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August 21, 2013

A Loving Ritual at End of Fast

Tom McLaughlin

Kuching, Malaysian Borneo – The end of the fasting month was celebrated with great joy in Suriani’s (my Borneo wife) family this year. Preparations were under way weeks before the big day arrived.


Suriani and her sisters began by cleaning the house. First each piece of furniture was brought outside and scrubbed clean. New covers were purchased for the cushions, new runners for the coffee tables and small areas rugs for the floors.


The inside of the house was tackled next. The walls were painted a light brown with white trim. A new drop ceiling was installed in the dining/den/television room. A new sliding glass window was inserted to brighten the room.


Then the cooking began. For two days my wife and her sisters worked to prepare the feast from scratch. No mixes here. Spices were bought from the Indian store in town and some gathered from the plants outside. Curried beef was bubbled and stirred. Another beef dish, blackened beef (my best translation), was prepared by cutting the meat in small pieces and simmered in a mixture of soya sauce and spices. Tomato paste, chili paste and other spices were fried together and then the chicken was added to the sauce to cook for hours. Chicken and beef satay in a peanut sauce were the appetizers, while a fruit and a veggie (I forgot the name) were also added to the meal. Beef is a real treat as it is very expensive here.


Kampung fried chicken, which would put all of the southern United States chefs to shame, was prepared that morning with many of the fresh herbs and spices of the back garden and the Orient. Lemang, a mixture of gluttonous rice, coconut milk, a bit of salt and pandan leaves to give a unique flavor was poured into the center of a bamboo tube set against a fire to roast, lovingly turned every now and again.


The family members began to arrive in the early afternoon following morning prayers at the mosque. Suriani has 10 brothers and sisters, but not all could make it. But still there were about 15 adults, 18 children from a few months to about 12 and four teenagers. The ratio among my nieces and nephews is 25 boys to five girls.


I speak and understand the Malay language, but the dialect spoken by the kampung Malays here in Borneo is totally different. They would sit down next to me and politely chat for few minutes in their beautiful British English. We exchange pleasantries about my daughters, one in Montana, who owns a ranch, and my other daughter, who is working on her bachelor’s degree.


As more people arrived, I vowed I would make an effort to join in the conversation because I have really been trying to learn this dialect. I would listen for a few seconds, get what I thought was the gist, formulate my reply and then burst out with my opinion on the subject. By that time, the conversation had moved two or three topics later. They listened to me wondering what I was talking about, then realizing I was way behind the flow, nod in agreement, and then continue on. I meekly said I tried and they say it takes a long time to climb a mountain.


The meal was served at large table in shifts. People would casually sit down, enjoy their meal and then leave the table. The teens would then clear their place and somebody else would sit down. After a few hours, one could go back and sit down again. The food, served in bowls, was frequently refilled from the kitchen.


After the feasting, an emotional ceremony called Kita Mintak Maaf Dari Mak Bapak (we ask forgiveness from the parents) begins. The father and the mother sit down in two chairs. In order of birth, each child lowers to their knees, hold out both hands which are offered palms together which are received by the hands of the father.


They take their parents hands and put them to the face and ask for forgiveness. The hands of the children are then placed palm down on each knee with the face to the back of the hands. Private whispers between the two are shared. This is then followed by a hug.


After the children, all of the grandchildren perform the same ritual but in an abbreviated fashion. The children then continue their loud and boisterous behavior with their cousins. The adults chit-chat and somebody always walks around asking people to eat more food. And I walk around still trying to add my bits to the conversations.


I participated in the apology ritual getting everything confused and ended up giving the parents a great big hug. They whispered “I love you” to me, a jolting surprise because they speak very little English. I watered profusely.


…Life is good. . . . .


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