Experiencing life in Penang

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Being a World Geography teacher for 9 years I like to get my facts straight before I talk about a region.  I was going to wait to do our next post, but then I realized, we’re living World Geography right now. We are having so many experiences that are not normal for Southeast Asia, or even Malaysia, but Penang is a unique island. It is an island where you can have many different religions and cultures, and it works here.

Malaysia is predominantly a Muslim country. If you were to go to mainland Malaysia women would have to dress more conservatively, Muslim prayer and food laws are observed as a common way of life. Penang is not like this at all.  You can go to an Indian restaurant and not be able to get any beef because of Hindu religious practices, but you can walk out and go next door to a Malaysian restaurant and get beef, but because of Muslim food laws you can’t get any pork products. You sit there and realize that you really want some delicious pork  and chopped beef so you walk out of the Malaysian restaurant and go next door to the Chinese restaurant that has both.  This is acceptable in Penang, but other parts of Malaysia this would not fly.  Even going to the night stalls (wet market) there are food stalls lined up for about 1/2 mile and you have and Indian man cooking a pork burger right next to a Malaysian fruit juice stall.  By the way, stall food is a whole other blog that will have to happen next month-what an awesome experience! We go to the local grocery store Tesco, which is Malaysia’s version of Walmart. You can get anything you need, but when it comes time to purchase pork, you have to go to a completely separate section of the store and pay for it there.  The Muslim cashiers refuse to touch it and make themselves unclean. We went shopping in the store around 5:30 and it was Muslim prayer time. The call to prayer starts playing loud over the store speakers and many people stop to observe the prayer, but Ashlynn decided she liked the tune and started singing along with it. It was neat to get to explain to her what the song means and that she should be respectful. I realized that my kids are getting to experience something that most people in the U.S. only read about or see on TV.  

Kadence and I decided that we wanted to workout after school today and walk home. As we walked home, the sun setting over the ocean, cool breeze blowing in, coconut trees on both sides of the streets, we start to observe a trend.  A number of houses have incense burning and they are setting out paper money and burning that as well.  From what I know, the Chinese do that to celebrate the Chinese new year. I am not sure if today marks that day or if it a different Chinese holiday. What was neat about this experience is that Kadence asks about why they are doing that, and at the same time the local Mosque is playing the call to prayer for the Muslims, and she asks about that. She is getting a World class education just walking home from school.

What intrigues me more than everything is that even though so much diversity is accepted here in Penang, there are still cultural differences, and even social class divisions. The Chinese tend to be all of the business owners and bosses and are very efficient with time and money. More disciplined than any American I’ve seen. They view the Malaysians as being lazy. Part of that story is why Singapore is Independent.  The Chinese got tired of Malaysia not running things efficient and so they all went to Singapore and said we are going to be Independent and run this country more efficiently than anyone. The Malaysia government just let them try, thinking that they would fail and come back.  Oops! I guess they were wrong. Singapore was just named to have more rich people living there than any other city in the world, according to Yahoo news. 

Then there is the Indian culture. The Indian culture tend to be viewed as the hard working labor force. People like to hire them because they work long hours and work hard. You also have the refugees from Myanmar that tend to look for the labor jobs. 

Then there is the expats. A lot from Australia and the UK. They tend to live a life style much like you would see in the U.S. only everything here is a lot cheaper. 

What catches my attention in observing this blend is my perspective on the Chinese. Americans tend to be egocentric. We tend to walk into another culture and view our ways of doing things as the right way and only way. We walk into situations and insist on showing our way of doing it because we are confident that it is the correct way. Well, I have observed 3 weeks of the Chinese doing things differently, and it works really well. I am ashamed to admit that my perspective in looking at the Chinese was much like the typical American, even when I was teaching. I saw the products of a communist environment and automatically classified them as being third world culture. I have been very impressed at the difference in perspectives that you see here.  Everyone here knows the Chinese as being wealthy, smart, efficient people.  I have observed this first hand when buying my car, and seeing our school’s business office run more efficient than any school I have been a part of. 

I am thankful for living on this beautiful island, and I am thankful that I get to witness such diversity.  To see that there are other ways to go to the bathroom besides a toilet. You don’t need a fork to eat. You can eat spicy rice and noodles for breakfast. These are things that will continue to help our children grow up with a different perspective than what we had, and that makes me happy.

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