Saturday, September 10, 2016

Openseam - "Teacher, are you Chinese or Malay?"

This article was first published on Openseam.

Happy Teachers' Day!

Today's post comes from Aliya Yeoh, an English teacher in Penang, Malaysia. She previously wrote about how she celebrated Chinese New Year. A Chinese Muslim, she reverted at the age of 35, after postponing her earlier plan to do so for 10 years. You can read more of her experiences and thoughts in her blog, Musings of a Mualaf.

"Teacher, do you understand Tamil?" asked Revathi.

I was with a small group of Indian students, on relief duty for an absent teacher.

"No, I don't understand Tamil," I smiled. I knew they just wanted reassurance that I would not eavesdrop on their conversation.

"Would you understand if I speak Chinese?" I asked. Revathi's turn to smile.

"Teacher, you can speak Chinese?" 

"Teacher is Chinese la," Ramanan answered for me.

"Really? I thought you're a Malay."

"I am a Chinese," my smile grew wider. She looked puzzled.

"But... you are wearing tudung?"

"I am a Chinese Muslim... born in Malaysia. I grew up as a Chinese and later..."

"You converted?" Shanti chipped in.

"That's right. I wear the tudung because I am a Muslim woman. But I am still a Chinese and I can speak and understand Chinese." I explained slowly.

"Ohhh..." Revathi nodded slowly.

I've been in this school since 2010. I taught these same students two years ago and strangely, they have not realised that I am a Chinese lady. The reason? I am wearing a hijab, or tudung.

Students, like most Malaysians, associate this garb with Islam and being Malay. In many minds, if you wear a tudung, then you must be a Malay.

And in their minds, if you happen to wear a long tudung, then you must be an especially religious Malay. They associate our clothing with religion.

It's bad enough that Muslim and non-Muslim students are always separated during religious activities. It would be havoc among other non-Muslim teachers if a non-Muslim student were to sit in the hall with other Muslim students, listening to a ceramah (sermon) by an ustaz.

So I can't blame them for their lack of understanding of Islam. They don't know much because we, the Muslims, don't do much. Sometimes we, as adults, are not allowed to.
Students learn best when they mix with their own friends. Which is why our teenagers need to be exposed to doing Islamic dakwah work, and not be scolded nor discouraged just because they 'lack knowledge'.

I wouldn't be surprised if non-Muslim students think that China is made up of only Buddhist people. I used to think that way too, when in reality there are more Chinese Muslims in China than there are Malay Muslims in Malaysia.

Once, I was told, in hushed tones, that there was a Chinese student who was interested in Islam. The ustazah didn't know what to do. Till today, I'm still waiting for her to approach me.

It's always fun watching how Chinese students react when I speak Chinese dialects or Mandarin to them. One day when I scolded a sleepy Chinese lad in Hokkien, his mother tongue, and he was so surprised that he actually sat up straight.
And the Malay students?

They might suddenly realise that it's a fact that there are other Muslims in this country who are not Malay or Mamak.* That there are other once-kafir (non-Muslim) people who have embraced Islam and are now their brothers and sisters in Islam. Because I'm living and walking proof among them.

"So teacher, are you a Malay or a Chinese now?"

"I am a Chinese... and my religion is Islam. There are more than 60,000 Chinese Muslims in Malaysia today, did you know?"

Ahhh, life is never boring as a Chinese Muslim. Xie xie, wo ai ni,** Allah.

*Mamak: local slang to refer to people of Indian ethnicity.
** Mandarin for 'Thank you, I love you'.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

Mouthpainter shares story of love at first sight (Part 2)

This article was first published on AbleThrive. Read Part 1 here!


One evening when they were working late in the office of their organisation, the Bandung Independent Living Centre, Indonesian mouthpainter Faisal Rusdi finally confessed his feelings to his childhood crush, Cucu Saidah. He had been keeping his feelings for his colleague and soon-to-be-wife to himself for 24 years.

When asked to describe what he loves most about his wife, he said candidly, “I liked her thick eyebrows. She is beautiful, very intelligent and she loves me.”

A year after dating, they decided to marry. But first, they had to break the news to their parents. “My mother and my family were surprised, overwhelmed and happy,” said Faisal, who is based in Bandung, Indonesia.

However, Cucu’s parents did not like the idea of them being together. “They tried to keep us apart, to the point of keeping her at home,” said Faisal. “I think they considered me severely disabled and unable to take care of myself.”

Through one of her brothers, Faisal tried to communicate to her parents. “My uncle and my family approached her family to ask for her hand many times but we were refused.”

Increasingly stressed and frustrated, Cucu grew distant from Faisal, who struggled to accept the reality of his situation. “But her love for me became stronger, and for me as well. We kept trying, and praying and consulting with many people,” he said.

Eventually, they decided to solemnise the marriage through a legal procedure that overrides the bride’s need for a wali, or guardian – the closest male relative – since her father was against the marriage. Finally, the religious court granted them a wali hakim, or a judicial guardian.

“We still invited her parents and family to the wedding, but not one of them attended. Only my extended family and our friends,” said Faisal.

Faisal and Cucu in traditional wedding outfits from Padang, West Sumatra, enter the accessible reception hall on their power wheelchairs during their wedding in Bandung.

After the wedding, the couple continued to reach out to Cucu’s family and their efforts eventually paid off. “Eight months later on Idul Fitri [a celebration after the fasting month of Ramadan], her parents started to accept us slowly,” he said.

Faisal and Cucu were married on 30th November, 2008 in Bandung. As his parents were originally from Padang, the couple chose to follow West Sumatran customs and traditions for their wedding. Naturally, since both Faisal and Cucu are electric wheelchair users, the event hall and wedding dais were designed to be as accessible as possible.

The wedding was just the start of a relationship with unique challenges, which widens the common but narrow conception that the daily work of marriage only involves two parties. For example, Faisal hires a regular caregiver. “The role of assistants/caregivers who help me in my activities is extremely important, and I do not deny it,” he said.

“An assistant [knows] the technical and ethical aspects of accompanying a person with disabilities. He is a good friend who understands me well, and is part of my life. The presence of an assistant completes my independence.”

While the couple strongly promote a definition of independence from their perspective – that includes the presence of an assistant and not solely the ability “to manage oneself” – they still have to deal with society’s misconceptions of their relationship.

“[People think] that we are not able to manage a household, be physically and financially independent, or not able to have or raise children,” said Faisal.

As for their marriage goals, Faisal and Cucu look towards helping their broader community as well. “Both of us want to own or start an art restaurant or cafe where people can come to not just eat but communicate, educate and advocate about an inclusive community.”


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