“To all visitors, welcome to Malaysia, and to all returning Malaysians, welcome home.”
As the plane rolled into the terminal, the bittersweet statement by the flight attendant, one they probably use at least once a day in their profession, hit me hard. It has been awhile since I called Malaysia home. The emotions of being away, from the anxieties of suddenly being back, and the uncertainties surrounding my future, overwhelmed me for a few moments.
“Ah, I’m home! … Now what?”
“Why is everyone standing so close to me? What happened to personal space?”
“Argh! The toilets are disgusting! Why is everything so wet and does NOBODY know how to flush?!”
These were among the first thoughts I had as I walked through the KLIA2 terminal on an overcast March morning. I was experiencing so many emotions that stepping foot in the motherland felt so surreal, like all of this wasn’t true; that it was just a dream. Except it wasn’t. I was home, and I’ll be here for awhile.
I was not craving a plate of nasi lemak; or a steaming cup of teh tarik. Instead I longed for some bacon and salad, perfectly scrambled eggs, and a decent flat white. And while I did indeed have some local fare, the taste of these once-familiar foods felt odd. Why was everything either so sweet or so oily? Is this what life is going to be like now?
As you can tell, being home was not something I wanted; it was something I did not have much of a choice in. And as you have probably guessed, this is not a tale of a Malaysian’s rejoice at finding himself home amongst his comfort food and surroundings, who felt out of place while living abroad and craved for a time when he could be home. But to understand all of that, a short step back in time is needed.
My journey started seven years ago, when as a fresh-faced 19 year-old, I embarked on an adventure to study abroad… on my own. I’m not entirely sure what made me decide to do it besides my parents wanting me to get international exposure, but I had packed my bags, said goodbye to family and friends near and dear, and hopped on a plane to Australia.
I know, I know, so many people have studied there, lived there, worked there, or have had friends move there for studies. I believe the key point here is that I did it alone. None of my classmates did the same thing, so the first time I stepped into a classroom (and everywhere else) I was the odd one out. Being socially awkward, I did not fit in easily with anyone, and so with Malaysians who were suddenly all about freedom and partying, I was just longing for companionship and connections with people. We had little in common, and that made it hard to strike a genuine connection.
Finding it hard to connect with others was one thing; I also found Malaysians as a whole to be quite cliquey. We seem to like sticking to what we know, and that includes not making the effort to be courteous to strangers, such as a lonesome compatriot. When I had established my own group of friends and social circle, I didn’t really bother chatting up Malaysians, or attend Malaysian-centric events because I had already learned to live independently of my Malaysian identity and countrymen. I rarely ate at Malaysian restaurants or cooked Malaysian dishes, instead I grew accustomed to the chicken parma or steak that my friends would want to have; breakfast wasn’t roti canai with teh tarik, but avocado toast and coffee. I love my country, and I express it in my own way, but I had survived on my own when I felt like my people weren’t there to support me.
And now, finding myself back home, I do experience reverse culture shock, and find myself awkward at best. Things that were once familiar, now seemed forced and unnatural. I am a different person, more mature than the teenager who left but also, in some ways, more aware of the differences between myself and other Malaysians.
One of the very first things I’ve observed since coming home was how judgmental we Malaysians are. This is probably something that was already present for a long time, but it was only after distancing myself that I was able to look from the outside in. We seem to have no qualms about shaming someone for their body, or their looks, or their style, or their associates, or anything that isn’t deemed to be acceptable and the norm.
In fact, barely half a day into my return I was already queried about how I style my hair.
“What are you trying to do with it? Are you trying to look like Donald Trump?”
At that point, I had no idea whether I wanted to laugh or sneer; indeed, it was such an outlandish and unexpected remark that I wasn’t sure if I was amused or annoyed. How dare they compare me to someone whose hair is mocked rather than admired!
Then you have the body shamers.
“Do you eat anything? Are you on a diet or something?”
“You need to eat more and gain some weight!”
I don’t deny that I’m quite underweight; but I am also happy with where I am. While most people I encountered abroad are able to keep their opinions to themselves or just remark that I’m skinny, it is the Malaysians that somehow have no shame in pointing out the obvious and making seemingly snarky remarks. In fact, growing up I distinctly remember being asked regularly whether my mother is depriving me of food, or whether my sibling is taking all the food at home and leaving nothing for me.
If you think for a second that this is acceptable behaviour, think again. By making someone feel uncomfortable about their body you are body shaming them and bullying them; that they should strive for an ideal that society had imposed on you and that you’re now pushing on to others. And let’s not forget the hypocrisy: we have no reservations about arguing for being body positive, and being happy with ourselves, but we also have no qualms about reducing another person to feeling self conscious about their body.
Perhaps this comes from a lack of awareness of the societal norms that’s been placed on us. In particular, gender norms are something that Malaysians as a whole are lagging in. Since returning I have been very aware of the constant subconsciously used gender norms that are never questioned; such as how a “man” should behave, and what actions would be “unmanly”. Granted, these happen elsewhere too, but I was made acutely aware of just how much farther we have to go in getting gender equality – we don’t even realise the inequality that’s present in our daily lives. Apparently, a “man” should be “strong” and “muscular”, not “skinny like a flagpole”.
Seriously, give me a break!
Next on the list: the driving. If I had to describe Malaysian driving it would be: erratic, impatient and borderline risky, with no decency or regard for fellow drivers or road rules, endangering not just other drivers but also pedestrians, bicyclists and motorcyclists. In fact, sometimes it feels as if we want accidents to happen (so we can drive slowly by?).
Our indicators seem to act as visual effects only – no thought is given about indicating when switching lanes or turning. I am normally tolerable if it happens from a distance, but when drivers do it abruptly and at a short distance, a few choice words that shan’t be repeated instantly come to mind. Is it really that difficult to indicate so that other drivers are aware that you intend to move your car in a specific direction? It’s one of the basic things we are taught in driving school, and one of the first things we unlearn upon getting our P’s.
Despite that, I found myself defending Malaysian driving when living abroad. I talk up our impressive driving skills (I mean, you really have to be a very alert driver in Malaysia) and do see drivers from other countries like Australia as less skilled due to them not having to navigate tight corners, narrow roads, and torrential downpours. Try backing into a parking lot when it’s completely surrounded by illegal parks!
Technology has been another huge aspect in which I found myself being faced with some rude awakenings. For all the musings about technology bridging gaps between cultures, technology has also been a platform in which I felt alienated and different; it’s one of the platforms in which I was vividly aware of the cultural differences in the use of technologies.
The use of messaging apps is one such example. While I was overseas, WhatsApp was a very common platform for communicating with friends, however it was strictly a personal platform. But at home, WhatsApp is commonly used for professional purposes as well, and most people have no qualms about sending a WhatsApp message to a colleague or client at any time of day, and expecting replies outside of business hours, something I am still coming to terms with. I would be aghast if a client had sent me a message on WhatsApp in my previous job in Australia. In this sense, work really doesn’t ever stop, even after you’ve left the office.
I had always been very clear about separating my professional and personal lives, and WhatsApp blurred the lines which made me hyper conscious of what perceptions professional contacts are getting from my personal life. Take it as me being old-school if you will, but I very much prefer being sent emails that can be dealt with the following business day, as well as not resorting to more informal text messages to communicate. Longer response times, yes, but better for everyone’s sanity. I just didn’t understand why did we not come together as a society and provide each other with a bit more personal space, and a bit of work-life balance?
Where does this all leave me?
I guess, in a kind of limbo. While the sights and sounds, the roads and trees of Malaysia all seem familiar to me, and I have (mostly) no problems with navigating through the maze of a city we call Kuala Lumpur, I can’t help but feel a little out of place in my own backyard despite my identity as a Malaysian being (also mostly) intact. I cannot help but long for cool winter days, orderly traffic, and a more relaxed way of life that I have led elsewhere. This notion of identity and the self can be a sobering thought, for while I become more certain about my identity, and who I am as a person, I am at the same time less certain about it because I realise that it is one that is not easy to define, one that does not fit into most labels that we currently have. In a world in which we seek comfort, and belonging, it can be an isolating feeling.
All of this does not mean that I am struggling to conform; rather, I think it simply demonstrates someone whose identity is still being shaped. I am Malaysian, born and bred, and nothing will change that regardless of how many cities I live in or how long I spend away. But it is also not entirely home anymore – but perhaps that is a discussion better suited for another day.
At the end of the day, I do constantly need to negotiate my sense of identity, and what makes me Malaysian. Not feeling like I belong, but knowing that this is, ultimately, the place I used to call home, the place where I spent two-thirds of my life. I guess it makes me more or less, Malaysian.