Sunday, October 30, 2011


Just recently (Oct. 26th to be exact) was Deepavali!  For those of you that don't know, Deepavali is basically the Hindu version of Christmas.  It is a time to come together with family to celebrate life and love, and of course, an excuse to EAT EAT EAT :)  Because I am currently staying with a Chinese family (more on that later), I was put in an Indian family for a week so I could experience the culture first hand.  It just so happens that I got to stay with my liaison's family, and my recent temporary family.  Because I had stayed with them for a month and I had only left two weeks ago, I immediately fit right in.

The first thing we did was set up decorations around the house.  The decorations are very simple, but definitely create the festive feel.  They include colorful paper mobiles, bright flashing lights and metallic banners that read 'Happy Deepavali!' in both English and Tamil (shown above).  In public places and a few houses they will to intricate designs in colored rice.  (Below)

The second step in preparing for Deepavali is shopping!!  It is the tradition that everyone must wear something new on Deepavali day.  Most men will buy a simple shirt, or maybe a jippa.  But the women take it to the next level and buy new EVERYTHING.  This includes a new sari (a long piece of fabric tied around the body), bangles, necklaces, earring, henna, and bindi (worn on the forehead).  They will also sometimes buy a new penjabi (what I wore) to wear later on in the day.  The night before deepavali the clothes are left in front of the alter so they can be blessed.

Jippa - for men
Sari, with bangles and bindi
Me in penjabi

The last step in preparing for deepavali is cooking!  It is tradition that the first meal of the day should always be eaten at home, so the mothers and daughter usually spend the day before preparing the meal.  They also prepare lots of little snacks, such as ghee balls, coconut candy and murukku.  Coconut candy is my personal favorite and I have included the recipe below :)

On deepavali day everyone in the family wakes up early to greet the sun (even though the younger generations are less keen on this), put on their new clothes and go to the temple.  After the temple they go home and have the first meal together.  After that the day is spent being visited or visiting friends and family.  Some people have open houses and have people stop by, or some simply have a few relatives over for the day.  Overall it is a very relaxing day, and my family even had nap time.

Similarly to Christmas, I feel the best part of Deepavali is the preparation beforehand.  The shopping, the decorating, the cooking, etc.  I had a lot of fun during the week and I am glad I got to experience it :)

My host family at the temple on Deepavali morning

Deepavali decorations

At the temple
Deepavali sweets


WARNING: This candy is EXTREMELY unhealthy, but EXTREMELY delicious :)

2 3/4 cup sugar
3 cups shredded coconut (the fresher, the better)
1 can condensed milk
60 grams butter
2 pieces lemon grass
food coloring (optional)
buttered 8x8 pan

1. Mix the sugar and condensed milk in a round bottomed pan. Tie the two pieces of lemon grass into a knot and add them into the mix.  Put on burner at low/medium heat and stir until sugar is dissolved.  Stir constantly to avoid burning.  If it burns, turn down the heat on the stove.
2. Add the three cups of coconut to the milk and sugar.  Make sure when you measure the coconut you compact it down, like you do when measuring brown sugar.  Again, the more fresh the coconut is, the better.
3. Stir until the mix begins to stick together, when the coconut begins to absorb the sugar/milk.  Constant stirring is essential because it will burn to the bottom of the plan very quickly.  Before the mix hardens, food coloring may be added.
4. The test to make sure the mix is ready is when you can make a marble sized ball, drop it in a glass of water, and have it keep its ball shape.  When the mix is to this point, add the butter (stir thoroughly) and take out the lemon grass.
5.  Take off the burner and pour the mix into the pan.  Spread the mix evenly over the pan.
6.  Wait to cool and slice into small pieces. 
7. Enjoy :)

Friday, October 21, 2011

Satu Malaysia?

First:  I don't mean to pick sides or show favoritism towards any particular race in Malaysia, I am only trying to state the facts.

This is a picture that is extremely common in Malaysia, and it means 'Satu Malaysia' (One Malaysia).  It is meant to represent and encourage the union of all the three races (Malay, Chinese, and Indian) in Malaysia.  However I have learned from experience, and by hearing from several different Malaysians, that it is not as effective (or truthful) as they would like.

In general, Malaysia is still very segregated.  The Malays are with the Malays, Chinese with Chinese, and Indians with Indians.  Mingling together is almost never seen, and if it is, it is usually because of school obligations or other planned events.  They have separate restaurants, schools, and living communities for each of the different races.  Although it is not entirely uncommon for an Indian family to eat at a 'Malay' restaurant, it is also not uncommon to hear 'you must be careful what you wear outside because this is a Malay community'.  Usually you can tell immediately which race holds the majority in a certain area not only by the people seen, but by the language on signs, the type of food served at restaurants, or the types of house decor.

A lot of this separation is due to religious differences.  Some examples are that Muslims aren't allowed to eat pork, so they can not eat at Indian/Chinese restaurants where pork is served.  Muslims also aren't allowed to touch dogs, so they are unlikely to move to a Chinese/Indian neighborhood that has lots of dogs.  The three cultures wear drastically different types of clothing so they are unlikely to be seen at the same shops.  And of course Muslims cannot drink alcohol, which can be common in Indian/Chinese cultures.  I have heard some racist comments made about one race by another, and (in my opinion), the dislike from race to race is far to obvious.  Some families don't like their children to hang out with kids from other races due to fear of 'bad influences'.

However, I believe that the majority of the problems is because the government involvement with the church.  For example, once someone in Muslim, they are never allowed to leave the church, unless let's say, they leave Malaysia.  If someone is Malay, they must be Muslim.  If someone is born Muslim, they must stay Muslim.  If someone wishes to marry a Muslim, they must convert, and can't cannot un-convert.  Along with converting, you must follow the rules of the church.  These include donating (I think) 2.5% of your income to the church, not drinking alcohol, no gambling, no eating pork, no touching dogs, attending the mosque on Fridays (if you are male), and a few others.  Men are also allowed to have four wives, although Polygamy does seem to be rare (although not nonexistent) in Malaysia.  The government is also allowed to go to hotel rooms and check for marriages licenses to make sure couples are married, if not, they can be fined and sent to Islamic court.  Chinese and Indians also have to pay higher fines of property; if a Malay has to pay $200,000, Indians and Chinese must pay $220,000 for the same land.  Because of these rules, these is unavoidable tension between the races.
Admittedly these differences can be hard to accept at times because one of the things that most appealed to me about Malaysia was the different races under one roof.  Also because where I come from racism is a huge NO-NO, and freedom of religion is extremely important. Luckily for me however, I somehow have managed to have a Malay, Indian, and Chinese family so I have been able to learn all three cultures. :)

Although I find these cultural clashes extremely unfortunate, I must remember two things.  One, Malaysia was not always like this.  When the country first gained independence all the races could easily sit down for a meal together or have a nice talk, and considered themselves Malaysians, rather than Chinese-Malaysians, or Indian-Malaysians.  Secondly, Malaysia is only about 50 years old, and when the USA was 50 years old, women couldn't vote and slavery was legal.  Malaysia is still a developing country and sometimes going through hard times are needed to bring people together.

Traditional Malay Clothing

Traditional Indigenous Clothing

Traditional Chinese Clothing

Traditional Indian Clothing

Monkeys :)  (just for fun)

Sarah the Indian, OKAY, sorry it took me so long to write again!! I can barely remember the last time I wrote!  A lot has happened in the last month and I will try to fill you all in to the best of my ability. 

First off, I left my first host family around a month ago.  Needless to say it was one of the most dramatic and depressing experienced of my life!  I wish it could have worked out but some people just aren't compatible no matter how hard you try to make the pieces fit.  It made me feel better to know that 1/3 of this year's batch have already changed families, and about 80% of students from the last batch changed.  (At least that is what I have heard).  I am not sure why the family changing rate is so high in Malaysia, but my best guess is because the cultures are so different.

After I left my first host family I went to go stay with another temporary family until they could find my a  new permanent family. This time I was to stay with an Indian family.  I was excited when I found out I was going to stay with an Indian family (which was about 5 minutes after I left my first host family) because I have been extremely fascinated with the Indian cultures for quite some time!  Almost everything about my old and new family were completely different.  From the language (the Indians in Malaysia speak Tamil/English), the food, the religion, the customs, everything!!

One thing that I found most interesting was the Hindu religion.  My family were extremely active Hindus and went to the center/temple a couple times a week.  I was lucky enough to get to tag along for these visits and I was able to learn a lot.  The Hindu religion is unlike one I have ever experienced before, it is a lot about symbols and the different aspects of God, the different deities.  Each with different powers/meanings.  During the ceremonies these use symbols/offerings such as flower garlands, saffron, ash, coconuts, gold, yogurt, fruits, plants, fire, and a few others I'm surely forgetting.  All events are extremely complex and even more colourful.  The main way the Hindu's worship is with music, so there is always a lot of singing.  I really like the singing, even though it can be hard to follow a lot at times because the songs are in Tamil/Sanskrit/Hindi.  Each song is led by a different person and everyone is welcome to lead the songs.  I was even asked if I wished to lead one, but I unfortunately had to decline because I had never heard the songs before :P

During my stay with the temporary family I continued to go to the same school even though it was more than 20 minutes away because one of my family's neighbors happened to teach at a school near mine so she was able to give me a ride.

When I stayed with this family I got to experience lots of the Indian culture during special events, such a weddings, my host brother's birthday, singing lessons, and a special nine day prayer called Navratri.  During the nine day prays my family either went to the center or to the temple each day to worship.  The point of the festival is to celebrate the female aspects of God, so the festival is extremely important to, and almost completely organized, by women. 

Another big fesitival is right around the corner.....Deepavali! I will also be celebrating with the same family, I can't wait!  I will be sure to keep you updated with pictures & more blog updates!

At a Hindu Temple

Me and my host mom, in traditional dress

Inside a temple

Indian Temple - architecture

Wedding decoration, the pattern on the floor is made of rice


Bindi, worn by women on the forehead

Sai Baba Center - A place for worship and singing

Homemade Toasi, the best Indian food!

Me, offering flowers at the center during ceremony

Indian wedding

Offerings at a wedding

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Malaysia in a Video

Hey, sorry I haven't written in awhile.  I've been really busy and don't have time to use the computer, like at all!  I am currently with a temporary family, and they are the best!  Because I can't use the computer a lot I have decided to post a video.  This video literally is like Malaysia in a video, it shows the different languages, the use of 'lah' (I will write about this later), the mannerisms, the temples, the different races, the scenery, everything.  I know it's not the best, but it is the best I can do.  And I honestly couldn't describe/show Malaysia better than this video does.  I will explain more about the 'problems that don't need talking about' later.  Enjoy, and dance a little :)

Thursday, September 8, 2011

When one door closes, another opens...

"Life's challenges aren't supposed to paralyze you,
they're supposed to help you discover who you are."

This quote explains my current situation perfectly.  I have been experiencing some obstacles since my second week in Malaysia, and I have felt uncomfortable writing about them until now.  I have to admit, I, along with every other exchange student I am sure, never thought I would have to get a new host family.  I have had fabulous past experiences in Paraguay and with hosting Jenny, so I thought it would all be that easy.  However the past two months have taught me different, and while they have been hard, they have taught me a lot and they have been worth it. :)

Right after I got here my host mom told me that it wasn't fun to be a teenage girl in her household, or and Muslim household, for that matter.  I have to admit that at first it caught me off gaurd, and I really didn't know what to think after basically being told me that my entire year in Malaysia wasn't going to be fun.  But my host mom convinced me that it was my duty to 'suffer' through it (because it was, after all, only a year) and that it was my duty as an exchange student.  As time went on I learned that my family was very serious, and extremely close knit.  They didn't like me to hang out with friends or talk to other exchange students because she didn't want me to compare the different households, and they didn't think I would be safe leaving the house without them.  Basically, this meant that I would have to spend almost all my time at home and not be allowed to see my friends (without my host parents being there, at least).  This really got to be after awhile, not just the rules, the the overall lack of connection with my family, but my host parents continued to convince me that it was my duty, and that I wasn't here as a tourist.  My host parents frequently asked me if I was going to be able to adjust to their rules, asked me if I was strong enough (also the last exchange student they hosted left before the year was over), and I was determined to prove to them that I could do it.  But after seventh week and I still wasn't happy I convinced myself that there was something wrong with me and that YES made a mistake in selecting me for the program.  But when I sat down and thought about one day not too long ago, it I realized I was wrong, and that I was meant for this, how happy I had been when I found out I got this scholarship, and that I had been looking forward to this program all year long.  I didn't want to spend the year counting down the days until I went home.

So after a good talk with some friends and family, I realized that it wasn't all my fault the I wasn't connecting to my family, and I had to do the thing I least wanted, and change families.  However, that worst part was telling them that I wanted a new family.  So after three hours of yelling, crying, and was over!  My family had never been bad to me, and had give me my own room, laptop, tons of food, technically everything the program said I needed, so I felt awful for telling them; but I didn't want to spend the rest of the year in my house watching NCIS and Law & Order.  They were, ARE, a good family, just not right for me, not right now at least.  It reminded me once again that this really isn't a vacation, and it's not all easy and fun.  It reminded me that on your year abroad you don't just learn about culture, but also a lot about yourself and handling situations you would do anything to run away from.  It's not like home where you can call your mom or dad and have them handle your problems for you (even though I have to admit I tried....haha).  It also reminded me that sometimes you have to step back and realize what is best for you, and do what it takes so that you can go to sleep with a smile on your face.

So in a nutshell...I am getting a new host family!!  I'm not sure the exact day, or what they will be like, but I DO know that I am really excited to begin the new part of my journey.  :)

Malaysian (Muslim) Fashion - With pictures!

The Muslims in Malaysia dress much differently than we do in the United States.  Because Islam is a more conservative religion, it's followers much dress accordingly.  (This is written from a more traditional and conservative standpoint, please note that not all Muslims in Malaysia dress exactly as follows.)


Daily:  Almost all Muslim women in Malaysia wear a tudung, or hijab (headscarf) on a daily basis.  The exceptions are when they are at home, only with family.  The reason that women wear a tudung is because the hair is considered the 'sexiest' feature.  All shirts must have high necklines and most are long sleeved.  Most women wear pants, or floor length skirts/dresses.  If one wants to wear shorts or shorter skirts, they must wear leggings that go below their knees.  However not all Muslim women around the world dress like this...for example, women in Saudi Arabia are required to wear all black and cover their hair and faces.

Traditional/Formal:  Traditional clothing for women basically consists of the baju kurung and the tudung.  The baju kurung is a two piece outfit, the top has long sleeves and falls below the knees.  The bottom is a long skirt that almost touches the floor.  The baju kurung comes in a variety of colors and patterns, and most are extremely vibrant.

Praying: When praying, women wear a two piece outfit similar to the baju kurung, except the top has the tudung included, and the entire ensemable is (usually) white.  Mulims must pray five times a day, so it is common for women to bring the prayer outfit with them when they go out.


Daily:  Daily cloth for men is similar to men in the USA, t-shirt, pants, and shorts.

Traditional/Formal: I admittedly do not know what the traditional clothing for men is called, but it consists of matching silk shirt and pants.  On top of the pants they wear a (for lack of a better word...) skirt that is made from patterned material.  The material worn similar to how one wears a towel.  Men also wear a songkok, which is a black hat (pictured below).

Praying: For praying men wear the same as the traditional/formal clothes.

Traditional Malaysian Muslim Family
Women Prayer Outfit
Muslim Women in Saudi Arabia

             I will be the first for admit that it was (and still is....) extremely hard for me to adjust to the clothing.  Mostly because it is so dang hot here, and I am required to wear pants and long sleeve shirts.  I am not allowed to wear hardly any of the clothes that I brought with me (except for the pants) because they are inappropriate, however I don't feel too bad because I don't think they even make teenage clothes in the US that fit my family's standards :P  I have also worn the heads scarf a few times, but have no intent in including it in my daily wear.  (Mostly because it is too hot).
              For Hari Raya and other formal situations I was required to buy a baju Kurung (four of them actually), and let me tell you, this was not an easy feat.  (Sorry in advance any to any Malays that may be reading this...but) This is because most of them are...*cough* not flattering.  To say the least.  Most of the patterns look like they came from old couch or an extremely high hippie in the 70's (nothing against hippies of course).  However, it could just be that I am shopping at all of the wrong places because I have seen beautiful baju kurung with lovely bead work, but those go for over $100, and the ones I am buying go at about $15.  Needless to say, they make shopping interesting.  For your entertainment (and my own) I have included a few pictures, followed by pictures of the four baju kurung that I settled on.  If you have any interest in any of the following (Mom, Karen...), please send your payment (cash only) and size ASAP, for supplies are limited!

( Alligator....a personal favorite^ )

My baju kurung

My other two baju kurung

Selamat Hari Raya!

It's Hari Raya time!  Hari Raya is the month long festival that follows Ramadan - the month of fasting.  The point of Hari Raya is after all the thinking the praying of Ramadan to ask forgiveness for your sins.  All during Ramadan you will see people of all ages asking everyone for forgiveness.  For all sorts of things, from the checker in the supermarket and the one time you thought badly of them for being slow to your mom from yelling at her that one time eight months ago.  To ask for forgiveness the younger person (or the person asking forgiveness) brings their forehead to the elder's right hand and asks 'ampun' (forgiveness).  It is the elders job to forgive them for whatever they may have done (even though they rarely say what it is they are asking for forgiveness for).  They say that after Hari Raya everyone feels free of sins and is open to a fresh start.

Another big part of Hari Raya is the visits.  Everyone goes to all of their friends house to visit during Raya.  And of course, food plays a big part of the visits.  It always beings with tea and (lots of) small cookies, and then the family almost always brings out food, and LOTS of it.  I mean a TON.  One house I went to brought us 6 kinds of cookies and 6 plates of food.  It was more food than I have for dinner back in the US.  And on a normal Raya day we would visit 3-5 houses on one day, so we were quite stuffed with food.  It didn't take me long to learn not to fill myself up at each house.  During the visit the house owners will give all the guests that aren't married an envelope filled with month - anywhere from 1 RM to 60 RM ($.30 to $20.00).  So far I have about 200 RM.

One special food eaten a lot during Hari Raya is the ketupat.  A ketupat is a 3D square made a bamboo that is filled with rice.  I actually learned how to weave the ketupat myself, which is more than the rest of my host family can say :P  The ketupat itself has no special taste, it is only rice that is extremely dense, but it is often eaten with peanut sauce.  It represents Hari Raya, and ketupat are found all over the streets and restaurants.

Gift basket for Hari Raya - full of food

Ketupat - Original (made by yours truly)

Ketupat - Modern (and much easier)

Little cookies

Money and the envelopes it comes it

Half of the family the first day of Raya

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Disorder, Paleness, and BUGS

It is currently school vacation due to the end of Ramadan, so I have a lot more time to write.  Especially about the little things, which after all, are the interesting things that make the country unique!  (Quick note: We are currently redoing our house and we are ALMOST done, so when we finish in a couple days I will put up a video tour of my house!)

1. Malaysia's disorder
I have mentioned this before, but I think it is time to talk about it in more detail, I believe there is no pattern or consistency to anything in Malaysia, what-so-ever.  This makes it extremely difficult to adjust to the rules or Malaysians life style.  Here are some examples:
1. School.  Sometime school starts on time, sometime it doesn't.  Sometimes it ends at 12.10, sometimes at 2.40.  The class schedule is constantly changing, and the classes almost never start or end on time, and there are times when the class on the schedule isn't actually the one we are going to attend.
2. House decor.  A house is almost never painted the same color all the way around.  For example, the front of my house is tan and the back is lime green.  This pattern continues on the inside of the house, carpet/tiles will randomly stop in the middle of the room and a completely different carpet/tile will start.  Or there will be a blue wall, and a random red blotch in the middle.  My theory is that when a family has to remodel or fix a part of the house, they don't make an effort to make the new addition the same as the original.  It gives most houses and very interesting look.
3. Telephone numbers.  There does not appear to be a constant number of digits in both cell phone and land line numbers.  Nor are there specific area codes.
4. Plans.  This one is the hardest ad most confusing to me.  If someone tells you they are going to do something, there is about a 15% chance that it is actually what you are going to do.  For example, my mom will tell me on Thursday that we are going to KL on Sunday to eat dinner.  Then on Friday my sister will ask me if I am excited to go to shopping in KL tomorrow.  Then on Saturday morning I will ask when we are leaving and my sister will say 4.  Then at 1.30 my mom comes rushing in telling us that we are leaving in ten minutes.  Then I find out, after we get there, that we are actually going to another city where my mom's family lives to help with a wedding.  And we never end up going anywhere on Sunday.  This is typical in Malaysia, and so I stopped trying to keep up long ago.  It is also extremely common for big plans to be made at the last minute, and we have 20 minutes to prepare for an all day shopping in KL, or an overnight trip.
5. Rules.  This is also a hard one, because following family rules is very important in Malaysia.  My family will say that it is my host sister's turn to do the dishes, but then will approach me a few hours later and ask me why I didn't do the dishes.  Or they will tell me I must wash my laundry every 2 days, but they only wash their clothes once a week.  So I never know what it is that I am supposed to be doing.

The disorder can frustrating at times, but it always keeps things interesting.

2. Paleness....or lack of.
In Malaysia a lot of teenage girls do all that they can to become whiter.  They use all these facial creams and special soaps to make themselves appear more pale.  I even know a couple girls that put baby powder on their face when they leave the house.  And I have to admit it works-they do look whiter.  Well, their faces anyway.  This concept always makes me laugh because I think back to how hard the girls in the US work to become tanner.  From tanning beds to spray on tan to make-up.  It seems to me that no matter where you go, people always think the grass in greener on the other side.  I wish girls would stop using dangerous chemicals and giving themselves cancer in tanning beds and learn to accept what they have and feel beautiful in their own skin. :)

3. BUGS.  I HATE the bugs in Malaysia.
I knew that Malaysia was a tropical country and that there were going to be a lot of big bugs, but I didn't prepare myself for the amount of little bugs.  There are ants, little tiny ants (only about 2mm) everywhere, all the time.  If you leave food on the table, you only have two minutes until it is crawling with bugs.  I walked in my room the other day and there was a trail from one end to the other of hundreds of ants. HUNDREDS.  Even on the wall you can see a trail of ants.  Laying in bed reading you will find them all over the sheets, on your arms, hands, on the book, everywhere.  To top it off, the ants can bite you and leave itchy blotches all over you.  In addition to the ants there are of course big bugs, but they are much less common.  There are (2 inch) cockroaches in the house sometimes, and I am grateful for the cats that like to catch them.  There are also really big flying bugs that come out at night, and when you see them in the street lights you can't tell if they are the birds on insects.  Lastly, there are huge moths that come out at night, at reach from 3 to 6 inches long.  I don't mind these, but I know some people that would hate them. (mom) :)

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Fun in KL

As I have said before, my host family is very tightly knit, so when I get to hang out with my friends it is a treat!  Last weekend all of the YES (aka American) exchange students got to hang out KL (Kuala Lumpur) with YES returnees (Malaysians who have stayed in the USA).  It was a lot of fun, we got to hang out for awhile and compare our experiences, go to a traditional Malaysian restaurant, go shopping at KLCC and see Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows pt 2 in theatres!  It was so much fun to be crazy and loud around my friends, share hugs, and be sarcastic.  The reason this is so refreshing is because in general Malays are very quite, serious, don't hug, and hate sarcasm.  It is very hard for us (well me, at least) to act like this for very long, so when we can be ourselves it is a huge relief.  I am used to a very active and 'loud' life style, so being trapped at home without activity for weeks at a time makes me go insane! 

We got to go shopping at KLCC, which is a real treat.  KLCC is actually located in the Petronas towers (one of the 5 tallest buildings in the world), and has a HUGE shopping mall.  The shopping is unlike anything I have ever experienced before, and I can easily see why people come from all over the world to go shopping here.  Each mall has at least 5 floors, a several book stores, hundreds of  clothing stores, a theatre (or two), a bowling alley, multiple music and gaming stores, cooking stores, dozens of restaurants and sometimes even an ice skating rink.  One could easily spend ALL day in one of the malls and still only cover a few of the floors. 

The Petronas towers with the KLCC mall

Skating rink in the mall
 Outside of the YES students, I am getting along really well with the other exchange student in out state, Facundino.  He is from Argentina and has been in Malaysia since January.  It is extremely interesting to hear about his experiences so far, and I can practice my Spanish with him.  His host family owns a restaurant, and my parents are good friends with his parents, so we go to his restaurant a couple of times a week.  That way we get good company and delicious food.

Dinner including blue rice and fish chips

Red chili chicken with rice, delicious but SPICY