Monday, November 18, 2013

Malaysian Memories: Part One

It's been six months since I left Malaysia. After my two-and-a-half month visit to this little corner of southeast Asia, it's fair to say that my adventure left quite a mark on me, although I'm still not entirely sure how to describe the experience.

I love to share my memories of Malaysia, and I've had quite a bit of practice in answering the basic questions about my journey:

Some of the nearest and dearest members of my Malaysian family. But there are many more!

^ Of all the places in the world, what made you decide to go to Malaysia?

My Malaysian Facebook friends, of course. I met my first and best Malaysian friend online in 2008, while playing Mob Wars. Then I was introduced to his friends, and his friends' friends, and they all invited me many times to come visit their beautiful country. So I did.

This is my cozy bed at my Malaysian home-away-from-home.
And this is my host's pool where I swam most every day. See how I suffered?

^ Where did you stay?

In the homes of my friends. Mostly I stayed with my friend, Jurie, who lives with his family in a very modern and mostly Western-style condo in Kuala Lumpur, but I also bounced all over the metropolitan area to visit about a dozen other friends. I was also lucky enough to travel around the country a bit, and stayed in a few hotels as well as some of my friends' parents' homes. Wherever I went, I was treated to plenty of Malaysian hospitality, which mostly involves lots of food.

One of my friends operates a food stall on a college campus. This dish was something special that he whipped up just for me; like most Malaysian foods, it looks a little messy but it tastes like heaven.
And just two tables away, another stall serves waffles with chocolate, peanut butter and bananas. I ate one and it was a dream.

^ How did you find the food? 

Delicious. As expected, there was plenty of rice. As also expected, there were many variations of curry, chicken, Thai-ish dishes, and seafood galore. It was all amazingly tasty. Many of my friends were surprised that I loved the spicy flavors and that I learned to feed myself with my fingers, in the traditional style. There was plenty of Western food available but I ate whatever my hosts were eating.

My host told me that a rainstorm had to last at least half an hour in order to cool things off a bit. This one definitely did the trick.

^ Isn't it crazy hot over there?

Well, yes. Each day, the equatorial weather was more or less the same - temperatures in the high 90s Fahrenheit, fairly humid, and lots of afternoon thunderstorms. Quite a change from my beloved Pacific Northwest, but surprisingly similar to the Midwest summers of my childhood.

These dear women, introduced to me as The Boss and The Big Boss, were the only people I met who spoke no English whatsoever. But you know, we got along just fine without it.

^ What about the language barrier?

Until the late 1950s, Malaysia was a British colony. The influence lingers, and English is commonly spoken as a second language and often quite well. My friends are all proficient, and we understood each other perfectly. Almost everyone in the country can stutter out a few English sentences, and most of the strangers I met were very proud to speak to me in my mother tongue. And I learned a very few but essential Malay phrases, which I loved to toss around.

Whenever I was out in public, I stayed close to my little friends. They were my super heroes.

^ How do the average Malaysians feel about Americans? Did strangers treat you well?

In the heart of downtown Kuala Lumpur - a large and mostly modern city the size of Toronto - I was accepted fairly indifferently. White tourists are common. In the neighborhoods and working areas of the city, where tourists rarely stray, I stuck out a bit more. People stared at me a lot, often smiling and waving, and the phrase mat salleh - "white woman" - flew fast and thick. Small towns and country kampungs were most challenging for me; older women in particular gave me a cold shoulder. But I soon learned that the best way to allay their fears was to grab the hand of any one of my hosts' many children and babies, and those grannies were soon smiling away at the both of us.

When I wore my traditional baju kurung, I blended right in.

^ Malaysia is a Muslim country. Was that weird?

Yes and no. There are a fair number of lifestyle differences, and I chose to share in the Islamic experience as much as possible: I ate with only my right hand, swam in my Under Armour, and wore a long, traditional dress to formal events. And I spent a fair amount of time waiting in cars parked outside of mosques while my friends dashed inside to perform their ritual prayers.. But aside from those relatively superficial distinctions, my Muslim hosts were all kind and generous people of God, and I felt completely at ease with them.

For years, I fantasized that one day I would go to Kuala Lumpur and get my picture taken under Petronas Towers at night. And now my dream has come true!

^ Would you think about going back?

Definitely. I've promised to attend several anticipated weddings, and I need to get back to see my Malaysian babies before they grow up and forget about me. I'm already saving my pennies for the next trip!

* * * * *

All of these observations are accurate and true. But when I mull over the ways that my trip has influenced and changed me, I realize that the experience was much more than the sum of these parts.

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