Photo by Andy Hurvitz
I just came back from two weeks in Malaysia, coinciding with the celebrations for the arrival of the Year of the Dragon.
I stayed with friends who are really family, and their extended group, which included some from Switzerland.
I had not been to Malaysia since 1997, a time that now seems so far in the past, before the smart phone or digital cameras or 9/11.
In Malaysia, in the old, historic, packed and thriving city of Melaka, we ate Chicken Rice and Nasi Lemak, Roti Canai, Fish Ball Soup, oranges and tiny bananas, shrimp sambal and fried noodles with chili and soy sauce, oysters and scrambled eggs, fish head curry and Rojak Buah Nyonya (Fruits and vegetable in peanut sauce).
The streets are full of bicycles, cars, scooters, trucks- and none of them will stop for pedestrians. When the rains come, as they do every afternoon, the sudden torrent of showers forces the bike riders to pull over and wait under bridges for the storm to pass.
The Malay women wear a colorful, printed Baju Kurung, the knee-length blouse over a long skirt, filling drab alleys and rundown streets with brightness and hue. In accordance with tradition and Islam, the women have a tropical gorgeousness that is unique to Malaysia.
We visited friends for the Chinese New Year, going to houses where people offered cookies and bowls of oranges and orange drinks, where people wore red shirts and red dresses and hung red lanterns and red curtains.
We went to the temple and brought food for spirits and lit incense sticks and burned paper money and threw it into an ash pit.
At night, every night, for many nights, the skies were smoky and lit up with fireworks and firecrackers and the festivities lasted well into the early morning.
And I was invited to the neighbors’ ear splitting, noisy dragon dance where a dozen young men put on costumes, banged drums, clashed symbols and danced around the marble floors while spectators fed them oranges.
Every house had a shrine, and on every street I walked in Malaysia, there was evidence of the Divine. The Mosque, the Chinese Temple, the many Christian churches, the Hindu temple; they are on every street and in every kampong, and in the morning, while it is still dark, one hears, before the birds chirp, the low melodic singing prayer of the adhān أَذَان, the Mosque calling the faithful.
What impressed me most was not the food or the architecture or the exoticism of Malaysia, it was the family who hosted us. They cooked for us, and took our laundered clothes and hung them out to dry, and they planned daily festive meals. Every member of the family came over every day and joined in the fun. And the children who came from Switzerland with their parents, they stayed with their aunts and cousins and slept on the floor and played games and charmed and amused everyone.
I saw not the bitchy and divisive melodramas that characterize family gatherings in America. Nobody stormed out or got drunk or ripped into their relatives. There was an elusive and seductive harmony and grace exhibited by all the family members who showed respect and care and genuine love for one another.
There is a lot more to say, but I need time to ingest it all, and hope that what I saw in Asia and felt over there, the good feelings, can last a bit longer.