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April 15, 2009

A Malay Wedding Part One

Tom McLaughlin

Seremban, Malaysia – Three months before the wedding-I had returned to Malaysia after a 35-year absence, a former Peace Corps Volunteer. A couple of phone calls put me in touch with my kampung folks and a joyful reunion ensued.


They deservedly remarked about my weight gain, a massive 25 kilos over the years. My hair had completed its premature white evolution, and they discussed my metamorphoses into a non-smoker and drinker. My Malay language, rusty and broken, at least communicated the basics.


My peers had married, produced children and most had grandchildren. Introduced to the immediate next two generations in a flurry and unable to remember who belonged to whom, I realized it didn’t really matter.


Anuar, a child about six or seven then, took me under his wing and informed me that I had to participate in the wedding preparations. We sat in a rough circle on the floor, as is the custom, my legs cast to one side. Anuar told me I sat like a girl and that I had to fold my legs in front of me like a man.


I had not parked like that in years. I took each leg and struggled to tuck in under and in front. My tummy bulged downward, the likes of a gut seen only by the heaviest of beer drinkers. Only I had quit imbibing about 20 years ago. Using my hands, I grabbed my shins and pulled them underneath. This unnatural position, for me, caused tendon distension and muscle cramping, to the point of eye watering pain.


Meanwhile the discussion ensued. The number of people attending would be about 1,000, Anuar said. They all let him have it and stated only about 600 would attend. Anuar turned out to be correct.


A matriarchal society in this part of Malaysia, (land passes through the women and they are decision makers) the ladies decided 65 chickens, half a cow, a pumpkin-type curry and many other delectables, would be served. My suggestion, a green vegetable, was declined because the heavy monsoon rains had destroyed the local crop, flooding and beating it into the ground.


I still hadn’t a clue who was getting married or how he was related to the family. Also, I had no intention of attending as I would have to fly back from Sarawak, my home, and it would be a hassle.


Anuar and the rest of the folks informed me differently. They told me to be present and the groom was especially insistent. Reluctantly, I made reservations for a flight and, as luck with have it, I was able to book reservations, five days apart, both inbound and out bound. I was going to the wedding, although at that time, reluctantly.


Everybody was to wear traditional Malay dress called baju Melayu. A silence fell and the people looked at me. It was obvious I could not wear the Islamic songkok and being white, I would look foolish in traditional Malay dress. “What are we going to do with him?” I could imagine them thinking. The ladies decided I would wear a long sleeved batik shirt. This apparel, the formal wear of Malaysian society, replaces the tux, suit or coat and tie. And makes a lot more sense in this tropical climate.


For this marriage, the bride and groom proceeded to the mosque where they were married in front of the Imam and their families. Scripture from the Qur’an and prayers were recited. The first celebration took place in the Malay state of Pahang, at the bride’s house, about two hours driving distance from here. The groom then brings his bride to his family’s home where another huge reception is held. They then must move to the groom’s residence, away from the parent’s house.


I could not understand why they would want a person who they had not seen or been in contact with for the past 35 years. I had met them occasionally a couple of times during my trip last year, and we reignited out relationships; but I couldn’t fathom why I should attend the wedding of someone I didn’t even know.


Many times I am very thick in the head. This was not just a wedding, I realized later, but a huge family reunion. People from the kampung had scattered all over the world and this occasion brought people together. Since I was part of the clan many years ago, I was included, like the lost sheep who finally returned to the fold.


Life is good.


Next time: Wedding Preparations: The day before.


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