By Nicholas Cheng 

I haven’t told anyone from the Alfred Friendly Press Partners program this.

A few weeks before I flew to the United States, I met up with my family for a Chinese New Year reunion. Now the highlight for any young one during this festival is when the elders present the next generation with money packets as a sign of prosperity.

This year my uncle did not present me with “prosperity.” Instead he went for insurance. He gave me a bullet-proof vest and made me promise I would wear it on me when I was in the U.S.

Naturally I was stunned. The vest wasn’t a costume or toy. It was a bonafide, kevlar fibre weave, 17-pound vest capable of stopping bullets from small firearms and knives. I nervously laughed off the gesture but I could tell his concerns were real.

Yes he really gave me a bulletproof vest

I am the first in my family to travel this far from home. Coming from a blue-collar family with a single working mother, the only exposure we’ve ever had of the States were through depictions of it on the television. And boy were they violent depictions.

Police shootings. College shootings. School shootings. Kindergarten shootings. Movie explosions. Real life explosions. Racially motivated attacks. A tumultuous president. It’s hard not to be worried about heading West.

Advise from family and friends were to keep my head down, not to piss anyone off and pray that I’ll be able to pull through the six-month fellowship having learned something and more importantly, still have all limbs attached.

My initial experience and that of some of my fellow Alfred Friendly Fellows, seemed to only reinforce our beliefs of a security hardened, paranoid U.S. As we touched down in our individual airports, making our way to Columbia, Missouri — I had my bags and persons treated to the full TSA-special. Two fellows were taken into holding rooms and questioned for up to an hour, simply because they were from the “wrong countries”.

“Maybe I should have brought the vest,” I wondered, my eyes darting around as I watched officers circle around me, hands resting on their guns, as I walked through the glass detector.

The fellows enjoying each other’s company over dinner at the Reeds

I have been living in the U.S. for four weeks now, and I can happily say that my first impressions were totally wrong. We have gotten this country all wrong.

Yes there are international contentions and blame pointing directly at this giant land mass with a military power bigger than the next eight countries combined, and a long history of diplomatic mistakes that would leave any homegrown Muslim-country boy a little skeptical.

But when you’re actually here, living and interacting with actual people and not the televised caricatures, I’ve found that just like my family in Malaysia, everyone here – as cliche as it sounds – is just like us.

We were treated to our first baseball game in the U.S.

Everyone is quick to laugh, quick to smile, exchange hello’s and share stories with to complete strangers. My daily walks to the University of Missouri campus on the MKT Nature and Fitness Trail were peppered with pleasant greetings from joggers, who stopped in their tracks to ask about my accent, my origin, my family. Some even let me pat their dogs.

“Maybe these were the liberals,” my skeptic mind still thought. Not true. I have discovered that most Uber and taxi drivers in Columbia are predominantly Trump supporters — the scariest people I could imagine being in a moving car with.

Though talking about politics are often frowned upon, I recall a conversation with a driver named Chuck who told me why he voted the way he did as he drove me to the Jeff City Airport. At 56, Chuck holds an MBA and two decades of experience in business management. But can’t find a job in his own town.

“They’d rather hire foreigners who can do the same thing I can do and for cheaper,” said the father of two, who is now studying nursing at Mizzou in the hopes of finding a new job. At age 56, my mother was all but ready to retire after successfully raising two children and enough to last her in her golden years. And here is a man trying to start a new life in the Land of Opportunity.

That really put some perspective into how I see America and the worst people I have come to expect of it.

Me, David Reed and the fellows goofing around on our first week

It seems media coverage have been quick to paint those who voted for what the world sees as isolationist and bigoted leaders, as having the same values as those leaders. For Chuck, he was just trying to survive in a system that had been rigged against him. Being called a bigot for voting for someone he felt would be his best chance for change mustn’t have been a nice feeling at all.

In Malaysia we have this phrase ‘jika tak tau, jangan berkata’ which means if you don’t know enough about something, never judge it. We usually use it in addressing the West and their “anti-Muslim” stance. Maybe it is worth something to do the same on our end too.