Joanne’s Immigration Story – Petaling Jaya, Malaysia to Columbus, Ohio

Family History

Joanne’s maternal grandfather came from a family of farmers in Kerala, India. The family poured what little money they had into Joanne’s grandfather’s future, so he could go to Malaya (now called Malaysia), get an education, and find a job. As he got older, pressure mounted for him to find a wife, so he returned to India for an arranged marriage. After the wedding, he went back to Malaysia with his new wife to start their lives together.

Above: Joanne’s mother’s cousin drew this family tree of how everybody is related when Joanne visited India in 2010.


Joanne was born in Petaling Jaya, a small suburb of Malaysia’s largest city, Kuala Lumpur. It was a quiet place back then but is now a lively place, congested with traffic and people. Joanne’s mother worked as a software programmer, and her dad worked in human resources for a Japanese company. Her grandparents lived ten minutes away, so she saw them often. Joanne and her two siblings would often play in the evenings in the park by her home. 

Joanne’s father’s family is Christian, and her mother’s family is Hindu, but she was brought up Christian.

“Identity was tough because when you are Indian and Hindu, it is easy to define. Being a Christian Indian, I identified more with Western culture than Indian culture, but at the same time, I am Indian. People would say things like “go back to your own country”. I don’t think I could survive in India! [laughing]” (audio below)


Joanne’s childhood dream was to become a pediatrician and work for the United Nations, but she quickly realized just how difficult that would be. She felt “stifled and stuck” in Malaysia. In this country, minority ethnic groups, like Indians, are at a disadvantage economically and socially.

“No matter how good I am, I can only get as far as my skin color would let me.” (audio below)

One of Joanne’s friends in high school had top marks but couldn’t get a scholarship to study medicine because she was Indian. Her classmates, who were Malay (the ethnic majority) and had subpar grades, were getting scholarships.

“I was so mad for her and for the students out there in the villages who would never get a chance no matter how well they performed!”

Joanne knew she needed to leave Malaysia someday. 

United States

In 2002, Joanne’s mother got a job as a software programmer in Denver, Colorado. Joanne arrived in Denver at age 15, but within two years, her mother’s company had downsized, and the family had no choice but to move back to Malaysia in 2004. In 2008 Joanne returned to the US to study actuarial science at the University of Illinois. After graduation, she returned to Malaysia, looking for a job. Joanne saw that The Edge Malaysia (a financial newspaper) was looking for a writer. She knew she could write, so she applied, got the job, and ended up working as a financial journalist for a few years.

“Writing has been something that I’ve always done since I was young. I’d get tons of books for Christmas and birthdays. I remember having a journal when I was eight or nine – just observing people and writing about it.”


In 2011, Joanne met Bryan, the man who would later become her husband. She had just returned to Malaysia from Illinois, and he had returned from Florida. After their marriage, she and her husband also entered the US green card lottery system – even though Joanne feels like she “never wins anything.” She couldn’t believe it when they both won! 

The weekend before they left Malaysia for the US, their friends threw them a barbeque party. Everyone had written them a letter, and Joanne’s siblings gave them to her at the airport. It was emotional, waiting for the plane, reading these letters.

“There were rough times in the first few months after getting to Ohio, so those letters were a big help.” (audio below)


Joanne and her husband moved to the US in 2014, first to Virginia, then to Columbus, Ohio.

“Columbus still is not a big city. I miss that a lot. I miss taking the train somewhere. It’s been an adjustment, having a more quiet life.” 

The Hoover Dam, near her home, is a place where Joanne loves to go to reflect. 

“It gives me the perspective that there is a road ahead, and to never stop exploring because there is so much out there. I am afraid of falling into a rut. I don’t know if I will stay in Ohio for that long, because there is so much of the world to see.” 


Joanne often thinks about her maternal grandmother migrating from India to Malaysia. She was 16 when her family arranged her marriage to Joanne’s grandfather, who was 32. He was actually supposed to marry Joanne’s grandmother’s older sister, but when he saw her grandmother, he chose her. After the wedding, she boarded a ship for a country unknown to her.

“My grandmother left her entire family to go to Malaya with my grandfather – a man she barely knew. She then had five kids, and her whole life was devoted to her family. That’s all she knew. I connect with her story now, as an immigrant myself, and try to live my life to the fullest, realizing that she never had the same opportunity.”

Joanne has always been incredibly close to her grandmother, and her aunts often joke that Joanne’s her grandmother’s favorite.

Joanne asked her grandmother how she felt about getting on that ship to an unknown country. She told her she was scared but also excited. Joanne felt the same way coming to the US but knows that she had the advantages of knowing the language and a husband she knew. (audio below)

In 2012, her grandmother started giving her jewelry away to her grandchildren. She gave Joanne some gold bangles [see the photo above].

“These bangles are a nice reminder of her, and gold is so important to our culture. I hold on to them and hope that one day I can pass them on to my grandkids. My grandmother is one of the few people I miss a lot.”


Joanne has always loved batik, the fabric artform of SouthEast Asia. She came up with the idea for her own company and launched Kain & Co (Kain means cloth in Malay) on Etsy in 2017. She hopes that the company can help the women who make the items, as a portion of the sales goes to an education trust and to help the women develop their skills.

Above: A pillow with a Sarawakian design from Kain & Co


Joanne feels like she can truly be herself in America, whereas in Malaysia, that was never the case. She hopes Malaysia will become a place where all people can have opportunities regardless of their ethnic background.

“I hope younger people across the races will see the importance of being united and look past the old way things were done.”

Still, Joanne misses her family in Malaysia and how easy it was to make friends there. 

In Malaysia, anybody was willing to help you with anything. Here you are more alone. I remember the day my grandfather passed away. He passed away in the morning, and by 10 o’clock the house was bustling with family friends who brought food over. I don’t see that as much here. I miss that dependence on the people around you. (audio below)

Recently Joanne’s husband decided to fill their wall with iconic pictures from Malaysia’s famous tourist sites like the Cameron Highlands and Malacca as a reminder of home [see the above photo]. (audio below)


Today Joanne works as a User Experience Content Strategist at an Insurance and Financial Services Company. Her husband is Head of Department at an international energy company.

Joanne and her husband initially connected over their shared interest in adventure and exploration. A big part of why they moved to the US was to try something different. Joanne isn’t sure where they will live in the future, but she has always dreamed of moving to Europe. 

In 2015 Joanne visited Ellis Island for her first time.

“I remember standing where immigrants used to come in. I was thinking about how it is in human nature to want more for yourself and your family no matter what time in history or what place you are from.” (audio below)


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© Photos and text by Colin Boyd Shafer | Edited by Kate Kamo McHugh. Quotes are edited for clarity and brevity.