Initial Impressions of Malaysia
Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
For over a year I changed countries in Latin America, but felt like I wasn't really changing cultures. Yes, there were differences, but everything was still decisively Latin. I was looking forward to throwing myself into SE Asia, where relatively short distances would allow me to quickly change countries, languages, and customs. Malaysia marks the first of many such country/culture jumps in the region, and I've gotten everything I asked for, and more. I couldn't feel further away from Thailand.
The Malaysian language sounds like mixture of Chinese and Polynesian, and looks quite a bit like German (minus the umlauts). It's amazing how enjoyable it is to be back in a Roman-script country, where I can actually read the signs (instead of seeing lines of squiggly, anonymous characters).
I'm thinking this would be an easy language for me to learn, except I don't see much of a point in it. English is widely used and understood, as it's the communication common ground used by the multi-ethnic populous.
You'll commonly hear the suffix "lah" attached to words when English is being spoken. "Lah" is a Bahasa Malaysia suffix that's meant to add emphasis to a word or phrase, that has since been absorbed into English in the local vernacular (although I'm told it's more commonly used across the peninsula than elsewhere in the country).
Some of the many applications of "lah" in Malaysian-English:
- Inexpensive—Very cheap-lah
- Coaxing—Come on-lah; don't be like that-lah; please-lah
- Fed up—Enough-lah
- Definite—Of course-lah; sure-lah
- Generous—Take some more-lah
This country is a real crossroads of race and culture, with Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, and Malaysian rounding out the top four. While most consider themselves Malaysian, minorities seem to identify more with their family's heritage than Malaysia itself. This comes as no surprise though, as it would seem there's significant segregation between the races (at the religious, educational, and community levels).
Many Malaysians sort of look like a blended Filipino, although I'm not exactly sure blended with what.
Calm Down, Buddy
I'm having a helluva time adjusting to the pushy, in your face, I know what you want/this is what you want personality of the Indian men here. Everyone is so calm and relaxed in Thailand—take your time; whenever you're ready—that these guys feel like they're coming at you like a herd of stampeding rhinos.
I feel more on edge in Kuala Lumpur than anywhere I've traveled inside Thailand. I get the feeling that Thai men are more likely to be covert with their aggressive acts (picking pockets, sneaky thievery), than the men found in Malaysia. Here, I'm thinking that overt acts of aggression (muggings, thugs, street fights) are more common place.
In Latin America there was a line that street people, both vendors and beggars alike, knew not to cross: You don't touch, unless touched. Conversational bubbles are smaller in these Latin countries (with people talking much closer than North American and Europeans standards), but making physical contact is a powerful thing that's generally respected—unless we're talking about the sexually aggressive men of Argentina.
Touch is a powerful thing—just ask any playboy or politician. Beggars know the rules well, and I had little reservation about aggressively scolding them, as I would a stray dog, on the rare occasion that one would actually try to get away with it. They were seeking acknowledgement, and they got it.
The street vendors on the pedestrian section of China Town's JL Petaling Street don't like to play by the rules. The male Indian vendors are pushy enough already, and adding Chinese traders into the mix in an environment saturated with gullible tourists breeds nothing but problems. I avoided this hostile place as much as possible, but still needed to cross it occasionally, and felt nothing but contempt for men who grabbed at my elbows to try and lure me into their plastic huts. Most got my direct eye contact, an angry face, and a strongly worded statement about what they were to never do again.
The Other Twin Towers
Visiting the Petronas Twin Towers felt a little strange—especially since I ignorantly thought they were in Hong Kong (oops). I wasn't particularly wowed with the height of the structures—sort of a yawn, that's it? moment—but it still gave me pause and a rather strange feeling. It was just like seeing the beaches of Rio de Janeiro for the first time—the same sensation—not of awe, but of seeing something familiar from magazines, movies, and television with my own eyes.
What I didn't know was that Petronas is the national oil company, and that the towers are actually a massive symbol of Islam. All I could think was that it's a fortunate thing they weren't targeted by extremists looking for reciprocation after the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York were attacked and destroyed in 2001.
Malaysians are quite proud of the Petronas towers (formerly the tallest buildings in the world), but an excellent article by Michael Backman notes that the structure's engineering was contracted out to South Korean companies, while the massive shopping center at its base is actually run by Australia's Westfield.
I think Kuala Lumpur gives off an arrogance, similar to the excessive Petronas towers pride, like the city is compensating for a deficiency by trying to make folks marvel at its technological infrastructure—as if a monorail can bring the conflicting races and classes of Malaysia together in harmony. I sense tension.
Radio, Religion, and Women Ninjas
I listen to the radio, as I do in most places, to try and gain a little more insight into the country. I change frequencies here and find variations of funky Indian love songs, trendy Chinese pop, wailing Arabic, and U.S. Top 40. The airwaves are as mixed as the people.
Malaysia is an Islamic state, but there's a Christian, Hindu, and Buddhist portion of the populous that seems to be pushing back against the Muslim lifestyle. Chinese and Indian temples are present, but no where close to the countless number of domed and towered mosques seen around the city.
This is my first Muslim country, although I suppose it's more of a shot of Islam taken with a mixed-belief chaser. It's kind of a get your feet wet type of place—exposure to a religion that I've never see practiced on such a widespread scale. And even taken in its diluted form, I find myself wondering why I feel uncomfortable around it.
I think part of it's the natural Western reaction to seeing what I perceive as the oppression of women in the society. It doesn't feel the same as the sexist male bravado seen in Latin America, and manifests itself in entirely different ways with respects to the genders. To be a woman in Islam seems, at first blush, to be a restrictive and subservient way of life.
This is indeed a crazy world we live in.