Monday, December 27, 2010

A Bidayuh Wedding Bonanza.

It's the day after Christmas. Things are very quiet around Kuching, as many are hungover and recovering. I'm no exception. the day started off slow but definitely picked up by the end. But I had a little help from my friends.

 In the evening, Gilbert and I joined Syaliza, a colleague from SBC, on a trip to the Serian area around 1 hr Southeast of Kuching. A relative from Syaliza's Bidayuh side (though the terms 'uncle' and 'auntie' are used loosely to refer to elders, so might not be an actual relative but a friend of the family) got married today, so Syaliza invited us and two other friends, Michelle (also a colleague) and her fiancĂ© Andrew, to join the Bidayuh Wedding Bash/Bonanza in Kampung Krusen in the Serian district. I was actually giddy with excitement going to this thing, for a few reasons. First off, it would be for sure be fun and culturally enlightening, considering how fun, amiable, and open all other Bidayuhs I've met have been. Next, this would be fun because of the liquid spirits I expected these fun people to offer me. You see, it is no secret that Bidayuh people and, well, many other Dayak peoples in Borneo love their liquid spirits, particularly the Tuak (rice wine) and Langkau (rice liquor;  think rice vodka) each Kampung typically ferments and distills themselves. Moreover, it is known that whenever any visitors come to visit Kampungs in Sarawak, they get the first class treatment. Bidayuh peoples are known to be particularly friendly, and so I expected non-stop drink offerings. Oh, and many of the people in this Kampung have never encountered a white man before, and for sure not a single one had ever met a Jewish person. So I had to really make a good impression, or else my people would get a bad reputation in this part of the world. I was hoping they wouldn't ask me to sing any Bar Mitzvah songs.

So we arrived just in time for dinner. The bride and groom looked beautiful and greeted all the guests, including us. Gifts are totally optional, and there is not an ounce of ill-will if you decide to cheap out. We brought Box wine, and this was welcomed with open arms. Seriously, these are the coolest people ever. Ok so we were introduced to Syaliza's relatives, and then were welcomed to grab some food. On the menu for tonight were three-layer pork (yep I know what you're thinking about the pork. I told them I'm as gentile as a Jew can get) fried crispily, some tasty herbal chicken, glutenous rice and desiccated coconut steamed in banana leaves, rendang beef (curry without the turmeric and with desiccated coconut+coconut milk). All so tasty. One of Syaliza's uncles brought a bunch of bottles filled with a milky yellowish liquid. I knew this was it, Tuak!. He poured us some and holy shit it was delicious. Hints of honey and ginger enveloped my palette and really rubbed me the right way. Of course Syaliza didn't drink, since she is half Muslim, and here in Malaysia, being any part Muslim means you are all Muslim, meaning to say she must follow laws prescribed for Muslims here. But we were actively encouraged to enjoy a bottle for ourselves with the meal. Also we ate and drank sitting cross-legged on the floor. This is the accepted style of eating meals here, in addition to eating using your hands (there is actually a very specific hand shape you need to adopt to do this correctly and effectively, rather than embarass yourself with rice falling all over you).

     I briefly got to thinking about how much one can learn about the personality of a ethnic group just from such eating practices. Maybe I'm just drawing conclusions I want to draw, but hear me out. It at least makes sense in my mind. Doesn't it say something when people can eat comfortably, humbly, all sitting down on the floor, together, in a large large group (basically a dinner with hundreds of people huddled up together), and when they need not worry about all the strange conventions we have in "civilized" countries? Why use a knife if I can just user my teeth? Why risk the danger of wielding a knife? Isn't it great not to have to remember whether crossing your utensils at the end of the meal means you enjoyed or abhorred the food? Or to constantly ask whether it's the larger or smaller fork that is to be used to pierce your tasteless lettuce and tomato salad?

I found it so refreshing how laid back the people were. Eat the way you want- hands, fork, spoon (not knife though), sitting, standing, crouching, laying down, walking. Anyways, after eating, I noticed some kids looking in at me through the wooden window shutters of the room we were sitting in. The look they had was sort of priceless, since it so perfectly captured how foreign I was to them. It was a look not of fear though, much more of intrigue and curiosity, with a small measure of caution. I took out my camera to snap some shots of them, and it we got into a modified game of peek-a-boo, with them crouching down to hide whenever I would look into the camera eyepiece. It was a very cute little game we played, and kind of reassured them that I was friendly. Eventually I got up and went out to meet them from behind...somehow they had caught on and ran off. But nevermind, there was a big group of guys drinking and they begged me to join in. We chatted a bit (some knew a little English, others just used universal signals for 'drink up'), then the dancing started.
There was a live band, and I was encouraged to ask any lady to dance. It's not seen as sketchy to do so, at least for a foreigner. Eventually Syaliza brought her shy cousin over and we danced a song, then I was requested to sing a song of my choosing (as long as the band knows how to play it) with Andrew. We did Hotel California. It's customary for visitors to offer some sort of performance to the rest of the Kampung. That's all they expect, and they really couldn't care less if you suck at it. As long as you put in the heart and effort to show you care about their Kampung and people.

"...Livin' Up in the Hotel California", or Hotel Sarawak? 

Well the rest of the night involved similar activities. People kept taking turns offering me drinks (even 8 year old kids bringing me whiskey on a silver platter, for real), leading me to be a background dancer while they sang songs in their Bidayuh language, and I got to dance with a bunch of the women there. Even got to strut my stuff in the local version of the line dance (called "poco poco", pronounced  pocho pocho). The night was an absolute thrill.

     The people in the kampung were all so sweet, friendly, and endearing really. Despite their 'Christianization' some 50 years ago, they do still retain a lot of their cultural practices and lifeways. And yet I'm sure a lot of their old animist  and pagan traditions have been lost, something I find deeply saddening and regretful. I got very upset thinking about how much rich history and culture has been effaced from the Earth. Especially at the hands of colonizers and missionaries installing their "civilized" culture and lifeways  in perfectly well-off societies. How can anyone have the overblown self-righteousness, ignorance, disrespect, and sheer nerve needed to just reboot a culture with brand new ideals (I know, in some ways it's interesting and somewhat hypocritical I'm saying this, while being a Westerner bringing my Western-educated expertise to the scientific world here in Borneo; but this is something I'll have to tackle in another post)? What made/makes anyone think that such people ever needed any "help", and that conversion was the benevolent answer?  If only everyone had the open-minded attitude of the Bidayuh people, maybe things would be different and so much of many beautiful cultures would not have been erased. But still, you can tell there is an great sense of cultural pride among the people holding onto what is still leftover of their cultural past. And of course they are very proud of new cultural and religious practices as well. But they do not have any interest in converting you since from the get-go they respect you and your unique lifeway. Moreover, they are genuinely interested in culture of visitors, such as myself. I demonstrated my version of the Soulja Boy dance, and then I described to them what a Jewish wedding is like, with tales of Smorgasbords, Huppahs, and breaking of the glass.

These wonderful people accepted me with wide open arms, despite my different beliefs about the world, preconceptions about theirs, and overall ignorance of their lifeways. How can one not fall in love with a culture as good-natured as this one?  I think the Bidayuh's in Kpg. Krusen seem to get that there is enough to love about people that transcends culture, language, and appearances. Or rather, individual differences are embraced, as they deeply enjoy sharing their culture and way of life with foreigners, while also expecting/experiencing a similar openness from their visitors, especially foreigners. It's always great meeting people who clearly enjoy seeing the range of culture humans have been able to explore, create, and live in. For me, it's refreshing beyond belief to know such people. Suffice to say, I had an excellent time taking in life with them last night until 3:30am.

Some new buddies

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Light Painting, take 1[ish]

Photos made using a combination of glow sticks and laser pointer, shooting at very low shutter speeds and high ISO sensitivity in darkness. Thanks to Gilbert for his help in taking these photos. Hoping to find some better tools, like, say fluorescent or glow-in-the-dark make up.

I had been very interested in light painting since seeing an excellent youtube video about it like 2 years ago. This is a different video I found that is even cooler than that last one ( for the actual video, and for the behind the scenes to show that they actually did this with photography).  So I thought I would give it a try, though obviously it doesn't even approach some of the photos and videos I've seen. It definitely can take a lot of time, but the fun of it makes it all worth the while. Especially if you can get a bunch of friends to join in, I would say this would make for an epic hangout activity.

Related to this is my interest in fluorescence. I've been pretty into it for years, since learning about the science of it and expressing fluorescent proteins (i.e. Green Fluorescent Protein) in cells. Then also doing chromatography and seeing the natural fluorescence of small molecules when they are exposed to UV. And more recently, my mind was blown by seeing fluorescence as an art form. Since visiting the fluorescent Art museum in Amsterdam back in May, I've also been thinking about new forms of fluorescent art that could potentially be made. For one, human-safe fluorescent make-up might allow for an interesting theatrical experience. Or even fluorescent light painting, for those who might want to be free of ghosting and other difficulties inherent in normal light painting (though of course inserting light drawings in different contexts is pretty awesome, this is just something different). Also, imagine a living piece of fluorescent art: if somehow, a bacteria engineered with fluorescent protein genes that could be specifically activated by sensing some property of nearby observers. Basically it would be alive in a literal sense of the bacteria producing those fluorescent proteins, but also in that the art will change from minute to minute as different people observe it. In this new form of audience participation, literally the art will be a product of every observer's presence. just have to figure out what a bacteria could be engineered with to react differently to each person. Pheromones? Odors molecules? hmmm. This requires a bit more thought.

From the website of the fluorescent art museum:

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Biking around

So tonight I decided to take my 3rd night bike ride around the neighborhood. And it was perfect, maybe one of the most serene, mentally refreshing, experiences of my life. Here's how it went:

There was a light drizzle, not even heavy enough to knock the spiders away. The temp. had cooled to a perfect 70ish degrees F, and I literally could not imagine a more perfect climate for a bike ride. Very few cars were out, so I had the road mostly to myself for about 1.5 hrs. Ever so often, I would find myself in pitch darkness (aside from my lame little front and rear lights, which barely produce enough light to attract the moths). And I would find in this absence of technological stimuli a soothing reprieve from that clutter of artificial sights and sounds swarming us pretty much everywhere we go. I focused on the sounds of my breathing, and of the critters seemingly right next to me, while staying alert to whatever limited vision I had in the darkness. At some point during this ride, when I was particularly atuned to all of these things, even the feel of the cool air filling my lungs was exhilarating. This really is one of the true definitions of Lucid Living, the ultra-awareness of life as it is unfolding both outside and inside yourself.

And then like a sack of rice hitting me in the face, I breathed in the noxious smell of rancid, stale ditch water, while in baffling simultaneity, headlights of several approaching cars appeared out of nowhere from both sides, blinding me for a second or two. In fact that surprise followed by the feel of a car passing right beside me totally caught me off guard as I was in this awesome state of bliss. Unfortunately that meant my biking got a little sloppy, but luckily I gained control before I swerved into the smelly ditch. Of course this added lighting now helped me see that there were a bunch of stray dogs in front of me, now barking their tops off. So I had to switch gears from lucid living to lucid 'getting the f**k out of there'. Anywho, it was an amazing ride. Got me thinking that I don't need much more than my bike and the road (maybe also a bone to throw those dogs) to be in good spirits. Also thought about how this year I'll be celebrating Christmas authentically with gentiles, though the climate totally gives it a bizarro feeling. I wonder if there will still be any Chinese food? Also, Santa in a leotard? Hopefully NOT.

There and back again

Hey Everyone!

It's always hard to dive back into blogging, especially after totally failing at doing so for over a month. There are a number of half completed blog posts on the back-burner, and hopefully soon I can crank those out, because there's much I have yet to discuss. This post is sort of to get me going at it again, but I won't delve to deep into many of the big issues I have encountered or thought about over the past few months. So where was I all this time? Well, I spent the first 10 days of November working my butt off at my lab here in Sarawak. In the previous 10 days I had processed plants collected on my super cool expedition to Paya Maga, and now I needed to purify all the exotic fungi growing out of those plant tissue I had put onto specialized jello-like fungus food. Not only that but I had to make sure my fungi would be preserved over my month long interview circuit in the U.S.

So then I came to the U.S. (Nov.11), prepped for my interviews (basically had to tackle big questions like "why practice medicine?" or "why the hell are you in the jungle and how does that relate to you why you want to practice medicine?") while having some epic reunions with some great people and spending quality time with the family. Even got to see my mom teaching her lil munchkin (my sister, Becky) how to play the piano (if I could capture cuteness and bottle it, surely I would tap into that experience). The best I can do is put up some photos and you decide for yourself Speaking of photos, I got a macro lens which means I can take much better portrait and close-up shots of Borneo's bio-beauty.

Back to med school: I could not have been more anxious than I was during my first few interviews, but then I got my "story" down and it was kind of smooth sailing from there on. So what is this "story" I speak of? It's why I'm going to be a doctor, or rather a doctor doctor(MD+PhD). It's how i came to this decision that I want to subject my mind and body to a world of stress, loss, and suffering (my own, but more-so the patients'). I can post my med school essays, but no one wants to read that. I don't even want to read those again, until I'm a retiree on a beach in Hawaii reminiscing about my journey into and through the medical world (ironically, but not accidentally, the following spiel will end up sounding much like a medical school essay). But I'll say this: There is not one day (probably not even an hour) that goes by without my thinking about some aspect of the human mind, specifically how our brain/mind interface with chemical networks of the world. Most tantalizing to me is understanding how and why some of the secretory chemistry of other living things (plants, fungi and bacteria are most prominent in my mind) happen to affect our mind so deeply. Such chemicals are often called "natural products", and they have shaped the world as we see it today. Think spice trade during the Age of Discovery, coffee houses during the Enlightenment, and natural product drug discovery during the 20th/21st centuries (half of all the pharmaceutical drugs out there are derived from natural origins). Our lives fully depend on the chemistry that goes on in these other organisms, so it would be a shame to not appreciate or learn more from the complexity and connectivity we share. I want to probe these questions deeper, by taking advantage of these interactions to figure out how our brain works when it's at it's best, and how things get sour with disease. But there's more to this.

I feel as though "technologization" is leaving us (at least in very developed places) with much anxiety, suppressed unhappiness, and detachment from the natural world. Our increasing physical and mental distance from our "worldly wonders" may have a chemical, as much as psychological, role in some of the neuro- and psychological illnesses we see on the rise in the present day. Sure we are still using all the jewels of nature at our leisure, but without the context of, well, nature, something is lost (think about how processed food is these days, and how much of the original organisms' chemistry is destroyed by the time we ingest/apply a natural product). So this gets at my reasons for pursuing the research side of things, but patient care is not so disconnected, or should not be at least. With thinking about these brainy problems naturally comes thinking about people, with their brainy creations, and brainy illnesses. And, well, a lot of people are suffering from psychological or neurological disease. i know a lot of the most brilliant creations came from the recesses of psychological disturbed minds, but i just can't stand to see so many unhappy faces out there. I think we need to reevaluate how we approach treating these people, and to do that we have to be more aware of how our environment and chemiculture has changed drastically in previous decades (centuries?).


I was happy that things went the way they did, and that I still had some time with the people i care about most. By the end of it all, I was pretty exhausted, but relieved to have this huge burden off my shoulders (especially because I know for sure I have some school to go to next year). Also I was super psyched for getting back to my adventures, and now nothing was holding me back. (Got back to Borneo on Dec. 13th)

Last thing: Do you think flight attendants use their power over beverages and snacks to give you an idea of how much they like you? It's a lot of power for a few human beings on a plane to wield, don't you think?