Finding Familiarity (Kuala Lumpur, Pt. 1)


Kuala Lumpur was an adventure, to say the least. On top of it being the first time I'd been to a new country by myself, I also went in with basically no plans and an entire week that needed to be filled. And while it was a completely new experience in almost every way, there was something strangely familiar about the place, too.

On the surface, there definitely are some pretty apparent physical similarities between Malaysia and Hawaii. After months of living in Japan where everyone is essentially the same (ethnically and otherwise), it was nice to see a co-mingling of people without second glances and not-so-hushed whispers, and the varying shades of brown, white, and yellow was reminiscent of the islands. Not to mention the 90° weather and the tropical foliage lining the streets.


Going deeper, though, once I got to actually explore a bit and talk with people, it became evident that the initial sense of familiarity I felt was less superficial than I first assumed. Both places have this beautiful mingling of cultures layered within a (less beautiful) history of Western imperialism that's left them with remarkably similar undertones. And while outwardly, each place's modern-day form looks completely different, the process by which they came to be seems to be based on something more universal.

Take the food, for instance. The first thing I did was look for recommendations on what to eat (because let's be honest here, eating as much local food as possible is really the most important part of visiting a place). The answers were pretty consistent. "Have roti canai for breakfast," "You can't leave without eating nasi lemak," "Bak kut teh is to die for, but you won't find the really good stuff in the city." But the one thing that was more constant than the answers themselves, was that everybody suggested not just Malay foods, but foods with Chinese and Indian roots as well.

Likewise, the foods we consider local in Hawaii aren't just native, Polynesian Hawaiian foods, but also foods drawn from the cultures that have come together to create modern-day Hawaii. Spam musubi, meat jun, pork adobo, malasadas, and manapua are all considered just as much part of the local palette as poke or poi despite their Japanese, Korean, Filipino, Portuguese, and Chinese origins (respectively).


And the language. No, I'm not going to marvel at the fact that people speak English there. That would be dumb. What did make me smile a bit though, was hearing English speckled with words, phrases, and syntax that were foreign to my ears. Like Hawaii's Pidgin, Malaysia's creole English, Manglish, is recognizably English, though it's difficult to understand wholly without a little local knowledge. Google tells me that while Hawaiian Pidgin draws the most influence from Hawaiian, Japanese, Portuguese, and Cantonese, Manglish draws from Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Tamil. 

So yeah, they're two very different places, but their differences are of a familiar sort. They've both got a flavor, an aura, a special something, that only a multicultural place can have that pulls them closer to each other and farther away from more homogenous cultures which might otherwise seem more easily understandable. And truth be told, I'd always attributed Hawaii's appeal to me to the weather or the people or the fact that it was the place I grew up. But after this trip to KL, I'd venture to say that what really makes it special is the way that different cultures have come together to create a new one. And finding that same quality somewhere else makes me so happy.