In the two weeks that my three children and I recently stayed in Lanzhou (hometown of my late Chinese wife), my four-year-old daughter took bath only twice - on the day we arrived, and on the morning before we left. That, for most people in China, is quite normal. Not so for people here in Malaysia. We take a bath at least twice a day. Hence, to not do so for more than a week is quite unthinkable.
I've been to 12 foreign countries so far. Not that many really, but in most of these visits, I stayed together with the locals; stayed in their homes, ate their food and followed their routines. Two weeks in Islamabad, I wore salwar kameez and ate chapati almost everyday. 15 months in Finland, I ate boiled potatoes every day and ate rice only once or twice a week. Wherever I was, as much as possible, I've tried to follow the culture of my host.
I can't say however that I was successful all the time. When I visited Lanzhou the first time, a week after Aishah and I were married, my late father-in-law (may Allah bless his soul) asked me what I would like to eat. I told him I will eat whatever he eats. Having noodles and green tea everyday was not a problem, but try as I did, there were a few things my stomach just could not take.
For example, what my father-in-law often had for breakfast was a bowl of tea, a special kind of tea which when added with milk, it turns pink. He would then add some salt and put small pieces of bread into it. The pink tea therefore is like a soup and he would drink the whole bowl clean. I tried doing the same a few times but was never able to finish the whole bowl.
Beyond food, certain things can be quite challenging, I certainly needed some getting-used-to using toilet paper in many countries, and till today I only use public toilets in China if I really, really have to.
But when it comes to observing my duties as a Muslim, performing my daily prayers and all, I've learned and managed to adjust. For example, it's not easy to find a surau or a musolla in many Western countries. But as the Prophet (peace be upon him) once said, the whole earth is a masjid. A prayer or solat can be performed anywhere where the ground is clean. And I have done so, in secluded corners of airports and train stations, in lecture halls, libraries and supermarkets, and once, in a guest room in a church.
When it comes to adjusting to variances in the practices among Muslims from different mazahib, I've managed that rather well too. For, if I had insisted being a Shafi'i while praying in a Hanafi congregation like in a Turkish masjid in Berlin or in masajid all over China, I would be causing others some unnecessary discomfort. Just imagine for example, if I insisted following the Shafi'i way reciting 'ameen' loudly; when others don't, right after the imam recited Surat Al-Fatihah ? I will only be disturbing others in their prayers.
Not everyone agrees though with such adjustments. To some, you should remain loyal to your cultural practices no matter where you are, and whether you do so or not depends on how you deal with your own social identity complexities.
Each one of us has multiple social identities. There are based on among others our religious, ethnic and national affiliations. In that order, I am for example a Muslim, a Malay, and a Malaysian. Each of these identities is important in different circumstances. But overall, when it comes to general principles in life, the guide is provided by a specific social identity that a person considers dearest and most important.
And to that, my thoughts are clear. I am, have been and will always be a Muslim first. Because of that, I've had no problem eating anything as long as it is halal. Because of that too, I have never compelled my wife (Allahyarham) and daughters to wear a telekung when they perform solat. I have never too, ingrained in the minds of my children that Malay food or Malay culture in general is superior to others.
I love Malay food, of course. I still believe gulai tempoyak ikan patin is the best dish in the world but as I once told an aunt in Lanzhou who asked me "which food is better, Chinese food or Malay food?"; I said, "in China, Chinese food is better, in Malaysia, Malay food is better." :)
A decade ago, when I received the scholarship offer to study in Joensuu, Finland, the first thing I inquired was whether there was a Muslim community in the town. It never crossed my mind to ask whether there were any Malaysians there. As it turned out, there weren't any Malaysians living there but I wasn't perturbed. The Muslim community of Joensuu, which comprised of about only 200 people, became my friends, and the 20 or so brothers who were regular attendees to the small local masjid became my family members.
Obviously, the common understanding amongst many Malay Muslims in Malaysia is that since a Malay is defined by the country's constitution as a Muslim, whether a person defines himself either a Malay or a Muslim first does not really matter. That, I respectfully disagree.
How we define ourselves has its implications not only on the way we conduct our personal lives, but also on our views and attitudes on cross-cultural relations and politics. And that is a thesis that I wish to discuss and explore more in my book insha Allah. :)
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