That is a hell of a question but also the one I have never asked myself before moving in to Kuala Lumpur. You know, I was making my dream come true, finally moving back to Asia, and Asia is always amazing, no matter where you go. Also, the country is just above the equator, so for a person heavily allergic to a cold weather, that was all I needed to know. Well, I was up for a bit of surprises.
Overall culture & religion
Not everyone realises that Malaysia is actually a Muslim country, not in the same sense as, for example, Gulf-states, but still. There are three main ethnical groups living here – Malay (so Malaysian Muslims), Chinese Malaysians and Indian Malaysians. Originally, they all speak different languages, so to communicate with each other they had to find a common one, which – thank God – is English. Just because the society is so diverse at its core, the atmosphere is actually quite laid back and, if you yourself are not a Muslim, no one really cares what you do. This also applies to the dress code – whereas wearing a bikini on the street might be a bit too much (well, that is the case kind of everywhere), shorts and all kind of tank top-like apparel are absolutely acceptable.
The laidback atmosphere does not mean that the main religion has no impact on the everyday life here. For starters, to my enjoyment, everyday at 5:52 I would be woken up by a call for a prayer coming from the nearby mosque. It does not matter, that I live at the top of a very tall apartment building made out of steel and concrete, there is no chance I could ever just sleep through it as if the prayer never happened.
Moreover, for the first time in my life, I was actually aware when Ramadan starts and when it ends, as if affects the life of everyone. Ramadan is this one month in the year where Muslims would abstain from eating or drinking anything (even water) everyday from dusk till dawn. In this latitude it means not having anything in your mouth for some 13 to 14 hours. When berbuka puasa (break fast in Malaysian) finaly comes, the families would come together to pray and then enjoy the feast. Alternatively, during Ramadan, cities fill up with so-called Bazaar Ramadhans, huge street markets filled with traditional Malaysian food than open up in the evenings to feed the starved fasting crowd. This all ends after 29 or 30 days (depending on the moon calendar) with Hari Raya (in Malaysian or Eid al Fitr in Arabic).
As for the culture as a whole, the society is still fairly traditional. What I mean by that is couple of things. For once, people here like to follow hierarchies – respect for anyone older or higher up is inseparable from the assumption of this person’s infallibility. This has an impact on both personal and professional life – questioning or disagreeing with somebody more senior would often come with stress and anxiety and does not come easily to almost any Malaysian.
What is more, the family ties tend to play a very important role in an individual’s life. One thing is that couples would have way more children than it is common in Europe – typically 3-4 kids. The other is that young Malaysians would stay with their parents until the moment they get married, which currently is more and more being shifted towards their 30s (Mom, I know you’re reading this and I love you very much, but we both know we wouldn’t be able to stand each other if I was living with you until I get married (if that ever even happens)).
The way the family life works here also affects the way Malaysians perceive foreigners. Here are some of my favourite stories of what happened to me when I first arrived in the country.
Story one. As I was new to the city and never been to Malaysia, I decided to spend my first weekend sightseeing, which landed me in Perdana Botanical Gardens. The gardens themselves were quite cool, plenty of plants I have never seen, but after walking for an hour+ in 33 degrees, I was pretty much done there and wanted to get to a shopping mall to get some food. So I did, what you do here, called a grab (=Uber in European/American). My driver had a chatty day so he would inquire me about how long I was staying in Kuala Lumpur etc. Once I explained that, well, actually this is my home now, he started asking about where my husband is. My inner feminist started boiling at this assumption that I cannot be fully sustainable by myself and that he couldn’t take it that I am the expat here, no husbands involved, it’s me, me, me, I’m the expat. So, I tried explaining that, you know, no husbands here, just me, moving for work. That of course did not land well and he kept asking what is my husband doing and in which company is he doing it. This is where our conversation more or less ended as I got tired explaining and also didn’t see the point anymore. That would be it for the story, but then when I was leaving, he would wish me happy shopping with my husband’s credit card.
Story two. When I arrived in KL, I needed to buy a SIM card, especially since my addiction to Google Maps is particularly strong in new places. In Malaysia, all SIM cards must be registered, so you need to provide some ID at the purchase. When I was in the midst of filling in paperwork at one of mobile stores, I realised I have forgotten to take my passport. I told the lady who was helping me out what happened and that I will have to come back later. The response I got was something more or less like ‘no, no, no problem, your husband’s passport is okay as well’. I must admit, with that she got me absolutely stupefied – wha.. wha.. what husband? I tried explaining that, you know, I’m here by myself, no husbands. No, no, no, not possible, you live here, there must be a husband, who is paying for this if there is no husband?
Story three. At moving in, my apartment did’t have a kettle, so one day I went to a shop with household appliances. I was looking at all those electric kettles trying to figure out which one I need. Then, this helpful guy, who is working there, comes to check what am I looking for and whether he can offer some advice. Me, happy there’s someone with knowledge of electric kettles, start asking him about the differences between brands, blah blah. And then at some point he says ‘This one here, is really great, because it doesn’t get hot on the outside when the water boils, so it is safe for your KIDS’.
What about food?
Going back to how Islam influences everyday life here, it can be seen by how taxes are imposed on specific products. For instance, the prices of alcohol are comparable to those exorbitant ones you find in Switzerland, with an average of 7.5 Euros you’d have to pay for a small beer. What is cool though is that because it is so expensive, the prices in bars (even the fancy rooftop ones) do not differ much from those in a supermarket. The other tolerated-but-not-welcomed produce is obviously pork, which in the Muslim world is simply haram. You can still find it (as there are plenty of Chinese Malaysians who love their pork) but the prices are significantly higher and importing pork might cause you a visit to prison (or at least that’s what the official information says, I haven’t tested this one though). Furthermore, it is generally assumed that the restaurants are halal (the animals are killed according to the Muslim ritual) and if not, it would be very clearly stated at the entrance.
Food is actually quite a big thing in every Asian country and Malaysia is no different here. One of the most popular, if not the most popular, dish would be the breakfast specialty – nasi lemak (‘fat rice’). It is rice cooked in coconut milk, topped with peanuts and anchovies, wrapped in a banana leaf into this triangular shape kind of thing. It typically goes with a super spicy (sorry, still Polish, can’t escape that) sauce called sambal and some meat curry (mostly chicken). If you know the right place, it is possible to get this kind of brekkie for as little as 1 Malaysian ringgit (equivalent to some 20 Euro cents). Other than that, Malaysians love all kind of rice and noodles in heavy sauces fried with seafood or meat.
You know when you go to a supermarket in Europe and you want to buy a mango? Well, there’s just a mango, one type, just some kind of mango, you don’t really care, cause you just want a mango. Probably the one you get is very hard, unripe, with a chance that you would have to wait a couple of days until it gets softer and when it finally does, you open it up, it’s black inside and can only be fed to trash. This story is 180 degrees different in Malaysia. You go to a supermarket, want to buy a mango, get yourself to the right department and this is where your brain goes bananas. At his moment you are faced with a choice of some 14 types of this one fruit – yellow mango, green mango, golden mango, orange mango, sweet mango, … the list goes on.
Even though my appreciation for the mango variety here is high, mango is not what the country is best known for. The king of Malaysian fruits is nothing else but durian. Have you heard those stories about the most smelly fruit in the world? Well, this is exactly the one. An absolute favourite of the locals, never managed to duplicate its fame with the Westerners, probably because our taste palettes differ significantly. Well, for me, the fruit tastes exactly as it smells, something I imagine a toilet smells and tastes like. And we’re not talking a toilet that has been just cleaned with super powerful German detergents. Curious what Wikipedia would have to say on this topic, I found that there was a writer who described the taste more or less like pig shit, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym stock. Well, probably that is the reason why the fruit is forbidden from hotels, public transport and other closed public spaces…
How do you get around?
Having lived in the Netherlands for the 2,5 years before moving to Kuala Lumpur, I never realised how much of a luxury a good public transport system is. Here, in the Malaysian capital, the public transport is simply not efficient. There are several companies operating buses, subway, monorail and all kinds of other rail, however they are poorly connected between one another. Most of cases, if you need to get from place to place B, which are some 10km away from each other, you’d probably have to first walk for around 10 minutes (temperature here is always 33 Celsius degrees), than take e.g. monorail, from monorail change to a bus and then from where bus leaves you either walk for another 15 mins or take Grab.
Grab is the Asian version of Uber/Lyft and is based on an exactly the same concept, you just download an app, chose your pick-up and drop-off point, you can connect your credit card so that the fees are collected automatically. It is extremely convenient and relatively cheap (a 55km drive costs on average 65 Malaysian ringgit, which is and equivalent of 14 Euro).
Because the public transportation doesn’t really work, most of the foreigners would use grab. If they have to cover greater distances to work, they would do what locals do, just buy a car. And buying a car is relatively cheap and easy here, as there are no crazy taxes imposed (on the contrary to the neighbouring Singapore). What is more, driving a car is very cheap, as the Malaysian government subsidises fuel and fixes the gas station prices for the consumers. So, at the moment, you can drive for as little as 2.08 ringgit (0.5 EUR) per litre of RON95.
This affordability of car travels and bad state of public transport have two main impacts. On one hand, the roads are extremely congested, as everyone owns a car and uses it to move around. On the other, the incentives to switch away from vehicles running on petrol are virtually non-existent.
Just to sum the things up
What you have just read are a couple of my insights into the living in Kuala Lumpur. It definitely does not mean that I have exhausted the topic, as there is so much more to say about this capital city than I am able to fit into one post. And also, Malaysia is simply so much more than Kuala Lumpur, it’s post-colonial cities and staggering nature, mountains and beautiful beaches. And this is what I will surely be featuring in this blog in the future.