Hi, I'm Mikhail, one of the co-founders of Have Halal, Will Travel. I'm a Chinese-Muslim revert and yes, I celebrate Chinese New Year (CNY)! Many of you might have read about me through the stories I shared about spending Ramadan in COVID-19 and the struggles I've had as a Chinese-Muslim revert. Alhamdulillah, it's been more than 6 years since I've embraced Islam and it's been an interesting experience celebrating CNY as a Muslim. You might be wondering what it's like to celebrate Chinese New Year as a Chinese Muslim. There are some things which I've learnt and observed, which I'd like to share with everyone.
Being a Chinese MuslimInterestingly, since becoming Muslim, I've received a lot of questions on whether I celebrate CNY and the customs and traditions that come with it. Some seem to think that CNY is a religious festival but it's actually a product of centuries of Chinese culture. It's traditionally celebrated to usher in spring but it's also when Chinese families - regardless of religion - gather together to share a meal and catch up after a year apart. This is why lots of people return to their hometown to see their loved ones. While Buddhists and Taoists may give offerings on this day, this is a religious practice and not a cultural one. Chinese-Muslims, Christians and Buddhists alike can also be found celebrating CNY with their families! Sadly, many are still unable to differentiate culture from religion. There's also a tendency to associate Islam with being Malay in this part of the world. In my first few years of celebrating CNY as a Muslim, my wife, Suzana and I would bring our own food for our extended family's reunion dinners as we didn't want to impose on them (more on that later). And my family would think that I would bring "Malay rice" for dinner. In their world, if you're Muslim, you're Malay. Thankfully, through the years, we've been able to change this perception.
Frequently asked questions
On the opposite side of the coin, I've had to deal with curious questions among the Muslim community as well. I've had people ask me why I join my family at a non-halal restaurant for meals because "there's pork or alcohol served" even though I bring my own food. There are also questions about whether I can eat dishes prepared my non-Muslim family members, even though they use halal ingredients. Once, someone even made a comment about an altar in a photo of my family at the dinner table at my dad's house (above). While I'm Muslim, my dad is a staunch Buddhist and I respect his decision. To me, smelling incense or sitting near an altar isn't going to make me less of a Muslim. I would be worried if it does!Apart from family, the spirit of CNY also extends to the workplace. Even though only half of us at HHWT celebrate CNY, the team makes an effort to have a reunion dinner every year so we can foster good relationships. Last year, we had our reunion dinner at StraitsKitchen and we also did the "lo hei". The buffet was super yummy and satisfying ? Although things are different because of COVID-19 and we can't have our reunion dinner this year, the meaning of CNY has not changed - it's still about togetherness.
Celebrating CNY in the time of COVID-19
COVID-19 has definitely changed the way we celebrate the festivities. With the restrictions on the number of visitors per household per day, my family and I have had to scramble all our initial plans and spreading the visiting out across 2 or 3 weeks. Every weekend, we'll be visiting some relatives. So, CNY is extended for us and looking at the Eid festivities in a few months' time, it'll probably be the same.My daughter gets to enjoy these festivities with us too (it'll be her third CNY this year)! While she'll probably not remember any of this, it's important to pass on the customs and for her to understand diversity. If COVID-19 has taught us one thing, it's that you can't plan everything in your life. You hardly see some of your family this year due to the pandemic. It has made me realise the value of spending time together. To me, CNY has always been about being together and especially this year, it's more valuable to me than any other year.
Striving to be a good representation of Islam
When I embraced Islam, I knew that I'd be thrust into the spotlight. Every stereotype that I've had to break or every question that I've had to answer is a chance for me to raise awareness and change perceptions. As Muslims, we have a huge responsibility to portraying Islam for the beauty that it is. It’s easy to close our hearts and lament the fact that Islam has gotten a bad rep in recent years. But what you don’t realise is that we can help change public opinion about Islam and Muslims if we all try to spread the message of love and peace. You can do this by being a good, father, mother, colleague, son, daughter and friend. You can do this by showing compassion, kindness and understanding towards non-Muslims. The fact that I'm Chinese-Muslim makes this responsibility even more crucial. Every year during CNY, I see it as a duty to show my family who Muslims really are - that we are willing to put aside our differences and integrate.Looking at this picture of a Chinese family doing the "lo hei", can you tell who is Muslim and who isn't? If it's your first time knowing me and seeing this picture, would you believe me if I told you that I'm Muslim? The fact is that religion is not defined by skin colour, language or culture. Being a Muslim doesn't mean that I can't do the "lo hei" or that I have to eat nasi lemak all the time. Allah s.w.t mentioned in Surah Ar-Rum, verse 22:
"And of His signs is the creation of the heavens and the earth and the diversity of your languages and your colours. Indeed in that are signs for those of knowledge."
The message is for all of humanity. While Muslims are one brotherhood, we belong to the larger brotherhood of humanity and our differences are a sign from God. Today, we see people from all over the world embracing Islam, regardless of race, nationality or status. That is the beauty of Islam and that's what we need to tell the world.
Spreading the message of peace through family
Soon, I realised that the more I was willing to share about my faith to my family and the reasons why we eat halal food, pray etc., they became more open and understanding to me.Though my dad initially objected to the idea of me being Muslim, he eventually accepted me and used halal ingredients to prepare our reunion dinners. This is something that I'm always grateful for. The experience of reverting to Islam has made me love my dad even more. In my heart, it pulled us together instead of separating us. As for my extended family, Suzana and I bring our own food for reunion dinners and my family helps by asking the restaurant for permission. It's these little gestures that I appreciate which many take for granted. It doesn't matter if we're having completely different meals, the only thing that matters is that we're sitting at the same table, celebrating the festive moment together ❤️ My family's version of "lo hei" - we add fruits to the mix as it's a healthier option! It is important to give and take - while my family puts in the effort to accommodate, I also try not to impose on them. After having a child, I've realised the importance of culture and what it means to be preserving it for the future generation. During the festive season, we may feel tired or lazy to dress up and get all fancy for the celebration but then we've got our children looking at us as their role models. If we don't expose them to these experiences, they may grow up with no identity or sense of self. What's most important is making sure that we raise our children to be familiar with all these cultures and experiences. Otherwise, they'll just end up being potatoes! If you've been following HHWT for some time now, you'd know that our greatest mission is to inspire and enable Muslims to travel so that they can be ambassadors of peace. So naturally, interracial harmony is very close to my heart. Peace can only be achieved when people come together and celebrate their differences. To pull away or to create a divide amongst ourselves will be an injustice to Islam. Imagine how divided we would be if we decided that it's easier to only associate ourselves with people who share the same religion or race. Our beloved Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) taught us a great deal about social integration. During his time, Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted peacefully. The Prophet's uncle, Abu Talib, himself wasn't Muslim but never once did he shun away from his uncle. So, as I'm celebrating CNY with my family today, my heart is full knowing that with a little bit of love and understanding, we can bridge that gap and make this world a better place. Lastly, from the HHWT team and our adorable mascot, Meeko - here's wishing all of you a Happy Chinese New Year! P.S. Want more stories like this? Check out how these 6 Chinese-Muslim reverts celebrate Chinese New Year!