was promoted as the head of operations in the same company she started working with. Life had definitely become better for the couple.
THE EXPANDED FAMILY
They waited for three years before deciding to have a family and a few other milestones happened during that time. Nor gave birth to Adam Z. Ishak on February 10, 1995 in Santa Monica. He was a healthy baby with loads of energy. As new parents, Nor and Ishak had to figure out ways to balance work and family with the absence of support system from their own family as not to be the case if they were to be in Malaysia. They relied heavily on home child care provider and, hence, forgoing vacations or purchasing unnecessary items.
When Adam was 10 months old, they bought a home in Long Beach in 1996. They both decided that with a growing child, someone had to sacrifice their work schedule to spend more time with Adam on a daily basis. They now had a responsibility for the newborn and detested the thought of Adam spending time with a childcare. Nor quit her high paying job towards this objective. She managed to find a part-time work at her old university, working near home and scaling down her working hours. Adam was 4 years old when another boy, Faiz A.Ishak, came out into the world. The more the merrier, for Nor and the hubby.
LOVE FOR THE MALAYSIAN FAMILIES
During the boys growing up years, Nor and Ishak had come to an understanding. They both strongly believed that the boys needed to know their roots. It was their utmost priority for the boys to be physically present with their families in Malaysia. Money was tight and life got busy with the couple, but, nope, they were adamant that the boys must spend precious family bonding time with their grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and relatives in Johor and Sarawak.
This noble act of Nor and Ishak was to ensure that their children understood where their parents came from, embracing their unique genetic makeup in the midst of the western world. Adam and Faiz have been traveling to Malaysia every other year since they were toddlers, experiencing the village life of Kampong Rajang in Sarawak and the suburb life of Kempas Baru in Johor Bahru.
The family did their ritual trip back to Malaysia two months ago. After the trip back from Malaysia, an unfortunate event happened right after they reached back in Los Angeles. They received news that Ishak’s mother passed away. Both of them flew immediately again to Malaysia so they could be with the family in Sarawak. For them, they might be far away, but their families in Malaysia matter as much as their family friends in Southern California.
Nor and Ishak also strived to introduce Islamic studies to both boys by sending them to a local madrasah (which was not many before) and engaging a Quran teacher to teach “mengaji” lesson at their home once a week. When she was young, Nor had attended a separate religious school which was mandatory for children in Johor Bahru. She felt that it was necessary for her boys to have early exposure of their faith. It wasn’t until at this juncture of life that she felt comfortable in calling southern California home. It is comforting to Nor in having the boys exposed to the core of their faith similar to when she was young. Nor and Ishak still host the “mengaji” lesson at home and the boys still continue with their Quran lesson until today.
Nor and Ishak met other Malaysians in southern California and lasting friendships were cemented. In 2007, an association, the Malaysian Islamic Foundation of North America (MIFNA) that binds the Malaysians in southern California was established. It is a non-profit and volunteer-based organization, connecting and assisting its members in southern California. Ishak was elected as one of the first Board of Directors in charge of membership. Nor was his unofficial secretary. From 2009 to 2013, both Ishak and Nor were elected as president and director, respectively.
Due to the family’s commitments, the couple opted out from MIFNA’s following elections, remaining active supporters of MIFNA. Nor is still a MIFNA editor for MIFNA news and its website. She has undertaken the responsibility since its inception in 2007. The perspective that this organization and community help shape theirs and upcoming generations is a welcoming feeling for Malaysians in California. The Asian values and ethics are very much practiced by the members. The sense of belonging and adoption of Malaysian values such as “gotong royong”, “kelas mengaji” and respect among members are naturally adopted.
THE DIASPORA CHILDREN
Fast forward, Adam is now 23 years old and had recently graduated from CSULB, majoring in Hospitality Management. He works at a local hotel chain Extended Stay in Long Beach. Faiz is 19 and is attending his second year at the same university and majoring in Criminal Justice. Nor and Ishak couldn’t be happier to see that their boys had followed after their footsteps, attending the same local university close to home. They love their local community and sending their children to their local university is one of the supports that is important to them.
In the meantime, Ishak was promoted to manage 30 of the schools as a project manager in LAUSD, including Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts and Royal Learning Center. Both beautiful high schools are located in the middle of downtown Los Angeles. Nor did some work for the research office and she still works part time as the articulation specialist at CSULB.
In 2011, they have added their family circle by adopting two baby kittens, Fen and Kopi O, now 7 years old. Both Nor and Ishak spend their free time playing golf socially, volunteering for MIFNA and its partners, supporting their local community’s events and activities, as well as spending time with family and close friends. Their children, close friends, and community are the glue that made them stay in southern California.
Nor loves to be close to mother nature. Gardening is a therapeutic activity she has been heavily involved in. When she was a young girl, she watched with admiration of her late Bak, making rows of vegetable patches. Her Mak also love planting flowers around their house. Nor never realized back then that she had actually loved sitting in the vegetable patches and played with the dirt.
Since southern California has Mediterranean weather, she had planted some fruit trees like peach, nectarine, apple, oranges, fig, banana, papaya, lemon, calamansi (limau kasturi), kaffir lime (limau purut) around her home in Long Beach. Others are herbs such as Chinese celery, ‘kesum’, basils, tumeric, ginger, lemongrass, rosemary, and mints and other plants like roses, geraniums, aloe vera, lilies, plumeria, lavenders, lantanas, succulents, and birds of paradise. She also love orchids and has different varieties of them at home.
Gardening gives her a sense of belonging and purpose. She also finds solace in getting her hands in the dirt and seeing plants grow. She would also spend hours in the garden with a good book and enjoy watching the butterflies and hummingbirds visiting her garden.
DIASPORA AT PEACE
Nor and Ishak feel blessed to have found a home in southern California where the weather is almost always nice year round and they are surrounded with mindful friends and supportive community. They always remind themselves of how grateful they are to have both worlds. While Malaysia can only be called their birth country, southern California is home to them now, a home away from “home”.
Thank you Nor Sharif for providing the generous inputs. Thank you all for reading!
Noorul Ainur Mohd. Nur
29 October, 2018
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia