Although it came one day late, our Christmas was just as memorable as our Thanksgiving. (No such luck on New Year’s Eve: I slept through the fireworks.) And no, despite their name, our hosts weren’t bearded nor did they wear red pajamas with white trim. We simply had a wonderfully festive dinner with the Santharamohanas – our friend Mo and her family – at their home in Kulim in Malaysia’s northwestern Kedah province.
You see, Mo’s dating my college friend Noah, and they work together on his Forest Voices project. (When she’s not doing that, she’s the editor of the fabulous Malaysian Naturalist, the publication of the Malaysian Nature Society.) And while her family is Hindu, with at least one Muslim thrown in for good measure, every one seems to celebrate Christmas in Malaysia. Noah, CeCe and I were fortunate enough to be invited along.
Let me introduce the family: Mo’s father, whom we called ‘Uncle’, a retired hospital administrator who once was recognized by the King of Malaysia for his contributions to the elimination of elephantitis in one part of the country; Mo’s step-mom, “Auntie” a wonderful cook who also is a full time nurse; her as-charming-and-brilliant-as-her-name-is-hard-to-spell sister, Avihshaa; and step-brother and his girlfriend, Jonathan and Lily. We spent at least 48 hours with the whole clan, eating and talking and swimming and eating some more. Sounds like Christmas minus the gift wrap, plus some swimming, doesn’t it?
I should note that the list of Malaysian holidays runs as long as a letter to Saint Nick from the Brady family. Currently they’re celebrating Pongal, a South Indian harvest festival, here in Singapore, and I’m sure they’re celebrating it somewhere in Malaysia as well. There’s also Ramadan of course, and Deepavali and Thaipusam, lots of sultans’ birthdays, and dozens of others, including the granddaddy of them all, Chinese New Year. I also saw a reference somewhere to a semi-annual celebration of the Monkey God, but I can’t lay my fingertips on it at the moment.
I don’t want to take anything away from the food – it was great and there was loads of it – but what CeCe and I will most remember is the conversation. We arrived in Malaysia knowing embarrassingly little about this fine country and we left with a comprehensive understanding of the Malaysian melting pot, its recent history and education system.
Plus we broke my own family’s holiday taboo and talked American and Malaysian politics for hours. It’s no surprise that the Santharamohanas are among the world’s six billion inhabitants who are happy to see our current president meekly leaving the White House. What is surprising, to me at least, is how conversational they all were about Bush, Obama, and everything happening back home. (This was also before the nightmare in Gaza began. I’m curious now to learn their opinions.) CNN and Newsweek are two fixtures in the household and we had a grand time chatting about the many similarities between our two countries. Here’s my short list that grows every day: English and a colonial past, a diverse population which struggles (generally non-violently) with racial difficulties, a car culture, an advanced infrastructure, an obesity problem, an abundance of malls, a strong demand for immigrant labor, the list goes on…
When we weren’t chatting up a storm, we visited a local swimming hole and took a slow walk along an elevated pathway among the forest’s canopy. Uncle bought me some palm wine, the Malaysian equivalent of moonshine, and fed us till we burst. The clan also escorted us to Penang Island where we spent an hour birdwatching in the unlikeliest spot: on a mudflat adjacent to a glitzy mall.
We said goodbye soon after, but we’re hopeful that the family will let us return the favor and visit us in America. If you’re lucky, maybe they will visit you too.