The Good, The Bad & The Durian: Reflections On Being Back In Malaysia

It was exactly a month ago since I set out on this journey back to the homeland. People have asked how I’m adjusting, and as expected, there are pros and cons.

The first two weeks were spent getting over jet lag and the fact that I no longer lived in Maryland. Quite a number of mornings started out with me thinking that I had someplace in Washington D.C. to get to, only to remember that oh, right. I moved halfway around the world.

Yes, it’s a little sad, not being able to go to places I’m familiar with. Simple things like driving over to Trader Joe’s to stock up on cheap, organic foods, or heading to Petsmart to pick up World’s Best Cat Litter. Of all things to miss, who’d have thought one them would be cat litter.

I also miss friends, my favourite places around the capital city of America and the casual friendliness of its residents. I miss being a bus ride away from New York City, one of the most vibrant, culturally diverse and resilient cities in the world.

Most of all, I miss being able to hop into my grey Honda Civic whenever I want for an impromptu road trip out of town. You might not understand what a luxury this is until you have it taken away. I’m currently stranded at the house, relying on others for rides because I have none of my own. (Although, I’ll have to reacclimatise back to the traffic pattern here, along with all the crazy reckless drivers.)

There are other little inconveniences, enough to make a (small) list:

Groceries. As mentioned, I have to find substitutes for household and grocery items I really liked in the US. My biggest surprise is not being able to find half and half in the grocery stores. I’ve searched high and low for this light cream product used in coffee. I’ve also asked friends and family, but all they do is stare blankly and shrug. There are a couple more expat neighbourhoods that I’ll try, and failing which, I’ll have to mix my own.

Service. Restaurants (most) charge for water, tea and packets of wet wipes. If you are a newcomer, consider yourself warned. And don’t be surprised if you have to flag down servers more than twice to order and/or pay. But there are also new restaurants that have upped the ante with quick and good service. Kudos! 

No refunds for most goods. Noooooo! My fickle mind cannot handle this! What if I decided that dress did make me look fat after all? Some stores won’t even allow exchanges. At least let me do that.

Arbitrary banking procedures & lack of transaction privacy. Financial transactions relating to fixed deposits (FDs) require a paper certificate, and over the counter transactions are not very private. Ooooh, imagine how annoyed I was when trying to edit a FD and was flatly told no because I needed the certificate for a “secure” transaction. I had my ID. With my face on it. You could’ve taken my thumbprints and checked against your records. Or try the dozens of other ways to check that I’m legit, but noooo Ambank, you made me and my 65-year old mother drive home for the certificate and bring it back before you would process changes. Even worse, my parents have been customers there for decades! And the irony is that all transactions are done by bank employees sitting behind a long open counter with no dividers between them. Every word I say to the banker can be heard by whoever is standing beside me. Ambank, if I ever get mugged on the street, it’s your fault. Switching banks if I can find something better.

Sidewalks in KL…hmm, what sidewalks? All too often, you’ll come across pavements with uncovered drains, broken concrete in places or ones that end abruptly. There isn’t much of an outdoor, city-walking culture here because no one wants a tan, but at times, you really don’t have a choice except to walk. Dodging uneven concrete or gaping black holes leading into the city’s sewage can become a real test of one’s patience. If you really wanted to know a person’s true nature, take them for a walk around KL.

Floors of public toilets are always wet, to some degree. With the exception of fancy hotels, this is true no matter where I go. Why is this??? Bidets are available, but isn’t it common sense not to let water splash onto the floor and possible onto your shoes? And considering toilet paper isn’t always provided in stalls, what are you drying yourself with if you’re using that much water??? It’s a mystery…but there is a flip side to public Malaysian toilets in the “good” section below.

Driving. Traffic is bad. Drivers can be a bit quite very reckless with road rules. Enough said.

But. Don’t get me wrong, coming back hasn’t been zero fun. Despite water rationing (due to a very long dry spell) and pollution, the sunny weather has been quite pleasant. Whilst dry winters and general year-round dryness has wreaked havoc on my skin in the States, the humidity here has been healing. Two weeks after being back, I had a breakout around my chin area that cleared up real fast; but now all the blemishes on my face are beginning to disappear. Back in my own habitat and feelin’ gorgeous, baby!

And the food. What other gushing praises have I not sung about about food in Malaysia? For one single type of dish, you’ll find an endless choice of vendors. Not enough meat in the dish? Let’s try that other place. Too expensive? Go elsewhere the next time. If you’ve been reading, you know that I’m currently hunting down my favourite dishes and Instagramming em all for an epic collection of classic Malaysian hawker dishes.

Other things I love about being back:

I’ll repeat, the weather is NICE. (Local friends) “HAH?!?” Why you like Malaysia weather so much??? SO hot!!! (Me) And that’s a problem — how?

Movies are CHEAP. This is one luxury here that’s very affordable. A regular weekend ticket is 14 Malaysian ringgit, which is…*drumroll* 4.5 US dollars! And we’re talking the latest Hollywood, Bollywood and Hong Kong-wood blockbusters. How is this possible? The prices have hardly changed since I was in secondary school. I can’t believe how affordable it is to watch movies here.

It’s totally fine to be a mall rat. In the States, you only go to the mall when you really need something, or if you’re a teenager wanting to go hang with friends. Here, malls are where everyone is at on weekends. Or anytime time of the week really. Depending on which one, you can go bowling, to the movies, ice skating, video gaming, rock climbing, gym, archery, grocery shopping, furniture shopping, window shopping, high-end luxury shopping, foodspotting — I can go on, the list is practically endless.

Doors of public toilet stalls have no gaps. My first few months using a public restroom in the States was very uncomfortable. For some reason, there are GAPS between doors of toilet stalls, some larger than others. No, it’s not so small that you can’t see inside — too often, I caught the eye of a person outside the stall stealing a peek through these gaps. I don’t know how often Americans have been caught doing it or puffing it up in a bathroom stall, but gaps that enable people to look in practically defeats the purpose of a door.  So I’m VERY glad that in Malaysia, despite the wet floors, going to a public toilet means I won’t have to watch out for prying eyes trying to look in on my business.

Can eat durian. FRESH. A lot of the ones found in the States are frozen for ages. No wonder everyone there hates it.

Open air markets all day, all year, everywhere. Whether it’s early morning wet markets selling fresh greens, fruits, meats, produce and sundries or pasar malam(s) peddling a plethora of street food, clothes, accessories and other goods, strolling around at an outdoor market is one of the best, simple life pleasures Malaysia has to offer.

I get all the inside jokes/references. Whenever someone referenced a joke from an esoteric, American cult movie and everyone laughed heartily, but I played along until I had a chance to Google it. Similarly, there were American pundits I’d never heard of, literature I’d not read, and games I never played. I’m the kind of person who takes effort to adapt to my surroundings, but America’s pop culture is so vast and rich, it’s easy to get lost in the folds. Back here, I’m one of the insiders. Now when someone makes a joke, I can laugh for real. Most times anyway.

I’m in Southeast Asia. People send wads of vacation money to come here and experience the “rustic” and “less developed” ways of life. If rural Malaysia isn’t hardcore enough, a plane ticket to Laos or Vietnam is pocket change. Rustic ain’t your thing, but nature activities are? Malaysia’s got some of the most incredible rain forests, beach resorts, national parks, caves and diving spots in the world.

Free of visa worries. This one is a very big plus. It’s a great feeling, living in a place that doesn’t throw you wads of red immigration tape and make you pay mucho money for fees and lawyers to extend your stay for a few years at a time. Those lucky enough to get sponsorship for permanent residence can end up waiting over ten years for papers. (Of course, there are always the ultra lucky ones who don’t have to wait at all.) A higher salary value and standard of living was no longer enough to make me stay overseas; so I’m back here, free to stay however long I want, consider whichever enterprise I like, go wherever I chose, and with whomever I wish!

In short, I love being back on home turf. There comes a time when every long-term expatriate has to consider that fork in the road. If you press on and fully embrace your new home country, it means severing most ties to the homeland and letting that old life fade away (Especially true if you are on the other side of the world.)

While I can’t be sure that I won’t be hit with another bout of wanderlust years from now, I’m not ready to let my old life in Malaysia fade just yet. It shaped me in its own unique way, and there’s a saying that goes, “a wise traveler never despises his own country.” In my 11 years abroad, I’ve learned to be a wise one. 🙂

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