When you’re in the middle of a giant upscale shopping mall in Ipoh seeing a Starbucks and a Nike Store, you might think to yourself that hey, this is basically the US!, feeling comforted by the overpriced Frappucinos and the sparkling clean walls of the mall’s interior.
But then there are moments– like when you walk into the bathroom of the glistening mall to find a nice row of stalls containing squat toilets and cleaning hoses– when you remember that this is definitely not America.
Some things here are surprisingly similar: my math class uses SOH-CAH-TOA to remember trigonometry functions (although it’s pronounced a little differently); in elementary school, classmates played hopscotch and made friendship bracelets and drew tattoos on each other; supermarkets sell Oreos and Italian seasoning and many types of apples and Dawn dish soap and Colgate toothpaste; and my town proudly displays a giant KFC and a Pizza Hut (with delivery!).
But for as many things I’ve found that are surprisingly similar, Malaysia has just as many traits that are startlingly different:
- In restorans (restaurants), servers use their bare hands to scoop massive piles of rice onto our plates. First thoughts: Wow, the Health Department would definitely not like that. But then I realize that in the six weeks I’ve been here, not a single meal would be likely to have passed U.S. health and safety standards, but I’m still just fine!
- Apparently there’s a reason that the first word we learned in Malay means “eat.” Food is a big deal here. Yes, this is true everywhere, but here you can see that people genuinely enjoy food. Eating is a social activity, and asking someone if they’ve eaten is used as a greeting.
- Eating. There is a lot of rice. We eat with our hands, but only our right hand. This proves much more challenging than it sounds. Eating with your hands is something you’d assume you can do perfectly well, but then when you try to politely eat rice, curry, and even fried chicken using only one hand, you’ll realize that this must be an art requiring years of practice.
- Malaysians have invented some seriously clever alternatives to Tupperware: drinks to go are served out of a plastic bag with a straw. Banana leaves can be used to wrap up food, followed by a layer of newspaper, and then a rubber band. Curry, sambal, and dhal are also poured into small plastic bags for takeout. (Still, my host family has an impressive Tupperware collection that many Americans would admire greatly.)
- There’s a lot of drinking here. By drinking, I mean teh tarik (tea), coconut water, kopi (coffee), Milo or Milo ice (hot chocolate or chocolate milk), soya milk, grass jelly, cendol, or any of the gazillion tropical fruit juices: orange, apple (very different from US apple juice- made from fresh-pressed apples!), mango, blackcurrant, lychee, pomegranate, sugar cane, honeydew, even durian. Malaysians love to sit and talk in the airy open-front restorans enjoying the many sugary– and delicious– drinks found here.
- Water must be boiled before anyone can drink it. Even people who have lived here their entire lives boil water before drinking it. Restaurants serve freshly boiled water, still a bit hot, but I’ve learned to like it.
- On first glance, Malaysia seems to have a lot of self-driving cars. But when you look closer, no, that three-year-old is not driving; the steering wheel is just on the other side.
- Cars drive on the left side of the road. Instinctively obliging to years of hearing “look both ways!” before crossing the street is certainly a positive thing, but I’ve never realized how instinctive it has become to look left, then right until I’m nearly plowed down by a lorry when I look to the wrong side for oncoming traffic.
- For many Malaysians, driving laws are just a suggestion. Next to no one wears seatbelts. I’ve met a total of three Malaysians who voluntarily put on a seatbelt upon entering the car. (Unless, of course, the driver calls out “polis polis polis!” when everyone must quickly but inconspicuously pull on their safety belts). Very young children can sit in the front seat. There are also no crosswalks.
- Greetings are beautiful. We greet Malays with a salaam, a handshake in which the hands are extended to gently sandwich the other person’s hand in a light clasp. Each person then brings their own hands to their heart. I think this is such a beautiful greeting since its purpose is to show connection and say ‘I greet you from my heart.’ Indians are greeted with the pressing of one’s own hands together and the greeting “Vanakkam.” To say goodbye to Indians, “poittu varen” is used to express ‘I am leaving, but I will see you soon.’
*Background info: The main ethnic groups in Malaysia include Malays (about 50% of the population) who are Muslim; Indians (15%) (Sikh or Hindu); Chinese (25%) (Buddhist); and Indigenous (10%).
- Race is a touchy subject, but not always. Apparently there is a lot of underlying tension among the different ethnicities, but that doesn’t stop people from asking “What is the race of your home-master?” right away when they meet us exchange students, or having school classes and assemblies that are sorted according to students’ ethnicities. Race is a big part of life here; for the most part, it determines what religion someone is, thus deciding how they live, what they wear, what they can eat, what languages they speak, even who most of their friends are.
- Nearly everyone is bi- or tri-lingual. Everyone speaks Malay, and almost everyone speaks English (at least a little bit). Chinese people speak a dialect of Chinese, and Indians speak Tamil. While almost all signs are in Malay, many are also in English. Malaysians will often move through at least two or three languages in the same conversation; often, they’ll even use them all in the same sentence!
- Most homes (and businesses and schools) don’t have toilet paper. Instead, bathrooms have a hose and/or a bucket with a water scooper for washing.
- Squat toilets. They’re really (usually) not that bad.
- There are co-ed stall bathrooms. Malaysia is a country I would not expect to allow men and women to be in the same bathroom, but many bathrooms with stalls are not separated by gender. (I don’t mean the single-person non-differentiated bathrooms, but the kind that has stalls and multiple people go in at once)
- Religion is everywhere. Go on a five minute drive, and you’re bound to see at least two or three Hindu, Buddhist, Muslim, or Christian places of worship. They range from the beautifully majestic mosque (masjid) on the main street into town, to a small Chinese temple that’s simply a roof covering a large shrine on a cement floor with enough space for fifteen to twenty people. The front entrances to Indian homes have artwork featuring deities, and Chinese homes have red box-looking altars out front containing incense and symbolic offerings. My Hindu host family has a beautiful altar which they pray in front of. The call to prayer can be heard five times a day alerting Muslims to pray.
- We must remove our shoes before entering certain offices, classrooms, and even stores.
- Restaurants have sinks for cleansing before or after eating. We must wash our hands before/ after each meal depending on religious customs. Even in the KFC and Pizza Hut, there is a sink in the eating area where customers can wash their hands as a religious practice.
- School is definitely not secular. Each day, the Malay students gather in front of the outdoor assembly stage for prayers while the Indian/Chinese/AFS students wait on a different blacktop. For many teachers, students must stand up and recite a long Malay greeting when the teacher enters the room. Many of the teachers lead the Muslim students in a short prayer before beginning class. Even though I don’t understand what is being said, I find that it’s really nice to have a simple thirty-second break for reflection and a reminder for prayer. Malay students go to an Islamic religious class a couple of times a week while other students go to Morals. In the afternoon, the Muslim students go to the surau for prayers while other students wait for dismissal. On Fridays, school ends at 12:30 since it is a Muslim holy day and students go to the masjid (mosque) with their families.
- The school feels much more outdoorsy. Classrooms are very open and colorful; classrooms and assembly halls don’t have glass windows, and the kantin (cafeteria) is essentially a covered pavilion with tables. The school buildings are surrounded by sitting areas under small roofs, flower gardens, and we even have chickens! Sometimes stray cats wander around as well.
- School is structured differently. Students are grouped by age into Form 1, 2, 3, 4, or 5, and then into the Science track, Social Science track, or a special technology or electricity studying track. Usually, teachers move to each classroom, while students stay put in their designated room (except for English, cooking, and science classes which take place in a lab). After class, we must say “Terima kasih, cikgu” and students salaam to the teacher by clasping the teacher’s hand and bowing the head.
- The First Amendment does not apply here. The U.S. has had Supreme Court cases denying teachers from searching students’ belongings, but– sorry T.L.O (New Jersey v. TLO)–: Teachers can search students’ bags any time. On our third day of school, we experienced our first Spot Check: at the morning assembly, teachers came around and searched every student’s backpack checking for cell phones and other forbidden objects. (That’s another thing that’s different: students are forbidden from having phones in their possession at school at all, and most students actually obey this.) Just two days later, a wallet belonging to the AFS student from Belgium was stolen, containing RM 150 (less than 40 USD), her bank cards, and her ID. We helped the teachers search students’ backpacks in the classrooms while all the other students were gathered on the main blacktop. A search this thorough would never happen in my U.S. school (especially since we students were allowed to search other students’ bags) so it was a very interesting experience. Teachers were exceedingly helpful and committed to finding her wallet; after they searched every classroom, every student, and even the toilets, Amma found the wallet by digging around in a trash bag! The RM150 were gone, but the cards were recovered and her 20 euro was also left inside. It was very surprising to see how willing teachers were to drop everything and spend two hours helping find the money, when in the U.S., this probably would’ve ended with a “sorry, you should’ve been more careful.”
- Clothes. I now look through old photos from the U.S. and am genuinely surprised to see my own knees or shoulders. Unless I’m at home, I have to wear pants below the knee, and I always keep my shoulders covered. I expected this to be a terrible burden in the constant 85+ degree heat and 70% humidity, but I’ve adapted, and it’s definitely worth remaining covered to be respectful to Malaysians. I feel much more comfortable being hot in long pants than being subject to even more stares and judgment.
- Beauty standards are really different. I’ve been told that some of my clothes are unflattering because they make me look too skinny— something you don’t hear too often in the U.S. And while getting a nice golden tan is appealing to many Americans, most body washes and face cleansers here are “Lightening” and “Whitening.” (Consider that before you get a spray tan.) The majority of advertisements and billboards feature smiling, very light-skinned Chinese or Malay models (and a lot have caucasian models too, even when the target audience is not at all caucasian). In Tamil movies, most of the Indian actors have very fair skin. On the cell phone cameras, (I see in the 2748272 selfies I’ve had to take with random people) there’s a ‘beauty’ setting that is a literal white-washing filter.
- It’s a bit humid. The “winter” weather will be 87 degrees F and sunny. The humidity is almost always over 60%. The first time I stepped out of an air conditioned car wearing glasses instead of contact lenses to school, the glasses completely fogged up as if I was in the shower and I could not see a thing for several seconds.
- Only in Malaysia does “a nice hot shower” sound like a form of torture. I usually take three, maybe just two, sometimes four showers a day. After exercising in an aircon-less gym or running outside for twenty minutes, I can never be sure if I already took a shower or if that was all sweat.
- Air conditioning is only in cars and malls. Some houses have air conditioning (called ‘air con’ here), but my house doesn’t. Fans work surprisingly well.
- Most houses don’t have ovens, dishwashers, or dryers. We wash dishes by hand and hang clothes to dry on a rack outside. We have a convection oven that we can take out of its box as needed, but most food is cooked or fried on the stovetop.
- People are always staring at me. Some are more discrete than others, (those who stare inconspicuously are greatly appreciated) but almost everyone asks my host family members where I am from. (I can’t imagine what gives away the fact that I’m not from around here! Does it maybe have something to do with the fact that I have blue eyes, light brown hair, and a height that’s five inches more than most women??)
- Bugs really aren’t that bad. I partially expected to be sleeping in the jungle under a mosquito net, but that’s not the case. Sure, there are ants in the house, but the ants here are different than the ants in my part of the U.S. The ants here are smaller, a lighter color, and less scary looking than the American ants. Every house has at least the occasional lizard on the walls, but they’re fun to see. I’ve seen a couple of (very large) cockroaches at school, but none in the house. I’ve gotten six mosquito bites the whole time I’ve been here (but I know some other students have gotten bitten a lot in their houses).