Caught between two different worlds

Jessica Cangelosi

Every picture tells a story. Two pictures sitting on a shelf above a Dell laptop tell Terry Lai Wheng Hon’s whole story. The picture on the left shows 20-year-old Terry with his parents, Lai Mo Choy and Wong Toke Chang, standing on a tennis court in Terry’s native country, Malaysia. Each stands military-like next to the other, keeping their personal spaces untouched, with half-smiles forced to the camera. The picture on the right captures Terry, who has shortened his name to Terry Lai, in his junior year at Villanova University, laughing with the American friends he has made while studying there for the past three years. The college men are laughing, draping their arms around one another in what seems like a mid-joke action shot.

Terry looks at them every day. He sees his past in one and his future in the other. Terry is torn between the two, Malaysian Terry and American Terry. It’s not so easy to choose. The United States offers Terry openness and opportunity. But Malaysia provides Terry with an identity and family. So here is American Terry with only a year left of undergraduate education in the United States, forced to plan his future, but not certain he can escape his past.

That’s a lot of pressure for a 20-year-old. So Terry tries not to think about it. “I do whatever comes into my mind,” he says. This spontaneous attitude has taken Terry far. In just three years, he has transformed Malaysian Terry into American Terry, making him an outgoing, involved and sociable college student. It’s even become hard to tell that Terry is just studying abroad.

“Besides his slight accent, you would never even know Terry’s from Malaysia. He’s totally Americanized,” says one of Terry’s friends, Amanda Brown. And she’s right. His gelled-back black hair complements his slightly-tight gray polo shirt and fashionably-stonewashed jeans. His black-and-white-striped Adidas sneakers give him an extra bouncy step. He uses phrases like “What’s up?”, “Lookin’ good, man,” and “Peace.” He talks about his addiction to eBay. He cooks his food, a soup made of sliced hot dogs, tomato sauce and chicken broth, in a hotpot from Bed, Bath, and Beyond.

Long before Terry came to the United States in August 2002, he knew this was the place he wanted to be. Terry started to learn English when he was six. His favorite thing about learning the language was being able to understand American TV. This is when Terry knew he wanted to study in the U.S.

“I fell in love with it right away,” he says about America. Between his thirst to study here and his positive mindset about fitting in, Terry was willing to accept everything.

“In fact, it was easy for me. The States is just humungous, extravagant and friendly.” Keeping an open mind, Terry readily embraces the openness that Americans show, he says and leans in while waving his hands.

This culture shock of learning that Americans are emotionally different than Malaysians is the most striking aspect of the contrast for Terry. Having spent 20 years without this kind of communication makes him appreciate the United States. Terry remembers returning to Malaysia after his freshman year. As he stepped off of the 22-hour flight across the Pacific, his mom was waiting for him in the terminal. Beyond excited to see her again, Terry ran across the airport and gave her a big hug, only to feel his mom push him away.

“She was surprised. Of course she was happy to see me, but she didn’t know how to express it. That was when I realized how open the States is. I was just like, ‘Whoa.'”

Terry almost forgets he was just as shocked at first, too. His Aunt Lai Wai Kuen, who lives in Virginia, came to pick up him and his father on their first visit to the United States. Surprised by the hugs his aunt gave him, Terry pinpoints this as when he knew he was going to love America. Only a month after that, as Terry was beginning his freshman year at Villanova, he felt like he fit in. “Even the second or third time you meet someone at college, you get hugs. I go with it because this is how Americans do it.”

And Terry still plays along. He smiles at people he doesn’t know (“How much does it cost to smile?’). He says hello to everyone he passes (“What better way to greet strangers?”). He loves to meet and talk to people. Becoming a resident assistant seemed like the perfect fit for Terry, who has stopped 11 times in 32 minutes to start mini-conversations with his residents. He knows each of their names. He knows Amanda has a boyfriend; he knows Troy is a linebacker on the football team; he knows that Patty has an anatomy test on Monday. But Terry doesn’t just know. He cares.

Fellow R.A. Barbara Newman agrees. “Terry just loves to know everyone.” But Terry is modest. “It helps that I have such great residents,” he says. “All of them are such nice people. Plus, I love meeting new people. I haven’t met someone I dislike yet.”

In Perak, Malaysia, Terry Lai

Wheng Hon grew up hiding his emotions, fears and desires from everyone. “There’s no such things as hugs,” he says. “You just greet everyone by a firm handshake, even your dad and mom.”

Terry’s life in Malaysia was the completely different from the way he lives now.

“All I did was study, hang out with friends, and play tennis,” he says. “I watched American TV, and it was my dream to study in the States.”

Terry’s all work and almost no play paid off. His academic accomplishments earned him six full scholarships to American universities, and his tennis skills earned him a spot touring around Malaysia and a captain’s position on the Villanova Club Tennis team.

But Terry didn’t just leave Malaysia with brains and brawn. He left with a sense of family. Terry’s relationship with his parents embodies the traditional formality of Malaysian culture that stands between parents and kids. Malaysian Terry keeps a private life, just like society taught him. He’s not allowed to tell his parents if he’s upset about a bad grade on a test or worried about a girl liking him.

In three years, he has only seen them twice, which makes him appreciate them more. Yet Terry says that his relationship with them is “just as strong as it was before, if not stronger.”

Now that he has experienced the openness of America, he wants to share that with his family. “It’s hard for me to leave them and then come here and tell people how I feel. But I have great friends, which many are my U.S family, and having one of the best experiences of my life really helps me.”

Terry’s love for meeting new people has fashioned him into an aspiring businessman. As a finance and business management double major, Terry plans to run a business in charge of sales and investment, helping people plan their futures. His laid-back look suddenly becomes serious when he says his “time and effort won’t be put to use if I don’t get the job.”

While Terry loves his new home in the United States, he also maintains his Malaysian family values. Adopting his driven attitude from his father, who manages and owns the Lai family’s international book-printing company, Terry doesn’t want to depend on Dad for a job. He wants to earn it himself. “I want to be able to say I got this far because of my capabilities,” he says.

Terry is determined to utilize his education and people skills from the United States to help manage his own future business. He sees the openness the United States has taught him as an asset to running a business.

“My parents really want me back, and it’s important to me to keep the family business going.” Terry is smiling, but it looks like the forced smile Malaysian Terry wears in the picture. Terry’s dedication to his family drives him to work hard for them.

“They gave me this opportunity, so I make them proud, even though they can’t tell me that they’re proud,” he says.

Despite the tug-of-war between Malaysian Terry and American Terry, Terry hopes to combine the picture on the right with the picture on the left. His experience in the United States has made him thrive on new experiences and still appreciate what he learned in Malaysia. Terry values his new-found independence.

“The best decision I made in my life was to come to the States and study-because it was my decision,” he says. This decision is just part of a chain reaction of choices Terry has made to make himself happy.

As he folds his hands over his lap, his black marble eyes twinkle just talking about the past three years. “Everything is spontaneous, and you have to use your emotions to guide you to make a decision,” he says.

Terry insists he doesn’t know where he’ll be in two years. “I really can’t tell if I’m going home in the future or not, but at the moment I’m just really enjoying life,” he says. “I only have a few years here, so I want to see where it takes me.”