How do you celebrate a holiday when you don’t know what it is?
Malaysia has a lot of public holidays. A lot. Micah gets something like 15 public holidays at work, compared to 8 in the U.S. Some holidays are equally “for” everyone, like Merdeka Day or Malaysia Day, which commemorate Malaysia’s independence from the British and the establishment of the Malaysian federation respectively. Some are “for” one group more than others. Not long ago we celebrated Hari Raya Haji, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. This is a holiday celebrated by the Malay community, not so much by the Chinese or the Indian communities- but everyone gets the day off. Last week was Deepavali. There were decorations everywhere- the main concourses in the malls, the stores, our hotel.
This raised the question of how to celebrate holidays and festivals that aren’t “our” holidays. It was easy to decide to go to the parade on Merdeka Day. Parades are public and they are for everyone, that felt OK. Religious holidays, like Hari Raya Haji, are also easy to decide not to celebrate, because they are private religious holidays. But what about Deepavali? Is Deepavali something we can celebrate? Deepavali felt both public and private to me, similar to the way that Christmas feels in the U.S. Yes, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, and Christians celebrate it at church with their church family or in whatever other spiritual way suits them. But there is also a secular aspect, with no religion required, that is celebrated very publicly.
This is as much as we learned about Deepavali by asking people:
- It is the Festival of Lights.
- It celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil.
- People celebrate it by welcoming friends and families into their homes.
I considered learning more about Deepavali and trying to write a meaningful explanation of the holiday – and I did spend a few minutes reading about it on Wikipedia. But then I decided that my main point here isn’t to describe what the holiday means in an in-depth way. My main point is to describe the conflict we feel sometimes about participating in holidays that we have no cultural/religious/ethnic experience with. This conflict has come up before and I expect we will return to it, frequently, this year. For example, we are also traveling to Thailand in two weeks because I need to leave Malaysia every three months to renew my visa. We picked the dates to coincide with a lantern festival. We did some investigating to determine whether it was acceptable for tourists to view/participate in the festival before we booked tickets.
We want to have all the experiences that we can while we are here, especially those that are unique to this corner of the world. “When in Rome…” after all! But as someone who is perhaps too culturally sensitive for her own good at times, I am very cautious about exploiting or otherwise using special events as a tourist spectacle: Not everything is for tourists, and that’s OK. It’s sometimes hard to know where that line is as an outsider. After thinking about what we could/should/would do about Deepavali, I thought we had a great solution: We would take a walking tour through Little India on the weekend before Deepavali. We could see Little India, learn some things, and have an opportunity to decide if there would be other events it would be OK for us to attend. There were also some public music and dance performances at KLCC, the mall at the Petronas Towers. Those were a no-brainer: public events in a public/tourist place are OK for tourists. In fact, these events were really for tourists as I highly doubt any local residents would go to KLCC just to see the performances.
The walking tour, which was interesting but not my favorite of the ones we’ve been on, ended near a market place that was clearly set up for Deepavali. They had a stage, food vendors (LOTS of food vendors), and many other vendors as well. This seemed to be very public and our guide said we would absolutely be welcome to come back to look around. We elected not to stay that day for various reasons, but Micah and I planned to go back on Wednesday – the actual Deepavali holiday – to see what was going on. Between going back to Little India and seeing the performances at KLCC, I felt like we had a good way to experience the Deepavali celebrations. It was OK for us to be at both places as outsiders and we could get a feel for the holiday.
But, “the best laid plans of mice and men”… Micah got sick. He had a really nasty cold and cough and spent three or four days pretty sick. I did go see the performances at KLCC by myself, and I’m glad I did, but neither of us went to Little India. At first I was disappointed, I thought I was missing out on something cool and fun. (And we probably did. Next time we go to Little India, I don’t think there will be the same festival atmosphere.) But I don’t feel that we missed something inherently important to our experience in Kuala Lumpur. I do feel that I got a good, tourist’s introduction to the celebration. I appreciated the decorations, the music, and the dancing- the things that were easily available for public consumption. And sometimes, as a tourist, that is all you can expect.
Extra Stuff: I took a short video of the music and one of the dances. Both are under a minute, because I didn’t want to watch the performances through my camera. I also took way too many pictures of the sand paintings and of all the dances. The designs on the sand paintings (kolams) speak for themselves and are not captioned. I chose not to caption the dances, either, because I don’t know how to contextualize them well enough. As someone involved in a performance-based sport, I will say that I appreciated the attention to detail that many of the dancers had. The movements were sharp and precise, the costumes were gorgeous, the facial expressions really added to the performance, and sometimes the synergy among the dancers was fantastic. I learned a lot of lessons I hope to be able to bring back to my skaters.