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Monday, March 06, 2006

MALAYSIA: The People and Customs

March 6/06
Two weeks from today we'll be landing in Kuala Lumpur after a very long flight from L.A. via Taipei (20 hrs. 40 mins with only a short stop at Taipei to change planes). Because of my interest in history, I've been reading up on the people and customs of Malaysia. What a fascinating country! One thing that intrigues me is the blending of the different cultures there and how the people live together harmoniously.

Historically, people have been meeting and mixing in Malaysia for more than 1500 years when the first traders of silk and gold came from China and India, arriving in the Bujang Valley. With the traders, Buddhism and Hindusim came to Malaysia. A thousand years later, Arab traders came to Malacca bringing the principles and practices of Islam. Later the Portugese, Dutch and British traders came.

The Malay are the largest ethnic group, accounting for over half the population and national language. Along with the oldest indigenous people, they form a group called bumiputer ("Sons" or "Princes of the soil." ) Almost all the Malays are Muslims. The traditional culture centres around the Kumpung (village) though now many Malays live in the cities.

The Chinese traded with Malaysia for centuries and began to settle there in the 19th century. They form about 35% of the population. Some began as miners or railway construction workers but today are regarded as Malaysia's buisnessmen. Most are Tao Buddhist and retain strong ties to their homeland.

The Indians have been visiting Malaysia for over 2,000 years but didn't settle in large numbers there until the 19th C. 10% of Malaysia is Indian. Their culture,with Hindu temples, cuisine and colourful garments is visible throughout the land.

The oldest inhabitants are the tribal peoples, making up 5% of the total population. They represent a majority in Sarawak and Sabah. They are known as Orang Asli (The Original People) and prefer to be catagorized in individual tribes (Kadazan). All of the Malay tribal people share a strong spiritual tie to the rain forest.

Malaysians enjoy meeting people from other countries and are known for their engaging charm and traditional hospitality.

There are certain formalities to observe, in particular greetings, but a friendly smile and polite nod of the head when being introduced is acceptable. The salam is the Muslim equivalent of a handshake (a young person clasps the hand of the elder) followed by the verbal greeting of "Assalamualaikum" ("Peace be upon you"). Physical contact beween opposite sexes isdiscouraged. After a salam, Malays touch the left side of the chest and then place their hand over the heart symbolising sincerity.

When dining, food is placed in the mouth with the fingers of the right hand. (the Left hand is taboos as it's used for toileting).

To say "thank you" say terima kasih (ter-ee-ma kah-say) or terima kasih banyak-banyak ("thank you very much) "Selamat" means "wish you a safe..." as in English "good")
selamat pagi - good morning.
selamat Petang - good afternoon/evening
selamat Malan - good evening/night
selamat Tingaal or Selamat Jolan - Have a good trip, goodbye.

Just as Canadians are known to tack on 'eh" as a suffix, Malaysians use "lah" and it's been absorbed into the English speaking culture of Malaysia as well, such as "relax-lah" ('chill out! calm down!) Sorry-lah, enough-lah, Dowan-lah (don't want to...)

There is also certain etiquette to be observed such as removing shoes when entering homes or places of worship; dress neatly in suitable attire which covers arms and legs when visiting places of worship; don't point your foot at someone; when giving or receiving money gifts to/from a Malaysia, do so with your right hand.

So, armed with this basic knowlege of the country and its people and customs, we wait with great anticipation for this remarkable adventure to begin.

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