May 15, 2010

Brunei Malay culture: visiting a Malay host's home

Friday, May 14, 2010
THE front door of the home may be wide open, as if welcoming the casual visitor to enter, however this is not necessarily the case. The Malays have a warm and welcoming attitude; their homes are open to relatives and friends and doors are often left open as a sign that the host or family is home, but a closed door means that the family is away or not receiving guests.

Malay grandchildren line up to greet their grandparents on a family visit.Picture: BT/Saifulizam
The simple call of "Assalamualaikum!" brings the host scurrying to the door responding with "Wa alaikum assalaam". Upon being invited in, the host may allow foreign guests to leave their shoes on, but it is the height of courtesy to take off your shoes before entering.

A typical Malay home is a space shared by all, and it's not unusual to find that the living room also becomes a dining room or where they conduct their prayers, given the need. As these activities require a clean space, one cannot go wrong entering either barefoot or with socks on, even if there is a telling hole in your sock.

Attire is also important when visiting a Muslim home. Avoid visiting in shorts, sleeveless tops or skimpy dresses as anything that is revealing for both males and females is taboo. They view this as a sign of disrespect. Pants for women are acceptable, but a long skirt is best. Although your Malay host will probably not comment on your attire, it's polite to dress modestly just like how the Malays are expected to dress.

The traditional Malay handshake is known as salam, whereby both parties extend their arms and clasp each other's hand in a brief but firm grip. The man offers either one or both hands, grasps his friend's hand and brings his hands back to his chest to mean, "I greet you from my heart".

Most Malays are aware of western ways, so the handshake is normal. The western way of shaking hands is quite similar to the Malays', although there are slight differences as mentioned above. One thing to bear in mind is that Malay women do not shake hands with men in accordance with Islamic practice. In this instance, a smile, nod of acknowledgement and polite conversation between the man and woman will suffice. As a substitute, men may also bow instead, while placing their hand on their heart in greeting a woman. Malay women can, of course, shake hands with other women. They commonly do so by grasping the hands of the other woman with both of theirs. Of course, a smile is always a welcome accompaniment. The young will often kiss the hands of their elders as a sign of respect and deference.

Buah tangan (literally "Fruit of the Hand") means souvenir or a gift. It's always nice to bring a little souvenir as a gift for your Malay host. It can be a something simple: a bag of fruit, chocolates or a cake, or just about anything "halal".

Even if the visit is short or fleeting, a Malay host will still insist on inviting you in for refreshments. Light snacks and drinks will be offered and not to partake is impolite, a mere sip or a small bite of something will suffice. To refuse food, one should just touch the edge of the tray or the plate being served. This is to "jangkau", so that one may not crave the food later on. Food should be taken with your right hand. The left hand should never be used to handle food under any circumstances, as it is considered "unclean".

In the past, hosts were expected to offer "sekapur sireh" (a preparation of betel leaves stored in a box to be eaten with a thin layer of slaked lime, gambier and slices of the areca nut). Today this custom is only practiced by those living in the rural villages.

Unless you're asked to visit at a certain time, it's usually best to avoid the evenings (especially between 7.00pm to 8.00pm) as most Malays, being Muslim, perform their evening prayers during that period.

It is also worth noting other prayer times during the day. Thursday evenings are usually reserved for religious activities or the family, so it is also recommended to avoid this time.

The Brunei Times