Letter from Malaysia
By Nurhidayati Abd Aziz
We were sitting on the banks of Tahan River, at the outset of the National Parks when the morning breeze caught my breath and I sneezed.
“God bless you!”
The voice came from my right side. I turned and I saw a Chinese girl with cropped hair smiling brightly to me.
I froze. “Your god, or my god?”
As an introvert, I scampered inside, not knowing how to respond – but on reflex, I collected myself and returned her gesture with a quiet smile.
That kind outgoing girl was not Evelyn, the person I’m meeting today. However, she was standing a few metres away from where I was. All of us met nearly seven years ago when we participated in a university competition.
At 22, it was my first multi-cultural, multi-faith experience.
We hadn’t talked much then, but like many of our generation, we connected on Facebook and bonded over mutual interests in environment, religion and freedom of expression.
Over the years, that acquaintance turned into mutual respect for each other’s profession. Knowing her active participation in various social activism issues, together with her husband – I immediately knew as I thought about my project, she would be the first person I want to interview.
We can’t keep ignoring His words
We met for breakfast in one of the kopitiams near where we both live. We were formal when we first met. We haven’t seen each other in seven years, and had little to share when we met last time.
However, after a few minutes of talking, between sharing an interest in a similar industry (we both work for research and consultancy in environment) and mutual understanding about the issues surrounding our generation, we warmed up to our topic in no time.
As Evelyn’s husband, Andrew, joined us. I asked Evelyn if she has always been a Christian.
“Oh no. I was sixteen at the time.” Having been brought up in a Taoist/Buddhist family, Evelyn was drawn to Christianity after attending a Christian Youth Conference.
Going through what she described as one the most turbulent times of her life, Evelyn found the words of the Pastor at the church where she attended comforting.
“It was a big thing in my family” Evelyn smiled. In Chinese family, she explained, filial piety – respect to one’s parents, offering prayers to one’s ancestors – is emphasized and an integral part of a person’s make-up.
“My mom was terrified at first, she kept saying, who’s going to pray for me when I’m no longer here later?” she laughs as she recalls the conversation.
When asked whether she received any religious education from her family, Evelyn said as most Chinese, ritual practice of ancestor worship is considered religious practice.
“I went to a Buddhist organisation-run kindergarten”, she said. “My earliest recollection of religious education when I was young was bringing flowers every Tuesday and holding hands with my friends (to pray.)”
So, what attracted her to Christianity? I wondered. Evelyn shrugged her shoulders, “It just made sense”, she said.
“When he speaks, I felt like the Pastor was talking about my life. After a while, you can’t go on [in life] and keep ignoring His words, you know?”
What is the manner of my heart [in relation to others]?
“I didn’t really go to church until after university,” Evelyn said when I asked about her church-going experience. She was not allowed to go to church at the beginning, and before she could do anything she had to leave for Terengganu to start her degree.
After graduating with a Marine Biology degree, Evelyn worked in Penang. That was when she fully devoted her time to church services.
“I attended church services, I volunteered in the worship team. Other people go to church once a week on Sunday, I was at church three to four times.”
The funding for her position stopped after three years and Evelyn had to find a new job. She decided to move to Kuala Lumpur and only then she was able to take a step back and re-evaluate her practice.
“What is the manner of my heart? What is the real purpose I devote all these time to worship and to church?”
Nevertheless, Evelyn admits that churches are not without its fault.
“Tell her about the prosperity gospel,” Evelyn nudged her husband’s arm, smiling as she did so.
They proceeded to tell me about churches where a successful and wealthy life is preached as rewards for being faithful.
“It’s the kind of church where people go to lunch after services in places we normal people wouldn’t be able to afford,” Andrew said.
Recalling similar stories about mosques where the rich and the wealthy were served first, we nodded our heads in unison and agreed that it’s probably a universal affliction in all religions when wealth become a yardstick for piety.
At this point, I asked Evelyn what she thought of the Allah issue.
Evelyn’s answer was simple. “Really, politics should just get out of the way of religion”
“It may not have mattered to me as I am an English-speaking Christian. But what about other people who can’t read in English and have read the [Malay] bible for a long time?”
This time Evelyn’s husband, Andrew chimed in, “When do you think all of these start to happen?”
I asked him what he meant.
“We had [Muslims] friends who chose to drink from paper cups [instead of the cups in the kitchen] when they come to our house. They preferred to eat KFC instead of my wife’s cooking… and some of them wondered if the fruits we served were the same fruits we use to put on the altar of our gods.”
“I don’t recall our parents having such problems in their times,” he concluded in exasperation.
“But then, I have another friend who would eat anything I cook,” Evelyn said. “Of course, I made sure to buy the [halal] chicken from Tesco.”
A thinking mind is important
We mulled over the issue as we continued our breakfasts. We talked about how do we resolve these differences that continue to separate us no matter which way we turn.
“I have four friends who are in relationships with people from different religions, and they are stuck.”
Where does our choice starts and where does it ends? We wondered. Unfortunately we came no closer to our answer.
As we approached the end of our meeting, I asked Evelyn how important is religion in her day-to-day life.
“There are so much noises in our lives these days. For me, religion helps to make sense [of it].”
Would she be concerned about the religious choices of her own kids in future? I asked lightly.
“If anything, a thinking mind is important. We must take ownership of our own choices. Understand the meaning and implications of our actions.”
“Don’t follow blindly what has been taught to us,” Evelyn said.
Stressing the facts that she received her entire education locally, Evelyn said it doesn’t stop her from reading and learning to understand what is going on around her and all over the world.
“There are 360 degrees variable in our lives. We have to take conscious effort to recognise the triggers to get ourselves out of our comfort zones (and continue to improve ourselves).”
Editor’s Note: This is the second contribution by the author on her series on “Growing Up in Religious Asia.”