‘Truly Asia’

November 26, 2012 | Elizabeth, DVM, AFS, Malaysia, Science of Life Studies 24/7

When they say that Malaysia is ‘Truly Asia’, it is not a lie. One of the many personal quests I have embarked upon here is to find out what it means to be Malaysian. It may seem odd to ask this, but in a world where globalization has taken over, understanding the true heart of a culture is not point blank. My experiences here in Kuala Lumpur have nevertheless taught me many things, and as they are quickly becoming numbered I can honestly say that like Canada this beautiful country is just as diverse and ethnically rich. I suppose with this conclusion, asking what is Malaysian is like asking what is Canadian?

In my first few weeks here at the SOLS 24/7 headquarters in Kuala Lumpur, I was continually asked the same string of standard questions by every single volunteer I met “What was my name? Where was I from? and Wow! Isn’t it cold in Canada?!?” These I could answer as easily as I any proud Canadian, but when those question evolved into “What is Canadian food like? What’s the main ethnicity? What are the people like?” I started understanding how vague my answer must have sounded. “We have lots of different kinds of food from all over…. (and poutine)! We don’t have a main ethnicity really, we are multicultural….. and they’re really friendly, kind and open-hearted”. Although the answer made sense in my mind, the blank stares I got in return kept hinting that I was not clear at all. Although back then I could not understand why this was, the more I asked those same questions to my local colleagues, it began to dawn on me; they’re answers were just like mine.

Malaysia in particular is especially tricky as there are a three major ethnic groups each with their own cultural influences; Chinese, Indian, and Muslim. If you ask who is Malay most people will assume you are referring to the Orang Asli population who are in fact considered the indigenous people of Malaya. At first I was frustrated with the fact that I wasn’t getting any Malaysian cultural experiences. My colleagues were primarily from Europe and Westernized countries, my local restaurants were Chinese and Indian and trying to find ‘Malaysian’ cuisine was practically impossible. I was even confused when it came to the few holidays I got to experience as they are equally divided by ethnicities including Hari Raya (Muslim) and Deepavali (Indian) but nothing claiming to be a ‘Malay’ tradition…

Then I got asked another question, “How do you like Malaysia?” and I, surprising myself, answered with ease, “I love Malaysia, the people are friendly, kind and open-hearted, the food is diverse and there are so many different ethnicities!”.

When I reflected upon this answer I realized that as you look around at the teachers in the public schools, the grocer at the corner store, the lawyers, bankers, tradesman, or even the Prime Minister you will see an array of diversity. All of them are in fact Malay whether it be Indian-Malay, Chinese-Malay or Malay-Muslim their traditions, norms, and values are influenced by living alongside one another. They have been blended to a certain degree to make one Country strong and proud of it’s multiculturalism. Even though they might not always intermingle as the Chinese live primarily with other Chinese and Muslims generally live in Muslim communities, they share the same land, government and language indicating that indeed every local citizen I’ve had the pleasure of interacting with are active participants in Malaysian culture.

Discovering this, I can better understand my own native land. There is no one Canadian cultural stereotype. There are many different aspects of the Canadian culture that make us proud to call this country our home. That and probably the 6 months of winter we have to endure… Nevertheless, this trip abroad has not only allowed me to understand and appreciate the diversity of Malaysian culture, it has taught me how to reflect upon my own identity as a Canadian and value the differences that make us proud. I can now see through my neighbours, colleagues and new found friends how beautiful coexistence can be, and even though my blogs are getting sappy, it’s been the most rewarding experience of my life.

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