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As We Get Older, Our Likes and Dislikes Tend to Change, Even More So As an Expat

“The past is a foreign country, they do things differently there…”

Childhood, for most of us, is remembered with a mixture of fondness and longing – how simple those days were, when the only decision to make was which friend to invite over on Friday, or when a bowl of ice cream and a kiss from Mum was all that was needed to fix the woes of the world!

Emerging from the sensation-loaded time of childhood may bring responsibilities, worries, and the unending juggle of money, but it also begins an awakening to the rich pleasures of life, and an appreciation for those things that seemed unfathomably disgusting/dull during the days of youth.

“I hate mushrooms,” I used to whine to my parents over the dinner table. “Parmesan cheese makes me want to be sick!” I couldn’t conceive why anyone would want to read a newspaper, go to bed out of choice, or bother cleaning the house unless threatened with corporal punishment.

Incidentally, a sliver of my time as a mushroom-hating child was spent here in Malaysia, and while there were many aspects of the country I adored (A pool right outside! The crazy rain storms! Roti canai!), there were plenty of pleasures that didn’t make it through the merciless, potential-enjoyment scan of my eight-yearold mind. Pretty much everything edible (except roti canai) was weird and best avoided, especially prawns – those pinky spawns of the sea would be mercilessly picked out of my bowl of fried rice before I would taste a single mouthful.

Festivals were another thing I couldn’t get my head around. I adored having the days off school, but remember feeling a tad overwhelmed by the Chinese aunties with whom we spent Chinese New Year – they spoke so quickly, so loudly, and they tried to feed me strange wobbly jelly while a colourful monster they called a “lion” (didn’t look like any lion I knew of) jollied around the house in a crash of drums.

Petaling Street was a crazy hive of mess and noise that amazed and terrified me in equal measure, and visiting the National Museum with Mother was a bore, the only memorable aspect of the trip being the three-hour traffic jam on the way home, which struck just minutes after I had whined “Mum, I need the toilet…”

These memories – the old grudges – all come rushing back to me now as I walk the city streets as a grown-up, and the 15year gap that divided my former expatdom with the current episode has enabled the contrast to be stark and rather hilarious. Did I really prefer McDonalds to road-side fried radish cake? Did I really think that the only interesting thing about Central Market was the machine that “told your fortune” for 20sen? There was so much I missed the first time around! I feel incredibly grateful to have a second bite of the apple and to understand Malaysia and truly appreciate the goodies, both edible and intellectual, that are here.

Perhaps this is why I have wholeheartedly embraced the country with all its facets and assets since I arrived almost three years ago, spending my weekends exploring new areas of town, reading about history, talking to local people, eating everything I can lay my hands on, and attending all the cultural festivities, with eyes and mind open to learn, absorb, and appreciate.

Who knew that KLCC used to be a race course? Or that sea cucumber tastes like slug but beef lung – fried with chili – can be really good in salads? I never realised that teams travel from all over the world to compete in Malaysia’s own lion dance championships, or that some Hindus check the time of their fiancée’s birth before agreeing to marriage. I now know about the Chinese zodiac animals, I understand the history of tin in Malaysia, I can find Terengganu on a map and, perhaps most momentously of all, I not only like prawns, I even eat those large ones with eyes and, on a good day, can remove their jackets with a pair of chopsticks!

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But more importantly than the prawns, the aspect of Malaysia I find most fascinating is its history – no longer do I roll my eyes when Dad starts talking about the past, or groan dramatically when a museum trip is suggested. I read, I look at pictures, and I visit the old cornerstones of the towns and cities on a quest to touch and feel the past. It is through this, more than anything, that I feel I am finally beginning to get under Malaysia’s skin.

Many expats living here enjoy eating the food, and a lot can’t help but witness the festivals and cultural curiosities, but few seek out the history of the country we are using as a hat stand, yet perhaps it is here that we should place our interest. History makes a place what it is, just as our own history makes us who we are.

Malaysia is intertwined with my own history, perhaps giving me more of an incentive to eke out the past, but we can all learn something about our current home – and ourselves – by exploring what came before. I gave prawns a second chance, and never looked back. Make history your bowl of fried rice and eat!

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Source: The Expat March 2013

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