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Fly the Flag

As Malaysia celebrates her 60th Independence Day this 31 August, we asked expats how they celebrate their national days away from home.

by / Published: 18 Aug 2017

Fly the Flag
Photo: Brian Fang (M8 Studio)

H.E. Manuel Balaguer Salas and Mdm Guadalupe Cernusco 
Ambassador of Argentina to Malaysia and wife 

The year 2017 is special for Argentineans celebrating their national day here. Not only is it Argentina’s 201th birthday, it’s also the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations between Argentina and Malaysia; an exciting time for the Ambassador of Argentina to Malaysia and his wife to be representing their country here. 

Argentina celebrates their national day on 25 May, which is known as the May Revolution Day. The week prior, May Week, commemorates the political events from 18-25 May 1810 that triggered the May Revolution and ultimately achieved Argentina’s freedom from Spanish rule. However, the formal declaration of independence was only made on 9 July 1816, which is now known as Independence Day. 

Back in Argentina, says Mdm. Guadalupe, it’s tradition to gather in the kitchen and cook locro (a hot, meaty stew) together, drink wine and enjoy a warm fire as the festivities occur during winter. Pastelitos (fried pastry stuffed with quince jam) is also a treat synonymous with the occasion; it’s said that women were selling them in the crowd as people waited outside the cabildo (town hall) for news of Viceroy Cisneros’ resignation, which put them on the road to independence. 

Here in Malaysia, the two days are celebrated differently. “The national day is to show our country to the world,” says H.E. Manuel. He makes an effort to introduce Malaysians to Argentinean culture and find links between both countries. Last year, Argentinean and Malaysian polo players played a friendly in mixed teams at the Royal Polo Selangor Club; this year’s celebration was held in the iconic Petronas Twin Towers, which was designed by Argentinean architect Cesar Pelli. 

Meanwhile, Independence Day is kept intimate for the 300-strong Argentinean community here, who are welcomed to the Argentinean Residence for the day by the Ambassador and his wife. They’ll sing the national anthem and other songs, indulge in pastelitos, choripanes (chorizo sandwich), empanadas (stuffed bread) and turrón salteño (nougat). “It’s nice for them to be with their own community once a year and feel like they’re really at home,” says H.E. Manuel. 

Diplomatic importance aside, the couple believe that celebrating the national day abroad helps instil a sense of pride, and sharing it with other people is an enriching experience. Says Mdm. Guadalupe: “Roots are very important. I feel so proud of being Argentinean, with all its good and bad sides. I am proud of my ancestors, who put great effort into building our nation, and I would like to honour them by doing my part to make our world a little better.”

                   

Monica Rangel
Vice President of the Latin Ladies Association of Malaysia

There are few people more passionate about their culture than those in the Latin Ladies Association of Malaysia – the vibrant annual Latin American Festival is a testament to that – and so the warm yet fervent patriotism of Monica, their Vice President, is no surprise. 

Her home of Mexico has had a tumultuous history, with armed conflict marking both its struggle for independence from Spain and a national revolution that revolved around land redistribution and social reform. But that conflict solidified the Mexican identity among the indigenous people, African slaves, mestizos (people of mixed Spanish-American Indian heritage) and the other races that lived there.

“What I admire from those times in Mexico is that regardless of your heritage, you were always a Mexican. That sense of identity came with independence,” says Monica. 

Mexico’s Independence Day is celebrated on 16 September. In Mexico, she says, people would go to a zocalo (public plaza) on the eve, bells would ring and a shout would go up based on the ‘Cry of Dolores’, where Miguel Hidalgo appealed to Mexicans to revolt against the Spanish rulers. National flags would decorate the streets and food; and on the 16th, there would be a national parade.

It’s harder to replicate that atmosphere in Malaysia, but Monica and her fellow Latin Americans still go all out. On the 16th, she says, they would normally make chiles en nogada – a traditional chilli-based dish from post-colonial times. It’s hard to get the ingredients here, so she makes do with tacos and tri-coloured sauces. “It may not be all that we would have done, but we do all that we can.”

Each year, the Mexican Embassy in Malaysia leads the traditional shout, met by the threefold answer of ‘Viva Mexico!’; the national anthem is sung and traditional food like tacos, tostadas (deep-fried tortilla) and enchiladas (rolled tortilla with filling) is served. “Of course tequila, our national drink, is always present!” 

In her own house, Monica reads her children stories on Mexican history, creates traditional paper cut-outs in the Mexican flag colours for decoration, plays Mexican music and makes crêpes (thin pancakes) with cajeta (sweet caramel sauce.) 

Monica is proud to be Mexican because of their acceptance of diversity, and loves celebrating national days with other nationalities as it can be a very enriching experience. She has one wish for both Mexico and Malaysia this Independence Day: “Always be united, always as one.”
 

Natasha Reuben
Founder of Badass Monkies

With her hearty laugh and effusive personality, Natasha is used to making an impression on people; fittingly, she is best known in Malaysia as the founder of charitable organisation Badass Monkies, which sells T-shirts and organises events to support charities. 

The UK native, who was born and raised in Croydon, South London, says that her British upbringing is most noticeable in her accent: “Anyone who hears me over the phone calls me ‘Mat Salleh’!” But while being British is part of who she is, she also strongly identifies with her Jamaican heritage, thanks to being surrounded by cultural traditions at home from her Jamaican parents and grandparents. 

In Jamaica, a week-long celebration is held in August to celebrate Emancipation Day on the 1st (which freed people of African descent from slavery) and Independence Day on the 6th (when Jamaica gained independence from the UK). Jamaicans are renowned for their parties, Natasha says, and an Independence Day celebration is no different. People will dress up in the black, green and gold of the national flag and turn out en masse for street parades and festivals, enjoying a carnival-like atmosphere. 

The Jamaican people coped with hardship through music, and it plays a crucial role in Independence Day celebrations. “Not everyone in Jamaica has a TV, but everyone’s got a radio. Music is just naturally our language,” says Natasha. Top of the playlist is reggae – “the music of unity” – popularised by music icon Bob Marley and always played loud and proud in reggae concerts, or ‘splashes’. 

Here in Malaysia, Natasha keeps the party going for Jamaica’s Independence Day at her house – and everyone’s invited. Ackee and saltfish, a traditional Jamaican dish, will be served, along with plantains. There’ll be music blasting, people decked out in bright colours, copious amounts of rum, and lots of dancing – or as Natasha likes to put it, “feeling the music with an attitude”. Naturally, she’ll have flags, too; both Jamaican and UK to reflect her shared backgrounds. 

It’s a ton of fun, but the parties are also a way of honouring sacrifice, which is why Natasha keeps the tradition alive even away from home. “Maintaining your culture anywhere you go reminds you who you are and what your ancestors did for your survival.” Her Independence Day wish is for a Jamaican High Commissioner or society so that Jamaicans can have their own festival here!

Simone Coletta
Food & Beverage Manager of the Italian Market

You don’t need to live in your home country to be patriotic. Simone Coletta hasn’t lived in his native Italy for about 17 years and says he doesn’t miss staying there all that much – well, all except for the beautiful blue sky. But even though he’s made Malaysia his home base for a decade, he still only has a coffee and croissant for breakfast and still celebrates the national day every year with his countrymen. 

The Italian national day, known as Festa della Repubblica (Republic Day), falls on 2 June. Like the name suggests, it refers to the day Italians voted to remove the monarchy and become a republic. Festivities for the day are usually held in the capital of Rome, Simone’s hometown. A military parade marches through the streets and the Frecce Tricolori (Tricolour Arrows), the Italian aerobatic demonstration team, performs a stunning air show that ends with green-white-red smoke trails.

Since Simone is usually not in Rome these days when Republic Day rolls around, he does his best – work permitting – to show up to the annual party at the Italian Embassy of Malaysia instead. The national anthem will be played, the Ambassador makes a speech and hands out awards for services to Italy, and then the food, drink and mingling commences. 

It’s all very much his scene: “I like attending gatherings and I like people. You’ll meet all the Italians, even those you don’t see very often that live in Penang, Sabah, or elsewhere around Malaysia. It’s very interesting and you might even discuss business.” According to him, the Italian community here only numbers around a thousand, so Republic Day celebrations are an excellent excuse to come together. 

Simone might not miss living in Italy, but he does feel responsible for representing it well outside. “We’re still Italian and Italy, like any other country, has its troubles. But when you’re abroad, you’re a little more proud of being whatever nationality you are because we’re all ambassadors,” he says.

And there’s plenty to be proud of as an Italian; Simone finds Italy’s ability to balance rich history with modern progress particularly noteworthy. “We have thousands of years of culture. It makes us proud of what we’ve achieved. But now we’ve got everything that people like lifestyle-wise: clothes, shoes, bikes, cars, football, food and wine. People always like something about Italy. It’s honestly a beautiful country.”
 

                       

Viktoryia Vaishnarovich 
Freelance Photographer 

Viktoryia hails from the Republic of Belarus, a landlocked country within Eastern Europe. Compared to other countries, Belarus’ national day is still new. The Supreme Council declared the country free from the USSR on 27 July 1990, and that was known as Independence Day until President Alexander Lukashenko held a national referendum to change it to 3 July, honouring those who fought to free Minsk from the Nazis in the Second World War. It remains so today and is also known as the Day of the Republic. 

In Belarus, says Viktoryia, the main event of the Independence Day celebrations would be the military parades. It isn’t all pomp and circumstance, however; there are also your usual parades, dances, carnivals and Belarusian street food festivals. “If I were home, I would go to the ‘City of Masters’ fair, where you can take a walk, look at handmade Belarusian products and taste delicious food. Maybe I would also attend a concert in the square,” she says. 

Many Belarusian traditions have common roots with the countries that border Belarus: Ukraine, Russia, Lithuania and Poland. Singing chastushki – little anecdotes that take the form of short, funny songs – is a popular activity. Artists and dancers at the concerts dress in intricate Belarusian costumes, which are red, white and green to match the flag with an apron for women and a belt for the men. 

Viktoryia hasn’t been home for Independence Day for five years now and it’s just not quite the same. “It’s difficult to celebrate national holidays when you’re away. The atmosphere isn’t as festive as it would be in your native country.” But she does her own part to observe the day; she will cook Belarusian dishes such as potato pancakes, beet and sorrel soups for lunch and take her family to the park. 

Unfortunately, the Belarusian presence in Malaysia is scarce – there is no resident ambassador or active society for Belarusians here. However, that doesn’t faze Viktoryia too much, as she believes it’s all in your own heart. 

“People love holidays. It’s a day of honouring their history and traditions. But that doesn’t mean everyone only loves their homeland on that day. I believe that real patriotism is not when you attend a solemn celebration in your country; it’s when you love and respect the local traditions and the place of your birth. We do not choose a mother, and we do not choose the country where we were born. But we love them.”

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