The Malaysian In Me

Many, many times I catch myself saying – “I am so grateful to be living in Penang!”

You see, this is a fab place. And more often that not, we islanders forget we’re on an island. A sunny one.

A friend who called from Melbourne said she was wrapped up in 3 layers of clothes because it was super cold now. Another friend who lives in Newfoundland told me it was snowing in May over there.

And I don’t have to listen to the weather report before I leave the house.

I don’t have to carry a coat or umbrella just in case the weather turns nasty and cold or rainy.

But of course, I can’t traipse around in knee-high boots looking super sexy like some New Yorker. Still, many a New Yorker would give their eye-teeth to hang around in flip-flops and tee shirts.

Anyway, part of the uniqueness which I love a lot is our incredible culture and our ability to switch languages and dialects. You can only appreciate it if you go away (most likely overseas for a while) and then come back. Everything looks new and fresh and appreciated!

That’s what travel does to people.

I mean, I did laugh when Nic told he was dreaming of a piping hot bowl of bak kut teh when he was almost frozen up in Nepal during his backpacking trip many years ago (and no, I wasn’t too adventurous then and I didn’t think it was proper of me to follow my boyfriend trekking up the Himalayan trails. So NOT me then and now).

When we were in HK a few years ago, we got all excited with the lai cha, nissin noodles, polo buns, French toast and BBQ pork rice but after a week, we were craving chilis and sambal and spice. And when we met up with a bunch of Malaysians who were working in HK, they took us to this steamboat place somewhere in Causeway Bay.

You know what got them all excited – all these financiers and bankers and what-not? When the chopped chili padi came out! It was quite funny seeing all these people literally scoop loads of the stuff onto their condiment plates. You see, once a Malaysia, always a Malaysian! It’s in our food habits!

And languages!

Malaysians will try to hide their language prowess until they go abroad. But we’re so damn amazing because we can speak in English, Malay, Hokkien, Mandarin and Cantonese. Throw a Malaysian in any city and they’d freaking survive and thrive.

In HK this rang true. We were at a chaar chan teng having lunch and could converse with a Taiwanese in Hokkien while making our orders in Cantonese. The waitress was mighty impressed. When we were at Wing Wah Bakery learning how to make pastries in a free session meant for tourists, we helped translate what the Cantonese pastry sifu was saying to this couple who came from the US.

In the MTR, we lapsed into Malay because we wanted to comment on some stuff and in a packed train, you don’t use English or Cantonese right? Of course, the Indon maids would have understood what we were bitching about, my friend and I but most of the Hong Kongers stared at us for conversing in a foreign tongue.

This reminds me of me and my sister. Whenever we go shopping together, we’d use Sin Ning, a branch of Cantonese dialect from Toi Shan district which is almost like a dodo language aka extinct and no one unless you are 60 years old and above would know how to speak this language. I am glad my dad taught us this – he still speaks with us using Sin Ning. It’s useful because no one understands Sin Ning and when we want to make price comparisons while shopping, we use Sin Ning! It floors all the sales people!

I never knew how good Indian curries tasted in Malaysia until I went to India.  Indian curries over there somehow taste different. Their rice tastes different. And Indians in India drive like mad men, like they have a date with destiny despite it being a land of yoga!

Whenever I am back in Kuching, I consider it my lucky day if I spot an Indian. Doesn’t matter if it’s a man, woman or child. Kuching is a mainly Chinese and natives city. Very few Indians.

And funnily, a couple of years back, when  a friend of Nic’s arrived in Penang she remarked that Penang is full of Portuguese people! Errr….I think she meant Indian people. That’s how culturally-sensitive we all are. And that is why Sarawakians should also stop getting mad at people who ask if Sarawakians live in trees. Blame it on the tourism adverts where more jungle than city is shown!

So one of my standing jokes is that if his friends ever visit from Borneo, we’d take them to Little India and perhaps for a meal at Veloo Villas. Even a meal at Sri Ananda Bahwan could be stretching it but a little cultural discovery never did anyone harm especially in Malaysia where we are supposed to be living in harmony!

How many times do we engage with other people’s culture despite living together (supposedly as a community) since Merdeka?

How many times do we stop judging and start to really get to know other people’s culture and religion?

The fact is (and this is pretty sad), we all stay within the confines of our own community and religion, never daring to venture out to see how other people live. The less you know of others, the more you tend to shut them out and think, they must be weird people. And the more you think of them as weirder, the less inclined you are of actually understanding them, their habits, their ways of life.

One of my favourite activities is pretending to be a tourist in Penang and walking about and looking at people and places with a tourist’s eyes.

Or going into Ramani’s or Mathanon’s (Indian stores) in Little India – I have a penchant for buying herbal soaps made in India and even herbal toothpaste like Dabur (ever tried clove toothpaste or neem toothpaste?).

I am not afraid of being the only Chinese in a store where I don’t know half the products (all are from India) but I love the exotic spices, trinkets, jars of pickles, instant rasam powders, henna, kajal and more. In fact, I found a pan which I have been looking for in Ramani’s yesterday. I am thinking of getting it to make takoyaki balls – I am not too sure what the pan with holes is for, maybe to make laddu but I sure know I can use it to make takoyaki!

Maybe I am not afraid because I grew up with Indian neighbours.

Maybe I am not afraid because I know these Indian merchants are also Malaysians.

Maybe I am not afraid because my 2 best friends are Indian and Ceylonese.

Maybe I just think that all the stupid National Service camps are a pure waste of money. If you wanted to cultivate true harmony, just start with doing something as simple as eating with your hands.  Or get a friend of another religion and culture to take you on a cultural visit during a festivity.

We can do many things but we need to get out of our shell. To get out of your shell, you have to be flexible, open and adaptable. You can observe without judgement. You can enjoy without prejudice. It doesn’t have to be that our culture is ‘better’ or “more superior” than theirs. We don’t have to make silly comparisons just so we can feel better about ourselves.

But one good way is to go away for a trip abroad.

I can fall in love with everything while on holiday but I always come home and say, “Thank God I live in Malaysia.”

I hope you feel the same way too!

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