“Wait, so Buddha was a Nazi?” an Australian tourist asked her friend when she came face-to-face with this pink statue at Penang’s Kek Lok Si Temple. (That made me laugh so hard that I fell into a hibiscus bush).
To Westerners, Malaysia has a few head-scratching quirks. Some are perplexing and a few are frustrating, but if you’ve got a roll-with-it attitude, it can be an endless source of humor.
To help prepare you (or just to make you laugh), here are a few of my favorites:
Malaysians are so friendly and open…sometimes shockingly so. Mere pleasantries are sometimes answered with rather eye-opening personal details. For example, you hop in a taxi and ask: “How ya doin’?” And he responds: “My bowels are better today. Yesterday I had exploding diarrhea. Oh, so badly exploding!”
They also expect to get candid responses from you, too. I found this out on my first day here while chit-chatting with a Chinese massage therapist. Her hands abruptly stilled on my back and she asked: “How much spending money you husband give you?” Uh… what?
(After choking on my tongue and laughing at the absurdity of the question, I told her that my husband and I have a joint bank account and share our assets. She gasped. “What you mean: share?” The explanation made her brain explode, but she apparently liked it a lot since she began massaging me with much more vigor. She explained that many Chinese husbands here give their wives tiny allowances, even if the wives work. “You have verrrrry good husband,” she said. “I need husband like that! Where I can find?”)
If you like to laugh, be sure to look through the 5 ringgit t-shirts at the wet market. They are filled with hysterically funny Malaynglish treasures, like this beauty:
Flowers by Armani?
Picture this: you’re driving home with a beautiful bouquet from a florist. Then you catch a heavy nose-full of cheap cologne and a headache hits you like a monsoon. You turn to your husband: “By chance, did you hug an Eastern European raver today?” He looks at you weird. Then you begin impersonating a hound dog and sniff through the car for the culprit. Then you land on your beautiful bouquet. Eau no, it can’t be! Unfortunately, yes, some florists here actually spray stinky perfume on arrangements. Oh, the mysteries of Malaysia…
No knives, no problem
The food here is damn good, but the restaurant experience can be a bit odd for the uninitiated. First off, there usually aren’t any knives. You need to cut something? You’re supposed to use a spoon to do it. Don’t worry – within a couple weeks, your spoon-cutting skills will be so tight that you’ll be able to saw through a tree with one.
There usually aren’t napkins either. If you’re lucky, there may be a box of flimsy tissues nearby, which will promptly disintegrate on your curry-covered fingers. Just rinse off in the sink.
Oh, and your food will come out at different times – sometimes with your appetizer last, or your meal arriving 10 minutes after that of your friends.
Once you’re done, just get up and go straight to the register – no need to wait for the bill. That is a damn nice efficiency…and one of the only efficient things you’ll find in Malaysia, so enjoy that perk for all it is worth!
The shop shadow
Have you ever had that weird feeling, wondering if someone is watching you from afar? No need to guess anymore! When you go to a shop here, you will actually feel the clerks breathing on your shoulder since they often cling to you like Velcro as you browse. It’s pretty uncomfortable for me – I want to wear this personal space ring when I shop here.
Not sure why they do this, but I know it’s not to be helpful, because whenever I ask them simple questions, they usually have no answers. “Does this red shirt come in blue?” Answer: Blink, blink, blink. “Yes, this shirt is red.”
Speaking of shopping, here are a couple other oddities: when you go to the produce aisle at the grocery store, you must have an attendant weigh and price your items before you go to the register.
And if you are buying something in bulk on sale at Tesco – like a discounted box of 10 sparkling waters – don’t expect to get the sale price. They will individually scan each bottle, and if you try to explain the box-price sale sign you just saw in the aisles, you will be met with a look much like this:
So you’ve made a 2pm doctor appointment at the hospital, but when you show up, you’re given a number. Huh? That’s when you look around and see 30 people holding numbers. Oh nooooo.
Yep, you’ve entered the 9th circle of hell where you may have to wait for up to 4 hours to see your doctor, which will give you plenty of time to soak up all the lovely germs floating around the hospital. Your “appointment” time is apparently merely a suggestion, so be sure to pack something to read/watch while you wait. But the upside of this is that when your doctor does actually see you, she/he can be thorough and won’t have to rush through your visit to keep on schedule.
Ask and ye shall not receive
Close your eyes, breathe deeply and think of yourself floating in the sea.
Keep that thought handy if you ever have to ask a shop or service provider a mildly complicated question. It seems that some just hear one part of your question. You: “I see that you’ve run out of AA batteries. Can you tell me if there’s another shop nearby where I can buy them?” Shop clerk: “Finish! Already finish!” You: “I know you don’t have any. But can you tell me another store where I can buy them?” Answer: “Yes, I have screwdrivers!” (And cue peaceful thoughts of floating in the sea…or repeatedly dunking someone’s head in it).
The Photo Bomb
Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be a celebrity? Well wonder no more! Just wander around tourist sites and watch as cameras ever so discreetly turn in your direction while some smiling person poses behind you with a peace-sign. It happens so often that I’m convinced that there are scavenger hunts in which one item on the list is “Take a Photo with a Westerner.” I highly recommend turning around, smiling, grabbing the photo bomber and taking some photos together with them. We’ve met so many nice people from all around the world this way. And who doesn’t want to be a hit in Sudan?!
A few weeks ago, some sweet Indian girls asked if they could take a photo with me. As I was putting my arm around one of the girls and giving the obligatory Asian thumbs-up for the camera, I caught sight of the giant swastika on her t-shirt. My eyes bulged and I froze.
For the record, no, Buddha was not a Nazi, and neither were these girls. For thousands of years, this symbol has signified good fortune and auspiciousness in Buddhism, and it’s also a sacred symbol in Hinduism. But still, it’s a little disconcerting that there’s now a photo of me circulating in which I’m giving a flaccid thumbs-up to a swastika. Faaaaantastic. Just doing my part to contribute to the peculiarities, I guess. 🙂