Letter from Malaysia
By Nurhidayati Abd Aziz
“I grew up in a religious family,” Jacqueline began our conversation as we drove into Kuala Lumpur city. It was our first time meeting each other.
A month before, Jacqueline had said, “I think we’re going to have a lot to talk with each other,” commenting on the post that I wrote in the same group that we belong to.
We exchanged a few more words when I found out Jacqueline is from South Africa, noting the coincidence of my work assignment that will take me there every year. Before long, I found out that Jacqueline is en route to Asia from Cape Town as part of ticking off her bucket lists to celebrate her birthdays in every continent before 30 and we arranged to meet in Kuala Lumpur.
“So, I read about what you wrote on your experiences and I saw so many similarities between us. Tell me more about it,” Jacqueline said as we got into the car.
I told her my story and she let out a satisfying sigh. “I know exactly where you’re coming from!”
“I grew up in a religious family,” Jacqueline explained when I asked her.
“I went to the United States when I was 18. I had wanted to be a musician originally and I applied for a scholarship to study music. But I found out in the US you would have to not only know how to sing but also how to dance to have the best chance at getting the fund.”
Jacqueline ended up starting university with a biochemistry major before changing a year later to history.
As she was going through university and her time in the United States, Jacqueline began to recognise a growing cognitive dissonance when it comes to her conviction in her belief.
“By the time I turn 28, I said to myself, I need to do something about this or else.”
I asked Jacqueline if she received any formal education in her religion.
“Mostly my experience comes from my parents. Our belief system is very community-based. Apart from going to church, Sundays are also about spending time with the family. Then we have activities with other youths or members of our community every other day on weekdays.”
Jacqueline said she talked a lot with her mother about her growing disenchantment with the religion and the continuous conversation helped abate the tension when she finally decided to take a break from it.
According to Jacqueline, her parents were instrumental in explaining the situation to their community.
“When people asked, my mom just said that Jacqueline is still a good girl as we know her, she’s just making her own choices at the moment.”
“I suppose in that sense I’m lucky.”
“How did you talk about changing with your friends?” I asked her as we spoke about dealing with explaining to friends about her change of heart and belief.
“When I made the decision to no longer have religion affiliation, or practice the religion of my family, I had just left the US after living there for 9 years, so I didn’t really have to face or try to explain to my friends or social circles about my choice as I wasn’t living there, and they wouldn’t know I no longer went to church. So it was easier in that way.
“And the friends I did share and speak candidly with were glad I came forward, saying that they themselves thought it’s just them having these thoughts and experiences. While others were not so ready to accept, thinking that my decision to break away from the religion had something to do with their own conviction in it.”
Two days later, we arranged to meet again as I planned to take Jacqueline hiking to one of the urban forests near the city. Our plan, however, fell through as we found out that the canopy bridge was closed due to the fasting month. We took a short hike instead and continued our conversation.
Jacqueline told me about her passion in learning psychology, and how it ties up to her understanding about how human beings relate to religion, spirituality and God.
We also spoke about the transformation of our career and how we ended up choosing our paths from university by listening to our gut instincts. Both of us were from a science background, and we are now doing marketing and communication to promote companies we work with.
Similarly, when it comes to our passion (writing for me and music for her), both of us took the approach of self-learning instead of going through the formal education pathway.
We concluded our day by sharing plates of local meals in the Central Market. I remarked to Jacqueline how surreal it is to be sitting with someone who I would have never crossed path had it not been for the personal finance and self-development guru based in the United States who we both subscribe to and yet we share so many similar sentiments and experience.
This is what I’m beginning to see in my journey as I continue to go deeper in conversations with people to understand my own path of relating to God and the universe – that your family and friends are not limited by blood, by nationality, by race, by religion or by culture. More importantly, your family and friends are those who recognise and acknowledge you as your own person and they strive to demand that you become your best and most honest self.
We parted promising to meet again, perhaps next year when I am due to be in Zambia for work just as I am turning 30. Who knows?
This is the author’s fourth article in her series on “Growing Up in Religious Asia.”