Hari Raya has been the highlight of Siu Lim’s year for the past 14 years, made doubly meaningful with the challenges she’s overcome in her choice to embrace Islam.
Hari Raya. The simple mention of it brings to mind many beautiful imageries of families on their way to balik kampung; festive chatter and laughter of loved ones young and old gathered at the dinner table; delicious traditional food being passed around and enjoyed.
One person particularly looking forward to this is Siu Lim. Hari Raya for the American-Chinese Muslim convert has been the highlight of her year for the past 14 years.
“Every year on the day of Eid, I go to a few homes to celebrate my Eid with the friends and family I love. Every Hari Raya is like a high school reunion for me,” tells the soft-spoken mother of four. “I get to see familiar faces that I haven’t seen much or at all throughout the year. We sit, we eat, we laugh, we cry. It couldn’t get any better than that.”
While the food and the visiting of family and friends are the main highlight for her as it is every year, she has an ambitious plan for this year’s celebration.
“This year I’m also going on a small family trip to the beach with the intention to not use any electronics,” she divulges cheekily. “We’ll see how that one goes.”
Hari Raya is a particularly fond time for her because it marks the biggest change in her life for a lot of good.
“It’s just like Christmas but for Muslims”
A friend in university was the first to share with her the beauty of Islam. He didn’t push her to convert, but merely asked for her to pray for herself to whatever God she believed in. She did, and it was in Islam that she found a lot of her questions answered.
Her first Hari Raya was in America, where she was born and raised in San Francisco, and was filled with a lot of merry-making with friends.
“Prior to conversion, I had no idea what Hari Raya – or Eid as they call it in America – was and why it was celebrated,” she tells. “After conversion in 2003, I celebrated Raya in the States for a few years and thought, “Hmmm it’s just like Christmas but for Muslims!”
She moved to Malaysia four years after in 2007 and got a taste of Malaysian-style Hari Raya. “WOW, it’s just like Christmas, Chinese New Year, Easter, all birthdays, Hanukkah, and any other holiday combined… sometimes for a whole month!” she exclaims.
Ten years in, her celebration is spent mostly with friends as her immediate family are not based in the country with her.
Her celebrations have become even more meaningful now that she’s a mother. “I’m always happy to be with my children during Raya,” she tells. “Just like Christmas, I buy them presents and to see the excitement they have on their faces, it’s all enough for me to be happy.”
Things however weren’t always so rosy.
“I felt as though I lost my world”
Her conversion didn’t come with a lot of acceptance from those who mattered the most to her – her family.
Born to Buddhist parents and raised amidst largely Christian friends, she found it hard to even let them know she had converted.
“They figured out something when they noticed that I wasn’t eating pork anymore,” she shares. “My parents struggled with the idea and disapproved of my conversion hoping that I would one day change my mind.”
Many thought it was just a phase that she would eventually give up but she wasn’t deterred. Islam saved her from a life of vices and brought her a sense of calm and peace she had never felt before.
“My friends weren’t too happy I was no longer their drinking buddy and my parents were barely speaking to me. At that point in my life, I felt as though I lost my world yet I wasn’t willing to give it up knowing that my instincts felt very strongly about Islam.”
She had her new faith constantly challenged but always retaliated with kindness. “Being constantly mocked at and bullied for what you believe in is one the most challenging thing a person has to face in their life,” she says, “but when you set yourself up as a good example by responding with kindness, a smile, and a strong frame of mind, people will let their guards down and start to hold your hand because of people in general respect strong people.”
Her biggest challenge came when her ex-husband broke the news to her that he was taking on a second wife, a practice accepted in Islam on certain conditions. She was devastated and spiralled into depression from not knowing how to handle it – one one hand, it hurt her to no end and on the other, it was something her religion said was alright.
It is also through religion that she rose from that muddy situation stronger and surer and decided to take on the role of a single mother, a topic she discusses on her vlog here.
She has no regrets about her choices today. “Islam has taught me to be a kind, honest and a trustworthy human being,” she says. “I know it may seem like a boring, straightforward answer but that is the truth. I am more focused on my day to day actions that strengthen my character as a Muslim.”
This Hari Raya, she has but a simple wish: “I pray for everyone to have amazing Raya and to find themselves during their own journey in Islam.”