The past week has been inadvertently dedicated to learning. My mind has been filled, literally. I can’t quite keep track anymore with the different names, dates, places, flavors, and concepts floating around within the borders of my skull.

Bottom line: Malaysia is wonderful. I am growing like a jungle tree here  (minus the fungus and built-in ant colonies).

Ang left me with a sense of calmness and a desire to access some level of spirituality within myself. He didn’t ask me to seek this, or even encourage it from me. Actually, usually he would just show me something pertaining to Buddhism and explain that this is his belief, and that he didn’t expect me to believe it too. But as I was observing him and his mannerisms, I was left feeling like I could make some space in my life for meditation, introspection, and possibly a connection to something bigger than myself…even if that thing might be found within myself.

I am definitely not saying that I’ve had a religious awakening. Actually, religion–organized religion at least–has recently been pushing me very far away from this possibility. On Christmas eve, I sat in a Christian church, feeling nothing but uncomfortable and extremely confused. I left the church pissed off; the preacher devoted no less than ten minutes describing how America is a place where God is forbidden.  He said that it is illegal to wear a cross on your neck, to pray in schools (even in Christian schools), and no longer acceptable to say “Merry Christmas” on TV.

“Are you OK?” my friend John asked, reaching for my hand. I had told him before we left that I wasn’t all too excited about going to church, and that Christianity had never made much sense to me, but I agreed to go with him in the spirit of open-mindedness.

“That’s not true.” I replied, through clenched teeth, ignoring John’s question and instead responding to the rambling preacher.  ”He’s lying.”

He could see my leg twitching uncomfortably and my face turning red as the man in front of the cross spoke fiercely to the assembly of worshipers about my wretched homeland.

The preacher ended this segment of his ‘no room for God’ monologue by cautioning parents to “think twice before sending your kids to America.” You can bet your bottom dollar that it took every ounce of restraint inside me not to jump up out of my seat and shout out that he was full of shit. I waited until after the service to talk to the preacher one on one.  And you can bet your top dollar that it was an awkward conversation.  My first question to him,

“Have you ever been to America?”

“No.”

“How do you get your information about the United States?”

“I read online.”

“Don’t you think you should make sure you’re telling the truth before sharing this stuff you call ‘information’ with your congregation, given the position you hold and the power you have?  None of what you said is true.  Merry Christmas.”

It was a messy night. I was left feeling unsettled, which is usually the feeling I get when I go to church, but this time it was uneasiness mixed with utter frustration. How can people learn about the world when they are being told lies by a man whose word they trust above all others? These people are from a poor neighborhood.  Likely, they will never go to America and see that the country is not as satanic and pagan as my man in the white robe would like to think.

This little transgression is not something that makes me uncomfortable with Christianity–I have other reasons for that.  But this man’s infuriating ignorance only saddened me to the larger issue; that this is happening all over the world, all the time. The information that we are fed in the West about other religions and cultures is outrageously misinformed, and the information in other countries about the West is equally as incorrect.  In Iran, and many other countries, children learn in school from the very beginning that America and Americans are bad.  But people are people, everywhere.  How can you say a person is good or bad based on where they happened to be born?  There is a global epidemic of cultural misinformation and bias, spreading quickly with the help of people trying to further their own philosophical or political agendas.

The next day, I met with a Burmese man to interview him about his country.  Ang set me up with the guy, and watched as I asked question after question, digging for answers.  He is from the Rakhine state, where recent violence has inspired the government to close it off to the rest of the country.  I wanted to get to the root of the issue; the media says one thing, but my friend told me a completely different, opposite thing.  Since very few journalists are being allowed into the country, it is hard to get a clear idea of what is happening.  And it begs the question, who are these journalists, anyways?  How does this highly restrictive government pick and choose who gets to come in, write a story, and go?  And why is there only one side of the story being portrayed?  Might it not be an enormous coincidence that every single one of the journalists that visit the Rakhine state, who are allowed into this area by the government, are all reporting the same story?  This man that I met with told me stories about his hometown that were wildly different from what the media has told.

What is going on?  How can there be two completely opposite stories here?  I asked him why the Buddhists were embracing violence and killing Muslims, even though they are supposed to be pacifists and icons of tolerance.  Why is the news reporting that Muslims are being persecuted here and expelled from their homes?

I won’t get into his answers to my questions here, but I will say that, there is an interesting, alternate story to be told about this part of the world.  Right now, Burma is being torn apart by allegiances to different religions, and .  This has happened time and time again, all over the planet.  If religion is such a wonderful thing, why are people dying over it?  Why have people always been dying over it?  I thought it was supposed to fill our hearts with love and forgiveness, not intolerance and certitude.

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I volunteered at the disabled adults home on Christmas Day.  I was surprised to find that Hindu’s were celebrating Christmas.  They went out wearing Santa hats, caroling in different venues until they were completely knackered.  I couldn’t ask many questions, because my friend Motu, was exhausted.  But it made me wonder, really, why is everyone celebrating Christmas, here, in a Muslim country?

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I don’t want to make this post about religion, but it seems that’s where it’s going. It’s where I’ve been going, over the past few weeks. Everything suddenly seems like a lesson in religion, and I am just the sponge absorbing it all. I have learned about Buddhism from a Chinese-Malaysian man, Christianity from another Chinese-Malaysian man, Zoroastrianism from an Iranian guy, and now I am living in a school for Muslim girls, learning about Islam from the perspective of a Western-educated Malaysian woman.

I feel like my mind’s been tossed in a washing machine, whose knob is stuck on spin cycle. I am trying to process all of the different beliefs and just listen. Just listen and learn, and do not judge.

But speaking about misinformation, the spin cycle came to a screeching halt the other day when I first learned about Islam.  Islam, it turns out, is not anything like I thought it was. Coming from the States, I can’t help but be influenced by what we see on TV–people in the middle East burning the U.S. flag and blowing themselves up “in the name of Allah.”  We’ve all seen it.  I knew that this was a form of extremism, but I didn’t realize how extreme the media and even some of our leaders in the U.S. had been with their interpretation of a religion that shares so many similarities to Christianity.  I was shocked to learn that they believe in Jesus–indeed, they believe that Jesus will return one day to end the rule of the Devil. I was even more surprised to learn that the scarves (called a Hijab) Muslim women wear on their heads is not a sign of oppression, as has largely been assumed in the West.  I asked Susi, one night over dinner, why she wears the scarf over her head and neck, exposing only her face.

She smiled, got up from the table, and returned with two wrapped pieces of candy.  She put her hand out, bearing the candies.

“Which one do you want?”  She asked.

“Either,” I said, “they’re the same.”

She unwrapped one and then presented them again.

“Do you prefer one over the other now?”  she asked.

“No, not really.”  I replied.  ”I’d have either.”

Then, she extended her hand over the edge of the table, and tipped it so the candies fell onto the floor.

“How about now?” she asked, as I followed her gaze down to the floor.

Obviously, I’d choose the one in the wrapper.  It’s more clean, pure, and promising.  Ahh, I get it.

Muslim women actually take pride in wearing the robes and covering their head and hair because it covers their beauty and keeps them pure.  She explained that they don’t want men to look upon them with desire for their physical beauty.  They want to cover themselves and only expose their faces to members of their family or their husbands to keep themselves like the candy–pure, clean, promising.  Hearing it from her, I felt like it is a dignified, humble, and really proud way to walk around on this Earth.  It was not, as I had previously believed, a symbol of the imprisonment of these women to their male masters.  It was their choice.  Actually, in the Quran, women have much more power in their relationships with men than women in the Bible.

Susi is the woman who runs the orphanage/school for Muslim girls where I am currently living. She is a beautiful and very smart woman, and I love being here volunteering and learning.  I spend my days listening to her speak about her life and her devotion to Islam, while also working on various tasks around the property.  She went to school in the United States, so her English is exceptional and her ability to express herself is something I am very grateful for.

This morning, walking through the market with two of the girls and Susi, one of the little ones turned to me and said,

“Auntie, are you ok?” I was dazed, looking at the fish and herbs and vegetables on the stand in front of us and thinking about, I don’t know, nothing?

“Yes, dear, I’m fine.  Thank you,” I replied, slowly coming out of my aimless thoughts and realizing that I am aimlessly thinking, visibly, in public.

There is a lot to think about, still. More and more each day.  When I spent a night on a fisherman’s dock, the jetty, in Penang, I went to bed listening to a group of American Christian missionaries talking loudly about making pot brownies and going to the club. By the way, these travelers pay $19,000 each to a missionary company for 11 months of travelling, in a group of 60.  My budget for one year is $7000, and I am not working.  I can not for the life of me understand why anyone would pay to be a volunteer.  Anyway, it was 3 in the morning when they finally decided to move their little party to a more appropriate location–the club. I was embarrassed by their total disregard for the sleeping fishermen literally no more than 20 feet away from them. I was distressed the whole night; tossing and turning, growing more frustrated by the minute with my inability to tune them out and just fall asleep. I felt personally responsible for their inconsiderate behavior.  I looked over at Ang. He was laying quietly, with an expression of elated contentedness on his face.  I kept thinking, if I could only meditate, I might be able to smile and sleep through this noise, like Ang.  

After Penang, I stayed with an Iranian guy, who immediately became another  character in my story of amazingly influential people in my life.  One of the first things I asked him was if he is a Muslim, because he comes from a Muslim country.  He said he was raised Muslim, but is now a “free thinker.”  I guess we had that “free thinker” thing in common right off the bat.  Hakah was born in a country where it is illegal to have dreadlocks, tattoos or body piercings, wear shorts, or hold hands with your boo in pubic. Forget about homosexuality.  I was born in a country where it is a common sight to see outrageous expressions of individuality through body modification and public displays of affection. I was amazed to learn about his life in Iran, and to hear him speak with such an open mind about things that are not accepted where he comes from. I am finding that this is the case everywhere–people are people, everywhere you go. It doesn’t matter that our countries hate each other; we were able to become instant friends and learn so much from each other. Coming from two different worlds (both of which are essentially off-limits to the other), we have both come to a similar conclusion in life: free thinking is the only way to make sense of a world that is largely beginning to just not make much sense–to either of us.

“I want to be able to sit and meditate and smile like my friend Ang.” I said to Hakah one night. “I want my mind to be cool and for things to start making sense. Sometimes I find I just cant shut my brain down and stop thinking about how I wish I could be meditating instead of actually meditating.  He listened, and understood.  He has been learning to meditate recently, and quickly assumed the role of my spiritual Guru…until I find a more legit one.  He told me I need to stop judging my thoughts; let them come and go.  Acknowledge and dismiss them, and don’t let them control your mind.

This is what Ang refers to as quieting the monkey mind. I am trying.  I’m working on opening my mind, and not judging my thoughts, as Hakah told me and as Ang demonstrated.

Now, I sit by the green catfish pool in a courtyard outside my room, silently waiting for an Iguana to come, and trying to quiet my mind.  Yesterday, coming home from an errand, we were greeted at the gate by the girls in tears.  I became anxious.  It seemed something terrible had happened while we were gone.  I asked Susi what had happened, after one girl spoke to her solemnly

“An iguana came and ate one of the catfish,” she explained.  ”The girls saw it happen, and they’re upset.”

I have been placed in charge of dealing with the iguana.  I shoveled the dead catfish up and dumped him far far away in the jungle.  Apparently, iguanas can swim, hunt under water, and climb trees.  They’re almost as badass as a honey badger.  Yesterday, it killed three catfish.

The Iguana's first victim

The Iguana’s first victim

I set a trap for it, but ended up having to fight back vomit as I rescued one of our cats from it as he tore apart the guts of the catfish I had put in as bait.  I will catch this bloody iguana, and when I do, well, I don’t know.

Telling Meren about the iguana, yesterday, he said,

“How big is it?”

“It’s big, dude…at least a meter long, including its tail.”

“What will you do with it once you catch it?”

(pause) “I haven’t thought about that yet…”