“Malaysian for a Week,” Sara Tyson (2016) — Inquiry 1

Writer’s Letter.

Dear Reader,

        This essay was about my experience in using rhetoric as a way to convince my Malaysian family that I could adopt and perform their culture as well. Being noticeably American, my Malaysian family always excused me for not being able to adjust to the Malaysian culture. In this essay, I talk about the week I spent with my Malaysian family, and how I carried out their customs. The process of writing this narrative was pretty long and tedious for me. I kept wanting to add or eliminate more from my essay, to make as crystal clear a picture for the reader as possible. I was mostly concerned with the flow of the story and if it all successfully gelled together. I kept my writing style simple. I chose this style because as the reader is reading this story in their head, I didn’t want them to feel overwhelmed with the mount of information they had to process, and wanted them to be able to construct a simple yet vivid picture in their head so they can focus more on the content. This narrative was a great way to put my experience into writing. It allowed me to be flexible in what and how I wanted to convey my essay. I was able to learn that I was capable of using rhetoric as a means to persuade people into thinking in a certain way, and I want my readers to absorb that feeling as well. The process of writing this essay also brought to my attention the weaknesses and strengths that I have in my writing. The peer response draft allowed for my classmates to evaluate my work before coming up with a final draft, and it helped me in tremendous ways. I made changes to the arrangement of my paragraphs, use of punctuation and what to include and exclude in my content. They pointed out my strength in my attention-grabbing points and simple essay construction. I feel satisfied with my final product. The feedback and help from my peers, as well as the comments and support from Mr. Kyle helped me feel more confident in my writing.

Thank you

Sara Tyson


Malaysian for a Week


“How can I not think of anything right now? I speak Malay all the time! Just a couple of words, Sara… Anything?!


I was raised in Malaysia for 17 and a half years. My family and I migrated from America to Malaysia a year and a half after I was born. I have been brought up having to learn and perform two very different cultures – the American and Malaysian. Because I was exposed to the Malaysian culture far more than the American, my father always lectured me on not forgetting my roots. My family and I still heavily practiced American norms. We were straightforward, very vocal, and opinionated, but I was a completely different person when I was surrounded by the locals. I had to assimilate to the Malaysian culture that was on an entirely different spectrum. Outside my home, I was known as Sara, [pronounced: Sah-rah] and not Sara [pronounced: Se-ra], the black girl with really curly hair and an accent. School was not the true test of being Malaysian, and it definitely was not in the solidarity of my own home. My true test of being Malaysian was when I was 14 years old. My parents left my younger sister and I to stay at my Malaysian relatives’ house, while they travelled to America for a week to attend my elder sister’s graduation. Because my cousin and her family are Malaysian and carry out the normal customs pretty much instinctively, I felt the need to be able to adapt and perform them as well. I did not want to come off as disrespectful, and wanted to convince this side of the family that I was capable of carrying out the beliefs and norms that guide their lifestyle. After all, I was half-Malaysian too. For a week I wanted to prove that I was integrated into the Malaysian culture just as much as my Malaysian family. For a week I vowed to override any thoughts of carrying out American practices. For a week, I was Malaysian.


Day 1 – Friday:


After all the hugging and wishes for my parents to have a safe flight, my sister and I waved goodbye until their airport taxi faded off into the distance. I sat at the dining table with my sister, cousin and her parents afterwards for dinner. I reached for the food, carefully piling it onto my plate. After I was satisfied, I was ready to feast. That was when I realized that I had no utensils.

“Oh, where’s my spoon and fork?” I thought to myself.

I looked around on the table for them and came to no success. I then observed everyone else at the table to see if they were missing their utensils too.

They ate with their hands. Everyone did. I knew this was a cultural norm, but it never crossed my mind that I would have had to do it right there and then.  

With no hesitation, I cupped my right hand in the proper manner, and began eating my rice that was soaked in “sambal” sauce, pieces of fish and steamed vegetables. I tried my best to prevent myself from looking or feeling uncomfortable throughout dinner, engaging in conversation, and even adding more food to my plate. Underneath the façade, I felt extremely unnatural. But towards the end of dinner, I got used to eating with my bare hands, and realized that I would have to for the next 6 days.


Day 2 – Saturday:


The next morning came, and I felt proud that I went through my first night at my cousin’s house one step closer to becoming Malaysian. I made my way to the dining room to have breakfast, and lo and behold. My extended Malaysian family was there with my aunt and uncle, delved in a heavy conversation in Malay. I have only met this side of the family once, with memories of our encounter completely forgotten. I must have been 5 or 6 years old. I “salam-ed” everyone, a cultural hand gesture performed to elders where you shake their hand followed by bringing your hand to your chest afterwards. I had mastered and practiced that growing up. I sat down with them and started to make myself an egg-sandwich while I let the chatter of reunited family members in the rich language of Malay fill the air in the room. I was halfway through my sandwich when suddenly, I was hastily asked, “Macam mana Sara dekat sekolah? Dah tingkatan berapa dah?” [translated: How are you doing in school, Sara? What grade are you in?]. That is when I froze. I have not spoken in Malay in a long while. Rosmah, my extended cousin, knew very little English.

“How can I not think of anything right now? I speak Malay all the time! Just a couple of words, Sara… Anything?!

“Sara okay sahaja. Sara dah dalam tingkatan empat dah” [translated: I’m doing fine. I’m in 8th grade now]. I exhaled a sigh of relief, feeling ecstatic that I overcame that hurdle. I was able to recollect my knowledge of the Malay language, ready to have a full-fledged conversation. We spoke in depth about my life in Kuala Lumpur, and towards the end of our conversation, she complimented me on my ability to speak Malay so fluently.

Yup… Saya berjaya. [translated: Yup… I did it]


Day 4 – Monday:


Since I was about 10 years old, I had developed an insecurity. I started to realize that I looked different compared to those around me; and because of that, it ultimately made me feel different. The benchmark for beauty for Malaysians was extremely influenced by the Eurocentric beauty standards that the British helped develop when colonizing Malaysia. Fair skin and long straight hair were typical traits for Malaysians, emulating the British. Some locals even color their hair or wear colored contact lenses to enhance their portrayal of beauty. Being African American, I was constantly questioned on my appearance by the locals, but the one question I was asked most, was “Why is your hair like that?” My Malaysian friends would do things like stuff pencils in my hair, or force me to untie my bun. In their attempts to praise my hair, it still made me so self-conscious. Who knew, that the hair on your head, something you were born with, could dictate how others treat you? Because of this pressure to conform to Eurocentric beauty, I pestered my mom for months into buying me a flat iron to straighten my hair. In the 7th grade, I finally got one. From then on, I would straighten my hair every day before school, even when I go out, to prevent passersbys from staring. On days I did not have time to, I would dread how I looked and could not feel at ease with myself. I wanted to be like all the other Malaysians, with long silky hair, and I wanted them to stop staring and teasing me about mine. The morning on Day 4 was like any other. I sat cross legged in front of a wardrobe mirror, plugged the flat iron into the socket, waited for the temperature to regulate, and strand-by-strand, I consciously burnt my hair until it was as straight as I wanted it to be. I finally looked like a Malaysian. Well, part of me at least.


Approximately 2.50pm

I came back from school, content with the day that I had. I walked into my cousin’s house to see everyone already finishing up their meals. I greeted everyone and went straight to the sink to wash my hands to get ready to eat.

“Are you not going to use utensils?” my cousin worriedly asked.
“No it’s okay, I’ll use my hands!”

I saw a glimmer in her eyes that looked impressed with my willingness to use my hands. I thought to myself, “I could get used to this” and all of a sudden-

“Sara! You forgot to take your shoes off!” shouted my little sister.

“What? What do y- Oh! Oh my gosh I’m so sorry!”

I embarrassingly got up and tiptoed towards the door in hopes of avoiding getting any residue from my shoes on my cousin’s floor. I was so used to walking around my house in my shoes after getting back from school that I gave it no thought when I came back from school to my cousin’s. I knew this custom, I just completely forgot. I’ll do better next time.


Day 6 – Wednesday:

Approximately 2.50pm

I was prepared this time, to come back from school without making any mistakes. I made sure I took my shoes off before coming into my cousin’s house, pushing them neatly aside after. I greeted my cousins and sister, and then paced to the sink to wash my hands. By now, my cousins and sister became used to me eating with my hands. I sat down and asked about their day while I piled on food on my plate. They ended up waiting for me to finish my lunch before bringing their dishes to the kitchen. It felt good to be able to go about my day so far without breaking any Malaysian customs, that is until…

“Sara what are you doing?! You can’t sing in the kitchen!” exclaimed my cousin.

“What?! Why not?”

“It’s a Malaysian belief! If you sing in the kitchen, you won’t be able to fall in love and find a husband.”

“Are you being serious?”
“I’m not lying.”

After washing our dishes, my cousin, sister and I sat down in the living room. I listened to my cousin tell me a couple of important beliefs in the Malaysian culture. Here are a few examples: do not sit on a pillow or you will wake up with a bruise on your bottom; do not sit on a public staircase or people will assume that you are a “hooker” (no matter what you wear). I would have broken so many of those beliefs had I not made that one mistake of singing Alicia Keys in the kitchen.


Day 7 – Thursday:


My parents’ airport taxi pulled up my cousin’s driveway. Elated, my sister and I ran outside to their embrace and helped them haul their luggage bags inside my cousin’s house. When we reached the door, I reminded my parents to take their shoes off before coming in.  A while after settling in, my aunt and uncle invited all of us for dinner. I made my way to the kitchen to get a set of utensils, not for me, but for my father who still had not quite adjusted to the custom of eating with hands. My parents talked about their trip and my sister’s graduation, erupting laughter and questions from the rest of us at the table.

“Aunty, boleh tolong kasi ayam tu?” [translated: Aunty, could you help pass the chicken?]

My aunt and mother glanced at me, surprised that I casually spoke in Malay, and with fluency. Adding to the conversation at the table, I shared with my parents the new Malaysian beliefs I learned the day before. After, my cousin exclaimed her recognition of my cultural paradigm shift during the time I stayed. My aunt and uncle agreed and praised me as well. I felt accomplished; I felt proud. Being able to persuade my Malaysian family that I was not inept at adapting to their culture was a huge feat.

In my pursuit of persuasion, rhetoric acted as a powerful device in influencing the perspectives of my Malaysian family of me. I had to embody what I wanted to portray, convincing the people around me that I was capable of being Malaysian. Rhetoric sometimes needs dedication and a drastic alteration in disposition, however even the slightest change such as posture or the shirt you wear, can convince people on how you want to be interpreted as well. I have come to understand the significance of rhetoric. It is truly a skill to master, and what is most beautiful about it, is that anyone can do it.