I have lived in Malaysia for almost five months now, and have experienced many aspects of cultural exchange: Food, clothing, communication, greetings. I’ve also dug deeper, often having conversations about religion and politics. But the experiences that have taught me the most and that will stick with me for the rest of my life are the ones I can’t read in a travel guide.
Two days ago, one of my students died of an untreated infection. A few weeks ago she was a strong, healthy 17-year-old. She attended my activities, we took selfies, and I taught her class. At my recent girls’ empowerment camp, we voted her most likely to be first female prime minister of Malaysia, and she agreed. I recently gave a talk to her class about studying abroad in the U.S. She pulled me aside with a flood of questions. “Miss, I must go! I know I will! Do you think I can?” She asked, “Miss, which major makes you the most money? I want to be soooooo rich!” She was academically ranked at the top of the school.
Her death was sudden and shocking. The whole school found out in the morning over the loud speaker. “Are we going to cancel school today?” I asked, “No, the students have exams.”
I walked past her former classroom. It was empty, with water bottles, calculators, and notebooks abandoned on the desks. The curtains blew in the open windows. I walked the halls. I wanted to comfort the students who knew her best, but I saw no tears and was met only with “Good morning, miss!”
I walked past another group of students. “Miss, why you so sad?” I motioned to the empty classroom “____ died today…” “Oh yes, we know.” The students didn’t cry, they just patted me on the back and said “It’s okay, miss.”
I couldn’t understand it. Why aren’t people collapsed on the ground in grief, why aren’t heads bent and rooms silent? Confused, I walked back to my office. On the way, I met a student who knew her well. I hugged her and tears streamed down her face. I was relieved to see someone else openly grieving. “I’m so sorry” I told her, and she said “Don’t worry, it’s not your fault.” “Not my fault?” I thought to myself. “Why on Earth would it be my fault?” Then I realized that the American custom of saying “I’m sorry” must be very misplaced and confusing here.
I went to kantin for breakfast. The teachers were laughing and talking. I sat quietly and didn’t say much. A teacher walked by me and said,
“You know, one of our students died today.”
“Yes, I know. She was my student.”
One teacher called over to me, “Christy, why you look so sad today?” I didn’t say anything. She insisted “Christy, really, what’s the matter?”
I lost it. “Why do you think I’m sad? ___ has died? It is natural to feel sad when someone dies!”
“Oh, but we are sad, too” she said with a smile.
The teacher to my right turned to me and said, “I think maybe our culture is different from yours. In Malaysia you must not cry or show you’re sad when someone dies. We have to mourn the loss through our prayers, and when we go to visit the family we cannot cry because it will make them more sad. We grieve privately. Is it not like this in America?”
“There are many different religions in America who do things differently, but usually in my culture we are allowed to be sad in public when we learn that someone has died” I say, “and for one or two weeks after we can show how sad we are.”
The teachers avoid talking to me or looking at me and carry on with their conversation. I silently leave and go to my office. My good friend, the religion teacher, comes in.
“In our religion, when someone dies, there are certain things we must do. First we must wash the body. We wrap the body in white cloth. It is very important for us to pray. We say special prayer for dead. Then we bury.”
“Do you bury them within one day?”
“It is not required that we bury in one day, but our Prophet tells us to bury as soon as possible.”
“Do you embalm the body?”
“No, we do not. You come to funeral with us?”
“Yes. When is it?”
“In one hour.”
Before we leave for the funeral, a teacher turns to me and says “Christy, when we go to her family’s house you must not cry. You cannot. Do you understand? Do you have a scarf to cover your head?”
We caravanned to the student’s kampung. We walked up a dirt road to her house. Older men sat in a tent outside. Thirty or forty pairs of shoes were lined-up outside the house. We took off our shoes, went in, and greeted the student’s family in the first room. Her female relatives sat at the door. My students and I gave them the traditional greeting of respect, the salam. I crouched down, took her grandmother’s right hand in both of mine and pressed my forehead to it, then touched my right hand to my heart.
I entered the next room and saw her wrapped in cloth in the middle of the living room floor. Students, teachers, friends, and family were seated on the floor around her. The religion teacher and our principal were seated at her head, and her classmates encircled her. Her face was covered, and every few moments a friend or teacher gently lifted the cloth to look at her.
Someone passed out small prayer pamphlets. One teacher behind me began to sing the prayer. One voice joined, then another, each at a different time. The sound of the prayer came in soft, overlapping rounds. People quietly stood up and left when they were finished singing the prayer. When the students I was in charge of were finished, I got up and followed them out.
I told two of my students on the way back to school “I know this is very hard for you, you are very strong.”
“Yes, she is our classmate and we will miss her very much. You know, now it is only eleven students in our class.”
The teachers and students were clearly more upset than I was—they had known her longer. But they chose not to show it. At first I was shocked by the lack of public mourning. It felt indecent and disrespectful. I was angry that no one seemed to understand and empathize with my grief. But I had to remember that I am the abnormality here, and that my culture’s practices must seem weak and overdramatic in comparison. I witnessed a great deal of strength and stability in how my Malaysian friends mourned this loss. Perhaps cultural exchange is less about learning how other cultures operate, and is more about revealing your own culture to you.