Lori Niehaus '18
Fulbright Year in Malaysia
“Apakah makan?”, or “have you eaten?”, is the first question you hear when you walk into any room in Malaysia. The common question is a reflection not only of the important role food plays in society or of the deep pride Malaysians have for their traditional foods, but also of the unwavering hospitality of Malaysian people. This hospitality and genuine joy in welcoming others has played an integral role in my experience living and working here for the past seven months.
Malaysia is a modern Southeast Asian country whose grappling with large amounts of religious, ethnic, and geographic diversity is not all that different from that of the United States. Where I live in Kelantan, a state on the northeast coast of Malaysia, most people are ethnically Malay (98%). This ethnic make-up is unique from the rest of Malaysia, which overall is only 52% Malay, with the other major groups being Chinese-Malaysians, Indian-Malaysians, and indigenous groups. Malay Malaysians are Muslim by law, while many other groups practice Buddhism, Hinduism, or Christianity. This religious diversity is a large reason I originally applied to the Fulbright Malaysia program after working with the Boston College Center for Human Rights and International Justice (CHRIJ) on a project to explore interreligious dialogue between Catholics and Muslims. I wanted to experience first-hand the joys and challenges that arise with such diversity in a context outside of the US.
To this end, I have not been disappointed. Malaysians of all religions, ethnicities, and beliefs have invited me without hesitation into their homes, places of worship, and families. During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, I chose to fast, or abstain from drinking or eating from sun-up until sun-down, to be in solidarity with my Muslim students and grow in my personal faith. During this month, students, teachers, and community members would invite me to break fast with them. Listening for the Mahgrib call to prayer, which signifies the end of the daily fast, and taking that first sip of water or bite of nasi (rice) in community with one another and with 1.8 billion Muslims worldwide, was remarkable. Sharing a meal has never felt more sacred. During the subsequent festival of Eid, or Hari Raya, my students invited me into their homes to celebrate with food, joyful conversation, and – being high school students – way too many selfies.
This willingness to share culture and religion has not been lost on Malaysians of other religions. In the course of just two weeks, I celebrated not only Ramadan, but also the Thai water festival Songkran by throwing colored water with energetic kids, Buddha’s birthday (Vesak Day) by participating in a traditional march with the Chinese Buddhist community, a Sikh event at their local temple, and a Catholic mass. Engaging with community members in each of these settings has been a beautiful reflection of the best of Malaysia’s diversity. While religiously and ethnically diverse, Malaysians are united in their overwhelming hospitality and kindness.
Complementary to this hospitality, Malaysians have shown an eager willingness to engage in cross-cultural exchange and dialogue to learn about where I’m from. This has been especially palpable through the girls’ soccer program I started at my school. None of the girls had ever played before, but their willingness to try something new and difficult continues to inspire me. Every week, despite the intense Malaysian heat and humidity amplified under their hijabs and modest clothing and their inability to understand what I’m shouting at them from the sidelines– they show up. From these students and others, I have come to understand interreligious and intercultural dialogue is not only about a formal conversation, it’s about sweating on the soccer field together, about sharing a meal after a long day, about celebrating together, and about opening our hearts to the radical truth that people are people, no matter their nationality, religion, beliefs, race, or ethnicity.