Festivities and Saris!

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It’s one of Malaysia’s many holiday seasons this month, and let me just say, things have been crazy busy! After several weeks of fasting, Ramadan is coming to an end this week, which means lots of preparations and excitement in Malaysia. It’s almost like Christmas season here, with people sending gift baskets and greeting cards to each other and getting ready for Hari Raya, the Malaysian version of Eid ul-Fitr, to celebrate the end of Ramadan.

It’s really interesting being in a Muslim country during Ramadan. Though I usually noticed when it occurred when I was in the U.S., here the whole country changes for the month to accommodate the Malays, all of whom are Muslim and who make up the largest majority in the country. At work, Malays come in early and leave early to make up for the shortened “lunch” break and allow them time to go home and prepare for “buka puasa,” when they break the fast after dark. More than just a suggestion, all Malays are REQUIRED to observe Ramadan by Sharia Law. In fact, when I went out to lunch with some co-workers a couple weeks ago, my Malay friend (who was sick and therefore not fasting) had to hide behind us when we ate out in public for fear of getting fined by Sharia police. While the Chinese, Indians and other “obvious” non-Muslims have no problem during Ramadan, people who are half Indian half Chinese, known as “Chindians,” sometimes get into trouble, because they physically look Malay and Sharia Law is enforced through racial profiling. Definitely not in Kansas anymore…

Aside from Ramadan, last week Malaysia also celebrated Merdeka Day to recognize the day it gained its independence from British colonial rule. I’m still not exactly sure what Malaysians do to celebrate, but it seemed to me everyone just enjoyed an extra day off from work. I decided to use my day off to go hiking with a friend in a local park called Bukit Gasing which, though not exactly the deep jungle, was still pretty cool.

Me holding a Malaysian flag on Merdeka Day while hiking in Bukit Gasing

Let me tell you, hiking on the equator is like hiking in a sauna! Though the park was relatively tame, after just a short distance I was completed soaked in sweat and my face was bright red. The huge rainstorm that poured down half-way through the hike was more than welcome and felt amazing after all the heat and humidity. All was fun and games until I realized that the rain had soaked through the backpack, destroying my phone and severely damaging my camera…yeah…not cool…

In addition to the national festivities, I have also been getting ready to go to my first Indian wedding later this week. The guy getting married, Prakash, was one of my cab drivers when I first got here who I made friends with. Though I don’t know him well, he was very excited that I come to the wedding, and there is no way I am going to pass up this opportunity!

Being an Indian wedding, I want to dress appropriately, so of course that means I had to get a sari! Unfortunately, I don’t know any Indian women here very well, so my Indian Malaysian friend Jullian offered to take me sari shopping, which, as a guy, he had never done either…

Jullian took me to an area in KL called Brickfields, also known as Little India, to shop. Though I didn’t exactly know what to expect, I was hoping to meet a nice, English-speaking Indian female at the shop who could help me pick out a sari and show me how to tie it. Unfortunately for me, the shopkeeper was a man, who though very nice, only spoke Tamil…

Somehow between me awkwardly pointing at things, Jullian translating and the shopkeeper wrapping me up like a doll (like I’m going to be able to repeat this!), I managed to find this beautiful dark pink and gold sari as well as matching bangles and jewelry. Then it was off to the tailor’s (another man) where I was measured for a custom-made sari shirt to wear under my new sari (fun conversation moment: tailor: “Do you want cups sewn in?” me: “I have no idea. This is awkward…”). After pointing out pictures in a book, some translating from Jullian and advice from the tailor’s wife (“Yes, get the cups…”) I think I picked out a really pretty design that I can’t wait to see when I pick it up on Wednesday!

Along with getting Indian dress, I also learned how to properly eat Indian food, with my hands! A couple weeks ago my co-workers and I were interviewing an Indian Malaysian family for a university ad and afterward took them out for an Indian banana leaf lunch. Though I had done this before, I have always used a fork, but this time, I had proper tutors :).

To start, a banana leaf is placed in front of everyone and the server comes around and puts rice and different ladles of curry and other sauces around it. You then use your hand to mix things together and put it in your mouth. Sounds simple enough, right? Wrong!

Turns out, eating with your hands is hard!  You only use your right hand and you’re not supposed to get messy past your second knuckle. Much easier said than done…  After several awkward, elbow-raising attempts with very little food getting into my mouth and much taunting from certain co-workers, Saha, the Indian Malaysian student we interviewed, told me the rule of thumb is not to use your thumb, except to push food into your mouth. Apparently the key is to scoop up the food with the tips of your fingers then use the back of your thumb to push it in your mouth.

In the end, I left with a full stomach and a sense of accomplishment. Next step, learning to use chopsticks!

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