A taste of Malaysia

I arrived in cork dry Malaysia in the afternoon. With hand luggage only I was off the plane, getting through immigration and finding my driver in 12 minutes. It’s  an easy country to get into, compared to others where the lines are long and the paperwork considerable.

Axel waited for me in the lobby of the hotel. He had arrived the night before. We are staying in the Best Western in Petaling Jaya, a suburb of KL. It is enormous and sells itself as a ‘midclass iconic.’  We haven’t figured out the iconic part. The ‘midclass’ part is obvious. It caters mostly to Chinese travelers who are easily recognized by their moving as flocks and very loud voices. We quickly learned to avoid the elevators when a new batch came in.

On Sunday we met with the team, my colleague S. who had flown in from DC and T. from Sri Lanka who had already spent 3 weeks here teaching occupational therapists how to fit wheelchairs for children and adults with a variety of serious physical disabilities. As usual, the before and after pictures were moving: lives are changed for the better.

I have never quite understood Malaysia – there is a part of the country on a faraway island (which I was taught in school is called Borneo – the same island that also houses Brunei). There is Singapore which is on the same peninsula but a city-state all by itself, and there are states, represented in the flag (that looks like the American flag) by stripes.

The food here is quite familiar, similar to the Indonesian cuisine I know so well. Malaysia and Indonesia are like first cousins, close cousins with regard to food and language, more distant culturally depending on which Indonesian island you compare with.  I recognize words that have been integrated in the Dutch language due to some overlapping history.

Although I had just been travelling for more than 24 hours, we decided to go into town (KL) and get at a taste of this place – something hard to get in and around our hotel in the suburbs.  Axel had done his Lonely Planet research and took me to the Old China Cafe in the Chinese quarter. We used Uber and the light rail system which was our first and very positive close encounter with Malaysian society.  We did get a taste of the undercurrents that are stirring up discontent on this peninsula. The Malakka-born traveler next to me nodded indignantly at the young girl sitting on my other side (Bangla, or Indian) who did not stand up for grey-haired Axel while a young Malay boy did. “See,” she said, “these people are no good.” It was the first of several whiffs we got of such attitudes.

I was quite surprised about the pervasive influence of Islam here. I knew Malaysia (like Indonesia) is mostly Muslim but I had expected something a bit more secular (remembering my brief visit to Indonesia in 1989). We are finding something else. Older people have told us the change is slow but persistent – conservative Islam is on the rise. Most women are wrapped up from head to toe in cloth and fashion lines advertise subtle variations on the basic theme: hijab, long dress, long-sleeved tunic.  Some men will not shake hands with women.

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