Malaysians, friendly as we are to gwailos, are otherwise a reserved lot.

We don’t greet each other in the lift.

We don’t like to bring attention to ourselves unnecessarily because it makes us look “thick skinned”. Unless, of course, it involves freebies, particularly free food. Give away free makan and we’re there, whatever you may think of the thickness of our skin.

We don’t even talk to each other for fear of seeming crazy. “Don’t talk to strangers” is a childhood instruction we take with us to the grave. Of course, there are exceptions. As mentioned, one of them is if the person talking to you is a gwailo. Apparently, fraternising freely is a Western trait. Another is if the person is selling something, or begging. If so, ignoring him or her becomes a pleasure. Sometimes, even a favour.

“Don’t encourage him. What if he uses that money for drugs? You never know!” my mother would say.

Last week, I was grocery-shopping at my neighbourhood Fred Meyer (it’s like Jaya Jusco) when I overheard an old Asian couple talking in Hokkien.

Whaddya know, it’s Penang Hokkien.

“Buy those at the bottom! Those are cheaper!” said the woman. Ah, Penangites. Famous for their frugality. I turned around.

“Are you Malaysians?” I asked in English, beaming.

The man, pushing the barely laden trolley, stopped and stared, half expecting the alarmingly fat Asian lady to grab his groceries or something. His wife, who was walking beside the trolley, veered sideways, eyes avoiding, hands clasping purse tightly.

“Are you from Malaysia?” I asked again, louder. They looked to be in their sixties, so I took the liberty.

The man returned a polite smile and nod, and quickly nudged his cart behind his wife, who had already negotiated a wide berth around me, while trying very hard to appear nonchalant as she checked for the price of tomatoes. Both sauntered in small, mincing steps toward the cabbages, their conversation about cheaper bread prematurely ended for fear of further intrusion by unidentified Asian woman.

I’d never wanted to be able to speak Hokkien, specifically Penang Hokkien, more in my life.

So you Hokkien-fluent people, how do you say “Are you from Malaysia?”.

Ps. Please, no funny business. Although I can’t converse in the dialect, I am, like most Malaysians, fluent in all the swear words.


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