Sunday, May 22, 2011

Top 10 Things I Will Miss about KL, Malaysia

Chinese New Year Decorations

10. Living in one of the wealthiest zip codes in the city. 

My first weeks here in Malaysia, my thoughts often turned to the criticisms made about immigrants to the U.S. Some of the remarks of African American Muslims whom I interviewed for my book were quite intense like this one: “Immigrants have come here and have reaped the benefits to the point that it has killed their Islam.  You come here for materialism, but you forget that you are Muslim, and you forget your responsibility to establish Allah’s din [Islam]. The immigrants should be putting forth more of an effort to utilize their resources towards the upliftment of the African American community.”

The African American community should be a priority because, according to this African American imam, “the most prominent spots to establish Allah’s din are those places where injustices and poverty exist.”

Our Condo Pool
My sentiments never exactly matched those of this outspoken imam; however, I admired those immigrant Muslims who did choose to live in African American neighborhoods or deliberately chose to connect with black people. And I continue to admire such people whom I highlight in my book, but now having been an immigrant in Malaysia, I better appreciate the struggles and choices of the average immigrant whose first priority is not to establish Islam or to fight against a certain injustice but to adjust to their new society and certainly do well financially. Why would they leave their home except to establish for their family their vision of a good, quality life?

I could never afford to live in an affluent neighborhood back home like the one I lived in here in KL, but the cost of living is cheaper here, and if you have a US salary or US savings, you can live among the rich. Given my fears of the things that come with low quality housing and the fear of the unknown about Malaysian living, I jumped at the chance to live in Mont Kiara, an expat area.

Chinese New Year
9. The lovely holiday decorations adorning the city for 7 months straight: Eid, Deepavali, Christmas, Chinese New Year.

8. Paying very little for health care. Without insurance, seeing a doctor only costs $6. And when it turned out that nothing was really wrong, they often let me go without a charge.  

The down side to this is that doctors prescribe way too many drugs here. However, I’ve never been one to follow the doctor’s orders. 

7. Muslims and non-Muslims share purity rituals: Everyone takes their shoes off when entering a home and bathrooms come with water hoses.

6. The lush landscape: the gardens, palm trees, fruits and flowers hanging low. Oooh, sounds like Paradise.

This photo was actually taken in Thailand, but I saw my first mango tree ever in Malaysia.
5. The popularity of rice, rice flour, and Australian wheat-free products makes it the best place to be for a gluten-free diet.

I came across other neat Australian products like goat-based infant formula, something I never found in the US but could be quite useful for babies allergic to cow's milk.

4. Prayer rooms at the mall and everywhere. Also, wudu stations in these prayer areas. 

No worrying about what people think when they see me washing my feet in a public bathroom. No praying in fitting rooms or other obscure places out of public view.

Dragon Fruit
3. Exotic, sweet fruits and fruit juices: Malaysian, Thai and Indian mangoes, dragon fruit, mangosteen, unordinarily sweet papaya and pineapple, watermelon juice, longan, and more.

2. Halal meat everywhere! 

1. Befriending people from all over the world.  

In high school, I memorized Margaret Walker’s poem "For My People," and recited it before public audiences. I love this poem. I occasionally recite it to my children with the same conviction and heart that I did almost twenty years ago.

Raising two African American boys in Atlanta, GA, I will continue to have a special regard for and sense of accountability to the struggles of black people in America but now I truly understand what it means to say that all of humanity are my people.

Yahya’s Malaysian "grandmother" is a sweet, generous Chinese woman who brought Yahya special treats. I had no association with Chinese and Japanese in the US.  Islam does not ordinarily connect me with them as it links me to Indians and other Asians with large Muslim populations in the U.S. 

In KL, however, they were my neighbors, the ones who smiled and greeted me and my boys on the elevator, at the playground and community center, at the food truck, and on the shuttle to the shopping plaza. They are now among my dearest friends.

I am forever grateful and truly transformed by my Malaysia experience. I now look forward to the next chapter.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Stay-at-Home Moms, Beauty Making, and More

There are no mommy wars here. In the expat community in Malaysia, all of the moms are stay-at-home (SAHM). The exceptions include those in business for themselves, but even they are not beholden to a 9 to 5.

Residence in KL gave me an opportunity to further test the waters as a stay-at-home mom. But place matters in the experience. The unique feature of my SAHM experience in KL is that I have connected with women from all over the world, literally.

Yahya's young ears have already had close encounters with several world languages--Spanish, Portuguese, Arabic, Mandarin, Bahasa Malaysia, Bahasa Indonesia, Hindi/Urdu, French, Farsi, Japanese, Russian--as he plays with children whose mothers converse with me in English, interrupting to remind or guide their children in their mother tongue.  

Connecting with other SAHMs, I've also discovered one of the more glorious aspects of staying at home: cultivating one's more artistic passions and talents. Two women especially brought this home for me at the same time that their friendships have helped me move beyond the boundaries of race that color my past.

The first is KJ. She represents the way in which I have connected with women from the United States whom I ordinarily would not have in the United States.

Yes, KJ is white. We met through our husbands who have both worked in the Islamic finance sector. Our last play date, I had the opportunity to visit KJ's home.    

Her condo reminded me of one of my favorite translations of the Arabic and Qur'anic word "muhsin," or "beauty maker" as rendered by Shaykh Hamza Yusuf. The muhsinun are those of beautiful character and action. Shaykh Hamza's commentary inspired me to think of the muhsinun as those who make and create beauty in every manner. It inspired me to put extra effort in adorning my home, then in Chicago. 

"Malaysian Tea Party" - Representing main three ethnic groups there: Malay, Chinese, Indian 
KJ is an artist, an illustrator of children's books. The art that she selected or crafted for her walls demonstrated her aesthetic appreciation. The impressive collection of children books, what I found at the heart of her son's play room, demonstrated her grasp that the cultivation of beauty should begin at the earliest. 

I left KJ's home inspired again to be a beauty maker. I also thought how wonderful it was that she was blessed with the time and space to blossom as an artist. Something that she could not commit to if she worked a regular 9 to 5.

As I open myself to new possibilities, reflected in my newfound friendship with KJ, I admit that I am still easily drawn to the familiar, that is, black women.

But again, in this far land, that which seems familiar isn't at all. Here's where Anjelia enters. I first encounter her walking across the street from my condo. She is tall, coffee-complexioned, poised, and wears a natural afro puff that sits on her head as if to mark a queen. She is the only woman in Malaysia wearing this crown. 

We are both delighted to encounter the other. Strength and warmth together color her voice. She introduces her daughter, almond-complexioned, long, curly hair. 

Anjelia is from Brazil. She is married to a white man from Argentina. Her struggle with English is the earliest indication that we are black women from different worlds. I admire her ability to be different in this place. Perhaps she is my reflection.

The day I visited her home, it wasn't planned. "Come," she said, as we met on an afternoon stroll. The lobby of her condo was one of the finest, most tranquil on our block.

Pillows out of their jackets lie on her sofas wide enough to hosts several guests. She asked me to excuse the place as she quickly put cases on the pillows. They were the colors of the Brazilian flag. "I made them myself." My admiration for this woman grew.

When she showed me family photos, primarily of her white family, I couldn't get past the picture of her locking arms with her four sisters-in-law. This shows how far removed I am from black-white interracial couples in the United States, or black-white interracial friendships for that matter.

Blacks and whites are not separated in the same way as in the US, Anjelia tried explaining to me in her earnest English. While racism has its mark on Brazilian society, striking features of Brazil are the number of interracial marriages and the normalcy of its category mixed race.

Reared in a society in which black women are the least likely of any group, including black men, to marry interracially, I wondered what it would be like to see the world through Anjelia's eyes, racial lines blurred a degree, or several degrees, more than through my eyes.

Sipping on tea in Anjelia's living room, I noticed lovely paintings of a beach sunset and a flower garden. When I complimented them, she responded, "They are mine," in a manner both humble and proud at once. 

"You painted them?"

"In Chile, I met with a woman who taught me."

Later in her kitchen as I snacked on a buffet of papaya, avocado, and pistachios, she told me again, "Come." I followed her to the room across from the wet kitchen, most likely designed for the live-in maid. Anjelia had reinvented it as her sewing room, a large table covered with fabrics and other supplies fit snugly in the room.  Magazine pages of models on runways, black and white, splashed the walls.

"I made this handbag just yesterday." Totally impressed, I grabbed the bag to take a closer look. "How did you learn to make this?" She just smiled. She showed me more bags, the unconventional styles and fabrics gave away that they were customized.

"I love the handbags of the Japanese women. I want one so I made it myself."

I've also looked twice at the chic fashions of the Japanese women who dominate my condo, like the one in the photo at the top of this post.

As a stay-at-home mom in KL, I've also found some time to reconnect with my passion, and that is writing the stories of American Muslims. In the case of this blog, it has been my story, but I've also rediscovered my long-time desire to write about the beginnings of Islam in America for many, and it took a woman from a very different background to help me realize that it is something I must do.

In the last two months I've begun substantial work writing a book on the Nation of Islam. In graduate school, several of my term papers related to some aspect of the Nation of Islam, but my dissertation topic took me in a different direction.

However, almost all of the talks I give on the topic of Muslim women include an account of my mother's journey to Islam via the Nation, as does one of my publications, "Through Sunni Women's Eyes."

On my way to KL last summer, I received an email from a scholar in the UK inviting me to write a book with her on the Nation, and here I am on the other side of the world doing it. Google docs has made it all possible.

Twelve years ago as a young graduate student, if you told me that I'd be writing a book on the Nation with an Irish, non-Muslim woman, I would not have believed you. Back then, I was just starting to realize that black people were not the only ones writing about the Nation, and certainly not the only ones fascinated by it.

Everything comes full circle. I never imagined that all the way in Malaysia I'd return to my roots while connecting with others beyond my roots in such vast ways. What a treasure!  I am reminded of the Alchemist.