Malaysian diversity

Malaysia was an interesting place to visit, full of variety! Walking a block can feel like entering a different country. This is because there are a few very strong cultures all sharing Malaysia as their home.

Only fifty percent of Malaysia’s population is culturally/ethnically “Malay“. Around twenty percent of the rest of the population is of Chinese descent (meaning that someone in their family history came from China not too long ago), and around 7 percent are of Indian descent (meaning that someone in their family history came from India not too long ago). There are also a few different indigenous (the original and native people) groups as well, but the cultures that are most noticeable are Malay, Chinese, and Indian.

Each ethnic group has a very different, and very delicious kind of food.  Malaysian food is somewhat like Indonesian food with fried rice, or rice topped with grilled meats in peanut sauce.  The Indian food available included a flat, pancake-like dish called “roti” filled with egg, or banana, as well as spicy curries.  The Chinese food included noodle dishes, vegetable dishes, and fried rices as well.  Restaurants stayed open almost all night, so we could see people enjoying their ethnic foods at all times!

Obviously food is not the only thing that sets each ethnic group apart.  Each ethnic group also brought with it a different religion.  Many of the Malays for instance are Muslim.  In fact, the country itself will not consider a person truly “Malay” unless that person is Muslim.  Still, each person has the right to choose their own religion.  Choosing not to be Muslim however, and losing the title of “Malay”, means missing out on a few benefits put in place to boost Malays in Malaysia.  As far as clothing, many Muslim women wear full head coverings and dress modestly, usually covering arms and legs.  Not all Muslim people in Malaysia practice their faith with this kind of dress, but it is very common.

Most of the ethnically Chinese people of Malaysia practice either Buddhism, or folk-religions from China.  The ethnically Indian people of Malaysia are mostly Hindu.  The women often wear long, dress-like shirts over pants made of the same decorative fabric.  There may also be a dot painted in the center of their foreheads.

The giant statue outside of the Batu Caves

While my husband and I visited the capital city of Malaysia, Kuala Lumpur, we happened to see a Hindu festival, which I believe was the annual Thaipusam Festival, at the Batu Caves.  At these caves, there is a giant statue of one of the Hindu gods, Lord Murugan.  Inside the caves there are many temples with many other idols.

Malaysia offers so much diversity!  We got to take a peek at so many different cultures just by going to one place!

What kind of diversity do you see within your own classroom?  What makes each person different, or diverse?

Malay: A person who was born in Malaysia, speaks the Malaysian language, and practices the Muslim faith.

Chinese descent: A person who does not live in China, but whose family or family history comes from China.

Indian descent: A person who does not live in India, but whose family or family history comes from India.

indigenous:  A person whose family history comes directly from a place, long before other cultures arrived.

roti: A flat type of bread, almost like a crepe or pancake that comes from India and is often filled with egg or banana and dipped in curried sauces.

Muslim: A person who believes in and lives their life based on the beliefs of Islam.

Buddhism: A faith or thought-system that follows the teachings of Buddha.

Hindu: A person who follows the diverse beliefs of Hinduism, including many different gods.

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Bali Youth

I have a friend in Bali named Kadek. He is about ten years old and loves taking care of his little brother Komang. Like many kids in the little town of Amed, Kadek goes to school five days a week from morning until noon. Some kids walk to school and others ride bike, but they are always easy to spot, all wearing the same matching uniforms. The school day usually begins with group exercises and even some group singing. If I woke up early enough, I heard the children singing along to a song broadcast over the loudspeakers. Kadek will continue going to school until he is seventeen or so, just lke his father.
Not all the kids in Kadek’s small town are as lucky as he is. While it is free to go to school, a student is only allowed to attend if he or she is wearing a uniform. Lots of students own their own uniforms, but there are some who can only afford to rent a uniform. They can rent these uniforms each month or even each day, but if they don’t have the money for it, they cannot go to school. Similarly, the students must bring their own pencils and papers, and must buy their own books. After all of these expenses, school doesn’t seem so “free” after all, especially for parents who do not have well-paying jobs.
The older folks in town may not know very much English, or the folks living outside of town, but kids like Kadek learn English along with their other subjects, in hopes that they can get good jobs with their English skills.
What does knowing English have to do with getting a good job in a place like Bali, where they already have to know two languages, Balinese and Indonesian?
English is becoming very important for lots of countries as tourism becomes more and more popular. Bali is a very beautiful island and people come to visit it from all over the world. English is a very common language for people from all over, even if it is not their native language, so English is one of the first additional languages a child will learn for a total of at least three languages. Many add even more to this list, learning Italian or German to accomodate even more tourists.  With these skills, they can work in hotels, guest-houses, restaurants, and so on.

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Bali Culture

Bali is one of the many islands that make up Indonesia.  It is small but distinctly unique, even from the rest of Indonesia.  While Indonesia is mostly a Muslim country for instance, the island of Bali is more than 90% Hindu in their religious beliefs.  This effects daily life quite a bit. Most Balinese families participate in daily rituals by placing an offering of food and incense at a designated altar at their house or place of business.  They replenish this offering three times a day, believing that this practice pleases the Hindu gods and may bring good fortune to their families or to their business.

In addition to daily practices, Balinese Hindu people will reunite with their extended families every fifteen days to pray together at the family temple.  This ceremony involves lots of food and flowers.  A priest leads the ritualistic prayers inside the temple walls.  When the rituals are finished, the families gather around their food offerings to eat what has been blessed. Often this includes a “Babi Guilin” or a young roasted pig, prepared for the gods.

Balinese Hinduism includes a belief in Karma.  This is the belief that doing something good ensures that something good will happen to you in return, and likewise, doing something bad will result in something bad happening in return.  I met many Balinese people while traveling on the island, and each showed me lots of kindness.  Their belief in karma is strong and they try very hard to live according to these beliefs.

Their is also a belief that Balinese Hindus must assign specific names to their children.  This is one way of identifying whether someone is Balinese or from elsewhere.  One young man we spoke with firmly believed that breaking from this tradition would cause a person to become ill.  This is an example of karma.  He said that if he did not go by his Balinese Hindu name of “Made,” (assigned to a second-born son,) than he would become very sick until he went back to using this name.  It was very surprising to me that so many people in Bali share the same name, but I am coming to realize that many countries assign a name to their children based on birth-order.  This child may eventually receive a nick-name of sorts, but their official name is still maintained as a very important title.

Every first-born Balinese child, whether girl or boy, is named “Wayan,” (though “Lo” was another option for first-born women only).  The second-born may be either “Made” or “Kadek,” as well as “Putu” in some regions.  Third born children are named “Nyoman” or “Komang” whether they are male or female and the fourth child is “Katut.”  If a fifth child is born, the order begins again.

Rituals: something done ceremonially and consistently

Karma: a belief that one’s fate is determined by their actions: a good action will lead to good fortune and a bad action will lead to bad fortune.  This also beans that practicing one’s religion poorly will result in something bad while practicing one’s religion with devotion will lead to something good.  This is usually accompanied by a belief in past lives that contribute to one’s karma as well as future lives within which time a person may continue to be rewarded or punished.

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Chinese Lifestyle & Education

Even though I felt like China was strange, when you look at the world’s population as a whole, you can barely call a place like China “different” at all.  In fact, (according to the CIA World Fact Book), the average living human is a 28 year old Han (the most common ethnic group within China) Chinese man.  This means that for most of the world, Jingzhou China seems quite normal!  What does life there look like?

Instead of having wooden houses like we do, most of the buildings in China are made of concrete.  In the winters it can get very cold, but only the coldest parts of China in the North build heating systems into their buildings.  (This is one of many things that the government controls.)  Because of this, when we visited a classroom in China, the students all kept their coats on the entire lesson.   At home, they may have a small heater of some kind in a main room, but may still keep their winter coats on here as well.

While they may eat some home-cooked meals, there are markets everywhere full of food and many will simply eat their meals from the market.  These markets were always full of people.  Noodles, dumplings, and fried rolls filled with vegetables and meats can be found everywhere as well as fresh ingredients and raw meats for cooking.  Inside a restaurant, food is ordered then placed on a rotating table where it can be shared and passed to everyone.  Dishes may include fried eggplant, chicken with cashews, fish, fried cabbage, pork, and much more.  These dishes may sound like the food you find at a Chinese Restaurant in America, but it is actually quite different.  In America our Chinese food may have sweet sauces on top.  In China, the seasonings are simple and the dishes come without these sweet sauces.  The main dish may likely be a big pot of boiling water with some kind of meat inside such as duck or fish.  Everyone shares from this pot, reaching into it with their chopsticks.

There are lots of people in China.  Jingzhou had at least one million people, yet it was considered just an ordinary city.  This has worried the government, so they encourage families to have only one child.  They do this by raising taxes for having a second child and offering very few benefits for that child.  There are a few exceptions, however.  For instance, if a husband and wife were both the only child in their family, they may have a second child.

eating noodles at the market

In China it is not likely for a family to own a car.  Instead they may own a scooter, bicycle, or motorcycle.  We often saw motorcycles crammed with as many as four people!  There is also a kind of three-wheeled truck that is a popular vehicle in China.  Even though families often don’t drive cars, the pollution in china has gotten very bad, as well as litter.  The outdoors are seen as very dirty, and people will sometimes where breathing masks when they are outside.  This is also one of the reasons people take off their shoes before entering a house or building.


School is very different in China than in the U.S.  For instance, classes focus very much on memorization and test-results.  Whether a student is learning English or math, they do this by studying and memorizing facts for a test.  Many schools are newly experimenting with providing more interactive forms of learning, but this is still more uncommon than it is common.  The class we visited was taught by an American teacher who taught the students English using actual conversation, debates, plays, music videos, etc.  This was new for the students.  Their parents too are very concerned with their actual grades so there is a big push to get a good score rather than to have a good understanding of a subject.  Even a student’s eventual choice of college is determined by a test called the Gau Cau.  This test is taken when a student finishes what we would call high school.  The results of this test determine not only which colleges this student can attend, but also what subjects they should study.  I heard of one student who wanted to be an artist, but her Gau Cau results were strong in finances, so she studied that instead.  People in China give this test a great amount of authority.    If a parent pays extra money, they can try to get their child into a different school than the school suggested by the Gau Cau, but it is very difficult and very expensive to do this.

Another new education practice that schools are beginning to use is something called “English Corner.”  More and more people are realizing that language can be a very difficult thing to learn by simply memorizing facts, without having actual practice.  To improve this, they invite English speakers to meet at a specific public location each week to simply have conversation with English students.  Some schools do this over a meal, while others simply have students and English speakers gather outside of the school building to talk.  More and more schools are recognizing a need to do more than just memorize.  One student we met has a passion for changing China’s school system and adding more variety to the style of education.

In lesser-developed cities like Jingzhou, there is no garbage truck to collect the trash. Instead, people dig through the trash that’s collected on the streets to collect recyclable items in hopes that they can turn them in for money.

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China: Holidays and Religion

Christmas Time in China

The Christmas tree outside of the shopping mall in Shanghai

Our Chinese friends eat different foods than the foods we eat, live in different houses than we live in, and have different family traditions than we do as well.  For instance, my husband and I spent Christmas in China.  Because Christianity is a very small part of China, Christmas is not very widely celebrated.  (Though it was once dangerous to practice Christianity in China because of the government’s restrictions on certain religions, it is becoming less so.)  There are indeed Christians in China who do celebrate with traditions you may be familiar with, but otherwise the holiday does not receive much notice.  Shopping malls may decorate with pictures of Santa and presents under a tree, but families will likely instead look forward to their own central holiday: the Chinese New Year, also called the Lunar New Year or Spring Festival. This holiday lasts fifteen days!  On the first day of this holiday or the night before, families get together to share many delicious, traditional foods and to share a few little gifts with the younger children.  Mandarin oranges are a special treat found at the table for this holiday as well as dumplings or “jiaozi.”  My husband and I were very fortunate to join a Chinese-Malaysian family in their celebration of this holiday.  The food was delicious, but strange too!  The Chinese eat fruits and vegetables that I had never heard of before like the lotus root and morning glory.

Many Chinese families are Buddhist but more common than this is for a family to practice a local religion, worshiping the local gods and heroes.  Some may describe this as a local kind of Buddhism while others think of it as a different religion entirely: a Chinese folk religion.  Each town is likely to have its own temple where locals may come to worship.  At the temple, there are fire pits where people can bring tokens to burn for their deceased relatives.  Fake money and little houses can be bought outside of the temple and burned at fire-pits inside.  It is believed that burning these tokens will provide money and shelter for the deceased.

Fire-places of sorts at the local temple

Chinese New Year: (a.k.a Lunar New Year or Spring Festival.)  This is a holiday  that celebrates the New year, but not the new year according to our calendar!  The Chinese have their own traditional calendar that follows the patterns of the sun and moon.  Usually the first day of the first month of this calendar falls somewhere around our month of February.

Jiaozi: These are little moon-shaped dumplings.  They are thought to bring good fortune because they are shaped like the “ingot,” ancient Chinese money.

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China Challenges: language


China is quite different from America in a lot of ways.
When I first got to the city of Jingzhou (Jing-Joe) China, I felt a little bit overwhelmed by everything!  It was very difficult to make sense of where I was or where I was trying to go when I couldn’t read any of the signs, couldn’t ask for directions, and couldn’t speak with taxi drivers.  Signs were in a language I didn’t know using characters that were nothing like our alphabet!  Because of this, Drew and I spent our entire first day in China very lost! On top of that, when I did finally learn a few words in Mandarin, (one of China’s two main languages,) all the words were likely to change as soon as I entered a new province of China!  While China has two main languages, (Mandarin and Cantonese), each local area has its own way of using that language.

This makes the language very hard to learn, but there is another reason I had a hard time learning any Mandarin: Chinese languages use something called “tones.”  Think of the sound you make when you ask a question.  It’s a little different than the sounds you make otherwise.  “What did you say?” sounds different than “That’s what you said.”  One sounds a bit like music notes going up.  The other just sounds flat.  Well, in China, the tone or sound of a word makes a big difference.  For instance, “four” in china is something like “Shi” pronounced in a flat sort of way while “ten” is also a bit like “shi” pronounced in a questioning sort of way.  In fact “Shi” can mean many other things too, depending on how you pronounce it.  “Shi shi” is how you say “Thank you.”   Once I made a few Chinese friends, it was a little bit easier to learn a few words.  Still, the only words I was able to learn were ones that don’t have very specific “tones,” or at least can be well understood even if the tone is done incorrectly.  Just as it was hard for me to learn Chinese, it is also very hard for Chinese people to learn English.

I was very grateful to make Chinese friends who knew English, and who were patient with me when Mandarin was hard to learn.  My friend Philip was very helpful.  He accompanied Drew and I to the bus station to help us purchase the right bus ticket.  Without him, I doubt we would have gotten far!  He is a house painter right now, but he admitted that he would enjoy being an English teacher.

Philip and I

Mandarin: The language, or group of dialects, most common in Northern and South Western China.

Cantonese: The language, or group of dialects, most common in Southern China and around Hong Kong.

Tones: The tune or pitch used in one’s voice when pronouncing a word in one of the Chinese languages.

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China Pictures!


Below are pictures to help you imagine what China might be like!

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Coming soon!

Connect the Class will come soon!

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