The months of June and July showed me yet another new side of Malaysia. Ramadan – the Islamic holy month of fasting and forgiveness – was accompanied by an unexpected energy. I anticipated my students and teachers to feel slow and lethargic without food or water since 5 in the morning. Instead, the teacher’s room conversations were animated with talk of food and swapping of family recipes. A few of the “lazy” students (as their classmates lovingly refer to them) certainly used Ramadan as an excuse for sleeping in my classes. But the others had more enthusiasm than I had seen before. Fasting, though exhausting, was rewarding for them in ways I could never understand.
My own journey through Ramadan was accompanied by small amounts of guilt for not fasting fully. “It is good for your stomach.” I was told, “It works hard every day all year; this is a time to let it rest.” I started by trying to fast a half day – just not eating while I was at school – but insisted to my community members that I was weaker than them and needed to drink water. Slowly, as my guilt increased, as did the difficulties in finding places to hide and drink my water, I found myself drinking less and less until I could get through a whole school day without hydration. Then there were the days when I would go out with a co-teacher or some students afterschool and accidently find myself fasting the whole day. I found that I could do it, but it never quite brought me the same satisfaction as it did them.
Our afternoon activities included going to a Ramadan Bazar: markets set up from 3pm – 7pm selling foods for people to take home and break their fast with. My students could casually select a special treat to take home while I was left salivating and reminding myself not to bite in to it right then and there.
Something that has struck me during my time in Malaysia is the blind faith that so many of my community members seem to have. They abide by the laws of Islam with little understanding of the history or meaning behind certain requirements. In the past, it has frustrated me to ask a “why” question. They would direct me to a different and a different teacher until I gave up trying to understand. But Ramadan was different.
Everyone felt a deep underlying sense of pride and righteousness for fasting. They were not only rejecting comforts for the sake of understanding what people in poverty experience, but also cleaning their own slate of wrong doing from the year. Good things will come to them if they practice right.
Those same good things cannot come to me – a non-Muslim – even if I were to fast perfectly throughout the month of Ramadan. I wanted to try fasting so that I could understand what they go through and the purpose. The more I learned about Ramadan, the more I realized that I would not gain such insight just by fasting. So instead, I started to explore the community and culture forming around Ramadan events.
Breaking the fast was a very important family and community event. Everyone would gather an hour before the evening prayer that signified the breaking of the fast. People would prepare the food themselves or bring it from the Ramadan Bazar. We would laugh and talk and eye the meal before us. As soon as the call to prayer was sung we would have a sip of water and eat a date before diving in to the meal. But the meal itself was so short! Everyone would eat rapidly and then run off so that they could go pray. The event was much more about being together and sharing in the moment than the food itself.
Hari Raya, however, was all about the food. Translated as day of celebration, Hari Raya is actually a whole month that follows the month of Ramadan. The first few days consist of open houses everywhere you turn. In the last few days of Ramadan I got to help a few families I have become close with prepare for the celebrations. I learned a few traditional foods and how to wrap Ketupah – sticky coconut rice wrapped in a coconut leaf. You have to push the rice in to a perfect triangle shape and wrap the leaf around it with just the right number of turns. I was very bad at it.
What I was good at though, was eating. The first day of Hari Raya my family and two fellow ETAs traversed from house to house indulging in the curries and noodles and snacks at many of my teachers’ houses. My teacher Ka Na was so thrilled to have me there that she had to share my family with her whole neighborhood. We proceeded to be chauffeured to 3 different houses to eat more food than we couldn’t possibly imagine making space for and taking selfies with strangers. That’s the holiday spirit!
For most, we were the first foreigners they’d ever met. For others, it was simply a treat to extend their gracious hospitality and excitement for the special foods they offered. For me, I was just happy to share this family centered holiday with my own family, and let them discover a glimpse into my life here.