Kuala Lumpur: the city of mud, beauty, and perpetual conflict

In the early morning I awoke to the crack of thunder and calls to morning prayer. Sing song voices echoed above lush tree tops. I could feel my sticky sweat skin peel from the bedsheets as I sat up to peer out the window. All I could see was a haze ridden skyline, punctuated by flashes of lightening in a rainless storm. The truth is, Malaysia is both beautiful and unforgiving, in every sense of the word. 

My time in Kuala Lumpur has been characterized by the overwhelming weather, amazing conversation, and even more amazing food. I’ve had the luxury of staying with a good friend of mine named Kim, who I met a few years back. I can’t emphasize enough how much of a privilege it’s been experiencing and learning to understand Malaysian culture, as well as the city of KL, through her eyes.

It is a city of fascinating contradictions; Kuala Lumpur directly translates into “the city of mud”, and yet rather than being made from mud, the city and the greater area around it has evolved into an immensely vast collection of ridiculously tall housing developments. Anytime we moved across the city, I could perpetually see a skyline of towering concrete buildings, some impressively modern and new, others marred by age and dilapidation. Amongst the endless number of spiraling condos, tower cranes, and unfinished steel skeletons, I was always keenly aware of the humidity, the abundantly beautiful tropical flora, and the number of mosques, Hindu and Buddhist temples scattered across the city.

Real estate is hardly regulated here, so corporations are constantly capitalizing on their ability to build new housing developments, despite the fact that many poor Malaysians cannot afford to live there. I commiserated with Kim on a similar issue happening back home in the Bay Area. Unsurprisingly we were able to find parallels in our experiences within our respective societies, which became a running theme throughout my time in Malaysia.

Being a woman in Malaysia is not easy. In Kim’s case, being a Chinese woman in Malaysia is especially not easy. Despite making up a significant portion of the population in Malaysia — with historical presence as far back the the 14th century when Perankan Chinese settled in the Malaysian Peninsular — Chinese citizens, as well as Indian citizens, are still labeled as “immigrants” and not considered truly Malaysian.

These type of xenophobic sentiments are not unique to Malaysia of course (see: Donald Trump), but unlike America, explicitly racist policies are sanctioned by the government to favor those of Malay descent. This means that positions of power in corporations, politics, and academia are relegated to Malays, while the generally upper-middle class Chinese-Malaysians have carved a place for themselves as entrepreneurs and business owners. Indian-Malaysians, most of Tamil descent, make up the smallest portion of the population, however their cultural presence is heavily apparent in the amount of Indian cuisine and flashes of Hindu influence easily visible throughout the country.

Despite these distinctions, all three groups live together in what can only be described as strange, discordant harmony. Everyone lives together in close proximity within the same neighborhoods, going to the same malls and cinemas and parks. However Muslim Malays avoid Chinese restaurants that serve pork, which are so numerous, there were maybe 3-4 every square mile; quotas in school for the number of students per ethnic group make it so many Chinese and Indian students are forced to attend private institutions rather than public ones. Rising tides of Islamic conservatism, like religious conservatism in every country, has led to xenophobia and the rejection of progressive cultural values, such as LGBT acceptance. Which leads to the conundrum that Kim and those like her experience, of being a racial minority who is an “immigrant” despite having grown up in Malaysia and living there almost all her life.

On the flip side of being a racial minority, Kim’s girlfriend Sara is ethnically Malay and comes from a traditional Muslim family. Her life is the definition of living dual identities if there ever was one: to her family she is a devout Muslim girl who wears her hijab everyday, while in her normal life she is a Chinese food eating, bisexual in a relationship with a woman. These dueling aspects of her identity are not easy to reconcile, but at the same time, they also don’t define her entire sense of self either.

You might think it’s strange that I’m making it a point to share all this knowledge, including details about my friends personal lives, but that’s because I want to give those of you unfamiliar with the country’s cultural and political dynamics an idea of what it means to live here as a young person, trying to survive and find happiness in the exact same way we do back home.

Because despite the structural differences, we still do all the same things: hang out over boba, attend poetry open mics, complain about patriarchy (hehe), and engage in awesome karaoke sessions — although I will say this is probably the first and only time I’ll be hanging out with people who can sing songs in Mandarin, Malay, Indonesian, Hindi, Japanese, and English — which really says a lot about how multicultural everyone is here, despite living under a government that tries to exacerbate their differences.

Struggling to establish a sense of identity is a universal experience, and unfortunately something else I found to be universal is dealing with bullshit political corruption. If you’ve paid attention to international news at all in the past week, you may have noticed that Malaysia’s current Prime Minister Najib Razak is embroiled in a corruption scandal involving 2.6 billion missing ringgit (close to $600 million dollars), which was deposited into his personal account. Many of the spoken word performances I saw while in Malaysia expressed collective anger at this corruption, especially the recent 6% GST tax that’s been pressed on struggling Malaysians to supplement the economy. However instead of focusing the blame on corrupt politicians, the government capitalizes on xenophobia against non-Muslims to push the blame for increased wealth disparity on Chinese-Malaysians … You could substitute the GOP, white Republicans, and Hispanic immigrants, and that sentence would play out nearly the exact same way.

But enough about the bad stuff. Even if their government is shitty, and racism and xenophobia are in a lot of ways deeply engrained in society (like somewhere else I know coughAMERICAcough), the resilience of the people I met far outshone any negative aspects of my time there.

And despite the incessant haze, I had a great time eating all over the city, attending poetry events, going to night markets, and meeting tons of amazing, like-minded people who love talking politics, films, and again food, time and time again. Here are some photo highlights; just a few of the unforgettable moments I experienced over my 10 days there.

An amazing poet I met named Melizarani T. Selva performing at an open mic my first night in Kuala Lumpur.
Another amazing performer by the name of Illya Sumanto performing a poem about a urban legend regarding a female Malaysian vampire, with a feminist twist.
Chinatown in the heart of Kuala Lumpur
Wandering in a butterfly garden.
A view of the city skyline from Thean Hou temple, to get an idea of how intense the haze was while I was in KL.
A view of Thean Hou Temple.
Standing outside a traditionally built Malaysian home outside the National Museum.
The last photo I took in Kuala Lumpur, wandering around the markets in Little India before heading home for the night.

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