Disclaimer – I love Malaysia. I wouldn’t have committed to being here for 2 years if I didn’t, but every now and then certain things remind you that it’s not all a bed of roses – and there’s nothing wrong with getting it out of the system. The last week or so has been bitter sweet so I feel like having a bit of a pop at my adopted home.
I lost my phone a week ago at a chic little mountain eco-resort called the Dusun. With logical but circumstantial proof I concluded that the staff simply did not hand it in, despite my checking with the owner. It’s a real shame, but I won’t be back. This weekend just gone, the Wife and I spent 4 days in the honeymooner’s isle of Langkawi for our 3rd anniversary. Much of the experience was wonderful – the company, cocktails and stunning meal at the Bon Ton especially – but a lot of the time I felt frustrated, annoyed and disappointed in Langkawi. Again, I would be reluctant to return.
Having reflected on my week, I was reminded of an old school-friend (writing as National Romantic) who lives in Finland. He wrote a delightful and thoughtful note to me a few months back – about the ups and downs of living abroad – and it has once again struck a chord. I connected immediately to how he was feeling about his adopted country. As if to highlight cross-cultural differences, I am reading a book recommended by my Dad entitled Japan’s Cultural Code Words by Boye Lafayette de Mente. Using Japanese cultural history, the author describes in detail the apparently invisible behaviours deployed consciously or unconsciously by the Japanese, and experienced by Westeners doing business in Japan. For me the interest in what he says lies in the fact that being half-Japanese I recognise many of these behaviours in myself.
I’m fully aware that to a large extent it is incumbent upon new arrivals to accept and adapt to the culture of the country that has welcomed them. As Lafayette de Mente’s writing shows, cultural behaviours are deeply ingrained. Maybe I should just grin and bear it because these behaviours perhaps shouldn’t come as a surprise – a bit like a pub wine that you know will be a bit vinegary but that you order because you really fancy an industrially-made wine more than a industrially-brewed lager.
… and, yet, there are certain cultural ‘norms’ that one could say are routinely witnessed in Malaysia that will forever and always get up my nose.
I present them here, with a ‘Grinds My F*cking Gears‘ rating out of 10.
1. Queue barging – Yes we Brits have a chip on our shoulder about queuing, given its status as a national pastime, but it never ceases to amaze me how often I have seen flagrant and rude queue jumping as I have here. It is not uncommon for old ladies to elbow you out of the way or for people to wave money at the cashier like they’re a lap-dancer. It’s made worse by the fact that to lose one’s cool in public is a cultural no-no, as is the loss of face experienced by the queue jumper as a result of the remonstration. GMFG 6/10
2. Environmental ignorance – Despite stunning natural assets and some of the most diverse wildlife anywhere it seems to be culturally acceptable to openly litter and view the environment as a dumping ground. At a ‘geo-park’ in Langkawi we saw a big dump, supposedly for recycling, taller than the trees themselves, in the middle of a mangrove forest. Wildlife seems to be treated as entertainment – again in Langkawi, hawks and eagles are fed, for touristy entertainment, with chicken from KFC. Having learned this is an easy source of food, the birds will inevitably lose the ability to hunt for themselves which will then have an impact on the food chain. GMFG 9/10
3. Toilet behaviour – For a country with a stated aim to be a developed nation by 2020, Malaysia’s toilets are truly awful. Human behaviour is at fault. It is common for entire loo cubicles to be saturated in water from the washing hose. The Western-style loo seat will often have piss, occasionally crap and sometimes muddy footprints on it where someone has been squatting. You’ll be lucky to find toilet paper in most public loos. I simply don’t buy an argument that says it’s culturally acceptable for toilet behaviour to be this disgusting. GMFG 8/10
4. Nasal habits – The sound of men hacking up phlegm and general mucus-type substances then spitting into the urinal sends shivers down my spine. Public coughing, spluttering, snot-rockets and sneezing without covering the mouth is also common-place. Yuk. Perhaps this is a behaviour that comes down to a cultural unacceptability of touching the nose, but either way it’s still gross. GMFG 7/10
5. Personal space-invasion – In a city as congested and densely populated as KL it’s hard to avoid having your personal space invaded. But on a beach, with stretches of pristine, white, empty sand, it is beyond me why people come and plonk themselves down (big groups especially) right next to you and then proceed to make a cocophonous racket, spoiling the sense of peace and isolation. At times it feels more like I’m living in Magaluf than the tropical far-East. GMFG 8/10
We returned from Langkawi late and, not ready for bed, cracked open some wine – a 2010 Two Oceans Cabernet-Sauvignon Merlot. Disregarding my post from last time, I immediately thought I knew what to expect – vinegar. It was basically a ‘raffle’ wine that we won at a pub quiz some months back and in the shops retails at 42 Ringgit (less than £10) which means bargain basement. Two Oceans’ philosophy is at the mass end of the market judging by their product portfolio, so naturally one might expect a low quality product.
But despite the horrendous packaging (another note to self), low price and all the indicators that this wine would grind my gears, it turned out to be perfectly decent. The nose was actually quite complex; a bit of sulphury sweat, eucaplyptus, a hint of oak and ripe red fruit, and in the mouth – well the description is ‘drinkable’ – and judging by the volume-per-minute ratio it certainly was! It was fruity, but not overpoweringly so – still having an edge of tannin and firmness – and the classic Cabernet flavours of cedar and menthol came through pleasantly. It definitely sits in the OK camp, but given that I was expecting very little and got a lot more, it deserves some extra credit for trying hard.
My thought for the week is to concede that Malaysian behaviours shouldn’t come as a surprise. I also end the week with a wine that shouldn’t have come as a surprise if I’ve learned anything from many tastings. Thankfully it did, which cheered me up no end.