Disclaimer: for my non-Malaysian readers, there is a glossary of terms at the bottom of this posting.
“Qasih, makan makan?”
I’ve been stashed away for hours, meticulously tapping away on my laptop, day-dreaming, listening to music, and reading up on Canadian news. It’s a pretty standard Friday night, and for a moment reality escapes me. I’m finally drawn back down to earth by the sound of my Malay Auntie’s enduring voice, and the faint rumblings of my hungry stomach.
Closing my laptop, I head downstairs to the natural commotion a vibrant family of seven makes, and I pile into a vehicle that’s bound for a mamak. As everyone settles in, I take solace in the fact that I now make up the eighth member of the Lokman clan.
I’ve been living in Malaysia for about a month at this point, and I had been travelling for two. Moving from town to town, the aches and pains attributed to sleeping on dorm-room bunk-beds were starting to become more than a subtle nuisance.
After arriving in Kuala Lumpur, my best friend, Faris Lokman, and his family graciously took me in, not only ensuring that I was pleasantly fed, but treating me as one of their own as well. While in the process of searching for my own accommodations, I quickly fell in love with their eccentric personalities and found myself feeling more and more at home as the days passed.
Although I easily found my place within the Lokman family, there was certainly an air of confusion for anyone outside our little world. Walking around with my Malay family prompted stares and inquisitive glances from passer-byers, sitting down to a simple meal at a mamak would elicit awkward laughter from locals. Onlookers would nearly collapse as they watched me pile on the sambal, and dig into my tasty nasi lamak using my right hand.
Neighbours would casually stop by and ask, “Who’s that white girl?”
Faris found joy in telling everyone who would listen that I was the new maid, imported straight from Canada, but mostly I was referred to as “the newly adopted daughter.”
Thanks to my new-found family, I experienced Malay culture authentically. I ran errands with Uncle, I helped Auntie prepare dinner, and I swapped clothes with Faris’ sister. I lived the life of a Lokman, and aside from the constant attention we would receive, it was strikingly similar to my life in Canada.
By this time, the Christmas season was fast approaching and I was feeling rather homesick. There was no snow piling outside frosty windows, my friends and family were a million miles away, and I was desperately craving an eggnog and rum. Certain Canadian comforts were out of my control, but with the help of a good friend, we brought a bit of Christmas cheer to the Lokman residents. I was in the middle of baking Nanaimo bars and belting out a Bing Crosby classic, when a posse of Malay aunties crowded around the kitchen counter.
Formal introductions were made, as I tried not to burn the chocolate, while simultaneously frying onions for a pasta dish that I had naively promised to make. I was moving about the kitchen at lightning speed, sweating not from the heat, but from the obvious fact that I was being sized-up.
In between the cackles of laughter and the boats of listening to five cheeky Aunties speaking quickly in Malay Bahasa, I would hear my name thrown into the mix. I began sweating profusely, coming to the realization that my cooking skills were literally on trial by arguably the toughest critics I have ever come across.
I’ve reported on wildfires blazing across British Columbia, but the heat and intensity I felt as I extended a shaking hand, gripped tightly around a fork full of pasta, to a skeptical Auntie was a thousand times more nerve-wracking.
“It needs more salt,” she said, as her lip curled up ever so slightly, into what? Is that a smile?
Whatever it was, I’ll take it as a win. Gold-star standard in my eyes.
As I wiped sweat from my forehead, I thought, “well, I can’t have a white Christmas, but if I can get through this moment I’ll certainly have a story to tell.”
Hilarious “Family Matters” moments aside, one of my most fond memories of living with the Lokmans has to be relaxing in front of the TV and indulging in a great line-up of Malay dramas and Bollywood classics. Bring on the Asian style jazz hands!
Fueled by our mutual obsession for uninterrupted, melodramatic soaps, Auntie and I would sit down religiously to watch an episode of Malaysia’s finest programming, namely shows such as Biar Aku Jadi Penunggu. Enjoying a cup of coffee and a few cookies, we’d place bets on whether or not Mia would give her ungrateful husband a second chance.
It was during our nightly rituals that I began to feel a comforting sense of belonging. I would think about all of the times my mom and I would stay up late watching Gilmore Girls, and I would feel at home. I felt at home with a family that I did not share DNA with, and I felt safe in a country that is entirely different than my own.
The Lokmans and I found humour in the abashed and bewildered looks we would get, not because the image of a relatively traditional Malay family with a clearly very western white woman was so contrasting, but because we so effortlessly enjoyed our time together.
We laughed, told stories, shared inside jokes, participated in playful banter, they even gave me my own nickname: Qasih, which is pronounced as “cas-ih,” and coincidently means love in Malay.
I may not share their skin colour or their religion, but through their generosity and their uncanny similarity to my own loud, kooky, but loveable family, we shared a wonderful bond that I’m sure will last a lifetime.
Malaysian Words You Need to Know
Makan Makan: essentially means to eat. Used in this context, it’s like, “Come on, we’re going for food.”
Mamak: a Malaysian style, 24/7 food court where everyone likes to meet, eat, and have tea. Mostly of the Tarik variety.
Uncle/Auntie: in most Asian cultures, it’s quite typical to refer to your elders as Auntie or Uncle.
Sambal: Delicious and spicy, this sauce is basically on everything in Malaysia.
Malay Bahasa: one of the most common languages spoken here in Malaysia.