My parting gift from Indonesia was an awesome conversation with the driver as we made our way from Lake Toba to Medan's aport, which was an absolutely hilarious five hours and truly treasured reminder of Indonesia’s best kind of people. As we discussed everything from his favorite movies (all the Fast and the Furious and anything with “muscle man Arnold the Governor”) to music (Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On and all Michael Jackson songs because “that music makes [my] body move from left to right”) to his children (who he referred to as 1, 2, 3 and 4) to Justin Beiber (“he arrest because too much alcohol on a plane; why don’t you watch the news?!?!”) and other classic tidbits, every last bit of crankiness I had with this enchanting yet frustrating country melted away. After a sleepless night in the airport hanging out with the cats wandering around baggage claim and a few final arghh moments, my arrival in Kuala Lumpur was a breeze. After flying through immigration and customs, I walked through the outside perimeter of the terminal to catch a cab and was greeted by a Starbucks, Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, Old White Coffee, a slew of restaurants AND a juice bar! Toto, we are definitely not in Indonesia anymore. My entry was unitentionally timed right before the start of Chinese New Year, a tremendously big deal for a very large portion of the population and extremely fitting for me personally, as it is a time of new beginnings.
After dropping my stuff at a homestay I went straight into two days of to-do’s, which were relatively uneventful easy necessities of things like allergy testing, typhoid re-vaccination (apparently you had to refridgerate the pills. Oops), scoping out a used phone then dealing with the unlocking process, sim cards, pharmacy stuff, attempting to navigate different public transportation methods, find an apartment… check, check, check. Amazingly enough, I landed a place to live on the second day and moved in on the evening of the third. Talk about things falling into place. The apartment is completely, unnecessarily gorgeous with the only negatives being that it’s a bit removed from all of the main areas and the price is more expensive than I need to be paying. However from a US perspective for just $650 a month I get a fully furnished and tricked out giant living space, all utilities, washer,, downstairs gym, outdoor infinity pool, and an adorable British roommate who I already have a minor crush on (and I guess more importantly, is actually ok with my only being there three months). So, I’m just gonna have to ignore those pangs of guilt nagging that I could’ve found something for $350-$500 if I kept looking. Despite the building's distance from most of the hangout and convenience areas, I'm hoping to still have enough time to really explore. In general, KL seems to have been a good choice so far; things are different and exciting, yet still seem familiar enough to make me feel comfortable. I'm energized all the time and even though there's tons of phenomenal coffee in most areas (oddly enough, wayyyy better than Indonesia where all the good stuff is exported), I don't seem to need it. Which is nuts because as all of you know, it's unheard of for me not to need 5+ cups just to function.
I have to say it’s a relief to be around so many with at least a decent grasp of Engligh (how horribly American do I sound), but it’s also really cool to simultaneously be surrounded by a major diversity of nationalities, languages, cultures and persectives. So far people here seem to be very nice and welcoming, both the locals and the expatriates. I can’t say I’ve made friends yet, but have had some really lovely conversations and advice.
One of the first people I met was an older man from Brussels who previously worked at Havas (a well-known media agency for the non-marketing people reading) before moving here as a consultant last year. Over what started as a hello and turned into a 1.5 hour lunch, he gave me all kinds of valuable information, tips and reccomendations on both daily and business life. So that was a pretty stellar introduction to KL. Almost the entirety of the first week was spent trying to settle in, take care of any errand-y type things and mostly being perpetually lost (figuring out where things were took an obscenely long time) before starting work, so there’s not a ton I can share about the city yet. But here’s what I can tell and/or have heard thus far:
1. Kuala Lumpur is sprawling, much bigger than I expected, and seems to be mostly composed of malls-- which are all INSANE. I cannot overstate how friggin giant and everywhere they are. The first one I went to is 5.9 million square fee and on the way there, I passed about 9 others in a very short radius. Including the nearby suburbs, I wanna say the total count is over 50. These places are endless and complicated labryinths that I’m convinced are intentionally designed to make you lost, trapped inside, and shopping for weeks on end. Each one has a slightly different feel but a good amount of them are pretty upscale, quickly transitioning me from grime to glamour with floors upon floors of the most exclusive designers—Prada, Gucci, Hermes, Diane Von Fursteberg, Chanel, Carolina Herrara, Burberry... I could go on and on (Glen Peden if you’re reading this, try me; I bet anything you name is here. And you should come visit for a shopping trip). Absolutely everything you could ever want is found in them and in many cases, the only nearby option for a tailor, locksmith, bank, package mailing/pick-up, and other things of that nature. However self-contained, they are also incredibly disorganized and it's impossible to find anything. With such a humongous scale and mind boggling amount of stores, it doesn’t seem possible to only have a few directories in the whole damn place. So if you go in for something specific and not just to wander around (as it seems like most do), expect to be there searching for hours at a time. And of course, you’ll be distracted by all the blatant consumerism and end up browsing for things you don’t need or even particularly want. Brilliant. In general the warnings have proven true: things just take way longer here due to an unconcern with efficiencies and time management, so even a small task can eat up a good chunk of your day. Moral of the story,I'm gonna have to learn to chill the hell out and just roll with it.
2. If this city is firstly about the shopping, then food is a close second. Not only are there masses of street food type offerings and their more upscale versions from various Asian countries, but also French, Italian, German, American, etc. that for the most part seems to be delicious and pretty high quality, but I'm sure it depends on where you go. Walking through the food courts at some of the malls (I hesistate to call it a food court because it's an entire floor and absolutely nothing like the food courts back in the US) there are at least a hundred stalls in addition to the tens of restaurants. Gelato stands heaped with a dazzling array of colorful flavors, noodles and rice mixed with every vegetable and meat imaginable, juice carts with beautiful produce heaped along the sides, all things fried, banana leaves wrapping sweetened rice treats, places where you can get fresh coconut water, soy milk and sugarcane juice, coffee shops by the dozen, not to mention the tons of bakeries,dessert and pastry shops-- Malaysians seem to all have massive sweet tooths; even the most random restaurants (eg Korean BBQ) have a display with all kinds of cakes, buns and various sugary doughy things. Granted, there's still alot of chains but even they mostly manage to have an exotic flair with the local menu additions (for example, Starbucks has a mochi frappachino and green tea latte). My tortured brain is about to explode from battling a committmet to healthy eating and wanting to immerse myself in the food culture. So far willpower has been winning out and luckily, while I've had to put in alot of extra effort to find meals that are vegetarian and not carb loaded/fried/rich masses of a meal, still have been able to enjoy some really great bites. By far, my favorite was a bean curd hot pot which is... well honestly I'm not totally sure, but it seemed like a bowl of the best tofu ever (which I'm usually not in love with), mushrooms, snow peas, baby corn, seaweed and carrots in a rich, spicy and complex broth. The bowl is surrounded by individual sides of brown rice, chopped peanuts, chilis and pickled vegetables, a side salad in a very light (rice wine vinegar?) dressing and a clear mild broth with chunks of boiled carrots. I have no idea how you're supposed to eat it but I did some mixing and it was phenomenal. I may need to bump up my Malaysian cooking class because I positively need to know how to cook like that.
3. KL is a bit of a micro melting pot. Overall, there's a fairly strong British influence left over from its colonization, which is primarily evident in a lot of the language used and some of the older architecture (there's even a mini Buckingham Palace and Eye of Malaysia). And while there's a fair amount of expats here- mostly British and Australian with some Dutch, French and a few American- plus residents and tourists from all over Asia and the Middle East, the true locals are split into four main ethnic groups. Malay, who have a striking resemblance to Indonesians in their look, language, religion and dress. Then there's the Chinese, who I'm going to make a massive generalization is saying, strut around in little hoochie outfits (girls) and baggy, emblazoned gear (guys), and all kinds of sparkly, studded attire. Apparently, the more conservative dress code doesn't apply to them. Indians make up another very large sector and their bright influences are a wonderful contrast to the other elements of beautifully somber Islam, kind of tacky glitz, and over the top lavishness. Of course, there's also a lot of Chinese-Malay, Indian-Malay, etc. There also is a marked difference in even small cultural variations, which is evident in even minor things like bathrooms with three western toilets and usually toilet paper, then three squat ones without.
In-between running around in errand mode, I had a few fun excursions. First was a wet market, which like everything else this week, was 90% closed because of Chinese New Year, but there were a few stalls open. One was hacking up a giant cow and lamb and the other overflowing with vegetables- score! After unsuccessfully trying to have all the different varieties explained to me, I walked away with a huge assortment of produce for the equivalent of $10. Then I went to an expat-y grocery store and spent roughly ten times that much, which just reiterates the need for me to frequent the various markets I've researched now that my pantry basics are stocked. A few days later I took a quick skytrain to Brickfields, which is also called Little India and currently my favorite place in Kuala Lumpur. After almost a week surrounded by a sea of Westernized stores and locales that can seem like a distractive playground for the wealthy, I was reinvigorated by the vibrant authenticity reverberating through the streets. Color everywhere, music playing, cooking on every corner... so many sights, sounds and smells to awaken the senses, like a friendly shake saying "hey you, it's still Asia!" Something especially interesting was the blind massage and refloxology studios dotting the streets. Apparently sight loss is a very common affliction in that community and not only are the blind rumored to be especially skilled at this kind of work due to their amplified sense of touch, but more significantly, it gives specialized jobs and skills to those who might struggle for work otherwise. After pursuing the many sari and jewelry shops I stopped in one with the intention of trying a half hour of reflexology, but after a lovely conversation with some of the staff, was (unpushingly) talked into an hour of refloxology and an hour of massage for a grand total of 85 ringgit (or roughly $27). A total indulgence that I will need to continually talk myself out of doing on a regular basis, but will certainly make another visit to. Also, a total guilt trip because people seem to make so much less money than what I'm used to.
All in all, I can safely say KL is a large, complicated and diverse place-- one of many faces and personalities that have each been developed over a long history of nuances I have yet to uncover. I can tell the next three months are going to pass very quickly. If those who have lived here for a year say they're still discovering more things every day, I will have just barely begun to get a small footing and feel just as it is time to leave. Already I'm mentally testing the waters of staying longer. Maybe I could come home for a month or two for some weddings, then fly back out? But as I've learned previously, the further I think ahead the more stuck I get. So one step at a time and let things fall into place. And on that note, step one of my entry into Malaysia is nearing the end of its path as another beginning is around the corner. In 24 hours I will start a new job at a new place with new people. Which don't get me wrong, I'm excited about all this newness but also getting more nervous the more I think about it. It's just hitting me that the same rules as my last position probably don't apply. A little voice that once said I was stressed out beyond my mental and emotional capacity is now getting drowned out by a louder voice, one reminding me that in this job I was provided with unwavering confidence from those around me, given freedom to be a goofball, forgiven for being a brat and basically was part of a family I always felt secure with and backed by. Starting from scratch, without that safety net, is not going to be easy. But as my gradual but perpetual evolution continues, I am naturally starting to feel things as they come without dwelling or overthinking. BBDO will be what it is and I'll work through it then. As the year of the horse gallops in, I am letting go of all fears and expectations, simply seeing see how things happen when they happen. And right now, I'm off to see what happens today.