On the city
Kuala Lumpur is very metropolitan. It used to be the seat of the government until Parliament and the other government offices were moved to a neighboring city to alleviate traffic. The city itself covers 94 square miles with a population of 1.6 million, and that’s just the city- nevermind the outlying areas! It reminds me a little of New York in that it is the business center of Malaysia and it seems to be another “city that never sleeps.” It’s always busy and there is a lot of traffic, all the time. The Twin Towers, as the Petronas Towers are called, are where all the oil business happens. That seems to be where most of the expats work. Micah works in another area of the city called the Free Trade Zone, this area includes several American companies and it seems to be where the rest of the expats work. There is a very convenient shuttle from our hotel.
Once upon a time, we had talked about living downtown in a city some day. I love cities, I will take a huge metropolis over a suburb or small town any day. This is partly why I loved Austin and have had a hard time adjusting to Plano. Living in KL is fulfilling our wish of a city life in no uncertain terms! The area of the city where we “stay” is called KLCC- Kuala Lumpur City Centre. I say we “stay” here because that is what the locals say, no one asks where you live, they ask where you stay. I don’t have any feeling that it implies something transitory, it’s just the local way. KLCC is the heart of the city. The Malaysian Philharmonic Orchestra is here, there are theaters, more restaurants and hawker stalls (food carts) than we can possibly try in a year, bars and night life, shopping (more on this later)…if we didn’t want to explore the country and region of the world more, we could spend the entire year here and be quite content.
Traditionally, Malaysia is a Muslim country. We see Malay women wearing head coverings everywhere. Mostly, it seems they wear fairly Western, but very modest, clothing. Occasionally they wear dresses or robes, but it seems typical to just wear whatever as long as it is full sleeves and full length pants/skirts. There are also lots of visitors from Arab countries, I think both expats as well as tourists. These women wear black head coverings with a black veil and black robes. I would say that somewhere around one third to one half of the women I see on a daily basis wear a head covering of some kind. The non-Muslim women tend to wear whatever they want. I think there is a slight statistical trend towards having shoulders and knees covered, but I have seen local women wearing shorts and tank tops as well. As a Western woman I would attract a lot of attention in shorts and tank tops though. Pick pocketing and purse snatching are very common in KL, so I am in favor of doing whatever I can to not make myself an obvious target for such crime. When I go out and about in the city, I wear capri pants and tops with short sleeves. At the hotel, I wear shorts to go about my day. As we travel and sight-see more, I will carry a head covering with me, but in KL I don’t really have any restrictions on how I dress other than personal preference. (You may have noticed I only commented on what women wear. Men of all ethnic groups that we have seen wear whatever they want. It’s not unusual to see a Muslim woman in full robes, head scarf and veil with a man wearing a tank top, shorts, and flip flops.)
On hotel life
We are living at Fraser Place, which is both a regular hotel and corporate apartments. For the record, the local pronunciation is “Fray-zur,” instead of pronouncing the middle consonant the way Americans pronounce the middle consonant in measure. (Note: The non-linguist to linguist ratio of expected readers is pretty high, so I am avoiding IPA, though it is killing me to do so.) Apparently the difference is enough that when we pronounced it like measure people did not understand what we said.
We have a one bedroom unit, which is quite small for two people. It has a living room, kitchenette, bedroom and bathroom. The living room is nice, fairly spacious. The bedroom is very comfortable, it has a small desk and a chair as well as some shelf space. The closet is a typical one-person, short term stay hotel closet. I think we each have about 4 shirts hanging up. There isn’t a bureau to speak of, we each have two drawers and two shelves in the closet. It’s barely enough to fit t-shirts, folded pants, and socks/undies. We have about 5 more boxes of clothes that arrived via Fed Ex yesterday and have yet to be unpacked because there is no place to put anything. In the US, I would get some storage bins and call it good. I have yet to see anything like that here though.
There is a kitchenette that should be sufficient considering it is just as cheap to visit the hawker stalls as it is to buy food at the grocery store. We have exactly enough silverware and flatware for our needs: two coffee cups, two glasses, two wine glasses, two small plates, two large plates, two bowls…you get the idea. It will require vigilance with dishes! Between the kitchen and the closet, I’m sure there is a lesson about minimalist living and all the “stuff” we “need” in the U.S., but I haven’t learned it yet.
The bathroom is nice. We have a very deep tub, which I am thrilled about, and a separate shower. The shower head is on the ceiling, so the water is directly above you. It’s fantastic. We have to turn on the hot water with a switch like a light switch though. The front desk said it takes “some time” for the water to heat up and we have been caught more than once with not enough hot water. The water pressure is great, too strong in the sinks some times, and the water is safe to drink. So far we have stuck to bottled water for drinking, but it’s nice that we don’t have to buy bottled water to also wash our produce and brush our teeth.
I thought living here would feel like living in an apartment or condo building, but it really is like living in a hotel. That’s not meant as a good or bad thing, just a fact: We live in a hotel. There is a restaurant on the first floor where we get complimentary breakfast. Every day. There are two other restaurants on the other side of the hotel. We can order room service from any of them and delivery from several other areas. There is a concierge, which is actually really nice to help us figure out how to accomplish certain things, like use public transportation. The pool is really nice, but kind of a small area. I think there are maybe 8 or 10 chairs, and over 20 floors of guest rooms, so… I thought we would have maid service once a week, but it turns out to be daily. The change linens once a week, which is awesome!, but come in daily to sweep and tidy. This is one thing I am more than OK with: not cleaning a kitchen or a bathroom or changing sheets for an entire year. I have yet to figure out their schedule though. Sometimes they come in the morning, sometimes in the afternoon. Once I make a schedule for myself I think this will matter less. There are plenty of other places to go in the hotel while they are on my floor, so it hasn’t been a problem. (First world problems: having to find somewhere else to go while a maid cleans up after you.)
KL has at least as many malls as Las Vegas has casinos. Maybe not literally, but it’s got to be close. There are “mega malls,” like the one where the ice rink is. That mall also has a theme park and water park as part of the same complex. They are huge, they have at least 4 different branches and usually have some other amenity- like a theme park. Then there are “regular malls.” We have two of these malls that are about equidistant from our hotel. These malls are also huge- 6 stories each- but without a theme park or other attraction. They have a ton of luxury stores like Coach, Armani, and Prada. I think there are 2 full floors of luxury stores. At each mall. (And each mall has the same selection of stores. How there are enough people buying enough Coach bags to keep all of these stores in business, I have no idea.) The top floor of each mall usually has sit-down restaurants, while the bottom floor of each mall has cafes and foot courts. The grocery store is also on the bottom floor. That’s right. We go grocery shopping at the mall. There aren’t any free-standing grocery stores- it’s not that there just aren’t any near us, super markets only exist in malls. And why not? There are malls everywhere! There are open-air hyper markets, but I haven’t found one yet. I was also told that we wouldn’t save a lot of money by shopping there and the quality of food is terrible. I’d still like to see one though. After the “regular” malls, there are smaller malls and strip malls that have a few stores in them but may not have predictable hours. There aren’t really free-standing stores anywhere. It seems like all the stores exist in a mall of some kind.
The malls are also a center for entertainment and activity. Other than shopping, it seems people go to the mall just to visit with friends or family, either in the food court or a cafe or just in general. The anthropologist in me wants to compare them to a kind of community center, because so much of daily life happens at the malls. The cynic in me wants to say “It’s just like in Mall Rats!” Both of these statements are kind of true. Malls are a cultural part of life in KL and they are also fairly homogenous and commercialized. In any case, I have spent the last several years of my life carefully avoiding malls and looking for local stores. Now it seems I can’t avoid malls at any cost. After 5 days here, we already have a clear preference for one (Pavillion) over the other (Suria KLCC). Even though they both have a lot of the same stores, Suria KLCC is much more chaotic because it is at the Petronas Towers and is a kind of tourist destination. I do not get anxious around crowds or crowded buildings at all, but I can definitely feel my heart rate go down once I have left Suria KLCC.
On culture shock
Preface: I am not going to comment on food just yet. I don’t really count the food differences as culture shock, because we expected to have lots of different things to try. Food will get it’s own post and photo album. For me, culture shock is something that was unexpected and/or is difficult to get used to. We are doing great with the food!
The number one thing that I am having a difficult time adjusting to is walking on the left. They drive on the left side of the street here, and all traffic flows to the left. You walk on the left side of the hallway or sidewalk, take the left stair case, go to the left to find the escalator moving in the direction you want to go, etc. After 30+ years of being conditioned to keep to the right, this has been a constant mental adjustment.
One A has been getting used to going to the mall to do all of our shopping, for anything. (See above.)
The second thing we are both having a hard time with is the service in a restaurant. If it is a sit down restaurant, you will be sat and handed menus. Possibly you will be offered a drink at this point. You look at the menu for however long you want to look at it, and then raise your hand to get the server’s attention. The servers sort of hover in the dining area, looking for raised hands. If you are the only people sitting outside, your server will hover right next to your table. Good luck trying to carefully consider all 4 of the menus she has just dropped off! Same procedure when you are ready for the check: raise your hand and get your server’s attention. At this point, it is OK to mime writing something so the server will just bring your bill. Also, you don’t leave a tip. 10% service charge is added to every transaction, at least every food transaction, and that is considered sufficient. It feels awful to walk out of a restaurant without leaving a tip.
Finally, public toilets are always an adventure. There is a range from “Full Malaysian style,” which is basically a hole in the ground, a pitcher or hose to wash with, and no TP, to “Full Western style,” which is what you will see in any U.S. household. Many toilets seem to be some combination of the two. Our hotel has a regular Western style toilet, with both TP and a hose to clean yourself with. At the risk of TMI, we haven’t practiced with the hose yet, though we probably should. The first Malaysian toilet I encountered was at the airport. It was a hole in the ground with a hose, but it did have TP. I encountered another type of Malaysian style toilet in the middle at the train station: It was a Western style commode, but didn’t have TP at all, just the hose. It was suggested to me that I carry tissues with me everywhere, because hawker stalls don’t have napkins and for this purpose. I haven’t yet seen a full Malaysian style toilet. At the risk of further TMI, here are pictures of the three types of toilets I have encountered.