12 things I learned from living in Malaysia
To “lah” or not to “lah”.
This article was originally published in Spanish.
Earlier this year I moved to Malaysia for 4 months; Kuala Lumpur to be more precise. I was hired as an international consultant for a program sponsored by the Ministry of Finance. The mission was to create or strengthen entrepreneurial efforts with social impact.
The mere idea sounded pretty interesting, so without giving it much thought, I applied on Jobbatical and got hired. (Yay!)
And so it began. My first adventure in Asia. I really didn’t know quite what to expect. And now, a few weeks after having returned to my dear Mexico and having said goodbye to a second home, I took the time to reflect on some of the things I learned during my time there. And I thought, why not share them?
So here they are:
1. To live in Malaysia is to live in 3 countries at the same time.
Malaysia is ONE country with ONE nationality, yes. But deep within, THREE different ethnic groups, THREE different cultures and THREE different identities (if not more) coexist.
First we have the original race which is the Malays. After that, we have a large community of Chinese and we have to add to that a considerable population of Indians. And if we add the indigenous communities in Borneo (East Malaysia) we find an extremely diverse, culturally and ethnically rich country.
Malay or “Bahasa” is the national language. Yet you can hear everything in the streets from English (it’s the language that they usually share in common in daily life) to Mandarin or Cantonese, some languages and dialects from India and even Thai.
The simple act of just going out on the street means a very diverse exposure to languages, accents, ways to communicate or miscommunicate.
Another thing that impressed me a lot was to see how three religions can actually coexist peacefully in the same place. On a single street you can stumble upon a Chinese Buddhist temple, a Muslim mosque and a Hindu temple. Simply beautiful.
To me, who had been accustomed to only seeing Catholic churches, the chance to be exposed to these new faiths and religious rituals was nothing but a cultural delight.
2. Everything gravitates around food.
I remember feeling relieved before leaving. Very naive I was, thinking it was going to be super easy to eat healthy.
A lot of vegetables and fruits, plain rice and all sorts of light and nutritious dishes. “It’s Asian food in the end, isn’t it? Like sushi…” — I thought. Oh god, was I wrong!
I arrive. The company receives us with a daily feast during the whole induction week. Endless supply of good food. Western and local food. Everything is fried, everything has tons of sugar, big quantities and at all times.
And on top of that, that week was my birthday and it was very nice of everyone to celebrate with not one, but FOUR BIRTHDAY CAKES!
It wasn’t long before they revealed to us how in Malaysian culture EVERYTHING GRAVITATES AROUND FOOD.
Due to the fact that alcohol is very expensive and food is cheap, and that they have a very diverse gastronomy and a wild appetite, the gravitating center of all social interaction is food. You can even tell that in the greetings. A lot of times, when you say hi to someone, one of the first things they are going to ask you is “Ta makan da?”, which means “Have you eaten yet?”
3. The A/C becomes your best friend and ally.
Tropical country. Near the equator. Freaking heat!
My body just wasn’t designed to work in the heat. Yet I discovered I was more resistant than I thought. And a little bit of sweat during the day really helps a lot to clean the skin. God bless Asians and their never-aging skin.
In Malaysia, life becomes beautiful and bearable thanks to the always-present and reliable friend called the AC and its fresh breeze that announces hope and helps you forget the heat and the urge to send to hell anybody that crosses your way.
Which takes me to the next point…
4. Your social life is reduced to hanging around in malls (and eating).
Because the outdoors is an open invitation to end up all drenched in sweat, people opt to stay indoors. Remember, the AC is our best friend and closed spaces are our refuge. Besides, Kuala Lumpur is not pedestrian friendly and without a car you are practically a second-class citizen.
That set a fertile ground for a boom of malls everywhere. Really. Everywhere. Even train station stops are measured in malls. All of them are huge. Always full. People buying all the time. And eating all the time. Seriously, where do they get so much money and appetite?
So if you want to make plans for the weekend, you can arrange to meet with friends at your favorite mall… or stay at home.
Or not…in fact…why not go to a place far away from the city?
5. Traveling is sooooooo cheap.
That’s right. Once you already are in Southeast Asia, traveling becomes super cheap. So, taking a quick weekend getaway to a paradise island like the Perhentian Islands or Langkawi becomes a possibility for almost anyone.
A 5-day trip to Bali cost me less than 200 USD. A weekend getaway to Singapore spending less than a weekend of going out to party. A round ticket to Thailand that costs less than an average perfume.
While in Malaysia I had the chance to go to so many places that I always thought would cost a small fortune to visit.
Low-cost paradises with a royal-like life are a total delight for reckless and insatiable travelers.
Moving around Southeast Asia turns out to be quite comfortable and convenient when you’re living in Kuala Lumpur. And with the options of very cheap airlines like AirAsia, the excuses to not travel become scarce.
6. Malaysian hospitality.
One of the things that impressed me the most was finding out how everybody was just so warm. Every time I would express my gratitude, I would receive a similar answer: “Oh, it’s nothing! It’s Malaysian hospitality.” They would talk about it like it was a trademark feature of their culture. As if they were famous for that.
Well, it certainly wouldn’t surprise me if it were the case. People would almost always offer to show us the city, take us to different places, give us a ride or even pay for meals. It’s definitely something that helps to feel at home despite the culture shock I’m sure lots of Westerners feel when we move to Asia.
I cannot begin to express my gratitude towards the people that made me feel at home during my stay.
7. Boleh!!! The “Yes, we can!” of Southeast Asia.
This article cannot be complete if I don’t mention the legendary “boleh” from Bahasa. It literally means “can”. And their respective variations depend on the situation. It can mean a simple “Can I?” asking for permission, up to a “Go ahead”, “boleh-boleh” to let someone pass and many other different daily uses of that word.
After a while, my friends and I even started to use “boleh” for everything. I really understand now why it is used so much. It really condenses a whole universe of meaning and it’s so vast and at the same time so practical that it can be used almost always.
So…can we go to the next point? BOLEH!
8. To “lah” or not to “lah”.
Now that we’re talking about expressions and particularities of the language, I MUST mention the magnificent and magical “LAH”, which is a particle that is used all the time after a word or sentence to stress a certain intention or just for the pleasure of being Malaysian.
It’s very funny when you start to realize just how many times it’s used on a daily basis. In the end, it can get very catchy and using it becomes second nature. You can even learn to imitate it. Ok-lah. “Why do you want to do that-lah?”, “Are you sad-lah?” and other uses.
To lah or not to lah, that is the question.
9. Same-same…but different…but still same.
I have no idea where it came from or why it is so used, but all the way from Thailand, up to Malaysia and Indonesia they use the super funny “same-same”. My friends and I have the theory that it comes from saying “you’re welcome” in Bahasa, which is “sama sama” (same-same). But we’re not sure.
Anyway… we live in a world with things that are so alike and with very small differences. And for the practical and relaxed minds of Southeast Asia, these differences are essentially the same.
We used to use it all the time as a joke. But man is it useful. Here’s an example of how it could be used:
– Hey, uncle, (you can call almost everyone uncle or auntie) is the spoon for the soup or to cut the chicken tandoori?
– Oh! Same-same.
– But different.
– …But still same.
10. Being ‘Western’ rules (unfortunately).
It’s not just me saying it. Even the locals say it. Many people from Southeast Asia are obsessed with the Western world. If you happen to be “Western,” you can feel some sort of unfair privilege or special treatment.
I have always hated the idea that there are some nationalities, cultures or races that are superior but it certainly still happens in real life to date.
Even in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, there is a hostel/rooftop bar that ONLY admits foreigners. And if you are a local or if you look like a local, you can’t get in.
11. They eat with fork and spoon!
And the award for the most WTF moment during my stay wasn’t seeing lady-boys seducing my straight friends. No. The most unbelievable thing of all is that in Malaysia they eat with a fork and a spoon.
What’s the problem? — you may ask.
Well, please answer then how the hell would you explain that it’s more efficient to cut a chicken with a spoon instead of a knife! I’m serious! In the moments of most necessity, the knife is never to be found and you’re forced to fight your way to the meat with a fork and spoon. Always. A-L-W-A-Y-S.
To this date, I haven’t found an answer to this mystery. However, it seems to work for them. And to be honest, even I ended up getting used to that.
But I solemnly swear that I will never face some chicken wings with a spoon with identity issues of pretending to be a knife.
12. And to wrap this up… a cosmopolitan city.
Even though it’s a Muslim country and my ignorant perception of that culture and religion was very limited, Kuala Lumpur is super cosmopolitan and diverse. Full of life, tech, startups, growth and skyscrapers that create the urban landscape. I stumbled upon an endless series of nice surprises that without a doubt are part of an experience I will always carry with me.
Oh! And also my Instagram account got super pimped and nice during these months. They even offered me free merchandise to model and I won photo contests with it. So I owe Malaysia for more than just a great experience but also for an expansion of my wardrobe and accessories.
And yes… it’s an invitation to follow me on Instagram: @LAHBdotcom
Thinking about traveling to Malaysia?
Tell us where you want to go in the comments, or check out these opportunities!