A Reader Response to Migrant Consciousness by Jennifer Homanchuk

A Reader Response to Migrant Consciousness by Jennifer Homanchuk

My plane touches down on the tarmac of Kuala Lumpur International Airport. The stench of acrid smoke begins to fill my nostrils. For a moment, panic seizes my body, crawls up my spine and sends my mind into a feverish spin. Then, as almost quickly as it begins, the panic subsides. Vaguely at first, and then in greater detail, I recall a news broadcast that I had heard a few weeks earlier, warning of timber companies in Indonesia burning natural forests to clear the way for more lucrative palm oil plantations. Could the stench that filled the cabin be the residue of fires burning hundreds of kilometres away? As I step out of the airport into the parking lot, I am met with the answer; a noxious haze blankets the city. Confronted with this new reality, I become cognizant that my experiences here, in Malaysia, in this new and unfamiliar place, will be quite different than those cultivated and shaped by the Toronto landscape, where I was born and raised. I find myself in a space of in-betweenness, of métissage, where cultures, languages, and the manifestation of these subjective experiences interact and mingle, generate and modify identities.

This place of métissage is an area as multi-dimensioned as its visitors and inhabitants, incorporating the histories and social understandings of its constituents. It is an interval influenced by our past, present, and future narratives, where (international) relationships and experiences are personified. These relationships, both voluntary and involuntary, into which each of us enters, are at times plagued by inequities, exclusionary practices, and power differentials, which impact our evolving consciousnesses, our ever-changing sense of self. Through the use of narrative and the personal experiences of migrant farmworkers, Salinas, Aguiano and Ibrahim (2008) explore the unfolding and development of the individual and collective migrant conscious(ness), which they propose is born out of the struggle to reconcile the inequities found in the farm field and in the nation’s schools. “On one hand,” these authors tell us, “migrant children are part of an educational system designed for mainstream children, while on the other hand migrants live and learn in the margins of society” (p.90). These educational tensions, the grating of different cultural norms, languages and expectations, become part of the migrant experience and are subsumed within the evolving migrant conscious.

As the haze from the expanding Indonesian plantations drifts across the Malaysia border, so too, do many of the individuals and families that have lost their land and livelihood to the unrelenting palm oil industry. Once in Malaysia, many of these individuals join the growing ranks of pendatang haram or illegal immigrants, seeking opportunity and helping to support the Malaysian economy, by working low-paid, low-skilled jobs that many Malaysian ‘locals’ are unwilling to assume. In Subang Jaya, I meet Bertha, an Indonesian native, working as an illegal domestic servant at the home of one of my employers. Bertha, like me, is caught in an interval of in-betweenness. However, for her, this space of métissage is wedged between the official and the unofficial, between her upbringing in Indonesia and her future economic livelihood in Malaysia. During a conversation with my employer, I am surprised to find out that Bertha is paid the equivalent of roughly three Canadian dollars a day, which is about how much it cost me to take the twenty minute taxi ride to my boss’s house. I cannot help but wonder if Bertha’s situation would have been different if she was part of the legal Malaysian workforce. Without proper documentation, individuals like Bertha, and their families are more susceptible to exploitation by employers, and are often denied basic rights to services, such as health care and education (OECD, 2001).

A similar reality, Salinas, Aguiano, and Ibrahim (2008) reveal, awaits many migrant families in the United States, who, like the pendatang haram in Malaysia, are often denied access to resources and opportunities because of their (un)documented and (un)official status. For example, in some school districts in the United States, migrant students are often compelled to present documentation of their immigration status in order to enlist in public school. Although this practice remains unlawful, it is routinely used as a means to “discourage students and their families from completing the enrollment process” (Salinas, Aguiano, and Ibrahim 2008, p.93). As teachers, what can we do to change these discriminatory practices, practices that distinguish between us and them, our kids and those kids? Is it not our moral responsibility to ensure that every child, regardless of ethnicity, social class or country of origin, is afforded the basic right to education? We, as teachers and educational leaders, need to make sure that basic rights to education transcends sovereign boarders and does not come to an abrupt halt at the frontiers of our schools, school boards or districts.

Caught between the competing realities of life at home and life in the classroom, Salinas, Aguiano, and Ibrahim (2008) suggest that migrant or immigrant children must often navigate their way through a dialectic space, a space of métissage. The lessons learned in public classrooms are often in conflict with those learned at home. Consequently, a migrant child must quickly become skilled at reinventing and redefining him or herself in different cultural, social, and linguistic settings. In turn, the authors suggest that the capacity to define oneself in multiple, and sometimes conflicting ways, is intimately associated with a person’s ability to successfully overcome adversity and navigate novel and sometimes challenging situations.

It is in Subang Jaya, a suburb of Kuala Lumpur, that I mastered the ability to float between the narratives of home and this new city, redefining myself to confront foreign and often unexpected realities. “Thank You,” is swapped for “Terima Kasih,” “Good Bye” for “Selamat Jalan,” and the Canadian “eh,” is exchanged for the Malaysian “la.” Money is handed to local Chinese shopkeepers with both hands extended and pennies are given. But, for a reason I have yet to discover, not taken in return. As I reflect on my own experience in Malaysia, I cannot help but wonder if this process of writing and (re)writing oneself is also a function of an individual’s basic need to belong; to create a sense of solidarity with those that we could initially perceive as irreconcilably different.

In the school setting, the issue of juxtaposed social, cultural, and political realities is an intricate and sometimes confounding one, and one that must be ensconced in pedagogy and curriculum. Open borders, diverse schools, and dynamic circumstances posit that relationships in schools, amongst and between learners and teachers, require forms of engagement and recognition in perpetuity; identities must be affirmed. Capital, of linguistic and cultural forms, must be shared and recognized in its different embodiments. Teachers can create opportunities for solidarity, where differences may often reside and engagement and affirmation can be done against backdrops of commonality, as well as diversity. Discussions of origins, expectations, and different ways of knowing and being in the world can connect individuals in a common sphere of vulnerability and safety, providing those with the opportunity to engage one another on balanced and familiar ground. However, in order to truly move towards “new possibilities for collective exchange,” we, as Miller (2006) advises, must avow “a connection with the other, a desire for acknowledgement by the other, without which we could not be” (p.31). For, it is through this acknowledgement of the ‘other’ and of our own ‘otherness’ that we can begin to move beyond what we once were, and in doing so, unlock new avenues for collective dialogue.

Educators have, as Salinas, Aguiano and Ibrahim (2008) make clear, a moral and legal responsibility, “to remain cognizant of the evolutionary challenges of the cultures around us so that attention to social justice for those who most need it is not neglected” (p. 94). While this is true, it remains, at least, equally important to ensure that the personal narratives and experiences of students in our classrooms are not obscured by these greater historical and cultural realities. It seems, to me, that for this space of métissage to be a productive one, recognizing that an individual is from “another” reality, or brings with them “other” experiences, we must endeavour to treat them as an individual and, not simply, as a member of “that” or “other” group.

Subang Jaya is where I experienced the tension of my “otherness” for the first time and developed an understanding of this indeterminate and paradoxical space of in-betweeness, of métissage. Here, I resided on the margins of society. A metro ride into the city is accompanied by curious stares; a walk to the local market is greeted with unexpected, and un-welcomed, catcalls from passing motorcyclists; a taxi ride ends in having to pay the foreign fare. Although friction and turbulence often characterized this space of hybridity, it is at this intersection of vectors in my life that I encountered myself and my “otherness,” by challenging my culturally bound assumptions and origins. “The understanding of difference,” writes Trinh Minh-ha (1998), “is a shared responsibility, which requires a minimum of willingness to reach out to the unknown” (p. 85). I landed in Kuala Lumpur, in a new and unfamiliar reality, with the safety of knowing that I could go home; however, for many individuals who have landed in a new reality, returning home is not always an option.

Perhaps, if we are willing to step out into the unknown, into the haze of new realities a little less tentatively, together, we can begin to transform this site of métissage into a new home for what Miller (2006) calls a “collective exchange” (p. 32). A home beyond the reach of conventional labeling and nomenclature, where equitable conversations take place and multiplicity is both affirmed and celebrated.


Miller, J. (2006). Curriculum studies and transnational flows and mobilities: feminist autobiographical perspectives. Transnational Curriculum Inquiry, 3(2), 487-498.

Minh-ha, T. T. (1989). Woman, Native, Other (pp. 79-116). Indianapolis, Indiana: Indiana University Press.

Organization for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) (2001). International Migration in Asia: Trends and Policies. OECD.

Salinas, J. & Aguiano, R., & Ibrahim, A. (2008). Migrant consciousness : Education, metissage, and the politics of farmwoking in Latino communities. Ohio Valley Philosophy of Education Society, 39, 87-96.