My childhood was a revolving door of fierce activists, surgeons, fishermen, fashion designers and school teachers. People wove in and out of our family home seamlessly, all greeted with physical touch — three kisses on the cheek and a salam* of the hands if they were elder — and enthusiastically fed an array of home-cooked food. At the bare minimum, the house contained three generations; my brother and I shared our mother’s bedroom, my two uncles and one of their wives in their own two rooms, plus my grandparents and two to three domestic workers at any given time.
My Nenek had a flair for entertaining which passed down all generations undiluted, meaning that there were always dinner guests or drop-ins every night. These numbers only multiplied during Ramadan evenings as we continued to invite people to buka puasa (break fast for the day) with us.
During the Eid, the house would easily see about 500 guests each day flowing in and out organically and my cousins and I would convene into a room together under air conditioning as respite from further extended family and stiff, traditional clothing. When we would leave the house during Eid, it wasn’t uncommon to fit as many people as physically possible into a vehicle to visit equally crowded homes where we would hug, kiss and hold everyone we met, then proceed to eat together with our hands, wherever there was room.
Once we moved to Australia, our four-person household felt quiet and it was clear to me, even as an eight-year-old that Australians didn’t seem to understand the concept of an ‘open house’.
Once we moved to Australia, our four-person household felt quiet and it was clear to me, even as an eight-year-old that Australians didn’t seem to understand the concept of an ‘open house’. Thankfully, our gregarious natures were fiercely maintained by our regular trips back to Kuala Lumpur to visit our grandparents and the extended family. It wasn’t long before my brother and I were piled on to the plane by ourselves, the trip from Adelaide to Kuala Lumpur on a Malaysia Airlines flight deeply engrained in my being. The flight attendants knew us and my Mr Bear by name.
In March, when COVID-19 brought everything to a halt, I thought about life the way I always have when time stood still like it did in transit. I reflected on my multi-generational upbringing, how we needed no reason to rush across borders to make sure our elders are looked after this year. That right now, the best thing for them is distance.
For the first time in my life, I am relieved that I no longer reside in that village within a house. But the village mentality is still strong and I am devastated that I cannot travel North from my home in Darwin to breathe heavy KL air deep into my lungs, nor South to be with my parents, brother and chosen family and friends who have learned to embrace our traditions in solidarity.
Traditionally, everything surrounding Ramadan and the Eid encourages people to travel and come together in close quarters.
Traditionally, everything surrounding Ramadan and the Eid encourages people to travel and come together in close quarters. But as migrants, we are adaptable to changes because our own traditions are regularly disrupted by our movements.
Thankfully, this also makes us open to adjusting our plans as the government continues to tweak social distancing rules by day. One night at the start of March, a friend and I had made loose plans to host Eid together and discussed our favourite Malay Eid foods. I envisioned having a small group of friends over to my apartment, where the two of us would be wearing matching baju kurung, as is the norm for sisters in Malaysia during this time. I lost sleep that night trying to plot vegetarian versions of traditional recipes for my friend. Knowing already that I couldn’t see my family for the Eid, I was determined to bring people into the fold, make them comfortable and see the community involved in such a spectacular holiday.
Now, with new restrictions in place I have had to modify things once again.
Now, with new restrictions in place I have had to modify things once again. I will break my fast alone each night with homemade rose syrup, fill my freezer with rendang and traditional Malay Eid biscuits and cakes and, on the Eid I will dress in Malay clothing and video call my family. Right now, I’ve already begun trialing recipes in order to perfect them for the Eid. I am planning to pack as many Eid cookies as possible into containers and post them to friends and family around the country, and to leave an assortment of sweet and savoury foods on the doorsteps of my more local friends as a means of still sharing the celebrations with as many people as I can reach. After all, I am still a by-product of my Nenek’s generosity; and all the recipes she left me feed a hundred at a time. My mother in Adelaide, working tirelessly as a GP, will no doubt keep herself up for a night cooking the perfect rendang for my brother and father and will send me live updates via Whatsapp.
This year, for the greater good, I will be celebrating without any family around and missing all my usual-yet-altered traditions — but that's OK because we've spent our whole lives adapting. I just hope that next year’s Eid will bring along some familiarity that we are all craving.
*a traditional greeting where two people hold each other’s hands, the youngest person kisses the older person’s hand, and you both gently pull away towards your heart.
Haneen Mahmood Martin is a Malaysian-Australian artist, curator, activist and producer based in the Northern Territory. Follow her on Twitter @puterihaneen
This article was edited by Candice Chung, and is part of a series by SBS Life supporting the work of emerging young Asian-Australian writers. Want to be involved? Get in touch with Candice on Twitter @candicechung_.
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