I love to experience the new and unexpected. New sights, experiences, smells and tastes from different places broaden my view of what’s possible. Malaysia is a beautiful, tropical, country that is a hodgepodge of cultures that have blended together to form an exotic culture. I was married for 19 years to a man from that culture and I made the journey half-way around the world to his homeland.
Malaysia has been a travel crossroads since man set sail. It’s a colorful blur of Malay, Chinese, Indian, Indonesian and British. My ex is Chinese and his large, multi-cultural family is scattered throughout the Malaysian peninsula and Singapore. He is the 12th of 13 children; he was born to the second wife. The two moms, his father, a grandmother and all the children lived under the same roof. His grandmother was born in China. I heard the story of her broken, gnarled feet because of having them partially bound as a very young girl. This was the custom in China before war caused her family to move to Malaysia. His grandmother, father and the first mom had long passed away before we married.
This only child was warmly welcomed into his large family. My Mother-in-Law spoke no English, so there was lots of smiling and nodding when we met. Family life centered around mealtime and generations came together to laugh, gossip and eat. The Kitchen God’s image hangs in the kitchen and is fed sticky food so he can’t slip away and repeat the overheard gossip.
Adults eat first, the teens clean up and everyone plays with any available baby. After dinner, the kids go outside to play and climb the fruit-laden trees while the adults play mahjong. The only Chinese I had leaned were the curses that my then husband would mutter under his breath. He had no idea I had learned those curse words much to the delight of his family when asked if I had learned any Chinese and I proudly said them.
Our daughter is named Jade, a name to fit in both East and West. When we returned a few years later to visit with her, it was hard to realize that my baby girl would have been the age of her great grandmother when foot-binding would have been the norm. My little exuberant American—who talked as an equal to the adults, not something the other children did—was embraced and welcomed just as I was. I have sweet memories of her curled up in her grandmother’s lap watching TV…in Chinese. Their understanding of each other transcended language. Fortunately she did not learn those Chinese curses.
While life in Malaysia is more similar than different from my American life, there are differences. His family all went to British schools. So while English is their first language, they speak English/Malay/Chinese; it’s whichever language has the best word for what they’re trying to say. Malaysians often end a phrase or a sentence with the word “la” which gives conversation a lovely lilting sound.
Each day the heavy tropical dawn air carries the beautiful sound of prayers being chanted from a nearby mosque. Muslims, Buddhists, Christians and Hindus all live side by side. Shoes are taken off before you enter homes or temples. There’s always a pile of shoes at doorways. There are warning signs at temples that say “Beware of Shoe Thieves”. One memorable sign said “Beware of Shoes”. I wear a size 7, which is huge over there and probably why I never had my shoes stolen. I’m 5’4”, which made me the size of most men. My ex is 5’8” and played center for his high school basketball team.
I love curry, dim sum and mangos because of first tasting them in that tropical crossroads. I’ve walked on a rope bridge high atop a rain forest, eye-level with the tropical birds and monkeys. I’ve stood on Penang’s breathtaking island shores–shores that a devastating tsunami would one day flood. I’ve slung back a Singapore Sling at the timeless Raffles Hotel in Singapore, the same place Somerset Maugham, Hemingway and other ex-pats drank and told their stories. I’ve stood atop the world’s tallest twin towers in Kuala Lumpur and seen the sunset on a distant horizon. A sunset that was becoming a sunrise back home. Life is indeed about the journey and not the destination. Savor every step.
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