Guest Article written by Skye Rutherford
“So where is your friend?” my talkative neighbor asks as I try to get a bite of the nasi ayam his wife has generously placed before me. I lower my handful of rice and reluctantly divulge my roommate’s whereabouts, knowing what’s about to come, “She’s on a road trip around Malaysia with her parents for the holiday.”
“All the way from America?”
I nod. This is my first stop on the tour of open houses I will experience during Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and while I feel incredibly lucky to be here, I am already dreading questions of whether my family will visit. I focus on the food and commit to non-verbal responses in the hopes that he will change the subject, but it’s inevitable.
“Your mother and father visit too?”
“I wish they could, but flights to Malaysia are long and . . . expensive.”
“You have brothers and sisters?” he probes, his wife disappearing down a decorated hallway in her matching baju raya.
“No, it’s just me,” I sneak a bite of pineapple tart and flash a smile, “Only child.”
“Then your parents must be rich! Only one child to care for.”
A nervous chuckle trickles from my mouth when his daughter and son-in-law walk up to the dining room table and unknowingly rescue me.
My students and I dance to a popular Hari Raya song to celebrate Hari Raya Aidilfitri which marks the end of Ramadhan and the end of an entire month of fasting
“Where are you going next for Hari Raya?” the young woman asks, as she bounces her wriggling toddler in her arms.
“A student invited me to meet her family in the kampung near my school,” I say, and before I can finish another word, I’m offered a ride there – with a quick stop on the way of course.
We end up at an uncle’s house where neighborhood children peek out from behind the gate, waiting for the unspoken promise of duit raya. Inside there are cousins and an aunt, all in mint green baju kurung with elaborate designs for the occasion. As we sit around their coffee table, jars of sweets, trays of appetizers, and cups of mango juice descend upon us. This extended family seems intrigued, but unperturbed by my presence as they urge me to eat while placing ketupat in my palm.
I am accustomed to the endless hours of Thanksgiving gorging and food comas at one or two houses in the U.S., but here our stay ends quicker than I expect as Hari Raya waits for no one!
When my neighbors drop me off in front of the kampung, I take a minute to wander. I hear some students down the gravel road laughing amongst themselves and turn to see them out of their uniforms, distinct individuals in an array of colors and styles. I watch a pet monkey climb a coconut tree near me, before I flag down a closer group to ask for directions. A form 1 student and his brother carry envelopes full of ringgit and happily lead me around the bend of palm trees.
Alia and her family host me and make my first Hari Raya spectacular
Alia’s father sees me from the steps and beckons me into the house. The whole family cheers when I walk through the doorway and Alia jumps up to greet me. “Teacher, you look beautiful!” We both beam with joy, hugging as I tell her, “Thank you, but I think you look even more beautiful!” I glance around the sun-filled room and almost forget I am over 14,000km away from my family.
When I hear other ETAs gush about family or friends visiting, it chips away at my troubled conscience. My parents could never afford to come here – and neither could I, for that matter, without Fulbright. When we do get the chance to video chat, our conversations are short because they are tired from working long, grueling shifts or they “don’t want to worry” me. I worry anyway. I worry that they need me at home, mostly because I am their only child, but also because an extra income would ease their burden. In this regard, I realize my students and I have more in common than I first surmised, though their cases are more extreme; Tumpat, Kelantan is not an affluent place and some of my students leave school to take over the family business or get married because the lack of money warrants it.
What I feel is not so much homesickness as it is home . . . guilt. When I post updates on social media, my family responds with how lucky I am to be able to travel, and I agree. I am incredibly grateful to be able to come to another country, welcomed with open arms by loving students and teachers who share their culture and allow me to be immersed in it. I miss my friends and family in America, but I can’t think of leaving the family I’ve found in Malaysia. All I can say is that I am torn, but grateful.
Back at Alia’s house, this mental tug-of-war begins to wane in me as the celebration continues. “Please, sit! Sit!” Alia’s brother urges me, as we gather around dishes teeming with rendang, curry, nasi kerabu, chicken, fish, kek lapis Sarawak, and other sweets. Now it’s time to dig in. The atmosphere seems to take on a perfect balance of talking and eating right before we take a family portrait. This time I am not apprehensive when answering questions about my life in America or asking about their lives here.
Posing for a freestyle photo with our DELO, Norrizan, and her family
When my roommate returns a few days later we continue the festivities at our District English Language Officer (DELO) Norrizan’s home. The custom of hopping from house to house and table to table may lead you to believe that the Hari Raya experience all blends together, but each person you come across adds their personal touch. Everyone becomes your family during these days; not in a generalized way but in a way that you feel welcomed as if you are coming home.
After we fill our plates, she sits with us on the couch, turns on America’s Got Talent, and pulls out a giant world atlas she used when she was a student. We point to our states on the map of the U.S. and discuss distances to other places. I hadn’t traveled much of my own country before coming to Malaysia, but I share what I can. Then we all laugh as we watch the host of the show hoist a bodybuilder above his head. This effortless intermingling of culture and curiosity is something I love most about Malaysia.
The Hari Raya celebrations carry on for the next two weeks and a day before my school-wide party, the girls of form 5 science excitedly hand me a folded hijab. “Teacher Ruzita wanted us to give this to you for tomorrow! Will you wear it?” I smile. “Of course! As long as everyone is okay with it.”
My Choral Speaking crew taught me different ways to wear a hijab. They always help me understand new cultural contexts and impress me with their initiative and creativity
During choral speaking rehearsal my students gather around as I unzip my backpack and pull the hijab out. “Can you show me how to put it on?” One of the only girls, Aisyah, giggles, nodding.
“It’s simple, Teacher. You just fold it into a triangle,” she drapes it around my head and pinches certain spots when she says, “and then you pin here, here, and here.” My face must not inspire confidence because she and the boys add, “Or you can watch a video on Youtube!” Our school-wide Hari Raya, and one the following week for the hostel students, consists of many selfies, full stomachs, happy hearts, and the choral speaking routine my students wrote and choreographed themselves. The references I did not understand two months ago are now heartwarming and familiar.
Students help cut up fruit during SMK Sungai Pinang’s Hari Raya celebration
Immersing myself further into what brings my kiddos joy, learning about their struggles, and navigating experiences new and old together has brought so much into my life that I never could have expected. Seeing my co-teachers get ecstatic by my willingness to try new things is another gift and one that reminds me what this experience is all about: forging bonds that we carry with us long after we part ways.
So, although money is tight, that does not make my experience in Malaysia any less meaningful. Thanks to the community I’ve found here, I’m learning day by day to worry less and celebrate more!
We honor a retiring teacher during the Hari Raya party, it is a pleasure working with them