Stories from the road: Cultural Disconnect

When you get to Kuala Lumpur International Airport, one of the first things you notice about the place are the signs. You might see a sign saying “Tandas” and “toilet”, for example, with Malay on top and the English translation below. The positioning and ordering gives it away: you’re not in Kansas or any other predominantly English-speaking country any more. When you get to the immigration counter, it’s the same thing: “pasport asing” on top, “foreign passport” below.

The dual-language of everything at KLIA should actually come as no surprise, seeing as it is a pretty major aviation hub for many other international destinations. It’s often a stopover for travellers going to other Asian destinations; Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, etc, or even to places in Europe. There’s few places you can’t get to from Kuala Lumpur by air, seeing as it’s very centrally located in the grand scheme of things.

When you think about it in terms of demographics, the signs with two languages on them make even more sense: Malaysia is incredibly ethnically diverse. Wikipedia says there are a boatload of Chinese people in Malaysia, so it must be true.

What’s interesting, though, is that as an Australian-born Chinese I feel as though there’s such a cultural divide, even though there really isn’t. Not including English, I’m fluent in one of the three languages (I’m OK in Mandarin and can get by in Cantonese, don’t even bother talking to me in Malay) and understand a further two dialects, so in terms of verbal communication I’m not doing too bad. But when it comes to all the day to day stuff that goes on, I’m just not used to it.

For example: like many Aussies, when I’m at home I usually have some kind of cereal for breakfast. Fruit Loops when my mum isn’t hounding me about how it’s just sugar and colouring, otherwise some other Kellog’s derivative. (But never Weet Bix.) That doesn’t happen in Malaysia. Instead, for breakfast you get a choice between noodles with pork, noodles with soup, or noodles with whatever leftovers we had from last night. The first few days I was over here I didn’t really eat much for breakfast, not because I wasn’t hungry, although that was a convenient excuse, but because I’m just not used to having that kind of “heavy” food first thing in the morning.

It’s not just the food, either. Maybe it’s just because I’m a little separated from any relatives in good ol’ Tassie, but family gatherings seem to be a big thing here. We usually go to Malaysia for Chinese New Year, of course, but also because it was my grandma’s 80th birthday. For that we’re booking out an entire restaurant — upwards of 20 tables of eight people each — which should give you an idea of how big these things can be. There’s nothing like that in Australia, the closest thing being maybe Greek/Italian family get-togethers, not that I’ve ever experienced one of those.

My point is, everything is so different in Malaysia compared to back home. Their keluar is our exit, their SDN BHD our PTY LTD, their dilarang merokok our no smoking. Street-facing stores are plentiful, sure, but the real retail experience lies in their indoor malls, which completely dwarf ours; multi-levelled, fully-air conditioned, takes-all-day-to-fully-explore behemoths which would be enough to make any Westfield run and hide in awe.

But for all the stuff that’s different, culturally or otherwise, there’s one thing that isn’t.


You know, I genuinely thought it was a western thing where people were addicted to their smartphones and tablets. But here, it’s the same thing. People looking at their glowing white rectangles whilst on the bus, waiting for their food, or just out and about. People using their iPhones and Galaxies to Snapchat what they’re eating or doing right now, or sending messages via Whatsapp or iMessage. Technology, and technology addiction, for that matter, seems to be just as prevalent here as it is back home.

I’m also happy to report that “Wi-Fi” is still the same wireless networking method of accessing the internet as it is in Australia. You can still pop into any Starbucks, jump on their Wi-Fi (after purchasing your choice of beverage, of course) and begin bashing out emails, tweets, or blog posts just like this one. There’s no sense of disconnect, because you are connected to everyone else via the World Wide Web.

I guess the reason why I’m somewhat surprised at all this is because I’d be straight-out lying if I said Malaysia was as developed as Australia was. Despite our current government’s plans to shoot down the National Broadband Network, we’re still leaps and bounds ahead, technology-wise, of a country that is so incredibly remote in some parts that they still live in houses on stilts, bordering on non-usable land filled with endless palm trees. It all depends on where you go, of course, but there’s a marked contrast between the standard of living in the capital and a small country town, just a few hours away from Kuala Lumpur. Even tourist-y destinations like Penang aren’t exactly well developed, irrespective of how many high-rise buildings have popped up since the last time I was here.

If you want another example of how backwards parts of Malaysia are, consider that my aunt wants to transfer some money to me. In order for her to do that, she needs to fill in a form which involves my passport number and bank account details, wait until the exchange rate is favourable, and then go into a bank, and then and only then can she do the transfer. I mean, couldn’t the entire process be simplified if she used PayPal? There might be more fees, but all she would need to perform the transfer is my email address, and then PayPal would handle the actual transfer to my bank account, should I so desire. Maybe it’s a trust thing, that people can’t trust a faceless internet entity that exists only in cyberspace, whereas if something goes wrong with the bank transfer with the forms, she has someone to talk to. Or maybe it’s simply the fact that people still pay bills at the post office or bank because it’s what they’re used to, even though those tasks can be accomplished just as easily from the comfort of their own home.

Even though they’re still on analogue TV, almost every house in Malaysia has satellite TV, even in cases where they don’t have Wi-Fi. The rate of economic development is similarly impressive; malls that weren’t there a few short years ago have sprung up, and the other day I even saw a Malaysian telco offering fibre (but don’t ask me what the state of their national broadband network is in, because I don’t know.) For a country that has exactly zero official Apple Stores (yes, we are using that as an official measure of socio-economic status now), they not doing too bad at all.

In more ways than one, technology is the one thing in common that I have with these people. Oh, and that Asian thing, I suppose, but mostly the technology. The whole thing is aptly described by my cousin’s old 3GS: not the latest iPhone by a long stretch, and still lacking what I consider essentials like a Retina display and decent camera, but still perfectly serviceable for her needs.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I believe I have almost outstayed my welcome in this particular McDonalds.

Disclaimer: this entry was posted from the road during Malaysia 2014. Whilst all care has been taken to ensure this post is free from typos and other errors, the author cannot be held responsible for any factual errors within, but can offer his sincerest apologies. The lack of images and links is somewhat intentional, owning to the fact this was posted from an iPhone or iPad. There may or may not be a post with a collection of images once I get back to somewhere with stable internet access, i.e. Australia.