Tuesday, September 20, 2011

The World's Largest Floating Book Fair

A few weeks ago, the kids' elementary school had a field trip to Logos Hope, the world's largest floating book fair, which was making its first visit to Malaysia. One of the third grade teachers told me that on a small island like Penang, it's difficult to come up with places to take the children, so they leapt at this opportunity. The prospect of a) going on a boat; b) buying books; and c) partaking in something that is the "World's Largest" got all the kids very excited. An added bonus for me was that the school would be providing the sack lunches since my kiddos were signed up for the semester lunch program. Yippee! See, Brad thought that he had finally trapped me into making him lunch, but he was sadly mistaken. (I'm still finding my culinary footing here in Malaysia and don't even have making dinner completely figured out. A disposable sack lunch still seems beyond my abilities.)

Unfortunately, poor Maria came down with Strep throat the day before the field trip and had to miss out on all the fun. So, I promised her that the whole family would go once she was feeling better. That's how we found ourselves at Swettenham Pier a few days later. (I just love the name Swettenham Pier. One, it kind of sounds like "sweating ham." Two, it reminds me of something out of Thomas the Tank Engine. As in, "Thomas and Percy chugged out of Knapford Station and raced to Swettenham Pier.")

It turns out that we weren't the only ones with this lovely plan for how to spend our morning. The only time that I have ever seen this big of a crowd at a Barnes and Noble was for the midnight release party of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. Penang just doesn't have that many bookstores, so it's understandable that people would happily queue up for the chance to buy some books. Oddly enough, Penang does have a Borders bookstore, but I haven't had a chance to visit it, yet. The part of the boat that was dedicated to selling books, CDs and DVDs was about as big as two mall-sized Waldenbooks. Over here, most of the bookstores plastic wrap their books, so you don't get to leisurely flip through them when browsing. But at Logos Hope, the books were just sitting there unwrapped and begging you to have a look-see. Joyous day!

What makes Logos Hope so interesting is that it's staffed entirely by volunteers. Even the qualified maritime crew members are volunteers. Not only are they not paid, they also have to raise funds to cover the costs of their time on board. They come from all over the world and encourage visitors to chat with them about their home countries. When the elementary school field trip visited, they put on a Cultural Show for them. The kids also had a chance to learn a little bit about how ships work.

From talking to some of the volunteers, I gathered that they enjoyed this opportunity to both see the world and act as ambassadors for their homelands. In the past few years, they've made their way from Northern Europe to Jamaica to Africa to India before docking in Penang. Many of the places they visit don't have ready access to affordable books, so they see it as their mission to spread knowledge around the world. At many ports, the volunteers also go into the community to build homes or visit shelters like Community AIDS Service Penang.

In addition to demonstrating multicultural harmony, they also have a mission to educate guests about making good moral choices. That's how I came across this little sign.

So, there you have it. Books, international awareness, and a morality tale all rolled into one family outing.

Friday, September 9, 2011

Reflections on 9/11 from a Muslim country

Like so many others, I clearly remember what I was doing when the terrorists attacked. Clark who was 2 years old at the time had just finished breakfast and asked to watch TV. I turned it on to find a morning show reporting that a small airplane, possibly a helicopter, had just crashed into the World Trade Center. No one seemed particularly alarmed, so I continued onto PBS and put on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for Clark to enjoy. I went back to cleaning up the kitchen. About 20 minutes later, Andrew called from work to tell me to turn on the TV. That's when I began to realize the enormity of what was unfolding.

Whenever I look back on that day, what strikes me the most is the stark contrast between Fred Rogers' message of neighborly acceptance and the hatred that motivated the terrorists and subsequently some Americans. Being a Muslim in America has undoubtedly changed post-9/11. Just look at the vitriolic opposition to the Muslim community center being built a couple blocks away from Ground Zero. Three months before moving to Malaysia, someone close to my heart forwarded me an email. It's main objective was to stir up fear of  Muslims. Among it's many claims was, "All followers of Allah have been commanded to kill everyone who is not of [Islamic] faith so that they can have a place in heaven." My response: "I'm about to move to a country that has a Muslim majority and only 9% Christians. I don't need to be told that most of them are out to kill me."

Now that I've been here for a few months, I can see how harmoniously people of various faiths interact here. At the food courts during lunch, I see coworkers enjoying their lunches together. In the same group, some women will be wearing hijabs (headscarves) while the non-Muslims are not. They're chatting and friendly with each other. When I watch them, I understand that although everyone is special and unique, there are some things that make us all the same. Isn't that what Mister Rogers wanted us to learn?
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