Quirky Malaysia

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Living in any foreign land comes with an assortment of vexing curiosities for the bewildered expat, Editor Chad Merchant runs down a few of his favourites here in Malaysia.

I hadn’t been living in KL long when I noticed the unusual phenomenon of people placing full-size boxes of tissues on display in their cars. Typically, I would see these on the “deck” behind the rear seats, but fairly often, there would be a box of tissues perched on the dashboard. Now you do get the people who like to “decorate” their cars and will have everything from seat cushions to crocheted doilies to stuffed animals (Hello Kitty seems to be particularly popular) littering every flat surface of the car’s interior. But the tissue box thing seems to be the most prevalent. From the humble Kelisa to a budget-busting luxury import car, I’ve seen tissue boxes in them all. Some of the locally produced models (like the Proton Saga) even have a tissue box-sized cutout in the dash, pre-ordained for the proud placement of the humble tissue box.

Obviously, I can understand the usefulness of having tissues in a car, especially if it’s a family with little ones. But that’s what the little packets are for, I thought. They fit nicely in the glove compartment and wait quietly there until called upon. Back home, we do even have “travel size” boxes of tissues, about the size of a paperback novel, made for cars. They fit discreetly in seat pockets or other niches. Here, though, it’s full size or nothing! And not just any tissue will do, mind you.

After initially noticing the proliferation of tissue boxes proudly adorning car interiors here, I further noticed that there was never a cheap box of tissues put on display. No no… these tissue talismans were always a quality, name-brand tissue. Never will you see a store brand or generic tissue. No bland “Tesco Value” tissues in my car, thank you very much! It seems the most preferred box is Premier. It’s not cheap and generic, it has a nicely decorated box, but it’s not as wildly expensive as the imported Kleenex and such.

Of course, every place has its little quirks… those often confusing and/ or humorous – at least to outsiders – idiosyncrasies that lend a unique feel to a city or region. In my home state of Colorado, with its winding mountain roads and abundant wildlife, drivers have developed their own code for communicating with each other when wildlife is spotted, partly to ensure the safety of the animals, but also to alert people to keep their eyes peeled, because seeing wildlife there – especially the big mammals – is always a treat, no matter how long you’ve lived there.

And so it is here. One of the more baffling local quirks to me is the way motorcyclists here wear their jackets. Rather than put the jacket (or sometimes it’s even just an extra shirt) on properly, they’ll put it on backwards – front to back – and let it almost lie uselessly in their lap as they zip in and out of lanes of crawling traffic. I’ve tried to figure this out for years. I’ve even asked locals who are on motorbikes why they do this and have never gotten a real answer. I may as well be asking them why they wear pants to work. For many of them, slipping their arms backwards into a jacket is just how it’s meant to be done!

At first I thought that perhaps it was just easier to get the jacket on and off. But come on… how can putting on clothing backwards ever be easier? So that’s not it. Then I thought maybe it was just because wearing it correctly would cause the jacket to flap in the wind while riding. Well, that’s what the zipper is for. Besides, I rode motorcycles back in the States myself and wearing open jackets never caused any problem. So that couldn’t be it. I’ve been to other countries with vast numbers of motorcycle-riding denizens, such as Indonesia and Vietnam, but have never seen the backwards-jacket phenomenon that is so prevalent here.

Possibly one of the more curious oddities here is the twin practice of double parking and then honking incessantly if you’ve been blocked in by someone, which happens regularly. It’s lunacy, but it’s totally accepted here and no one seems too fussed about it. Nothing to see here, move along. It’s so common, in fact, that shops actually sell little “Sorry I’ve barricaded your car in” placards to place on your dash when you double-park. Just write your phone number on there, toss it on the dash, and off you go.

Some things, of course, just make me wonder. I’ve yet to understand why there is an apostrophe in “Mont Kiara” – time and again, I see it written as Mont’ Kiara. Does the apostrophe add that extra little splash of panache? Is it like the Ritze Perdana condo in my neighbourhood, where that additional “e” just lets you know it’s ever so classy?

No matter, though… the quirks and foibles of any place help to define it and though some are frustrating, others are endearing. One day, when I’m back in my home country, I’ll probably look back on all of them rather fondly, though I’ll likely confuse my fellow Americans when I revert to my Malaysia days and mention an item’s price as “fifty over dollars”!



Source: The Expat August 2013

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