Chris This is Home on the Dot. I’m Chris McMorran.
My students know that I love visiting people’s homes. I love checking out the spaces that help make people who they are; seeing the traces they leave behind and the connections they have to distant places and people that are visible in photographs and other objects that fill all homes.
I grew up in a small town in Iowa, where most people had a kind of open-door hospitality. Friends, neighbors, teachers, my parents’ coworkers… I was welcomed into so many homes for birthdays, backyard barbeques, Super Bowl parties, movie nights, and just hanging out. I took for granted that openness of people’s homes until I moved to Japan after college. I spent that first year getting to know my fellow teachers, but I never set foot in their homes. We socialized at restaurants, cafes and bars instead.
I’ve had the same experience here in Singapore. I’ve lived here ten years and made many friends among colleagues at the National University of Singapore, but I have yet to be invited to a single Singaporean colleague’s home. Not once.
I mention this absence of home invites every year in my course called Home. My students suggest that it may be due to the small size of most homes in Singapore or that it’s just uncommon for non-family members to visit a private residence. Only once has a student taken the hint and actually invited me over.
That brave soul was Raudhah, a member of the Home on the Dot team, who produced an episode back in Season 1 about hawker centers, Singapore’s public dining room.
The occasion was Hari Raya Puasa, a ‘Day of Rejoicing’ that marks the end of Ramadan, the annual month of fasting in the Muslim calendar. In addition to religious practices like performing special prayers at mosques in the morning, Hari Raya Puasa involves families visiting the homes of their family members and close friends, and of course opening their own homes to others — sometimes even a professor curious to see where his students live.
For Raudhah, Hari Raya Puasa means dressing in matching brightly-coloured baju kurung (or Malay traditional costumes) with her brother and her parents and criss-crossing the island for a full day of home visits and meeting elders and relatives seldom seen during the rest of the year. It also means hosting at their own house, welcoming waves of visitors from morning to night. For many families, Hari Raya Puasa means at least two full days of being host or guest.
As host, Raudhah and her family had to prepare by thoroughly cleaning the house and buying or preparing food their guests could enjoy throughout the day. From savory to sweet — from lontong, ketupat and beef rendang to Kuih Raya like pineapple tarts and cookies — there needs to be something for everyone, of every age. In fact, like many holidays around the world, the food is one of the highlights of Hari Raya Puasa.
It was for me. Raudhah’s mother made the best laksa I’ve ever tasted.
Every home visit during Hari Raya Puasa ends with everyone seeking forgiveness from their elders and from each other, for any wrongdoings done knowingly or unknowingly in the past year. Hari Raya is a special occasion for Muslims to start afresh and strengthen family ties. In this way, it’s like many other major festivals in Singapore, including Deepavali and Chinese New Year. It’s a time to celebrate with family and close friends, and most of that celebration is done at home.
If you’ve been listening to Home on the Dot recently, you probably know what I’m going to talk about next. Covid-19 completely transformed Hari Raya Puasa in 2020. The holiday occurred during Singapore’s strictest period of lockdown, which was designed to flatten the curve of infection. Dubbed the circuit breaker, Singapore’s lockdown was announced on April 3rd, went into effect on April 7th, and lasted until June 1st. Unfortunately, both Ramadan and Hari Raya Puasa fell within this period.
During the circuit breaker, all schools shifted online. All employees in non-essential industries worked from home. All places of worship were closed. All restaurants shifted to take-away. Masks were mandatory for anyone outdoors. And public and private social gatherings were banned. This included the home visits, traditionally done on Hari Raya Puasa, which fell on May 24th, a week before the circuit breaker ended.
What is Hari Raya Puasa like without the big spring cleaning, or the open-air bazaars selling holiday foods weeks in advance, or catching up with distant cousins, or the all-important tradition of asking forgiveness from one’s elders in person? In this episode of Home on the Dot, I speak with Raudhah – a recent Sociology graduate – to learn what was lost, and what was gained, in this atypical religious and social celebration that was altered radically by Covid-19.
Chris So, I’m really excited to talk with you today about what you have said is maybe the biggest impact of Covid on your life, Hari Raya and the build-up to that.
Raudhah Right, sure. So for the weeks leading up to Hari Raya for a month, Muslims like myself would fast from sunrise to dusk. Yeah. So it’ll be around, I think a bit more than twelve hours, maybe thirteen hours. What my family does is we’ll wake up at about 5am in the morning because we have to stop eating by five forty something, 5:45.
So, usually my mom will cook a bit more the night before for our dinner. So that we can just heat up the extra food in the morning for our breakfast. During the day we won’t be eating or drinking.
Chris So no water…
Raudhah No water. The times that I had to fast during my school time was actually during the exam period and it wasn’t too bad because I didn’t have to speak. So…
Chris Oh, right, if you are giving presentations and really want a sip of water to help your sore throat, you can’t do that.
Raudhah Correct. So doing the school time, it wasn’t really that bad for me. I think. After fasting you will break fast around 7, when the sun sets. Before that my family will work together to cook and to set the table with different dishes.
Chris One thing I remember about the month of Ramadan as someone who is just out and about in the city at that time of the year is all of the stalls around train stations and other public places selling things. You call it the bazaar, right?
Raudhah Yeah, there will be so many shops selling the hari raya costume. Yeah, the clothes, they can sell furnishings like carpet.They also sell fairy lights, which usually people would hang at their window or at their balcony. I think most people look forward to the bazaar because of their food. Yeah, they have a lot of food, you can buy like the kueh there also. I think it’s one of the major highlights of the fasting month and the lead up to Hari Raya actually.
Chris Did you always go to the bazaar then, every year you would visit?
Raudhah We used to go very often. I think it was almost every year that we would go because that’s the best place to get Hari Raya costumes at a bargain price.
Raudhah There’s a lot of food and so nice to get. This is really food that we cannot get like any other time or any way.
Chris It’s just not sold in the store, right?
Raudhah Yeah, yeah and it’s so unique. I don’t usually like crowded places but I think that bazaar atmosphere is really something that I kind of miss also. It’s just so unique. It’s one year that’s the only time you can experience it.
Chris One month of the year and that’s it. It’s like a Christmas market in Germany or those pop-up Halloween stores in the United States. It’s an opportunity to purchase specialty items that only comes around once a year.
Chris So in a typical year, what did the day of Hari Raya Puasa itself look like for you?
Raudhah On the day itself usually there’ll be a lot of commotion. We will be rushing out to visit our relatives. We will wake up pretty early. I think my father and my brother will usually go to the mosque first.
My mom and I will be getting ready at home. And then when my father and brother come back from the mosque, we will be getting ready to go out to visit my grandparents already, When we are at our grandparents house, usually we will take a few hours to talk to our relatives and to seek forgiveness. Yeah, we will be chatting, having meals together. I think we usually have breakfast together.
Raudhah And the breakfast is pretty big. Like my aunt and my grandma will cook quite a lot for us because we have a big family. Then, once we visited our grandparents we will move, we will visit other relatives. Usually by the time we come back it will be around seven or eight pm. So, just enough time to wash up and then prepare for the next day if it’s a working day or a school day, yeah.
Chris So it’s really a full busy day of visiting people in their home. You are really outside of your own house for most of the day.
Chris So besides fasting at home instead of at school and the disappointment of having no bazaars, how was the day of Hari Raya Puasa itself different this year because of Covid?
Raudhah This year was really different. We didn’t really have a choice. We had to stay at home because my father and brother couldn’t go to the mosque for their Hari Raya prayers in the morning, we were actually able to do it together at home with my mom and I included.
Raudhah We got to do that additional prayer and then we had Zoom sessions with my relatives. Yeah, the ones who we usually visit first during a normal Hari Raya. we Zoomed with them. I think our first Zoom session, we had an online meeting with like five other households.
Chris Oh wow, how exciting!
Raudhah Yeah and initially it was a bit hard to interact because we didn’t know how to do it and then everybody was talking at the same time. [Laughter] Yeah, I think it was a bit confusing but after a while we kind of got the hang of it and it was quite nice to see their faces.
Chris I mean in the past have you also hosted people at your house on this special day?
Raudhah On the day itself usually we don’t host but I will host, I think a few weeks later.
Raudhah After, yeah and I missed it, I actually wanted to invite my friends this year but yeah, I think with the Covid thing it wasn’t possible.
Chris I know there’s a lot of preparation in the weeks leading up to Hari Raya, can you tell me a little bit about that? What’s involved and what did it look like in a typical year and how did that change in this year because of Covid?
Raudhah Usually in a typical year, even though we don’t host any open houses on our first day right, we would take a lot of time to clean up. Yeah, so we will really do a very rigorous spring-cleaning. We will usually buy new sets of Baju Kurung, or like the Malay traditional costume for everybody in the family, so we can coordinate with my other relatives also when we go visiting.
Chris What do you mean by coordinate?
Raudhah Okay, we coordinate the colours.
Raudhah Yeah, I’m very close to my uncles and aunts from my father’s side.
Raudhah Because usually we would visit them on the first day, what we do is, ask them what colour they’re wearing so if they’re getting blue, then we will at least try to find a shade of blue that we can pair with them. We will wear the Baju Kurung when we go on home visits. Usually we would get around to two or three new pairs of Baju Kurung and then the subsequent days that we continue visiting we would wear our previous years’ Baju Kurung, but this year it was a bit different. We didn’t get any sort of Baju Kurung this year because we weren’t going to visit. But we did make sure that we wore something nice when we were Zooming with our relatives. [Laughter] Yeah, on the day itself.
Chris Be sure to wear something nice, yeah.
Raudhah Yeah, we wore a Baju Kurung.
Chris So in a typical year, you would have done a lot of house cleaning ahead of time because you’re hosting people to your home.
Chris But this year you didn’t have to do that kind of spring-cleaning?
Raudhah Yeah so this year, we weren’t that stressed about the cleaning up compared to the previous years.
Chris Another hidden benefit of this year.
Raudhah Yeah [laughs]. I mean, we were a bit sad, like especially when we’re not able to meet the relatives that we are close to, it’s very different from a Zoom session.
Chris What is the big difference?
Raudhah When we were Zooming, I realized that I couldn’t really talk to my cousin that much. My cousins were on the screen but usually the adults will be the one who are talking. I mean, we cannot have like our individual conversations.
Chris So you missed seeing those cousins and having those more informal private conversations?
Chris Raudhah, you told me another time that one important element of these home visits is seeking forgiveness. Can you explain what that involves?
Raudhah Usually we will seek forgiveness from our elders, like our parents and grandparents.
Chris But what does that involve?
Raudhah Usually we would seek forgiveness for hurting their feelings, whether it was on purpose or accidentally because there could have been times that we were accidentally very harsh with our words but we didn’t realize. Usually when we seek forgiveness it’s for in case we accidentally hurt their feelings in some way. For my family, seeking forgiveness is where everybody starts afresh. For my father’s side what happens [is] everybody actually queues up, in front of my grandma. From oldest to the youngest. So usually it starts with the…
Chris Everyone lines up from oldest to youngest…
Chris In front of your grandma….
Raudhah Yeah, including the baby [laughs].
Chris OK, OK…
Raudhah Yeah, then they will take their time to seek forgiveness.
Chris And so, you just have a one-on-one conversation, just asking for forgiveness.
Raudhah Right, right.
Chris And then what does your grandmother say to you?
Raudhah She will always remind me to be filial to my parents. Yeah. I think “be a good daughter, be a good granddaughter” and to do well in school. Yeah and take care of my family.
Chris And then you can start over for a new year.
Raudhah I did see them during the Zoom sessions and we did seek forgiveness during Zoom. Yeah it was a very different feeling, I felt.
Raudhah Yeah, like even though I tried, having it on zoom was less intimate. Because everybody could see.
Raudhah Of how I was seeking forgiveness from my grandma. It wasn’t as private as what it would be in person actually.
Chris So it sounds like Covid-19 disrupted your normal Hari Raya in many ways: no private moments to seek forgiveness from your grandma or chat with your cousins, no magical atmosphere of the bazaar, and no special holiday foods. Plus, you couldn’t invite friends to your home like you did with me a few years ago. But it wasn’t all bad… you and your family didn’t have the stress of cleaning the house, or the work of cooking laksa for dozens of visitors. And you didn’t have to drive all around Singapore to visit other homes.
Raudhah The other thing during the fasting month during the Covid period was my family and I was less tired, we were able to do our Terawih prayers. It’s an additional, a recommended but not compulsory prayer that we can do at night, after our last daily prayer. Before the Covid time we didn’t really do that as much because we were usually quite tired when we came back. Usually these Terawih prayers are being held in the mosque. Yeah, it’s very difficult for my mom to bring her to the mosque because she has her mobility issues.
Chris Yeah, because of her mobility issues.
Raudhah So during the Covid time where everybody is very well rested, I think we were quite lucky [laughs].
Chris I see. So because you and your brother were studying at home and your Dad was working from home, you all had more energy and could do those extra prayers together as a family. It’s quite funny. I kind of expected you to be sad about how Covid disrupted your typical Ramadan and Hari Raya, but in fact, it seems to have brought your family closer together.
Raudhah Yeah, especially the nuclear family. It was an unexpected benefit, I think.
Chris That’s so interesting. Well, Raudhah, thank you for taking the time to talk with me. I know Covid-19 has impacted everyone in Singapore in some way, but it was fascinating to learn how it altered Hari Raya Puasa. I really fondly recall visiting your home and tasting your mother’s delicious laksa a few years ago. I hope Covid-19 doesn’t disrupt any other major religious functions in the months to come.
Chris Welcoming guests into your home is a sign of generosity and vulnerability. Even if they are family members or close friends, opening your door means opening yourself to scrutiny and potential criticism. Your cleanliness, your hospitality, and your taste are all on display. This can be stressful, but it can also strengthen bonds.
Covid-19 has essentially closed the front door on guests. Around the world, home has become a shelter from the virus, which means people must be more cautious than ever about who just stops by. As we all wait for a vaccine, how many more holidays that center on the home, like Hari Raya Puasa, will have to be abandoned or radically altered? When can we again safely have visitors?
This episode of Home on the Dot was produced by me, with sound engineering by David Chew and other assistance from Shaun Tan. I want to thank Raudhah for speaking with me and to wish her luck on her new career.
If you liked this episode, please rate us on Apple Podcasts, and keep listening for more Covid-19 episodes. To learn more about the Home on the Dot project, please visit our blog, where you can find transcripts and links to news and academic articles on every topic. It’s at tinyurl.com/homeonthedot. You can also find us on Facebook. Just search for Home on the Dot.
Thank you for listening.