First Quarter: August – October

Currently, I write to you from a friend’s family home in Singapore, where I will be staying for a few days before hopping around for the next two weeks. I hope then to leave for Indonesia for a little over a month, where I will be learning about the growing religious extremism and interfaith tensions in the area. S’pore, Indonesia, and Malaysia are an anthropological triplet; all diverse but to different degrees in terms of embracement and numbers. They overlap in languages, culture, and history, yet live unique presents. S’pore has the strongest organ donation system and seemingly sound interfaith activities; whereas Indonesia’s system is virtually nonexistent and tensions increase among its populations. I look forward to staying in Indonesia, where the language barrier is stronger and life is more chaotic, according to my friends in Malaysia. The absence of organ donation is also interesting to me, and I believe will elicit different conversations that those that I have had in Malaysia and may in Singapore.

On the spectrum of organ donation systems, Malaysia falls somewhere in between the two. I know it the best given how much time I have spent there. Over the course of three months, I had the privilege of having 24 “formal/scheduled” conversations with leaders at the forefront of organ donation and inter-religious/ethnic affairs: government officials, faith leaders, NGO directors, and researchers. Informal conversations were just as valuable, ranging from short discussions with Grab/Uber drivers to friends and cafe owners. Because I didn’t set up a formal attachment or internship, I also casted my net wide, participating in around 28 conferences, lectures, and events that allowed me to understand my interests more deeply and diversely. My time was occupied by these commitments, but also with other activities, from editing a book on organ donation to drafting budgets and corporate sponsorship letters to volunteering for three different organ donation campaigns.

A summary does not reasonably cover all that I learned and ascertained, so I offer you longer write-ups on the blog I somewhat successfully maintain (a sidenote: balancing the time I spend living and writing about how I have lived is surprisingly difficult, though one could argue one lives even more by thinking about what they have done).  I’ll offer some brief comments and observations on what I’ve learned about organ donation specifically in Malaysia.

  • Malaysia has one of the oldest organ donation systems in the region, but unfortunately has one of the lowest rates of donation in the world.
  • Organ donation rates differ by ethnic group, where Chinese-Malaysians donate the most and Malays donate the least. The numbers do differ by region, where Borneo has the least involvement. However, the trend remains consistent.
  • Though Muslims are less likely to donate, religion is not a key discourager. Rather, as the government focuses awareness efforts on Malays, the donation rates for the demographic increase. However, Malaysians are, as a whole, unlikely to donate for various cultural reasons. One, the body ought to remain complete for burial, afterlife, or reincarnation. Second, family is strongly valued and extended in decision-making processes. Doctors require family consent regardless of the patient’s wishes, which often means that someone outside of the immediate family can veto any decision (and is likely to do so as organ donation is uncustomary or unfamiliar). The family may also not know what the patient wished. Third, organ donation extends the death process, which is painful for grieving families and occupationally burdensome for healthcare professionals. Fourth, families may not understand what constitutes brain death and may hold out for a miracle. Fifth, healthcare professionals may not have a proper system in place or likely unsupportive of organ donation. Sixth, sometimes donations cannot take place, because the family asks for the organs to go to a specific religious or ethnic group. In these circumstances, the Ministry will stop the donation activities and not procure the organs. The list continues beyond these reasons, but suffices as six main reasons why Malaysians are unlikely to donate.
  • A question that captivated my research: With a well-built organ donation system (based that off of Spain), why are the Malaysian rates of pledging and donating declining since 2015? There are many hypotheses, but some prominent ones: negative media, fears of trafficking and stories of children being kidnapped, lack of awareness, cultural hesitation, slow response to the controversy by the government, and most importantly, political discontent. The political discontent is largely found among minority populations. Thus, interfaith and interethnic conversations are critical and affect public health care, and thus motivated my endeavors to understanding how Malaysians view, interact, and live with difference.

Reflections on Malaysia:

Living in Malaysia also offered new opportunities and experiences, beyond ones that directly related to my study of organ donation and religious/cultural beliefs around it. I explored new adventures, from learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with Chinese-Malaysians to batik painting to volunteering at local soup kitchens with Malays. I also learned a bit of Bahasa and a decent amount of “Minglish.” I found myself enamored with the diversity of Malaysia, which expands beyond Chinese, Indian, and Malay ethnic groups. As the country is described by its many malls and food, Malaysia’s population is best described by a local cuisine: rojak. A medley of fruits, vegetables, and other odd companions, rojak combines the flavors of sesame, tamarind, and peanuts, with contrasting tastes and textures. Simply put, it’s a mix, and so is Malaysia. The country is a rich synergy of so many different histories, religions, cultures, and people. I was surprised by the amount of interracial and interfaith marriages, which often seem rare where I grew up in the States. I was also surprised how the majority of people wherever I went (except for Kota Kinabalu) thought I was local, but could not guess what I was: Arab, mixed, South-Asian, Chindian (Chinese-Indian), Mauritius, Filipino, or Malay.

One of the most challenging aspects of my time so far was deciding to leave Malaysia. I have a feeling that Malaysia may be the country in which I stay the longest, though the duration was not unexpected. While I hesitate to err to melodrama, my departure was nearly heartbreaking. The first week, I roamed the city alone, and by the 9th, I could run into someone I knew. At the end of an interview, when I asked for recommendations of another with whom I could speak, I often heard the names of people I’ve already met. I felt at home in KL and so, I realized it was time for me to leave. Committed to discomfort, I traveled to four different cities in Malaysia to conduct interviews and, in turn, realized how differently they varied in culture and demographics: Kota Bharu, Kota Kinabalu, Kuching, and Penang. Having explored five cities in Malaysia well, I realized that I could spend 5 years in the country and still not know all the possible ways one could live within them. Yet, I recalled a promise to myself: to move whenever comfort exceeds growth.

This past week, I returned to KL, to say my final goodbyes and catch a bus out of the country. On Friday, I was led into a surprise/farewell party, and I found myself in tears, as I thought myself undeserving of such kindness and friendship. I often joke with my friends here that I am an unsustainable friend, as I won’t stay long in a place. To digress further for a moment, I think the beauty of knowing people is how small the world is and how friendships carry themselves like the wind. Perhaps, on some days, you can feel the same wind grace your nearby companion, yet on other days, the wind carries your sails. In this sense of the term, you carry with you the experiences you shared with friends, so that even if they may be far away, you are still affected and supported. Thus, good-byes felt odd, and wholehearted see-you-laters defined my last few days in KL.

Reflections on the Watson, overall:

During these past three months, I did and not do everything I hoped to. I wrestled with fears of inadequacy and questioned my competence to live a fulfilling year or “get the Watson year right.” Though most of my friends were local, I did meet a few Americans, two Fulbright grantees and a Bonderman fellow, whose own experiences contrasted and resembled mine, and found my own somewhere in between. After catching myself a few thoughts later, I realized I was comparing lives in different seasons. At Wellesley, I had nearly every minute of my life productively scheduled, and now I find myself within an hour to watch a sunset. I didn’t realize how uncomfortable I would be watching something as inherently beautiful as a sunset over the Bornean coastline for more than 15 minutes. Perhaps, this year is also learning how to breathe and come to terms with yourself. When I was younger, I used to think in metaphors, but can hardly recall doing so in college. Now, maybe as I am in an entirely different place where things don’t come across as easily, I have noticed metaphors become more common in my daily vernacular. In many ways, I feel like plasma finding a shape without the container in which I once existed. I am beginning to understand who I am without the strings of attached associations.

On being Muslim:

Much of my project tugs at the questions of faith, identity, and connection. I think my experience so far as a Muslim has largely been inverted compared to what I felt like in the US. In Malaysia, Muslims are the majority. Finding rooms in which to pray has been easier. I had McDonald’s for the first time, as it was halal, and finally realized why people love commercial cheeseburgers so much. I woke up to the sound of the adhan, something that many in America associate with fear rather than a call to express gratitude. Yet, I was not and was apart of the Muslim community; I didn’t wear the hijab, so many were unsure if I was Muslim. The invisibility of my identity only went so far, as my name is Islamic and so is my ancestry. However, my vagueness allowed me to enter different conversations simultaneously. I listened to some Malays justify the limited rights and protections of non-Muslims in Malaysia, and in turn, shared my experience of facing similar discriminations in the US as do non-Muslims in Malaysia. Some of my non-Muslims freely shared with me their discontent with the Islamization of Malaysia. Peculiar conversations involved me befriending someone who vocally expressed islamophobic ideas, and then observing them wrestle with the dissonance of their ideas and me. Perhaps, what I realized through these experiences is that it is a rare privilege to live in a place where people don’t hate or think poorly of you upfront for your identity. I think this realization reminds me of why organ donation is so beautiful. The same heart that can keep a Muslim alive can do so for a Hindu, an atheist, or for anyone, within biological compatibility. Organ donation serves a tangible reminder that perhaps, no matter where or who you are, humanity extends beyond the borders we draw.

Traveling alone and finding a home:

What is it like to travel alone? As a female, I have a lot of pride in travelling alone. As long as I try my best to be in the right place at the right time, I feel safe. I like to think that I can challenge stereotypes, as many are surprised to see a young Muslim Punjabi girl on her own. I do feel uncomfortable, in the poor sense of it, when men ask if I am alone, as they are usually probing a vulnerability. I have been followed by men, forced to smile for selfies in a locked taxi, and certainly, harassed by men on the streets. Despite how drastic the situations seem, I have maintained control of the situation and remained calm. I know how to lie about parents waiting at the coffeeshop or slip a metal band on my ring finger. These experiences do make me feel lonely, as I remember the power of having a companion the most during these times.

Yet, at the end of the day, I return to a home within myself. Though this may sound like I am alone, as I often am, I assure you that I do not feel lonely — except in occasions particularly challenging as those mentioned. Malaysia welcomed me wholeheartedly these past three months and I found family among friends, growth within discomfort, and happiness in conversations. Each day differed differently from the former, and I discovered myself in experiences I never imagined and places far too beautiful for me to have dreamed. Each day, I realize how little I know, how little I understand, how little I matter, and how wholly unimportant I am. The person I meet on a bus does not know what I accomplished or of what I am capable, but merely me in that singular moment. Therefore, if I can embody kindness and listen to what they have to share, I will do far more than I could ever do otherwise. All that truly matters is how I make others feel.

How fast and long three months feels. And, inshAllah, how beautiful the next 9 months will be. I am really grateful for this privileged opportunity. I sincerely believe these days are times of which I dreamed, and I cannot help but smile, regardless of the day, in gratitude for what I know as a miraculous year.

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