Monday, June 28, 2010

Duke Yearbook Picture

My mother scanned this picture from our Duke Yearbook and sent to me and my sister who's at the center.  This was taken in 1998 or 1999. Both my sister and I had travelled to Malaysia by this time. What's neat is that behind me in the background are two of our Malaysian friends. I've already contacted one since I've been here. Duke was a special time for me because it broadened my understanding of Islam in multiple ways, in the classroom but also through my interactions with Muslims from around the world.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

A Friend from Home

On our first full day in Kuala Lumpur, we hang out with other Americans. They are Balgees and Idris, an Arab Indonesian American and a second-generation Iraqi American couple. Balgees cooks us a traditional Indonesian dish as I write from my ipad in her living room.

Balgees, who moved to the United States when she was fifteen, remembers meeting me once in Virginia. But in KL we have become more than acquaintances as Balgees and Idris have become our family away from home. They have driven us to grocery stores, malls, and major tourist sites.  They play with Yahya and hold Lut as my mother, aunt, or sister would.

I laugh heartily as Balgees fascinates me with stories of her immersion in black culture while living on the South Side of Chicago and attending a majority-black university. It's as though we've been friends for a lifetime.

We both sigh with relief when we are welcomed by familiar scents and sights in the new malls that draw expats and tourists. We long for home. But when prayer comes in, we take advantage of Muslim space. Instead of stealthily praying in a dressing room as we would back home, we pray comfortably among our Malaysian Muslim sisters in the mall suraus, or prayer areas. The natives put on their traditional Malay prayer garments, submerging their fashionably covered bodies in a sea of modesty. But Balgees and I ignore the prayer garments set aside neatly in bags for surau worshippers. We are fine with praying in our everyday clothes.  

Friday, June 25, 2010

Asia for Dummies

We picked the right place, I discovered today at breakfast at The Coffee Bean. We met a Muslim expat family from the UK: Tanzeela, Shahid, and their two daughters. Tanzeela told me that they call Malaysia Asia for Dummies. If you’re living abroad in Asia for the first time, Malaysia is a nice introduction because you can find many of the amenities we are accustomed to back home.

It's also a place to get the flavor of Chinese and Indian culture, the two largest minority groups in Malaysia. I learned that the largest Chinese expat community resides here.

It wasn’t until my family and I arrived at the China Airline terminal at LAX that I truly realized that I was about to step into Asia. I’m used to confronting my minority status in certain locations in the US. (It may sound ironic to say "certain" since most locations in the US are majority white; but remember, I live in a black neighborhood in a majority-black city, I work at a black college for women, and I attend a black mosque).  But this was different. I wasn’t a black woman in a sea of white people, but a black woman in a sea of Asian people. And add my hijab to the mix. 

Just when I was about to put on my ‘People are looking at me because I am different’ hat, a Chinese woman (at least I think she was Chinese) came up to me to tell me in her broken English how adorable my 4 month old is. I was carrying him in my Mei Tai, a traditionally Asian-Style Baby Carrier, as a matter of fact. Lut was staring up at me cooing. The Asian woman was so amused by Lut, and she said with a hearty laugh, "Oooh he is trying to talk to you." She was extremely tickled. She kept saying it over again, laughing, "Oooh, baby is trying to talk to you."

So she warmed me up and I tried on a different hat, the “try not to make assumptions” hat, the one my husband always tries to get me to wear but I usually resist : “I’m an anthropologist. I have to make observations and draw conclusions.”

When we arrived in Taipei, it was very clear to us that we were no longer in the States, confused about where to go to make our connection and frustrated by the not so user friendly arrival and departure monitors. But we had to admit, we traveled with the privilege of English as our native tongue. Yahya, my two-year old, was beaming with a bright smile. He had no clue where we were or where we were going, simply happy to be out of the house and zooming through the airport via train. We finally made it to our terminal for Kuala Lumpur. Not only Malaysians were traveling to KL, but all of Asia was traveling there.

I am in Asia, it truly hit me. Starting to feel like the minority again, I am embarrassed as Yahya decides to put on a show, twirling and shouting in the middle of the terminal. Lut is screaming too, and what usually calms him down, breastfeeding, doesn’t work this time.  Many eyes are on us. A woman with a toddler plays with Yahya. An old man warmly tells Yahya, “Your brother is hungry.” 

Once arriving in KL, on the airport train again, Yahya became a celebrity among a group of young Asian tourists. They pulled out their cameras to take pictures of him and with him.  I talk to one sitting next to me. “Where from?” “Taiwan.” I try to tell her where I am from. “United States…America.” She shrugged her shoulders to say “I don’t know that place.” But when we all lined up to exchange our money at the closest bank, the young tourists pulled out USDs as did we.

KL, certainly a top tourist destination for Asia and the Gulf. I checked out the women from different places in diverse, stylish, beautiful outfits, travelers and flight crews. I sat in the immigration office as we waited to get my husband’s student visa approved. I thought of all the Muslim men and women immigrants in the US that I interviewed and their stories about arriving in the US.  I had a newfound empathy. A new chapter in my life begins.

Dr. Jamillah Karim's Blog

I am a professor of religious studies but an anthropologist at heart. This explains my blog title. I am fascinated by the way in which we understand and live Islam based on our different cultural locations. Sounds like a cultural anthropologist, right?

My blog begins with my experiences in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I arrived here a week ago. How did an African American Muslim girl from the ATL end up in Southeast Asia?! Well, that's one of the perks of being Muslim in the global era.