Monday, June 8, 2009

On Home Turf

We finished our third day in KL yesterday. I realized that it’ll be impossible for me to go over everything we do every day we’re here, so I’ve decided to dedicate each post to a particular theme related to what happened to me during the day. It’ll give my posts a bit of structure – which I’ll of course end forgetting about as I write and go off on random tangents. Khalisah and I are still trying to figure out how to get this two-person blog together, and we’re each doing our own thing until we do. We’ll see how this works out. (Her version of our Malaysian adventures can be found here.)

So this post: all about our neighborhood. Here we go.

Khalisah and I are living with Winnie, one of Khalisah’s Chinese cousins. Malaysians, by the way, usually come from one of three ethnic groups: the Malays, the Chinese, and the Indians. This is a pretty general outline, and since race is a major (and sensitive) issue here, I’ll have to address it more fully in another post. For now, I’ll just say that Khalisah’s family is Malay-Chinese, and leave it at that.

Anyways, Winnie’s apartment is one of the many apartments that line the streets of her neighborhood. At the ground floor of all these apartments is occupied by some sort of shop: laundries, internet cafés, mini-grocery stores. It’s great because anything that we need is literally just a few steps away from home. On our second day in KL, we wanted to explore the neighborhood a little bit, so we went around to different shops and discovered an internet café with pretty good rates. One Chinese man stopped us while we were passing by his store and asked us where we were from. “Sini!” Khalisah and her sister Amani told him. “Here!” He was shocked, because Khalisah and Amani are half Malaysian, half Caucasian, and I’m Syrian-Circassian-American. Not your average Malaysians. The poor guy, we left him horribly confused.

As we were trying to find our way around the neighborhood, we stopped at the mamak we’d eaten at earlier to ask for some directions. A mamak is a little restaurant that sells local Malaysian fare. Mamaks are pretty basic, they’re usually the size of a small café, but without any of the fancy trappings of your local Starbucks. The furniture is usually nothing more than fold-up tables and plastic chairs, and most mamaks are open-air with nothing but a few poles and an awning that keeps potential rain away. Cats walk between tables and customers’ legs, hoping for a few scraps of food. A few people run around taking orders and making the food and drinks – mamaks are usually family-run. Most of these places sell the same standard fare, but they all have their special touch. According to Khalisah, “each greasy little mamak has something to offer.” The one on our street is made of beautiful dark wood, stands on stilts, and has electric lamps all along its parameter, so it looks some fancy restaurant you'd find on a beach. We love it.

Walking around our neighborhood every day is such a great experience. I have this theory that you can never really connect with a place until you walk its streets. You have to feel the sun on your back and the wind on your face; smell the exhaust when cars zoom by; bump into people who are going to work or school or the grocery; get to know your local laundry man; and memorize the different trees that line the street and the cracks that crisscross the pavement. Only then are you really a part of the place you’re in. It’s this process of interacting with a place intimately and appreciating its details that transforms it from being just another building or set of streets to being something sacred: sacred because it is now part of your consciousness, part of your life.

We’ll be going up and down these roads every day for the next few weeks, so I can’t wait to be more acquainted with this neighborhood, this city, and this country. I’m sure they have endless stories to tell.

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