30 January 2015

Malaysian Weddings - Chinese and Kelabit Style

Malaysia is a country with a mixed bag of cultures and they all celebrate differently.  A few weeks ago we were invited to help celebrate the wedding of one of my husband’s colleagues – her husband to be is Chinese and she is half Chinese half Kelabit so they were having a fusion event. 

In Malaysia only Muslim marriages can combine official and cultural elements (not dissimilar to a Church wedding in the UK) so it is common for the cultural and official weddings to be held separately.  In this instance the couple had been legally married a few weeks before but the cultural wedding was the big event.

The wedding in Miri's Catholic Cathedral
The couple are both Catholic so, in the morning, we went to the Church wedding. This was a fairly standard Catholic wedding – no different to the many that I have been to for other friends with the exception that it was very large - the groom's family alone comprised more people than we invited to our wedding.  We then went home until the evening reception at a local hotel some hours later – this is when the differences really showed.

When we arrived at the event we handed over our Angpow – a little red envelope with the money for the wedding.  It is not traditional, here, to give gifts at a wedding unless you are very close to the family, instead you give a set amount of money per person attending sufficient to cover the costs of your meal.  One of our friends said that 90% of the cost of his wedding was covered by the contributions from the angpows.  A table is set up at the entrance to the event for guests to hand over the envelope and have their names (and contribution) ticked off a list. Again there were a lot of people - the tables filled the hotel's (large) grand ballroom, there were easily more than 400 people there but we were told that it was not an unusual size for a wedding.

A large family...
Sarawak is a fairly casual place and so it was not surprising to see guests in a range of dress from traditional to t-shirt and shorts to full wedding attire.  The formal event started with an introduction of the bridal party (who had changed to different clothes from earlier in the day) and then the first of a ten course meal was brought in.  The lights were dimmed, beat music started up and waiters carrying candlelit plates negotiated their way through the maze of tables to bring the food to the guests.  A friend mentioned that this is quite normal in Sarawak – hotels seem to choose techno music by default but guests can opt for a different track if they prefer.  Shortly after this the bridal party changed again  - a total of three different outfits!

Handing over Angpows
During the course of the meal there were video showing the couple’s courtships and events from earlier in the day.  These included the groom and his groomsmen coming to the bride’s house to take her to church.  They were met by the bridesmaids who set them several tasks to negotiate – from eating neat wasabi sauce to identifying the bride’s lipstick print on a piece of paper.  Angpows were handed over to the bridesmaids and the groom was finally allowed to enter.  The bride and groom shared tea with their family and then went to the church leaving the house under a red umbrella (for luck) while firecrackers sent out clouds of red confetti.

Back at the reception the bride’s relatives had arranged for some traditional Kelabit elements to be included in the celebration including a traditional wedding song and a traditional dance (although the music, by the Rivers of Babylon, was anything but traditional).  The bride’s family are from Bario in the highlands where the beadwork is particularly fine and very prized.  Gifts from her family to the grooms included a parang (a type of machete) for the groom and bead necklaces for both the men and women of his family.  The bride was also given a traditional beaded bridal skull cap, belt and necklace. 

Kelabit Bridal Song (you can just see the
women wearing beaded headbands)
Towards the end of the evening the guests stood to toast the happy couple with a Chinese toast of  ‘yah, se’ said as loud and as long as possible.  An equivalent to hip, hip hurray

Click  on the picture for more posts on life in Malaysia.

Ersatz Expat

24 January 2015

Ersatz Cooking - Kitchen Substitutes for the Expat Cook

The problem with moving from country to country is that ingredients for food you like to cook and your family like to eat can be hard to find.  Sometimes you have to use something else instead – some substitutions work remarkably well, others change the taste a little.

Many of the hints and tips on my Ersatz Kitchen page explain how to get around things like baking without baking powder etc but here is a collection of substitutions that, while handy, are not complex enough to merit their own blog post.

Fish Sauce:  Useful for a lot of Asian cooking.  Substitute a mix of soy sauce and Worcestershire sauce.

Palm Sugar:  Again popular in Asian dishes.  Muscovado sugar is a suitable alternative.

Ketchap Manis:  Necessary for Nasi Goreng and many Malaysian and Indonesian dishes. There is no real substitute but it is easy to make your own.  Heat Soy Sauce and Brown Sugar in a ratio of 1:1 until the sugar starts to dissolve.  Add water (.5 ratio) diced ginger a star anise and a cinnamon stick.  Continue on the heat until the sugar is completely dissolved.  Strain and store in the fridge.

Crème Fraiche: substitute high percentage sour cream for savoury and marscapone for sweet dishes.

Marscapone:  If you want to make Tiramisu but can't find Marscapone you can substitute a block of cream cheese mixed with sour cream and heavy cream - start the additions reasonably small and add more to get the taste and consistency you want. 

Lard: you can use butter, goose fat or strained bacon dripping depending on whether you need a savoury or sweet recipe.

Zaatar:  mix thyme, majoram, oregano, toasted sesame seeds, salt and sumac to taste.  Adds flavouring to dried tomatoes and is very tasty when mixed with olive oil and toasted on pitta. 

Koekkruiden:  Dutch mixed spice – a mix of Cinnamon, Nutmeg, Allspice, Ground Cloves, Ground Ginger, Ground Cardamom, Ground Star Anise and Ground Mace.  I use in a lot of baking recipes that call for mixed spice.   Also tasty in recipes such as Christmas Pudding and Mince Meat. 

Shortening:  substitute butter or lard. 

Buttermilk: you can make butter and buttermilk by agitating raw milk in a sterile jar until it separates out.  This is time-consuming but a great activity for a kid who wants to ‘help’!  Alternatively add a tbsp. of lemon juice to milk and leave on the counter for 15 minutes to curdle.

Galangal:  This is used to impart flavour in a lot of South East Asian cooking.  If you do not have any you can substitute ginger.

I have subsequently added this to Life With A Double Buggy's  Expat Linky- click for even more Expat treats.....

Expat Life with a Double Buggy

And to the Practical Mondays linky hosted by the Practical Mom

Click  on the picture for more posts on the challenges of the expat kitchen.

Ersatz Expat

15 January 2015

Brunei and Bandar Seri Begawan

Brunei is a common weekend trip for Miri expats – many profess that the meat in Bruneian supermarkets is better quality than that available in Miri and families will often take a trip to buy food.  There is an alcohol shop in No Mans Land which sells wine and other alcohol at good prices. 

Omar Ali Saifudden Mosque with ceremonial (concrete) barge.
I have managed to find just about everything I need, bar the odd luxury, in the extremely well stocked supermarkets here in Miri and we rarely drink alcohol so the shopping aspects hold very little interest for us.  Indeed the prices in Brunei are high so it is not uncommon for families from there to come to Miri for their food shop – our supermarkets even accept Bruneian Dollars so it seems rather crazy to me to travel there to buy food.

Bandar Embankment Walk. 
There are good national parks in Temburong and now we have the big car we will probably take the children there for a long weekend once the girls’ passports are back.  We have, however, taken a few trips to the capital, Bandar.  It is an easy day trip from Miri and something different to do with visitors.  The roads are in good condition and not too busy so Bandar is only about 2-21/2  hours drive away although it can take longer if there are queues at the border. Sadly all our trips have been in the rainy season so the photographs we have are moody, overcast and a little dull.  

Bandar's central cemetery - surprisingly peaceful.
View of Kampung Ayer from the Omar Ali Saifudden Mosque

Bandar itself is a rather dry (in all senses of the word) capital.  It was destroyed in WW2 so is a new city.  The centre is compact and easy to navigate but rather dull.  The main sights are the Omar Ali Saifudden Mosque – the mosque itself I reasonably modern and not overwhelming but it sits on an island in a lagoon and is connected to a concrete replica of a traditional royal barge which is used for important religious occasions.  The Royal Regalia museum is also worth a visit – particularly if it is raining.  There are a few other museums but they are mostly not worth visiting, the exhibits are good but lack contextual information. The best bit of the city is, in my opinion, the rather pleasant embankment - you can walk along to get to the craft centre (which sells traditional cloth and silver work but is very overpriced) and take in views of the river and the rather beautiful and peaceful cemetery.

Kampung Ayer sits just across the river from Bandar - in the
background you can see some more modern, concrete,
 houses built by the government.
Most of the houses in the Kampung are more traditional and made
of wood.  
The main reasons to go to Bandar, however, are to see Kampung Ayer and proboscis monkeys.  Kampung Ayer is a water village that sits along the river.  It is a bustling metropolis in its own right with schools, police stations, mosques and even a fire station.  All buildings in the Kampung have piped clean water and electricity.  

The kampung is well organised with communal jettys for homes
that do not have their own steps to the water.
Kampung Ayer Fire Station

Kampung Ayer's Mosque with both water and land access
Just 20 minutes up the river it is also possible to put into the mangrove and see families of proboscis monkeys going about their business.  The monkeys live in small family groups and, if you are lucky, will come all the way down to the water near the boat.  When my husband took his mother to see them they got some very close up views.  A few weeks ago I drove over with some other visitors but a larger tour boat in the vicinity at the same time meant that the monkeys kept to the tops of the trees.  Nevertheless it was quite amazing to see the monkeys playing in the treetops – even mothers with their young.

A loud tour near us meant the monkeys did not get too close.
We still had a good view - the photos do not do it justice.
This large gentleman sat munching his mangrove for sometime and
allowed us to take several pictures.  He is wise to visitors, however
as he always stayed behind branches!
Both the Kampung and the monkeys can be seen on a river tour.  It is possible to arrange this through a formal tour operator – you will get a beautiful boat, life jackets and a rehearsed commentary in English.  These tours cost a lot of money so rather than shell out more than we needed we picked up a water taxi – the driver was happy to take us up the river, was very knowledgeable about the monkeys and cost less than half an organised tour.  The smaller boat and reduced number of people also meant that we were quieter so that the monkeys came closer to us.  On the way up river he took us past the Istana, the gigantic 1800 room palace of the sultan.  On the way back we went around Kampung Ayer before being dropped off at the centre of town. 

Water taxis are a common way to get between Kampung Ayer and Bandar
They are easy to hire and better value than a tourist
boat - and you have it to yourselves!

There are a number of decent restaurants in central Bandar, some fast food chains and some cafes so there are plenty of options to choose from before getting back to the border in time to cross back home.  

Click  on the picture for more posts on life in Borneo.

Ersatz Expat

8 January 2015

Expat Ennui

Expat life is wonderful – it gives us so many opportunities we might not otherwise get.  We have lived and grown to know other cultures, learned other languages.  Our children have made friends from more countries than we would have thought possible and the opportunities for travel are, quite simply, fantastic and, for the most part, I love it.

Who wouldn't want to live here....

The employed spouse gets to advance their career with high profile, challenging positions.  The children get an international education at excellent schools but what about the trailing spouse?  I have been thinking about this a lot in recent weeks.  We left the UK to pursue my husband’s career.  The opportunity was too good to pass up but it has meant a significant career sacrifice on my part.

This experience is by no means unusual.  Some trailing spouses relish the opportunities to relax, study, read or play sports that the expat lifestyle offers.  Some countries allow spouses to work – and indeed I did work successfully in Kazakhstan albeit that it was in a series of ‘jobs’ rather than in my established career.  The result being my CV, not unlike that of many trailing spouses, is eclectic and unusual. 

Most of the online resources for trailing spouses list a number of solutions.  Work from home (fine if you are a qualified transciptionist, programmer etc not so much if your field is not one that allows or can be adapted to telecommute).  Studying works if there is distance learning available in your chosen field.  Volunteer, again fine to fill in CV gaps and time in the day and it can be fulfilling but you are essentially paying to use your time not being paid for it.  Enjoy time with the kids – I love my time with my children and decided to stop commuting between the UK and Kazakhstan (which I did for over a year) as my absences were too hard on them.  I similarly declined an offer to stay in Kazakhstan for work and commute to Malaysia for holidays although I might have been tempted if the job had been in my professional field as I do want to work. 

Expat life means you get to live in some out of the way places...

This is an acknowledged problem for many large international companies – postings work better when the whole family is happy and some employers have spousal support networks or provide training/retraining.  This is a problem that will only increase as time goes on.  When my parents were expats my mother worked in some postings (she was a special needs and English teacher) but not others depending on whether she wanted to.  It was not common, however, for spouses to work and single income families were still the norm in most ‘home’ countries.  These days’ dual income families are the norm and even if two incomes are not required financially many trailing spouses, like me, invest a lot of their personal worth in their professional achievements. 

I noticed, as 2015 rolled over, that I have been feeling that sense of ennui that comes with the lack of a defined role in life.  This is probably also connected to the 2015 general election in the UK – had we remained there I would likely be fighting that election in a seat with a reasonable chance of success (I stood for a major party in the 2010 election).  Our baby is still very young and I love having time with her.  I don’t want to spend too much time away but I do want to do something with my days. 

And have some fascinating experiences...

Here in Miri I am a stay at home mother, my professional identity is gone.  A large part of my self worth is tied up in my professional and political persona – I studied and worked for years to become that person.  A part of me thinks that I should be running for parliament and instead I am baking brownies! (And having some down right wonderful adventures as well to be fair).

I don’t want to succumb to ennui, the reality is that Miri is not a good location for spousal employment opportunities. Rather than let this get to me too much I shall be looking, slowly but surely, for something to do with my time, hopefully something that ties in to my long term career plans or interests.  Just setting that goal made me feel a lot better I have something to search for and work towards while still enjoying my time with my family (and my very tasty brownies).  My first step has been to get copies of my old diving qualifications so that I can get my skills reviewed and start diving again.

That way I know I can truly enjoy all this wonderful life has to offer.  

This post is part of Seychelles Mama's monthly link up 'My Expat Family'.  It showcases some of the very best expat blogs on the web so do pop along and read some of the other brilliant blogs.....

Click  on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat

Seychelles Mama

Expat Life Linky

2 January 2015

New Year

I have been looking over my posts for the last year – starting with my New Year’s reminiscences from 2013.  In that post I wrote about how much life can change as an expat in a short space of time.  2014 was certainly a busy and eventful year.  My husband and I both got new jobs (I left my new job behind in Astana, however), we moved country and had a new baby.  Our life now is about as different as it can be.

2014/15 playing on the shores of the South China Sea

2013/14 playing in the Astana Snow

We realised, as we celebrated the new year, that we have now been six months in our new home here in Sarawak.  We are settled, happy, have friends and know how life works here.  We have been planning trips to make in the car for long weekends and preparing our bucket list.  So instead of looking back I will look forward to what we would like to achieve in 2015.  I wonder if we will achieve it all….?

Best wishes to everyone for an adventurous, happy and prosperous 2015.

Click  on the picture for more posts on the challenges of expat life.

Ersatz Expat