Wednesday, May 17, 2006

The Mysterious Malaysian

Before I left for America, my friends warned me: "Be prepared. Most of them are not gonna know where you're from. You have to sort of locate the place, above Singapore, below Thailand, like thatlar...."

"OK," I nodded, smiling cheerfully. I didn't care too much. After all, Malaysia is an itty bitty country and other than a mad Prime Minister who made the news abroad simulating masturbation in front of TV cameras (when he wanted to get rid of his deputy) and calling George Soros a moron (Soros replied in kind, calling him a menace) we didn't have much claim to fame. OK, OK, there were the twin towers. Ours, I mean. Those graceful fluting buildings that were the tallest in the world for all of one year. And then, there's durians, that king of fruits that we love but every Mat Salleh on the block (Mat Salleh is the way we refer to Caucasians. It's not derogatory. Really!) would run a mile from. Odour, they would say. You mean, perfume, we would counter, our eyebrows drawn up in puzzlement. OK, whatever. And the F1 (how could I forget). But other than that, just another South-East Asian nation, chugging along gamefully, trying to achieve double digit growth so we can be all grown up in a couple of decades. Same old, same old.

So imagine my surprise when this bouncer (who carded me) at a pub in Seattle, started chatting to me in Malay. There I was all ready to reel off, above Singapore, below Thailand, to his, oh so you're Malaysian, when he said:

"Selamat Datang (welcome). And apa khabar? (how are you?)" I mean to say, what?

So anyway, Nessa this one's for you.

We Malaysians are a pretty laid back bunch. (OK except on the road where we turn into your worst nightmare) At any time of the day, you can see us at the stalls (outdoor eating places) sipping our teh tarik (literally, pulled tea) and catching up with our members (no, not those, get your head out of the gutter). Member like gang, you know, like crony. Whenever my sister Jackie visits, she never fails to observe: "I forgot. Eating is the national pastime in this country." And Julie and I would look at her, wonderingly as in, yeah, so what's your point?

Kit Leee, a Tibetan cartoonist who wrote this brilliant little comic book, Adoi! (Basically, Ouch! in Malay) had this to say about teh tarik.

Without teh tarik life would be impossible in Malaysia.

Why? You ask. Well, it calms us down. You know watching the mamak pulling the tea from one kola to another, to cool it down. Serving it to you with a head. You drink it and ahhhhhhhhh.... are transported back to cooler times when life was not so frenetic and we were not trying to running to stand still because being fans of Alice we fell into a rabbit hole and have yet to emerge. Dream or nightmare? Who can ever say?

A Malaysian abroad misses his teh tarik and roti canai (you can get quite good roti canai and teh tarik at that restaurant Penang in New York) but still....I mean you can't shout to the mamak, hey boss, satu teh tarik kurang manis...(one pulled tea less sweet) and watch him pull your tea and forebear to add too much condensed milk.

Although a good portion of the country is covered by jungle (now depleting at alarming rates because of timber concessions which send elephants and tigers stampeding through villages for want of better occupation) we don't have many parks. So we spend a lot of time hanging out in shopping centres. Because the shopping centres support the need for recreation, they have to be massive. Of course sometimes they can go overboard, in which case, the sheer size simply stupefies, so you get back in your car and drive to a cosier one around the corner.

Some Malaysians live in trees. (OK there was this one aboriginal tribe that built their houses, called rans, in trees).

They are a pretty generous lot. Even when they're pokai (broke) they will fight to pay the bill. (Sometimes waiters are manhandled in the process)

We call all older people uncle and auntie. Or Mak Cik and Pak Cik. Some Mat Sallehs who come over here assume we are related to all this people, like the stallowner or taxi driver or security guard, but actually it's just a sign of respect. I feel a little sad. Where before, most strangers called me adik (younger sibling) not they refer to me as kakak (older sister). Soon I'll get to Mak Cik (auntie) and life as we know it will be over.

We're supposed to be very straitlaced and moral about a host of issues, but...

OK, case in point. I was in Sweden on assignment and was having dinner with a bunch of people from the company, some Europeans, a few Americans, and me, the one Asian. Anyway, the conversation which covered things boring things like supply chain management took a risque turn and we found ourselves discussing Viagra. Oh, quite scientifically, as in how it was trialled as a heart medicine and they found that there was a certain side effect, ahem. Anyway, this American dude goes all red and asks that we change the subject. And I think, gee, back home we would have taken it to town and no one would have felt uncomfortable in the slightest. Of course, I may have been thinking of my select salacious circle, but still...aren't we supposed to be the conservative ones?

We don't speak proper English as a matter of honour. I mean, if you were to enunciate your words and speak in a grammatical fashion, everyone would think you're just trying to show off. This is especially true when you have spent some time abroad. I didn't realise how closely my friends were listening to see if I had picked up the Aussie accent when I came back. The moment I tossed off my first lar (we use lar as a suffix for's how you tell Malaysians from say, Indonesians, or Singaporeans) they heaved a collective sigh of relief thinking, yeah, she's still one of us. My little sister Julie has trouble with this. She only talks Manglish when she remembers to. Otherwise, her accent is very neutral (almost British) and people keep mistaking her for a foreigner. And as for my sister Jackie who's been in the UK for the past nine years, she has to drop her Brit accent the moment she lands here. If not, we make fun of her until she does.

PS: Some Malaysians are cultured, although our Government, being a wee bit paternalistic, regularly bans anything worth seeing. Sometimes they reverse these bans. Often not.

We get around the heavy censorship by purchasing illegal DVDs at the pasar malam (night markets) for about a little more than $1.


David Cho said...

So do you have a Malaysian accent? I would have no idea what that sounds like.

lemontree said...

hey very nicely written. nuances subtly captured.

Jenn said...

David: Yeah, I do. Although I moderate it when talking to foreigners. If not afturds, they won't understandlar!

lemontree: Thanks.

Peter said...

You're a very strong writer!
Stay Gold!

Jenn said...

Thanks Peter. Am glad you dropped by. And I would recommend that everyone reading this go look at your website... very informative