From Uncertainty to Diversity

From Uncertainty to Diversity

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I always was a timid and reserved child. Growing up in a middle-class family in Malaysia, I rarely ventured far away from my familiar surroundings, except for when my parents were with me, because home was a place of security. I was told that I was shy and spoke little. I often found comfort in seclusion as a kid, and though I did have friends, there were none with whom I could be open.

I was raised in a Christian family starting at the age of five. Most of my relatives were Buddhists, and Malaysia is a predominantly Muslim country, but my comfort was based on the foundation that I found in my faith from church. I knew about the other faiths, and I did not pay that much attention to my own. I was rather sheltered.

Even though I was timid, reserved, and afraid of the unknown, I early on began to dream of coming to America. From the stories I had heard from my relatives who lived here for a long time, as well as from movies, I believed that I was made for this country. I was rather naive in my understanding about how I would fit into life in America. I pursued a college degree that led me to Wichita, Kansas when I was 20 years old. There my beliefs about American life were shattered; my expectations failed me.

My discomfort and homesickness during my first year in the university were very hard to bear. I had to learn to be independent, and I missed the security of my sheltered life. The culture was not what I expected, and that left me feeling lonely.

I needed to survive, and the only way I could was to insist that America was where I belonged, just as I used to think, so I embraced the differences and took every unfamiliar situation as a learning opportunity. When I returned home to Malaysia after my studies, I hoped to have had many valuable experiences. That attitude opened up my life, and that is when I found myself learning about people who were very different from me. I did it all within the comfort of the church. My church was diverse, a gathering of people from all over the world. For example, I then had so many African friends. My worldview began to change.

Coming to New York was another huge transition because it is a difficult city to live in. I came thinking that it would provide a better prospect for finding a job in finance, which was my major. However, I could not find such a job. Yet again, I had to survive. I found myself losing interest in being in the corporate world and wishing for something more attractive. In the first year of my exposure and experience in New York, I felt a calling to do church work. Since then, a new revelation has come to me.

New York gave me a bigger shock than I had in Kansas. It was more than just the culture; New York was diverse in every way, and that proved to be overwhelming. From meeting various people, I found myself participating in an array of cultures and backgrounds. I was part of something large and mysterious, but I also started to feel at home. My identity was no longer rooted in being a Chinese Malaysian, neither did I perceive myself to be Americanized. I evolved so much in the way I think and how I view the world.

My pursuit of theological studies in a seminary here in New York brought about a major change in me as a person. It was more than just coming to understand theology, but rather more about how I was to play a role fusing theology and the culture of the city. I became more aware of my character and personality and how they influence what I do. I had never felt I had such motivation and purpose in my life.

When I completed my seminary studies in 2016, I returned home to Malaysia, awaiting what was next for me. Malaysia felt so different after being away for more than 13 years. Everything was familiar when it came to places, people and events that had shaped my past. Yet I felt restricted. Home was home, but home somehow did not give me a sense of purpose. For almost two years, I had to struggle to find my place, trying whatever work I could to make the most of my time there. However, deep inside, New York still called out to me.

By God's grace, I was given the opportunity to return to New York. It was almost a surreal experience, as the waiting and the uncertainty back home left me feeling hopeless. When I stepped out of JFK airport in August of 2018, I felt a sense of belonging, or being at home in New York like never before. I treasured every bit of that experience. That was when I knew that my time spent in Malaysia was a crucial process in defining my future. It reminded me of my past and where I came from, and that made me sure about where I wanted to be. It was not about getting rid of my past, but rather using is as a compass to move me forward into my future.

The chapter of my life in Crown Heights was something undeniably ordained by God. I spent many years in Flushing, Queens, and a year in the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I never would have considered Crown Heights as my next step, but doors opened for me here through Mosaic Baptist Church. The church itself is diverse, reflecting the community around it. Even as there is so much more to learn about the different people around me here in Crown Heights, I am glad to be here, feeling very much at home.

– Tze Hoongtan

UpdatesRobbie Klein