Familiar culture, yet so different

‘Where is my knife? Why can we not find our way around? Did we arrive too early?’ are just a few questions we have asked ourselves during the first four months of our stay in Kuala Lumpur. As with any move into a new country, many things are different, but at the same time so much is the same.

Housewarming Party in our apartment in Kuala Lumpur

Take the expatriate community in Kuala Lumpur: there are numerous meetings groups, mingles, event groups and more organized to help newcomers in town to get to know people with similar interests. Francien and I used these extensively and indeed now start to have some regular friends to socialize with. When expatriates all over the world meet up there is the usual exchange of chit-chat: where are you from? how long have you been here? how are the kids doing at the international school? where did you live before? where do you work? and many more very familiar questions which help us quickly to find commonalities. The next level of talking points are: the everlasting smog which makes commuters run for their masks everyday, current political situation with racial motivated demonstrations on the streets of KL, expats leaving KL due to low oil prices, the drop of value of the Ringgit, the latest exiting vacation destination.

Dinner at Chinese-Malay eatery

On the other hand Malaysia is in many ways different from anything we have seen and done before:

  • At local outdoor eateries you take what you want from a buffet and start eating. Then the waiter will come to calculate how much it will cost. The food is delicious and cheap, but forget about what you have learned about hygiene!
  • At the table we do not use knives; only spoon and fork. The Indian people will eat with their hands and the Chinese are masters of the chop-sticks. Sometimes banana leaves are used instead of plates.
  • Malaysians seem to always eat. Restaurants and food-stalls are open 24/7 and frequented even during the night. Early morning breakfast in road side restaurants are copious (serving Nasi Lemak).
  • It is very important to receive something from a local person using at least your right hand, preferably both hands as anything else is regarded as very impolite. The left hand is regarded as un-clean!
  • Traffic in KL is a nightmare: clogged-up, confusing layout of the roads like spaghetti, with motorbikes, busses, cars, taxis competing for pole-position.
  • Traffic never yields to pedestrians, so you have to be extremely careful not to be hit when crossing a street.
  • No matter what we do, there are always 4 mm long ants crawling on our kitchen top and floors. Even living on the 17th floor, we are constantly reminded that we live in the tropics!
  • Francien and I have problems to familiarize ourselves and remember the Bahasa names, streets and places.
  • Events normally start much later than planned, but nobody is being seen as coming too late. Time is fluent and nobody gets stressed-out about being on time.
  • In rush hour in the underground or on the Jalans (streets), people do not seem to rush but walk slower as what we are used to.
  • We have to indicate our race when filling out forms having the following choices: Malay, Indian, Chinese and others. Malaysian society is very much organized along racial lines!
  • Urban Chinese seem unable to converse in anything other than shouting. (no offence meant)

Traveling for us is about trying to understand the places we visit. After four months we start to better understand both the easy as well as the challenging sides of Malaysia. Kualu Lumpur is a vibrant city and Francien and I start feeling at home here.