Week 21: Sixteenth Day Funeral Prayers and Christmas

20-25 December

On Tuesday, I went to Ibe’s house for the making of tongyuan dumplings, which is a tradition for the Chinese winter solstice. When I looked at a thermometer, I could definitely tell winter was coming: 32 degrees! Oh, wait, that’s Celsius; the weather remained as usual, around 90 degrees F. 

We made the dumpling dough out of rice flour and water, and then added food coloring (the green came from pandan leaves we crushed, blue from some flowers that can be boiled to get natural dye). We rolled the dough to make the colors marbled and shaped the edible Play-doh into balls. Later, we boiled the balls so they became slippery and tapioca ball-like, and then ate them in a slightly sweet soup broth with ginger, pandan, and some other ingredients. 

I spent the night at Ibe’s and then on Wednesday,  Ibe and I took the train to Ipoh! We had some technical difficulties caused by a slow-moving clerk and a resulting three hour gap before the next available train, but with some clever strategizing, we took a train just one hour later. Our day in Ipoh was shorter than hoped, but it was nice! 

We went to a local raggae cafe/ backpackers’ room that is popular with foreigners. We had delicious smoothies and nachos(!)— a wonderful slightly unauthentic taste of  sort-of Mexican food. (For us Americans here, Mexican food is among the things we miss the most). 

We took the train home early in the evening. 

Ibe’s host father gave me a ride home on his motorbike, which was very exciting! Zipping (very fast) through the windy jungle roads was a little scary, but definitely worth the experience, and I loved it! 

This week, I went to my aerobics class, painted, and spent time with family, enjoying our last couple of weeks of “summer vacation” without school. 

Prayers before a meal while the whole family was here. Host uncle played the drum and cousins sang.
Learning to make capati
The pasar awam (public market) of Tapah

On Friday, we started preparing for the Sixteenth Day prayers that would be held that night and into the morning. Some host uncles, cousins, and I worked on making the backdrop for the shrine. After styrofoam was cut into desired shape, we used halved toothpicks to stick flowers into the backdrop. 

Later, people came over for the prayers, which began around 7 pm, when a priest (swami) came to our house and led funeral rites. The priest led the men in prayers and chanting, performing rituals and offerings. 

Every couple of hours, we had more prayers, with the second set at midnight.  In between, I played cards with cousins. At 3 am, all of the men went to the river to bathe, perform prayer rituals, and then shave. Women stayed home, bathed with oil in the hair, and cleaned the house. 

Most of the family did not sleep at all this night, but I slept for a couple of hours. 

When the men returned in the morning, we had more prayers. After that, the women began cooking for lunch. I enjoyed talking to my host aunts, and then we had a delicious banana leaf meal. 

Later, I played badminton outside with my host cousins, which was very fun! 

Someone from a Christian family that Amma knows arrived to take me to their house for Christmas, so I quickly packed up to go. I sat for their house watching Christmas movies for a while, and we went to 10 pm mass in the Tapah Catholic church. It was quite similar to American Catholic church I have experienced, though some of it was in Tamil. 

Christians make up about 9% of Malaysia’s population, and the weather is not exactly a winter wonderland, so Christian families don’t seem to have as many Christmas traditions here. Some signs in town gifted by ministers say “Selamat Hari Krismas dan Selamat Tahun Baru,” meaning Merry Christmas and Happy New Year, but there were few decorations, and no decorated pine trees (or palm trees!) in my town. In my area, the Christian population is mostly Indian, but there are also a number of Orang Asli people (indigenous peoples). I enjoyed hearing familiar Christmas songs at the end, and it was extremely nice to hear so much English, in which most of the sermon was given. 

At the family’s house, we lit firecrackers! For some Malaysians, it seems to be tradition to light firecrackers at any justifiable occasion (even though it isn’t technically legal). Aside from that fact, I got to light a couple of fireworks, which was pretty exciting! 

The next day was Christmas! I was a bit homesick and sad to be missing out on the Christmas traditions I love— finding gifts for people, wrapping them, exchanging them; seeing lights and train displays; finding a Christmas tree; decorating the house; listening to Christmas music every time we turn on the radio for a month; warming up by the fire and watching Christmas movies under a cozy blanket; and simply being in the cheerful wintery Christmas atmosphere. (The Christmas spirit doesn’t feel complete when it’s 90 degrees Fahrenheit.)

It was very nice staying with my temporary Christmas family, and they were very welcoming. Still, I felt rather sad at times and missed my US family. But once I got back to my full-time host family that evening and talked with my host cousins, aunts, and uncles I felt much happier. They had brought my plastic Christmas tree back out (we had to put it away for the sixteen days), and we took photos with the whole family. (I photoshopped my host aunt who had already gone back to India into the picture). I had candy canes my dad had sent from the US and decorated some Christmas socks my mom had sent, so those were a nice taste of the Christmas spirit. 

My Christmas tree

Talking and laughing with this family I love so much made me realize that even though my homesickness is valid, this year is such an incredible experience and is far more memorable than just another family Christmas dinner. We had a family sleepover and all spent the night downstairs on sleeping mats. I felt so happy, knowing this year and this wonderful family are such an incredible gift, and I felt like I need nothing more. 

Despite my realization about how wonderful this year is, the next morning I was very sad and missed home again, but with FaceTime to America, and hugs and reassurance from my host family, I felt better. 

My youngest host cousin gave me an amazingly sweet Christmas card that she had spent days working on, and I felt so loved. 

As everyone says, an exchange year is an emotional roller coaster. But looking back on everything, the awesome experiences and immense happiness I’ve felt far outweigh the challenges. 

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