In any foreign country, much goes on unseen and unnoticed by expats. Editor Chad Merchant ponders whether that’s because it happens outside of our visual radar or because we simply don’t always open our eyes.
After living in Malaysia for a few years, many expats slip into fairly comfortable roles in their adopted society. They often eat and enjoy local food, some speak local languages and have plenty of Malaysian friends, they all circle public holidays on their calendars, and they commiserate with fellow denizens, local and expat alike, about many of the same things – traffic, haze, politics, whatever it may be. I’ve been here for a little over six years now, and though I routinely am teased good-naturedly by locals for being “half-Malaysian,” the reality is, there’s an awful lot that goes on here which doesn’t even ping my poorly tuned orang putih radar.
Item One: A few days ago, I headed off to work one hazy Monday morning and had barely gotten onto the ramp leading to the Penchala Link when I was taken aback by a veritable sea of scarcely moving cars, the likes of which I’d never seen at this hour on this road. It was a total jam and I couldn’t imagine what was causing it. Turns out, it was simply the result of an inordinate number of cars inexplicably trying to get off at the TTDI exit. I normally use this exit, too, but on this day, I wriggled out of the jam and headed onward to the Penchala tunnel and toll booth. After the TTDI exit, the traffic was quite smooth. So what was going on?
Item Two: Every now and then during my morning commute, there’s similarly a massive jam on the road that runs by The Curve. I don’t use this route, thankfully, but I’m always shocked when I see the traffic at a complete standstill, backed up well into my neighbourhood and onto adjacent roads. This doesn’t happen often at all, so I usually figure there’s some mad sale at IKEA or something, but really, who knows?
Item Three: Last week, I was trying to take the monorail to an event in the city – and wow, I could write a whole page on the dismal KL monorail system, but I shall refrain – and not only was there no parking to be found anywhere, some of the roads around the Tun Sambanthan station were inexplicably blockaded, too. I asked one of the uniformed attendants nearby and was told it was because of “prayers” – indeed, as I looked around, I saw several Indians, many dressed in their finest garments, heading towards a building. It wasn’t a holiday, it wasn’t anything I was aware of – just a regular Wednesday evening in the city. Yet, clearly something was afoot.
Living as expats in any country, let alone in one as rich and culturally diverse as Malaysia, inherently carries with it the reality of being somewhat out of the loop when it comes to the local minutiae of the host country. Even though I’m perfectly comfortable at a wet market, know what the Nuzul al-Quran holiday is all about, and can navigate around KL as well as anyone, the truth is, there’s so much going on in Malaysia that happens well outside my sometimes narrow field of expat vision. Some of that’s to be expected, but some of it is down to my own actions… or lack thereof.
After a while in any given situation, it’s easy to slip into a routine. Left unchecked, though, those steadfast routines are the silent killers of joy, discovery, and spontaneity. Thoreau correctly opined that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation,” and being slave to a set routine is sure way to be counted among that mass. So I’ve resolved to add a dose of spice to the occasionally bland curry of my life in KL simply by deviating from the norm from time to time. Rather than avoiding that crowd clustered around a stage in a shopping centre, maybe I should check it out. Instead of making a beeline home from work every day, perhaps I should hop off the highway into that little kampung I pass by and see what fresh-made treats there are to take home with me (because you know there will be some). Or how about a weekend road trip instead of the usual complement of housework, laundry, and eating out with friends? Visiting a local park I’ve only heard about previously. Checking into a hotel in the city and pretending to be a tourist for a day. Or it could be as simple a thing as resolving to learn something new about Malaysia each and every month.
To be candid, sometimes the end result of things flying under the expat’s radar really is just an annoyance, and it’s hard to sugar coat it. Nobody likes sitting in gridlock, and it’s always exasperating circling the block repeatedly, looking for anything resembling a place to park, but apart from the occasional frustration these below-the-radar happenings may cause, there are plenty of times when it’s just the opposite – noticing something that had previously been completely unknown to me elicits echoes of those wondrous bursts of curiosity and discovery that all of us initially feel when settling into our expat lives here. We may think there’s nothing left in Malaysia to surprise us, but that sentiment couldn’t be further from the truth, even if sometimes we have to dig around a bit to find the surprise. Whether it’s a festival we hadn’t yet heard of, a new dish to sample, or merely an eye-opening cultural revelation, shaking things up and unveiling these little moments of freshness can reinvigorate our time in Malaysia.
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Source: The Expat Magazine December 2014
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