Archives for category: Imperfect Malaysia

Today, my childhood friend Jo called.

She’d just arrived in California two weeks ago, where her hubby’s been working the last year.

After more than a year of living in two different countries, Jo and Mr Jo were finally reunited. Jo had chosen to remain in Malaysia because she didn’t want to come until she got her own work visa (wives piggy-backing on heir husbands’ H1 visas aren’t allowed to work in the US – not legally anyway).

We talked long and hard, and it felt good to converse in our familiar, broken colloquail Malaysian English. She asked for some tips for her impending driving exam this weekend, and lamented how alone she felt in the big city because Mr Jo. was in LA for work.

“People talk so differently here, and it’s not just the accent!” she commented.

“I know. Garbage, not rubbish. Garbage can, not dustbin. It’s crazy!” I replied.

“You should write a Malaysian’s guide to talking properly in the US!” she quipped.

While I’m not going to write a guide per se, I will blog a little about it since I can’t sleep.

You see, Malaysians are taught to use ‘The Queen’s’ English. Even though we were colonised like 60 years ago and have been independent almost 50 years (2007 is our 50th anniversary), this legacy has managed to stick around much longer, much as a lot of those pesky English things still do in other countries like Australia and Canada.

We drive on the right side of the road. We have all our ‘u’s intact in words like favour and behaviour. We place our fullstops (you call them ‘periods’) after the brackets (you call them ‘parantheses’). And we also drink quite a bit of tea (mainly also because we produce lots of tea).

That said, Malaysians do NOT always use England’s English. In fact, what we speak today is so far off the original thing it’s a whole new deal altogether. Sure, we use mostly British terms. For example, it’s ‘tar’ instead of ‘asphalt’. ‘Reverse’ instead of ‘back up’. ‘Toilet’ or ‘loo’ instead of ‘restroom’. ‘Petrol’ instead of ‘gas’. We also end our sentences sometimes with ‘what!’ (He was not bad looking, what?!) or some such thing.

Once, I used a very common phrase in Malaysia to say that I was taking off:

“I’m making a move,” I’d said. My friends thought it was very odd.

A move?” one lady chuckled.

“That means I’ve gotta go,” I’d explained, feeling like a complete idiot after.

Malaysian English is, in a nutshell, heavily peppered with uniquely Malaysian colloquialisms. We infuse it with a lot of Malay and Chinese words, particularly since our first language is Malay and if one is Chinese, we are taught a certain dialect from young.

As a result, what we call English in Malaysia, is actually a zesty Asian cocktail of English, Malay and any common Malaysian ethnic dialect/language such as Tamil or Hindi. And we call this cocktail Manglish, short for Malaysian English, or as some of us cheekier ones call it, Mangled English, simply because it is a version of English that has been cut open and its entrails spread every which way, with all the wrong parts from other languages callously put in with nary a care as long as this body of language, when sewn up and delivered with spirit and aplomb, works.

Allow me to give you an example.

If you ask a Malaysian for directions, don’t be surprised to get English that’s been repackaged to what may be a totally undiscernible language.

“When you reach the T-junction, turn right and then when you reach the traffic light, turn left. After the flyover, masuk the highway and then exit to Jalan Tembakau. You pass some shops and tall buildings, then you reachlah! Easy, what?!”

Translation to American: You will reach a three-way junction. Take a right and you’ll come to a traffic light. After the overpass, take the ramp onto the freeway and exit on Jalan Tembakau. The shop is about two blocks away, easy peasy!

Notice the difference?

To my Malaysian friends, you won’t know how bad our English is until you go to a country where the language is almost always spoken (if not always written or punctuated) correctly. There is a word or phrase for everything. There are words for these words!

Still, it was good to use Manglish again today with Jo. It certainly was a nice change, without having to think of how to say something in proper American before opening one’s mouth.

Welcome to America, babe!

I think one of the starkest cultural differences I’ve observed between Asians and Americans during my very limited time here, is our approach to child-raising.

My friend Min posted a very interesting observation on a Malaysian SAHM group recently. Basically, someone complimented on the good behaviour of someone’s son, and the mother made a remark that went a little something like, “Oh yea? You want to take him home?”

While this may have been said in jest (imagine it being part of the script of say, someone like Debra in Everybody Loves Raymond, and it won’t sound as serious), this strikes a cord in parents who believe in bringing up their children with respect and sensitivity. I, for one, shook my head as I read it, cursing the Malaysian mother, and then every lousy, old-fashioned, insensitive, emotionally-blind Malaysian parent out there, and then I cursed a tad more about the upbringing that made them the way they are.

Now I’m not a perfect mother. I make it clear in the title of my blog that I have plenty of flaws. Hell, I am the queen of half-arsed parenting. I play video games. I feed my kids crackers for lunch. I try to put diaper-changing off for as long as I can.

“I *think* Skyler needs a change, Jenn,” said a friend I was visiting last week when we heard something scraping against her hardwood floors. Sure enough, it was Skyler, walking around, dragging her swollen diaper from under her crotch.

Those who lurk know I have said worse things about my kids in this blog than offering them up to some other nice but more clueless parent. But I also think I’ve earned the right to do that, being at home all day with them, having to endure Rae’s Big Dipper of Emotions and Skyler’s Amazing and Surprising Poop-Bomb in the most inconvenient of places and during the most inconvenient of times (such as in her play pen, without her diaper on, standing over the carpet) without so much as a slap on the bottom or a harsh word.

The difference is that my bitching is done without earshot of my kids. Until they’re old enough to read my blog – if it’s still around – they won’t know how angry I get when they don’t cooperate sometimes. They don’t know that mommy is not always loving and understanding, so whining and crying and screaming, all at the same time, will not make me more so. And they don’t know how many times I’ve cried, thinking about the things I could do if I only had my own time. The times I thought of giving them away, just for a little while, to feel human again. The times I came so very close to just giving up.

But you know what? I am always up for a nice compliment about my girls without kidding about giving them away, in their presence

And there is that thing we Asians are guilty of: our inability to accept praise gracefully. As my friend Mic so astutely observed, we can’t do it because we feel it makes others envious of us. We tend to take every nice compliment as an indirect, resentful jab at how good we have it. And so, to make the insecure others feel better, we put ourselves, and our children, down.

I remember when I had Rae, I had this ancient confinement lady who told me never to say out loud how much milk Rae was consuming, because it would make her NOT drink as much.

“And please don’t say things like clever girl or good girl or cute girl or pretty girl or healthy girl. In short, just don’t praise her, or she will just become the opposite!” she’d told me in no uncertain terms. Apparently, my two-day old infant who can’t even hold her head up is able to employ passive-aggressive means to rebel against the standards of being a well-behaved baby who eats healthily.

And that sums up pretty much why some older generation Asians don’t take well to compliments or praise. In short, to praise is to jynx, and you’re not Chinese if you don’t believe in jynxes.

What’s alarming is that this type of thinking is seeping into later generations. I know more than a handful of young Malaysian Chinese women who hold on to these archaic beliefs and traditions in the name of “preserving our roots”. You can spot them a mile away, toting around their fengshui manuals and pirated Chinese New Year dvds. I used to work with two of them. And I had one living with me.

“Are you eating water melon?! Water melon is too cold! You are going to miscarry!”

“Are you painting your room?! Are you crazy!? Your daughter is going to have a red paintbrush-shaped scar on half her face!”

“Are you watching that monkey documentary?! Stop! Your daughter is going to be hairy like a monkey!”

Is it any wonder that we Malaysian moms know how to do anything right at all?

Thing is, our children don’t start out insecure. They start out innocent and curious, and sensitive to the world around them. Perhaps they may not know much the first few months or even the first year, but here’s some news, guys: they grow up. And fast. At the age of three or four, they start to think that everything that happens around them, happens for a reason: them.

For this little boy who was scorned by his own mother, he may be wondering: What did I do to earn such disdain, for all my good behaviour? Mockery and a shove in the direction of abandonment.

And abandonment, my friends, is one of the biggest fears a child can ever experience.

I’m proud to be Chinese and Asian. I believe in Asian values like respecting our elders and putting our family first. However, I also believe that our children are deserving of respect too, even if they know less than us and have been around for only a while, simply because they are family, and because they need to know they matter.

So I say accept praise gracefully and sing them to your kids loudly and proudly.

And if you need to bitch about them a little bit, use a blog. That’s what they’re here for.

Today (actually celebrations ended a few hours ago, Malaysian time) is Hari Merdeka in Malaysia, aka our independence day (from the Brits).

Usually, because it’s a national holiday, Merdeka eve is celebrated with lots of parties and fireworks and, of course, drinking. Which may be surprising to lots of people outside of Malaysia since we’re a Muslim country. But what’s a celebration without liquor, right?

YAY! We’re independent! Lets get sloshed!

Well, here’s to another year to you, Malaysia. Not that we’ll be doing anything crazy even if we’re home, but we sure miss celebrating Merdeka with you.

One of the most interesting cultures I’ve had to adopt living here in the States is talking to complete strangers.

For example, waiting in a line at a supermarket here in Redmond, the cashier will not only ask if “I found everything okay?” which may be out of professional training or real courtesy, but depending on how many items I have on the checkout (which translates to how long I’ll be standing there), she will also regal me with tales of her horrendous weekend organising a garage sale, for which she got only $200. I may have never met her in my life but what’s a little bitching between strangers?

In Malaysia, not only do the checkout ladies not greet you, they may not even look at you, unless you wear gold chains and/or carry something threatening (so they know when to run). Sometimes, if you’re polite and thank the lady for bagging your goods (but mostly because you’ve had experience living in a foreign country like the States), she gives you a blank look, as if to say, “Do I know you?” or “What you want?”

Contrary to popular belief, Asians – and by that I mean Malaysians – are not the friendliest people. No, we aren’t a rude people like them HongKees. We are, by and large, just a very – how should I say – practical nation.

Speak only when spoken to. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Hostile until proven harmless. That sort of mindset.

However, Westerners visiting our country see a completely different side to Malaysians. We read about it all the time, how we are purportedly the friendliest people in the world. The truth is, we have no qualms whatsoever about greeting or smiling at strangers – only if they’re Caucasian (or Caucasian-looking).

Still, it was awkward at first, for me, to open up my mouth and greet someone I don’t know. I remember this one time, in a supermarket, one of the baggers asked if I needed help going to the car with my bags.

You, want to help me, to the car?

I choked and sputtered out a confused ‘yes’. It was all I could do to stop from giving him a grateful hug.

Walking down a street in Seattle, you get nods, smiles and “how are yous” from people you’ve never met, all the time. Eight months of it and we too, have learned this common courtesy of exchanging niceties with complete strangers, asking about a person’s day or just stopping to give his or her (small) dog a little pat on the head.

Back home, not only do people not talk to each other anymore, nobody walks anywhere because it’s so damn hot and polluted and unsafe. Unless you’re like 70 and would rather risk being robbed over getting killed on the road.

And unless you’re crazy or selling something, never talk to strangers. Try and chances are the person will shake his/her head vigorously, quickening his sidestep in what I like to call the Dance of Disinterest. Persist and you will be treated like a leper.

Except, of course, if the greeter is a foreigner – and only the right type at that.

Caucasians, no problemo. We’ve been bred through colonisation to treat you special while we take your money AND make fun of you behind your backs.

Japanese/Korean? Maaay be a bit of a gamble. Just be sure to speak no English and you’ll be fine.

Indonesian or Thai? Be sure to have your passport with you at all times, and forget about asking for directions. Use a map.

Singaporean? Just pack up and go home.

Just this morning, a little boy of about seven struck a conversation with me at the playground while I was pushing Skyler at the swings.

“You look like someone I know,” he told me.

“Oh yea?” I answered.

“Yes. She’s in my church. You look like her.”

“Okay..,”

One never knows what the appropriate response is to such a statement.

“…except that she is actually a he.”

 

Without a doubt, one of the most interesting cultures I’ve had to adopt living here in the States, is talking to complete strangers.

So I was ruminating over what to get a friend of mine in Australia for a wedding gift. We aren’t very close but we used to hang out and before I became all aunty and maternal, he’d used to call or write as well. I guess parenthood scares quite a few people away. That and the fact that kids cry. Even when the crying kids are across a couple of oceans, thousands of miles away.

And then another friend of mine sent me a link to her wedding pictures. Not close as well but that’s the point of taking wedding pictures: to get as many people to see them as possible to make the thousands of ringgit spent worth it.

There she was putting on her makeup, and then doing the whole Chinese thing where she and her girl friends would wait for the groom to arrive at an opportune hour, where he and his ‘brothers’ would then have to perform the age-old dance of prying the bride out of her parents’ home through money and gifts and tricks because it is customary for the girls to be coy and NOT want to be married away.

I’ve played ‘chee mui’ to more than a few of these occasions. So much so my husband and I ditched the whole thing and opted for a Western-style wedding ceremony, replete with red roses, pretty bridesmaids, cocktails at 4pm and the like.

Thing is, they were fun, these customs that I used to loathe. Looking at my friend’s photos, I was filled once again with homesickness and longing for things that I’d thought were nonsensical.

Make no mistake. They’re still nonsensical to me. All the years of your life, you’d never believed or understood the meaning behind some archaic tradition or met 3/4s of your parents’ friends. And then suddenly on your wedding day, you have to wake up like four in the morning in a hotel room in a city you’re not even born in because your husband’s hometown was too far away so you had to meet half way, and then get all primmed up by some overdressed and over-enthusiastic lady you don’t know, chirping loudly the fortuitous words that are supposed to bless your marriage, when you don’t even understand, much less appreciate, half of them. And all this happens before you’ve even had a drop of coffee and your eyes are still swollen from the ridiculous hair-combing ceremony at 1am last night that’s supposed to guarantee lifelong matrimonial bliss.

And then you wait four hours for ‘the lucky hour’ because if the groom arrives any other time your marriage will be doomed. You’re sweltering in your thick makeup and gown but happy that at least your family and girl friends are here to suffer through it with you, and because they had to wake up at an ungodly hour themselves to do this, your girl friends devise a list of the most devious of demands that they will impose on your husband-to-be and his comrades, when all they can think about, really, is lunch and a nap after.

And then when your man arrives, your girl friends lock the gates and pretend never to let him and his friends in unless all of them eat Wasabi sushi AND sing the full Jerry Maguire theme finishing off with “You Complete Me”, with feeling, AND pay each of them a hefty angpow of eight bucks. And all the while, the bride is going, “Come on guys! Enough enough! Let him in!”

So she is SO not unhappy about being married away.

And at the end of the day, there will be a bountiful banquet for 16 tables of guests, 14 of which are filled with people you don’t even know. But the fun part is that the bride gets to change through three expensive (looking) gowns, as part of the evening’s ‘entertainment’, so that said guests will get their ang pow‘s worth.

Ah, to get married the Chinese way.

But you know what? These silly customs were mine to despise. And now, I will never, ever, be apart of that again. Not in the next three years, at least. I know at least two of my good GOOD girl friends are getting married within the next few years and I will not be there to bitch about all of this.

Instead, I will be here, shopping online for wedding gifts that will not cost too much to send over.

I REALLY miss you guys.

Can you wait until I come home to get married?

PLEASE!?

Islam. It is a word that conjures up many images.

And in a country such as the US, my new home, it brings up more negative opinions and feelings than positive today. Naturally so, since it is difficult to remain politically correct when the former has been waging war against two Muslim regimes in the last few years.

When people ask me where I'm from and I tell them, my response draws more disappointing blanks than I'd ever imagined. Most Americans do not know where Malaysia is, even when I use the "Petronas Twin Towers" card, which was supposedly our crowning glory.

Many have asked where our home country is and my usual explanation is "it's near Singapore/Thailand". Most are surprised we speak "excellent English".

However, all I've met are shocked that a Chinese Christian girl named Jennifer, with daughters named Raeven and Skyler, are all born and bred in a Muslim country.

"Is that normal?" I've been asked once.

It is the breaking of such preconceived notions that I enjoy most when exchanging stories with my newfound American friends, most of whom think Islam is but a Middle-Eastern religion in oppressive, backward regimes, where no other religion dares take root, much less make disciples of in the millions.

Except for the Philippines, my American friends know no other country in Southeast Asia that embraces Christianity and other faiths. Needless to say, the fact that Malaysia is a multi-cultural, multi-religion country is news to them.

So I have another positive point to add to my list of Good Things that I have going for me in Seattle: that I can spread the word to Americans about my beloved country.

That although we are a Muslim country, Malaysia is so much more than just Islam and religion.

Succinct yet insightful, Malaysian writer Karim Raslan nails the glaring difference between Middle Eastern and Southeast Asian Muslims.

I’m everything BUT a strict Christian myself, and I’d often wondered in the past if that makes me less in God’s eyes when compared to my church-going, bible-quoting friends.

These days, that is no longer a concern. As my mom would say, “You believe what you want to believe. Who’s to say who is right or wrong?” As long as I still pray, He will still listen.

And now for something totally hilarious.

Just wanted to share with y’all what happened to me yesterday when I went to cancel my membership at Fitness First in DU Uptown, and perhaps one of you health/women’s magazines should do a story on the new gyms and their memberships schemes (or should I say scams), help people who join these places understand what they’re getting into.

Last year March 2004, I joined Fitness First in DU and took up a Lifestyle Passport membership that cost me RM175 a month. I was asked to sign a contract which tied me to a few things, one of which was that as a Lifestyle member, I have to remain with the gym for at least a year.

A few months later, I found I was pregnant, and suspended my membership from August 2004 for six months until April 2005. It’s stated in the contract that you have to pay a percentage of your membership fee, which came up to about RM35 a month and I wasn’t allowed to use the gym’s facilities for the duration. Agreed.

This year April, my full membership was reinstated. However, some plans in the near future require me to cancel my membership. Yesterday, I went to do just that.

To my shock, I was told that because I froze my membership for six months, they did not count in my serving my one year’s membership to the gym. So if I wanted to cancel my membership, I would have to pay the difference of RM190 (the normal membership fee) – RM175 (the special ‘Lifestyle’ membership fee) X 6 months since my ‘extended’ membership was supposed to be until September 2005. Of course, I asked for a clarification about this unfair RM90 charge.

The reception clerk told me it’s in the contract I signed, and despite having just glanced the thing, I remember no such thing. And so I asked for the thing to verify. I read it carefully from top to bottom and you know what? It wasn’t there.

So I told the Front Desk Manager, who was the supervisor in charge yesterday, that no such clause existed and asked for her to point it out to me. She clearly had never read the contract herself and after discussing in whispers with her colleague, pointed out another clause to me, that stated that I could not serve as notice (14 days required) using the days when I had my account suspended.

I then told her that my suspension ended April 2005 – wtf was she talking about? I told her I will gladly serve the 14 days notice from yesterday, when my membership is very much fully effective. She then said that this very clause extrapolated another unwritten rule that the suspension period cannot be used for any purpose, INCLUDING the months used in the ‘one year’ one needed to serve as a Lifestyle member.

I told her that was BS and she knew it, and asked her to please refer to her manager before making claims like that. She then told me I was surely briefed about this during my signup. I then asked why then is the clause not in writing, in that contract of hers?

Obviously, she had no answer because this was just another way of making you pay for canceling the membership. The manager’s last ditch at making me cough up the RM90 was, “this is our procedure and other customers also pay.”

Yes, I could not believe it too.

As usual in these kinds of cases, the ‘person in charge’, other than the lady, is never in. So she told me she can’t cancel my membership until this dispute is verified. How long will it take? One day.

Today, she called me at 9am to tell me that my membership is cancelled and the deposit I paid will be used to cover July 2005. To save myself from enduring another ridiculous explanation, I agreed.

So to those of you who are members of these gyms, READ THE CONTRACT and ask about EVERY clause, particularly with regards to when you want to suspend your account or God forbid, cancel it. You may find out a few unpleasant things you never imagined existed.