Monday, May 26, 2014

End of Stay Camp

Selamat malam!

The last few days have been some of the most exciting, eventful, and memorable days of my time in Malaysia. They've also been some of the saddest and most evocative. Last Thursday, I set out for KL to attend the AFS Malaysia 2013-14 End of Stay Camp from May 22-25 along with the rest of the exchange students set to leave Malaysia in June or July. Most of these students are going to be returning to their home countries for the first time in nearly a year, and the rest have not seen their homes in almost six months. Although we have had many cultural activities and trips throughout the year, I had not seen a couple of my friends since the first orientation back in July 2013 due to the sheer distance between our locations in Malaysia.

After arriving in KL and the hotel at which our orientation was to be held, we discussed our feelings regarding the year and our experiences in Malaysia. In addition, we had many activities that helped us reflect on our year and prepare for our return to our home countries in a few weeks. I learned about the difficulties I would face when I returned home after eleven months in another country with a different set of cultures. Moreover, I came to see just how much I would miss Malaysia, the friends I have made here, and the manifold festivals and celebrations Malaysians participate in and enjoy so much. My favorite part of the reflection process was on the second day of the camp, when all of the students sat hand in hand in a candlelit room and listened to a general description of the course of our year while reflecting on our individual experiences and memories. Although it was a very poignant
experience, I truly appreciate the time given for all of us to meditate on our time in Malaysia, as we came to understand the magnitude of our year and the memories we had made.

The first two days of the camp were taken up by sessions of preparation, organization, and reflection and free time for the students to socialize. Saturday, the third day of the camp, was devoted to preparation for the annual End of Stay Dinner, which was later that night. We ran through the Bollywood-themed dinner and practiced the student performances earlier in the day to prepare ourselves for the real dinner at 7:30. To kick off the event, Dato' Mahadzir Lokman, the chairman of AFS Malaysia, gave a short speech and cut the commemorative cake for the occasion. Next came the actual dinner, which was accompanied by the student performances. Considering that several of our performances were planned during the camp, the practices were very helpful, as we managed to perform with relatively few errors during the actual dinner. From Indian, Chinese, and Malay dances to Malay and modern songs, the performances were lively and demonstrated all that we had learned and absorbed during the course of our stay in this culturally vivid country. Between performances, each of the exchange students and volunteers in Malaysia received a certificate recognizing his or her completion of the program. As I walked up to the stage to receive my certificate from Dato' Lokman, a sense of pride, happiness, and sadness filled me and made my night so much more special and unique. I experienced a feeling of accomplishment and fulfilment, as I was walking toward the culmination of my year spent celebrating Malaysian festivals such as Hari Raya, Chinese New Year, and Deepavali, eating tasty Malay, Chinese, and Indian dishes, and meeting and befriending so many wonderful people in an entirely new country and environment. I saw that I had learned so much from people in Malaysia about their cultures, religions, languages, and lifestyles while teaching them about the U.S., its various cultures, and my life as an American. The feeling I got in that moment was simply magnificent.

Cutting the AFS Malaysia cake

Walking up to the stage to collect my certificate

Perak Chapter!

Me with my certificate!

Even with all of the celebration and commemoration, the best part of the camp was certainly the times I spent with my friends. We spent most of our free time talking with each other and forming great memories. The last day of the camp was definitely bittersweet; apart from my American friends, with whom I will travel back to the U.S. in two weeks, I will probably not see the other exchange students again before I leave Malaysia. That notion led to many sad and emotional farewells and promises to meet up again in the future. I really do feel sad about saying goodbye, but I am so glad that I had the chance to create such good memories with all my friends and hope that we get the chance to catch up in person in the future.

Group picture!

Not only will I miss my friends; when I leave the country 14 days from now, I will miss Malaysia and its people so much. I cannot imagine the thought of bidding Malaysia farewell after 10 months in this beautiful country, but I am sure I will visit this land again and remember my days as an exchange student here. My ambivalent emotions about leaving Malaysia can be somewhat confusing at times, but I know that while I miss my family, friends, and life back home in the U.S., I have come to love those parts of my life here in Malaysia. Malaysia has served as a home, classroom, and paradise for me, and I can happily and confidently say that I will never forget this vivid country halfway across the world or the memories, friends, and family I have made here.











Terima kasih banyak, Malaysia!

Anirudh

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Wesak

Today is an extremely important day in the lives of Buddhists throughout the world, as it marks the celebration of Wesak. In Malaysia, the Buddhist festival of Wesak is commemorated grandly in many of the major cities in the country, including Ipoh. I'm hoping to attend a celebration later today, but as I already know a bit about the festival, I wanted to share the details regarding today and its significance in Buddhist culture and Malaysian society.

Just as Malaysia is an interesting mix of languages, beliefs, and cultures, so too are the major religions in Malaysia. A variety of thoughts, ideas, and beliefs from several religions often come together or make their way into an existent way of thought to form a colorful amalgam of a faith. The religion of many of the Malaysian Chinese is no different. Most Malaysians of Chinese descent adhere to either Christianity or a way of worship derived from a couple different religions, namely Buddhism, Taoism, Confucianism, and other traditional Chinese sects. The latter's mix of sundry religions can be clearly observed in Chinese temples, shrines, and households; one can notice a Buddha idol with a smile dancing across its face next to a bearded Taoist god garbed in vivid robes in each of these venues. The assortment of Malaysian Chinese festivals attests to the diversity of beliefs in Chinese religion as well; from Chinese New Year to the Mid-Autumn Festival, manifold gods and spirits are worshipped and revered in many different ways. Wesak, the celebration of Buddha's birth, enlightenment, and exit from the material world, is another festival celebrated in a unique but very intriguing way.

A giant reclining Buddha statue at a famous temple in Penang

In the early morning of Wesak, Buddhist devotees congregate at temples and shrines to meditate on the Eight Precepts, which are the eight additional precepts to the five fundamental ones. These extra eight are meant for devotees who wish to follow and practice Buddhism more strictly and simply encourage followers to not take life, steal, or indulge themselves. After meditation, food and small amounts of money are handed out to the poor by devotees, who proceed to take part in the prayer session by reciting important verses or mantras. Finally, and most notably, religious processions commence throughout the country. These processions make use of candles and modern light sources to spiritually ward off darkness and ignorance and bring about light and enlightenment. Large and brightly lit statues of Buddha reclining or smiling happily are the greatest spectacles of the event, which can last for much of the day after prayers. The parades are definitely the centerpiece of Malaysian Wesak celebrations, as both Buddhists and members of other religions look forward to and partake in this part of the ceremony.

A statue of Buddha pulled around the city (Image found here)

I haven't had the chance to see a Wesak celebration yet, but I'm hoping that I will experience one later in the day. I also cannot wait to hear my friends explain their Wesak celebrations and the importance the festival has in their lives, regardless of whether they are Buddhist or not. Wesak is certainly the most important festival to Buddhists in Malaysia, but I am inspired by the amount of interest individuals here have in festivals of different religions and the happiness they get out of experiencing such celebrations. Throughout the year, for each Malaysian festival I have experienced, whether it celebrates the principles of Islam, Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Sikhism, Christianity, or any other religion, people of other faiths have invariably been tolerant and eager to participate in the festivities. I am sure that celebration of Wesak will be no different.

Anirudh