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

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