This past week I stayed with an Indian host family and another exchange student from Switzerland for the Hindu Festival of Lights, Deepavali.
After a day spent getting to know our new parents, and 4 younger siblings, Saturday night, Nora and I went to get henna done in Little India. While there, I was given a bag of free food from an Indian shopkeeper who said I was very beautiful. Being the only foreigner in a small town definitely has its perks.
On Sunday morning, there was a program for all of the AFS students who had come to stay with Indian families in my host state, Perak. We helped to serve food and prepare lunch bags for people visiting Little India from schools for the disabled. In return, they put on Indian song and dance performances for us. At one point we were invited onto the stage and it was clear that by dancing with them, we had made some of the children’s days brighter. Without a doubt, it was many of the kids’ first times seeing foreign people and they loved every minute of it.
The same night, we had an official handing over ceremony. After a dinner at a wonderful Indian mamak, we were treated to more songs and skits, all performed in the Tamil language. For this event, Indian traditional dress was mandatory and every single exchange student looked wonderful in their sarees, Punjabi suits, or exquisitely embroidered shirts. The Malaysians attending the performances, including the head of the Perak government, seemed to be impressed by all the orang putih (white people) eager to learn about the Indian culture. While Nora (the Swiss girl) and I were at the ceremony, our host family was performing the traditional pre-Deepavali prayers to remember those who had passed away and show that they are not forgotten during this festive time.
The next day was the eve of Deepavali. We visited the host grandmother in the family and then spent the rest of the day preparing. After dinner, we arranged peacock feathers in vases, hung “Happy Deepavali!” banners, and very late at night we created a kollum design. Kollum is a design on the floor traditionally made of colored rice. However, the kit my host family had purchased used colored stones. The design we made depicted one of the Hindu gods. Making a kollum is not easy, it requires steady hands and a lot of focus, something hard to obtain while filled with “Deepavali Eve” excitement, especially so late at night. Eventually it was finished, and even the maid commended me, the Swiss exchange student, and our host sister for our hard work.
The next morning we awoke very early to finally celebrate! First, we had oil placed on our heads as per tradition, showered, and put on our Punjabi suits. After everyone was dressed, we headed downstairs and the family performed the Deepavali prayers. We received blessings from everyone in the family. In order to do this, you kneel on the ground and press your forehead to the ground near an elder’s feet. After being blessed, we received ang pow, a tradition borrowed from Chinese New Year, which is children receiving money in colored envelopes. Because Deepavali is the festival of light, we lit many candles and lamps throughout the house and yard. For breakfast, we ate tosse and idli, two traditional Indian foods served with chutney and curry.
That night, our host family put on a grand celebration for Deepavali. Nora and I wore saris! Everyone said we looked like Barbie dolls with our fair skin and light hair. Many members of the family attended the dinner party and it was great using our extremely limited Tamil to communicate with them.
Deepavali, like many of the holidays in Malaysia, is a time to be spent with family eating delicious food. As our host parents told us, it is a time to catch up on the past year and enjoy each other’s company. Our family welcomed us with open arms and full plates, making us feel very, very full-- of both food and a sense of togetherness.
|Nora dan saya|
|Saya suka pakai saree!|
|Our lovely Indian host family|
|The maid's kollum.... and all the candles!|