Matt Ekram: The Ability to Change
Matt Ekram is a Malaysian American that although has trouble with showing his identity, he wants Muslims like himself to be able to proudly talk about their experiences as a Muslim.
I was born in a small town in the peninsula of Malaysia, called Kualo Johor. I have parents, a mom, and a dad, and also 6 brothers and sisters. Malaysia itself was a British colony, so we had a British education, and so a very strong education system. Malaysia is a very multi-cultural country, more than half is Muslim, and then we have Chinese, Hindus, and Christian that are living and sharing. So we have a very focused, and a progressive nation in a way.
Malaysia at the time of the 80s was beginning to send many students abroad, so I think at that point when I got a scholarship to study in the US, we were the second-largest country that sent students abroad, which is pretty amazing for a small country like Malaysia. So I was very lucky to be a part of that and able to enter a very good school, I went to the University of Pennsylvania, and I did my Bachelors there. I was a government scholar, so I went back to Malaysia, and supposedly I was supposed to work for the government, in one of the agencies. But they had sent so many students that they had said that, “We are just going to release you from any obligations”. So I worked for a semiconductor company called Western Digital for a while, and there was a lot of American investment there. So, long story short, I was in Malaysia, and I was lucky to be a part of the growth there. I worked for a company called Erikson, which you probably have heard of, and then through them, I came to the US, I was in California.
So I have lived in the US for 20 years now. It is obviously different than the situation in Malaysia. You don’t have a mask, you have to seek out. If you want to be Muslim, you have to know where you can be more open about it, and where you have to not discuss it. It is a subject that you have to know how to appropriately manage. Being a Muslim in the US, you can present yourself as a Muslim more in some settings, and in some settings, you hide it away, because it’s not a topic that you need to discuss with other parts.
Where I am from, I look more Asian, so people don’t think I am a Muslim from their first impression, they think I am more Chinese, or Thai or Philipino, and so they never assume that I am Muslim. So when I first moved to the US, I was very strict about only eating kosher. This was difficult because back in the late 80s, the Muslim restaurants that you have today were not as accessible.
I think to me, the extremism of Muslims has become the face of Muslims. Even in Malaysia, we do have very religious Muslims, they wear hijab and everything. People think of Muslims as Arabs, and Arabic culture and persona is what they think Muslims are. But Muslims as you know, we can look so different, we come from different parts of the world, we have different backgrounds, we wear different things. So there is no one single identity of being a Muslim, and I think that is the misconception of a lot of Americans. I think we can change that.
I do feel there are so many opportunities of Muslims, in different parts of the world, to come together, and share our stories and learn from each other, and become model citizens, and become part of the American experience. I would love to see Muslim stories become a part of PBS, I know there is Black History Month, maybe we should have a Muslim History Month, eventually. That talks about the Muslim experience and how we contribute to the growth and the American experience. I feel like sometimes as Muslims and Asians, we are shy or not as out in promoting ourselves, and I would like to see more of us coming out and sharing and hopefully everyone else can get to know us more.