Monday, December 19, 2011

Twas The Week Before Christmas

And all through the house, not a creature was caring except for yours truly. There's a certain bittersweetness to this (it's a familiar taste, here) that makes me sad that there's no tree but happy there's none of that Charlie Brown sadness that sometimes just happens. I've been perpetually happy at this beautiful mix of emotions- basically because it means I can distract myself from what I'm missing.

That sounds pathetic. Let me rephrase: So the only time I miss home is when I'm bored and I have time to wallow in the passing thoughts like "Wow, I forgot how hard it was to wrap irregular objects, I did a lot more of that in the States" so those thoughts become "People here have no concept of the meaning of Christmas and giving them gifts isn't going to bring any Holiday Cheer to their lives". Again, pathetic sounding, but not incorrect. There is a split between the concept of Christmas as I know it and Christmas as (here I go generalizing it again) Malays know it. Since Islam is such a foundation of their culture and such a huge part of their lives, it makes sense to have all the holidays they celebrate be specific to their religion. Things like Hari Raya Haji wouldn't make sense should a Buddhist celebrate them, seeing as how it's a celebration of the Mecca-returning-season. There are a few national holidays that have nothing to do with any of the 3 races in particular, things like Merdeka day celebrate partiotism. There's no concept of a semi-religious holiday, something that everyone celebrates in their own way but is based on religion. Since many holidays in the States are roughly based on religion (think Saint Valentine's Day) but no longer contain obligatory church-visits, this concept occurs naturally to me.

Here, there is no separation of Church and State, also, but that's because Islamic Law mandates it be the Law of the Land. Go figure. Islamic law doesn't apply to non-Muslims, though (thankfully, I don't want anyone oppressed more than their religion dictates). What we've got here is this devoutness to religion, this encompassing hand of Islam that encourages further devotion to the ideas and practices of Muslim Life. There's a certain waivering from religion, but this is looked upon with such scorn that it is rare. This is in stark contrast to Western Countries, where the concepts of Spirituality and Religiousness are separate. We realize that non-religious people can be very spiritual (look at the Pagans!) and that non-spiritual people can be very religious (consider the people that attend services for the community, not the religion). We also have developed our culture to assimilate so many foreigners (in the United States) that many lines between culture and religion are blurred. Take for instance, Saint Patrick's Day. You've got the story of the boy who was kidnapped by pirates to return to Ireland to banish the Pagans, and you've got the family gatherings over lamb with mint sauce and other springtime feasts, and you've got the excuse to get really, really, drunk.

My point here is that the Western Idea of Christmas is so very different than the Eastern Idea of Christmas (As a Religious Holiday), and that is causing some miscommunication between East and West. Christmas might be the only time of year Christians attend church- there, I said it. These people who don't pray or worship or know much about their religion can be exceptionally spiritual, these folks can be just as if not more enlightened than those who get themselves up Sunday morning and shuffle through the line to get the wafer. Christmas and its ideas are so much larger than the event of religion, the concepts are woven throughout history, from the open-house-like sharing of bread with the poor to the cease-fires in World Wars I and II, to the cartoon Christmas specials attempting to capture the True Meaning of Christmas in a half-hour special. What we've got on our hands as westerners is an entire season dedicated to a quite possibly Pagan-originated festival. Historically, everyone and their cultural opposites has a Winter celebration- weather it be dedicated to the birth of a savior or the longest night before the world turns its face back to the sun or the gathering of those too cold to sleep in their own homes coming to a communal fire. This is another reason why there is no real concept of the true meaning of Christmas as I know it: It's just not cold enough.

This is meant physically and psychologically. Look at how happy everyone from Southern California is. It's because they get maybe 30 days of rain all year. Now, glance at the New Englander who's been pummelled by hurricanes and floods all of his life. It's suffering through bitter winters that causes communities to come together, it's everyone complaining about oil bills that makes all the adults in the room groan in one chorused voice. In older times, it must have been the people drawn to a large bonfire for warmth that sparked this flame of communal spirit. I think the sense of Community Appreciation and the Love for All Humans are the ideas that count as "What Christmas is Really About". And I come from arguably the most commercialized country on the planet, a place where that idea is often forgotten for the shiny new toys and the bustle or Wall Street or worry at just how you're going to cover those heating bills and rising food prices.

So, Peggy, I hear you say, what does that MEAN, like for ME? Or YOU over there in this Christmas-forsaken country? Well, it means that I can forget, something I do very well. The lack of the warm, happy feeling soiled by the cold metallic feeling is making me numb, the best feeling when you know you're precariously balanced on the edge of possible emotional breakdown. Why am I so dramatic about this? Because I know that if I take one little step towards the group of Americans this 25th I will cry and not stop. I've held this beautiful balance of missing home for so long and that got really close to falling apart when I went to the US Embassy Christmas Party. For You, this means that I need you to do me a few small favors-

1. Don't remind me of home in little ways. Tell me big things that are happening, not how you put up an extra candy cane for me on your tree. Tell me you're praying for me, don't tell me you worry for my safety.
2. Complain about your first-world problems. LOUDLY. Relish the feeling of dissapointment when your DVR recorded the newest season of Housewives of Orange County. Get absorbed in the breaking of the Cheese knife right before everyone is supposed to come over.
3. Have a Very Merry Christmas, everyone!

Okay, so let's get down to business (to defeat the huns). In the next few days I am preparing with Ibu for a party to wish the 6-monthers and the January-January kids bon voyage, packing for a trip to Perak then Penang, and waiting anxiously for my package to arrive. Anxiously is the key word, there, I've got some seriously awesome stuff waiting for me. Thank you, Grandma Kathy for the Lovely Box! Thank you Grandma Jean for the Beautiful Card!

One more thing- The Orientation. It was amazing. I was feeling down, I'll be honest. Then all you students took me in your collective arms and hugged all the hurt right out of me. I am now, again, a beautiful beloved person. I lied, there is another thing. The Embassy Christmas party that revived my respect for Humans and my disgust at Meatheads. There's a kid going to the states on the flip side of my program here and I answer every question with, "well. it's a really big country" and I think he appreciates it.

Peace on Earth, Good Will Towards Men,
Merry Christmas, Happy Hannukah, Celebrated Kwanza, and Beautiful Solstice,

Friday, December 9, 2011

Hecticity and the Meaning of Excitement

Good Morning!
Wait, wait, wait, wait. Selamat Pagi (literally, blessed morning) is from 2am to 11am. Selamat Tinggi (literally, blessed middle) is from 11am to 3pm-ish.Selamat Malam is only for goodbyes, not for greetings, and that happens between 5pm and 12pm. Malaysia refers to the morning as the time before dawn to noon, after noon is the time from noon until 3-ish and evening is until 6-ish, when night begins. This is in minor contrast to American standards, where night begins after dark has really fallen. This is in major contrast to European standards, where those party animals don't start their night until 9 or 10. This time warp discussion was not unprompted, yesterday I heard a Malaysian refer to the next hour as Nine in the Afternoon and it got me thinking- not just about the Panic! at the Disco song, but also about timliness and the cultural differences between punctuality and being way-the-heck-too-late-for-stuff.

Malaysian time means, essentially, arrive anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours late than you first intended. Of course, this is a generalization that doesn't account for those more westernized individuals, but that's the main idea- 'we're late'. We we re forewarned about this at our orientations, but it's still annoying enough to cause some cross-cultural frustrations. Things like 'I arrive at the train station at nine' can mean 'I'm telling you nine because it's actually 10:30 and I don't want you to be late' and 'the train will arrive at 8:30 but I'd like to talk with my friends until 10'. If I am in charge of when I leave because I'm using public transportation, then I try to arrive at my destination 15 minutes early as to orient myself with the surroundings and allow for things like traffic time and stopping off for a bite to eat.

So, this timing confusion will become more important than usual in the next month because I am incredibly busy, hence the creation of the word 'hecticity' meaning the measurement of hectic conditions or how stressed I'm feeling about getting places at a particular time. Today, there were two trips to train stations, one to send a volunteer to Singapore on a last-minute visa emergency courtesy of AFS Malaysia, the second was to send two Italian students and a Spanish student back to Terranganu, a state on the East Coast of Malaysia. Those students were here for the midyear orientation part one, where about half of the students in my group were in attendance. I will have my orientation in the second batch next week with the other Americans and assorted other students I will be admittedly less excited to see. Sorry, Europeans! Note to the Europeans: I don't dislike you, you are just so unattainably cool it messes with my head and I feel intellectually insignificant in your presence that it makes it hard for me to communicate with you as much as I'd like. Also, stop quoting my blog. It gives me chills.

Actually, I was supposed to be in the first batch, but instead I had a meeting with the American Embassy to be security briefed. That's the past tense of brief, right? Anyway, they told us a combination of what we already know and what we've figured out in our first five months, and then we invited ourselves to the Holiday Party, where I will bask in the glory of the American Accents. Listen to the solid 'r's and the 'th' sound, unsimplified to the 'd' sound, rejoice at the use of phrases like 'stressed out' and the beautiful overuse of the word 'like'. So because I went to the Embassy, I had to miss the first orientation, so they bumped me to the second one. Because I was bumped to the second orientation I had to miss the ComiCon KL, where I was so excited to go (in costume, of course) with my equally dorky Icelandic friend. Now she has to take the train dressed as a Tech Priest all alone. I was planning on going to that and having a great time, but now I've got so many other things where I'll have a great time!

There's a farewell party for the people in this area on the 6-month and January-January program happening soon where I'll finally get to meet the Japanese students (all of them) and that's going to be a blast! There's probably going to be another chapter event soon, and in the meantime I get to cook with this volunteer that's staying in Ibu's house for a few weeks. She's French Belgian and we're teaching eachother more of our respective languages. I'm so happy my French hasn't disintigrated as much as I expected!! Yesterday morning, I asked her if she had taken her breakfast in a jumbling of words as I realized it wasn't the verb 'diner' but the verb 'prendre' and then I had to put that in the past tense to ask her the question which is so universal in Malay, have you eaten? Suda Makan? (SOO-duh mah-KHAN). Yesterday night as we made Shepherd's Pie a la Belgium I remembered the words for all the ingredients and the word for stove! In the process of taking down the ingredients from a website, I had to change the recipe for Lasangna slightly as it called for wine. I then had to explain why wine was used in cooking, using both previous knowledge and a little bit of chemistry to basically say "too bad you're Muslim, because it really helps the taste and you don't get drunk at all". Whew, and I thought that would be far more awkward than it was.

Back to December's plans! I'm going to Perak then Penang for Christmas with my Deepavali family! I am so very very excited to see them again, this time I get to experience a real tour of the historic island and appreciate the architecture that reminds me so much of New England it hurts a little bit. See, the British got a few things right with their various colonies; mostly about town structure and architecture. I'll also be on the lookout for a Catholic church to go to a vigil mass at. That would make me really happy. Speaking of things that make me happy, I've played so much ukulele the calluses on my fingers are coming back. A Belgian said I was playing too much Ukulele, and I spat back there was not such thing as too much ukulele. He agreed, I assume under the hypnotic power of the ukulele's cuteness. Also keeping me busy are the plastic bag plastic bags that I'm crocheting for charity. Ibu adores them and I think they look just perfect with the Malaysian colored plastic bags.

At the back of my mind I am planning a few other things, like my transition to the new house in January. I'm trying my best to catch up with Bahasa Melayu (the spoken language) and Bahasa Malaysia (the written language). I'm also studying up on traveling through India, which would make the best January event ever! Right now we're only on the hostels and flights stage of planning but we can move to the asking of the AFS office pretty soon. I've found places to print my hundreds of pictures and places to buy scrapbook things, and there are sheets of wrapping paper sold almost everywhere here that will make for fantastic backgrounds. Malaysia seems to love stickers, so adorning these pages is going to be heaps of fun. Even though I don't have all those fancy special tools for cutting perfect circles and giving beautiful edges, I have a feelings I'll have enough time on my hands with school beginning in January that scrapbooking will become a beautifully time-consuming task. I can't let the craftiness consume me, though, and there's no chance of that with how involved my new family is in the community and family life. It's so nice that I get to meet them more an more intimately before I stay with them for the remainder of my time. It seems more natural to move this way, building up a relationship, learning the family culture, everything prior to moving in before you actually live in parallel.

Well, I'm off to have some lunch, don't expect pictures of the Embassy or Orientation because cameras were not allowed in the Embassy and other people can handle taking photos of all us students together. I must remember to steal all the beautifully taken photographs from an American who has a lovely camera and enjoys taking pictures far more than I do. And I like taking pictures :)

Before I leave you to microwave some leftovers, I'd like to do a quick run-down of the books I'm enjoying. Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card, The Hitchikers Guide to the Galaxy, The Beach, On the Road, Agatha Cristie's assorted Mysteries, Evening is the Whole Day, and soon to be stolen from an unsuspecting European: Star Wars. Hope everyone's Holiday preparations are going marvelously! I've decked out my room with a paper chain and a few intricate snowflakes.