This post was written by Frances Wilks
As I write this, all Penang is gearing up for one of the biggest festivals of the year – Chinese New Year, of course. People are stocking up with food, and mandarin oranges and scarlet ang pow envelopes are everywhere. There’ll be generous feasts, clan dinners, and open houses; we’re even having dragon dancers visit the IWA/TEG office in Tanjung Bunga to wish our partnership and both enterprises well for the next year. Of course such a festival brings chaos to the already overburdened Penang traffic, as there are only really two north-south roads at the critical “waist” of the island (well, waist is probably a kind term, as Penang is rather plump around the middle; it must be all that delicious food!)
Chinese New Year is but one of the many festivals we enjoy in Malaysia, and scarcely goes a month goes by without some sort of celebration. I love the pageantry and passion of it all, but, as was revealed to me in Sri Lanka a decade ago, festivals have a deeper meaning than that.
I was then lecturing in Psychology at the University of Peradeniya near Kandy. Expat life was very different from Malaysia, especially in the hills. There was always fresh fruit and wonderful vegetables for sale, but the international luxuries we all enjoy here were few and far between. The best tea in the world – plucked by hand upcountry – the marvellous jackfruit curries, the home-made kittul and coconut fudge, the pol sambols, and the fresh jaggery juice went a long way towards making up for the simplicity of the life. But there was a darker side to the beautiful country too, and it is perhaps one that few tourists saw.
Sri Lanka is often called “the land of smiles,” but the faces told a different story from the hearts. Traumatised by years of Tamil–Singhala conflict as well as by a terrifying civil uprising, the people hid their grief over loss of loved ones, loss of limbs, loss of homes and livelihoods and, most crucially, loss of hope. This grief erupted occasionally in violent murders, mental illness, and a soaring suicide rate, which for a time in the 1990s was the highest in the world. The alcoholism was horrifying (if hidden mostly from view), and I saw men drinking bootleg liquor as single shots out of plastic bags. Almost everyone had some form of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), but no one was diagnosed. At that time, I was trying to set up the first Diploma in Counselling in Sri Lanka, believing somewhat naïvely that by bringing the concepts of emotional intelligence to the country, we could at least alleviate some of the mental suffering.
There was a period of peace before the great tsunami of December 2004 and the final bloody conflict when it was possible to travel to Jaffna, the northern Tamil heartland, by road. Up until then, the area had only been approachable by air or by sea at considerable risk. A university expedition, which included six psychiatrists, a social worker, and another psychologist set, off. The journey itself, a mere 300 miles, took forever on potholed roads with warnings of mines and constant checkpoints. Finally we reached Jaffa, a burnt-out shell of what had once been a gracious city with a vibrant cultural life. People drove 1950s-era cars, kept running by little more than sheer ingenuity, or else they rode bicycles. Food was short and famine always looming just around the corner, but people here were holding themselves together mentally better than those in the south.
We spoke at some length with Professor Daya Somasundram, an amazing psychiatrist who had pioneered the treatment of PTSD in Jaffna. He told me two things I will never forget. Using simple tools, he had developed a programme of stress relief using guided visualisation and body relaxation techniques. It was simple to teach, yet profoundly effective. “If they are religious, we tell them it is derived from spiritual meditative concepts,” he told me, “which it is. If they are more modern in their thinking, we tell them that it is based on scientific principles, which it also is.”
The second thing he told me was the importance of festivals. “We give the people as many festivals as we can. It builds social connections as well as giving them something to look forward to, and these things are critically important for human happiness.”
I often think of the professor’s wise words and think of all the social connections and goodwill that are being developed in Penang at festival time. Although Malaysia is a peaceful and well-ordered country, it wasn’t always this way. Many people still living can remember the difficult days of the Second World War and the time of the Emergency in the 1950s, as well as the racial tensions and subsequent riots in the late 1960s. Somehow, the different cultures have managed to create a coexistence, perhaps not always one that’s in total harmony, but enough to build a community together. It’s one of the best things about Malaysia and perhaps it’s why expats often feel so comfortable here.
The next time you’re delayed by a festival procession or inconvenienced by a shop closing for a cultural holiday, just be thankful that we have so many festivals, so much feasting, and no famine.
Source: The Expat March 2013
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