When I first met my hubby more than ten years ago, he wasn’t sure where Malaysia was and thought that it was a rural country, covered with jungles (not entirely wrong). In recent years, Malaysia has been making headlines so I’m sure that most people have at least heard of it but mainly for the wrong reasons – the disappearance of MH370, the assassination of one of the Kims from North Korea, 1MDB’s fraud scandal, etc. So I decided that it’s time to promote some of the positive aspects of my home country.
When I think about what’s unique about Malaysia, the fact that it is multi-cultural is the first thing that comes to mind. Due to the British colonization, Malaysia is made up of three main races – Malay, Chinese and Indian. Depending on where you are in Malaysia, the degree of diversity and integration varies. I am a Malaysian Chinese who grew up in Kuala Lumpur and attended a public school, allowing me to fully enjoy the diversity of my country. Here are a few examples of Malaysia’s uniqueness:
I always struggle to answer the simple question ‘What is your mother tongue?’ because it is a language which is not formally recognised. It’s called ‘Manglish’ or Malaysian English, which is the language spoken by most of my family and friends. At school, we learned Malay and English while at home, I spoke English and Cantonese. My parents also spoke Chinese dialects and while I’m not fluent in these, I still use a few words of Hakka or Teochew once in a blue moon.
We also have an amazing ability to switch between languages and Manglish, which is primarily English but with words from other languages, came about from the mixing of languages. We may speak up to three or four languages in one sentence. I was so used to speaking Manglish that when I first went to the UK, speaking purely English in a conversation took some getting used to. When I met my husband and he insisted that we speak Cantonese, I realized that some of the words which I thought were Cantonese were actually Malay words, pronounced in a Chinese accent! It’s very useful, though, as I can have private conversations with my fellow Malaysians, e.g. to come up with bargaining strategies when abroad or gossiping about my husband.
Malaysia is known for good food and it’s definitely one of the things that I miss. Not only has diversity resulted in a large variety of food, as the different races integrated over the years, we’ve become very good at fusion food. On top of tasty traditional Malay/Indian/Chinese food such as satay, curries, roast meats, stir fry, etc., there are other cuisines which can only be found in Malaysia. For example, ‘mamak’ are Muslim Indians and their cuisine is very popular, especially as a late night snack. Mamak food includes spicy fried instant noodles (maggi mee goreng), spicy goat soup (sup kambing), different types of bread with dips or fillings (roti canai, roti tissue, etc.) and a sweetened and smooth milk tea (teh tarik).
‘Nyonya’ or ‘peranakan’ is another mixed race, representing Malay Chinese. Peranakan food is rich with strong tastes, such as spicy and sour. Chinese hawker food is also unique, as traditional Chinese food such as stir fried or soup noodles has evolved to include Malay tastes such as spices, curries and the thick, dark and sweet soy sauce which is known as ‘kecap manis’. Examples include stir fried noodles with ‘kecap manis’ (Hokkien mee), curry noodles (curry mee), pork ribs soup (bak ku teh), etc.
Festivities and culture
As we celebrate the main festivals for all three races plus certain Western holidays such as Christmas and New Year, Malaysians enjoy quite a few public holidays. Growing up, I looked forward not only to Chinese New Year, but also Diwali (Hindu festival of lights) and Hari Raya (Muslim festival marking the end of the fasting month) as this meant days off from school and lots of good food. As our neighbor is an Indian family who throws parties during Diwali, we always get invited over. Vice versa, we invite them over during Chinese New Year to enjoy some of our cookies and also give red packets to the children. If you ever visit Kuala Lumpur, you’ll not only see mosques, but also Chinese and Indian temples. When I was in school, I also performed different traditional dances – Chinese, Bhangra (a Punjab dance) and Malay; and donned different costumes. I actually owned Malay (baju kurung) and Punjab (Punjabi suit) traditional costumes when I was younger. In particular, my best friend is Indian so I’ve had a good amount of exposure to the Indian culture.
I feel lucky that I grew up in Malaysia as it allowed me to have such a colourful and diverse experience.