Friday, December 14, 2012

Malaysia on my Mind

Ever since I left a month and a half ago, Malaysia has been on my mind in one way or another. Although I wrote about some of my trip in Life As a Solo Traveler, I've been procrastinating writing about what it was that fascinated me the most: the cultural diversity.

Three major ethnic groups make up the country's population: Indian, Chinese and Malay (though it's difficult to pinpoint what constitutes a native Malay as the country has long been a melting pot for many ethnicities). As an foreigner, I was immediately impressed at how seemingly well the different cultures worked, lived and co-existed with one another - at least as it initially appeared to me as an outsider. While the separate cultures are equally as rich and distinct from one another, it's not uncommon to witness the blending of the three groups in cuisine, religion, language and families & friends.
Indian blessing a Chinese lady at a Hindu temple

Cultural Food Heaven
For someone as obsessed with ethnic food as I am, Malaysia is a food paradise. The entire country is full of one mind-blowing taste bud experience after another. Penang, an island state in the northwest, is renowned for being the foodie haven of Asia. While you can get authentic versions of any cuisine, each group has created a Malaysian style of their motherland's food as well as adapted dishes from one another for unique blend.
Ariff & I eating nasi lemak at a local dig.  Dish is served on
a banana leaf and often eaten by hand (I'm an amateur)
While Southern Indian fare is plentiful, Mamak (Indian Muslims) cook with a uniquely Malaysian style as in their most popular dish, nasi kandar, or rice with an array of curries. In addition to replicating Cantonese or Hoikken style Chinese food, Chinese Malays have become creative with adapting versions of Indian or Malay curries for their own liking.  Nyonya food hails from a mixed population of Chinese/Malays with a blend of Thai. Malay food is quite similar to Indonesian with more Indian flavors. A popular Malay dish is nasi lemak, or coconut rice usually with some type of meat and sambal (chili sauce). And so on and so forth - the interbreeding of Malaysia's gastronomy is infinite.
The most amazing chicken satay & peanut sauce ever
If Indian food in India is half as good as it was in Malaysia, I'll be putting on a few pounds...
With every meal, I tried to understand the dynamic between the varying cuisines by questioning my Malay cooking instructor and friends. I soon realized trying to distinguish whether a dish was entirely Indian, Malay or Chinese was futile; each cuisine is intertwined and influenced by one another.Let me tell you, it's not easy deciding what cuisine to eat in Malaysia - or rather - it's not easy to resist eating everything in sight!
Nazlina, my wonderful cooking instructor with the
Malay dish otak otak (steamed seafood tarts)
Beliefs, Colors and Languages
Aiman and I at a mosque;
I'm dressed in his sister's baju kurung
Though Malaysia is a Muslim country, the forward-thinking locals I spoke with were accepting of all people and interested in hearing other beliefs. This was my experience though; I heard from a friend who recently faced some antisemitism on her visit. On my visit, I met Indian Muslims, Hindu Chinese, a Buddhist Malay and everything in between. I witnessed beautifully colored children as the by-product of intermarriage.

Malaysia is a welcomed treat for the seasoned Southeast Asia traveler struggling with language barriers around the region. In Malaysia, everyone speaks English, because well, how else do they communicate with one another? Of course all Malaysians (including Chinese and Indian locals) speak fluent Malay, but English is also an integral part of their daily communication. My Malay friends tend to switch back and forth between Malay and English.  Eavesdropping on conversations around me on the trains and streets, English phrases are thrown around in with the any language of choice. Once again, my embarrassment emerged at only speaking one language, as European travelers rival who can speak the most languages and my Chinese Malay friends casually toss around six languages without effort.
Kek Lok Si; the largest Buddhist temple in SE Asia is in Penang, Malaysia
So Socially Diverse
Hanging out with expats and locals in Kuala Lumpur, I noticed the lively expat scene equally mocked the culturally diverse population of its mother country. The locals who took me under their wing during my stay in KL were Muslim Malay (known in Malay as Bumiputra), but hung with a diverse crowd of people.
Ariff and Aiman took me around during my stay in KL
My Malay friends didn't understand my awe over the cultural diversity. "You're from America - the land of the free, a land made up entirely of immigrants. Certainly you have American friends of other cultures?" 

Never before had I been forced to analyze the demographics of my American friends. After spending the past year abroad and making friends from all over the world, I was genuinely ashamed to admit that my social circle at home primarily consists of people with a similar skin tone, socio-economic group and often religion as me.

Yes, my country is made up of immigrants from everywhere. No matter what color you are in America, you probably won't get stared at as if you're an alien as I've experienced in remote parts of Southeast Asia. As long as you are a US citizen, everyone is legally entitled to similar rights. But even coming from a land of immigrants, the diversity in Malaysia felt so unfamiliar.

While I know there are exceptions, it's been my experience that cultures tend to naturally segregate themselves in America. Blacks hang out with blacks, Mexicans associate with their own, and the Chinese stay close to Chinatown. For a leading first world country, it's a bloody shame it exists that way.

...Not So Politically Diverse
That being said, Malaysia is still a developing country with a basket of its own issues, namely: an extremely corrupt government. Malaysia is a Muslim country, and Bumiputra (or native Muslim Malays) receive benefits that no one else does (tax cuts, loans and all that jazz).

All Bumiputra have a clear mark on their license and by law, must obey the laws of Islam (technically this means they could get in trouble if they're caught drinking alcohol or eating pork). Even a Muslim Indian, who is a second or third generation in Malaysia, does not get these same benefits because his ancestors are not original to the land. My Chinese Malay friend, while he works and is friends with Malays and Indians, confessed that his family hopes to move to America because the government does not make them feel welcome.

Another thing that I noticed was that the different ethniticities are quick to distinguish themselves from one another. When I asked my scuba diving instructor where he was from, his answer wasn't just Malaysia - he was "Chinese Malay, but a local." In America, most people will classify themselves first and foremost as American. Even in Thailand, multi-generational Chinese Thais consider themselves fully Thai, and if you can't tell from looks, you might only learn of their Chinese heritage upon a deeper interaction.
Chinese Malay diving instructor and master
at Quiver Diving before our night dive
While socially the country seems to get on well, the government makes it difficult for Indians or Chinese (even those who have been in Malaysia for generations) to feel completely at home. Interestingly, we're battling the opposite dilemma in America- we've earned equal political rights but socially there's a lot of progress to be made still. This raises the question whether it's possible to have a nation both socially and politically diverse.

While Malaysia is one of the most modern countries in Southeast Asia and is way ahead of my country's social diversity, there is a lot to improve if they want to reach their goal of becoming a "fully developed country by 2020." The country has instituted a "One Nation" initiative to be more inclusive of all races, although it seems many internal changes must occur if the government hopes to succeed.

If Malaysia does become more politically accepting, it's hopeful they could be a leading example in a country that is both socially and politically diverse.

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