A close friend of mine gave me a wise piece of advice before I set off on my travels in Asia – “be ready for an imperfect trip”. So far, my travels have been imperfectly perfect, my mind has been blown over and over again and I have had more amazing experiences than I thought I would have. Whilst videos best capture my time within different areas of Malaysia, a blog post is a better platform to describe my overall experience.
Six weeks in Malaysia has been absolutely incredible doing my favourite things every day; seeing family, eating, weightlifting, studying, researching and learning. Malaysia is a beautiful country in its own right, but the fact I have family here makes it that much more magical. This trip would not have been what it was without the love of Asian family, thank you so much for caring for me!
The CrossFit gyms have equally been so caring and had the best atmospheres. If in Malaysia, visit these boxes: Penang – The Underdogs; Malacca – FitTrek; Kuala Lumpur – CrossFit Pahlawan; and Kuching – CrossFit Kuching. From a training perspective, I have often had to tame my ego, given the humidity my lifts have felt sloppy and sluggish and breathing/bracing has been difficult. Yet training in the worst conditions makes preparation for competitions more realistic so I welcome such hurdles.
A ton of research into Malaysia’s extremely diverse food culture (Chinese, Malay & Indian being the main influences, others include Thai and Western, plus the Dutch and Portuguese in Nyonya dishes) resulted in over 150 Instagram food posts (plus 5 pages of deeper details in Word for my own use) and I have not even scratched the surface yet.
My curiosity gets me into trouble sometimes, but other times it rewards me. I have been so lucky to get a good insight into Malaysia’s 4 main religions: Muslim faith – one of my Grab drivers in KL kindly took me on a tour for free & took me to Putra Mosque; Christianity – some of my family in Penang are Catholics & they took me to visit St. Anne’s; Buddhism – some of my family in Kuching are Buddhists & they took me to their Chinese temples over CNY; and Hinduism – I went to Batu Caves at Thaipusam and witnessed a great festival.
When Malaysians communicate, they mix the English language with Malay, Chinese & dialects. One sentence could have 2 or more languages in it! Furthermore, the country has a friendly family feel (most likely because of the diverse culture). Every child, family or not, calls me jiejie (big sis), I call elders uncle & auntie, again regardless of whether they are family or not, and friends of family and friends of family friends have made me feel like family.
The architecture is nothing short of stunning; I am jealous of the houses and exceptionally envious of the kitchens, particularly the woks. Furniture looks too beautiful to sit on and the temples/mosques/churches are incredible.
As a law student, of course the thing I paid most attention to the legal system. Laws here are quick to be passed but slow to be enforced properly, in the UK laws may be slow to be passed, but they’re quickly enforced. Some examples include not smoking in public places, wearing seat belts & charging for plastic bags. There is perhaps not as much cohesion in the government structure therefore if policy is not welcomed by citizens, there is some reluctance to enforce it.
I feel as the country becomes more modern, it is losing this culture feature (from speaking to family/locals/grab drivers this is a shared view). Everywhere you go there is construction of condos, skyscrapers & the MRT system, plus hawker courts are starting to die out (even if they are not entirely hygienic, they are traditional) as malls start to take over, where the food is commercialised and not authentic. Yet such modernisation is benefiting the somewhat weak economy. Malaysia should be a minefield for foreign investment because of the weak currency but the workforce is not always there; locals flock abroad for a better wage. Of course, a strong economy is overall most beneficial for any country so it should be encouraged.
However, there is a still a clear divide between the Western and Asian worlds. I think we are all aware the Western world and Asian world can be quite extreme opposites in some social norms and values but I think until you actually fully submerge yourself in the opposite culture, you cannot quite fully grasp the differences. There are some norms here which are truly fascinating, and I do not doubt the same is thought about English life by Asians. Mostly it is interesting, amusing and amazing all at the same time but there are some occasions where it has been extreme stress (from both sides I do not doubt).
For example, it is Asian culture for a host to be with their guest all day, accommodate them as much as possible, never confront them, ensure they are fully fed & pay for everything. As a Westerner we are more independent, like to do things on our own, feel like a burden if people have to assist us too much & like to pay for our way. Perhaps the Asian world can be too collective and the Western world can be too proud at times. Perhaps people in the Asian world are too selfless and people in the Western world are too selfish at times.
And certainly, there is a personal lifestyle barrier too. My typical UK life: sleep at 8:30/9pm, wake at 6am, gym 7am, work 9am-5pm, evenings read/study and eat basic meals. A lot of structure & isolation. Whereas my Kuching life: sleep at 12pm-3am, wake at 8-9am, every day different plan which I have no idea what it is, all I know is to get in the car when my family says so, occasionally go to the gym and an abundance of really flavourful food. Not a lot of structure & minimal isolation.
Such extreme change caused havoc to my mind, body and soul but it was a life experience I feel everyone should experience for themselves for two main reasons. Firstly, even if you do not agree with someone else’s way of living or beliefs, if you can at least understand why they act and think in such ways then you can be mutual, whether this be in a social or professional environment. Secondly, it points flaws in your current lifestyle and helps you create a more enjoyable daily routine. For instance, I have come to learn about the warm feeling you get when eating dinner around a table with other people and wish to start introducing it into my UK life when I return.
My 3 top tips for Westerners wanting to visit Malaysia (you will gain more if you stay with a Chinese family):-
1. Do a little research on the main social norms so you can at least try to adapt upon arrival;
2. At all times remember you are in somebody else’s culture so be respectful, never show face and as infuriating as some behaviour can be, understand such behaviour is intended to make you feel like you are at home; and
3. Communicate. Communication is key. Ask questions about why things are the way they are and if unsure about table manners, definitely ask your host. Do not be afraid to explain your feelings if something makes you feel uncomfortable by giving examples of how you live your life back in England but never force your lifestyle/culture onto others.
Overall, I adore the intertwined culture like you would not believe. However, nothing great comes without its flaws, having such a diverse society causes confusion & conflict at times yet everyone is broadly respectful of each other. I also have mixed feelings about the developing economy & political structure but I feel the country is on track for improvement.
I have been warned China has an even bigger culture shock, so I best strap in my seat belt and get ready for the next adventure!