The Tissue Issue

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Even though he wrote this column, the views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of William Citrin, the Editor of The Expat. Email him at [email protected] with your views.


Not long ago a good friend of mine was visiting from the US and I took him for a lil’ makanan at an upscale local restaurant in one of Mall-Asia’s malls. The place was hopping with humanity, every table full and the air thick with the deafening din of diners clinking and chomping and chatting.

My friend – seeking a distinctively Malaysian culinary and gastrointestinal experience – had ordered a bowl of that infernal asam laksa and it sat steaming and stinking in front of him. He found himself in dire need of some tissue (to clean up the mess of ingestion and, most likely, digestion) but a piece of tissue was nowhere to be found. Regardless he continued eating and summarily spilled a spoonful of soup on his shirt.

Following standard American small-town roadside diner etiquette, my friend then meekly smiled and tried in vain to make eye contact with the waiters, who were whizzing madly about like epileptic fireflies. Realizing this strategy wasn’t gonna fly, he waved his hand wildly in the air and let out a seismic yelp for help. The waitress zipped over to our table.

“Sorry to trouble you miss, but is there any way I could have a napkin?”

The waitress stared at him with bewildering blankness, as if he had just posed a question in Urdu (actually, she may have been able to understand Urdu for all I know). He repeated the same question using “serviette” instead of “napkin” and received the same silence in reply.

Finally I, ever the gracious host, interceded and rescued him. “Tissue!” I barked and she scatted off, only to reappear moments later and present, with grand flourish on a porcelain plate, one tiny cocktail napkin – about as useful against the onslaught of that angry red laksa as a baby sand bucket in the face of a tsunami. Armed with only that pathetic paper shield and a spoon, my friend bravely proceeded to do battle with his soup.

Sometimes it seems as if we are in the midst of a war (against messy substances, I guess) and they are rationing out tissues sparingly here in Malaysia.

I fail to understand why tissue is such a precious commodity in Malaysia, a land with an apparent abundance of paper-bearing trees. I have heard of a “paperless office”, but never of paperless restaurants or paperless toilets until I came here.


Tissues are as scarce as tigers; you really have to make the effort to hunt them down and many times you can’t find them at all.

One time at a mamak restaurant I asked for a “tissue”, only to be brought a roti tissue – a sugary paper thin crepe shaped like a giant dunce cap. I ate it, and then pleaded (not with words but by rubbing my hands together in the Malaysian “tissue” gesture) for paper relief. I come from a land where tissue – like life, liberty, and the pursuit of anyone who disses your mama with a semi-automatic weapon – is an inalienable right. Tissue practically rains down from the sky in the US; it is everywhere, overflowing from sleek dispensers on every table and in every toilet. When I was young we used to wrap it around ourselves and become mummies, throw rolls of it into our neighbor’s trees or shreds of it in the air to simulate snow, make flowers and airplanes and dolls and balls out of it.

But in Malaysia you could be naked and bleeding on the street and if you are lucky some bloke might be benevolent enough to lean down and offer you one of his precious paper squares.

The only time I have actually been offered tissue is in the loos of lavish shopping malls, where the attendants stand creepily behind me as I do my business and wash my hands, and then shove generous handfuls of tissue at me – in hopes of getting me to hand over some paper (money) of my own.

If I could afford it, I would hire my own personal tissue bearer, to shadow me and hold my personal stash, to roll out the white carpet for me wherever I go and protect me from stainful substances – the curry, sweat and tears that may befall me on my messy journey through life in the tropics.

But, alas, I am all alone – and I don’t even have a tissue to dry my eyes.

Tissue, I miss you. Wherefore art thou, tissue?

Source: The Expat January 2012 Issue

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