Category Archives: KL

A Moment of Zen with the Butterflies


I finally participate in the Daily Post’s Weekly Photo Challenge on time, instead of at the last minute!  Here I present my contribution to Motion.

We finally made it to the KL Butterfly Park.  The Tun Abdul Razak Heritage Park, colloquially known as the Lake Gardens, includes a lot of different “sub parks”- like the Bird Park (also, see where I wrote about it), the Perdana Botanical Garden (which also includes the Hibiscus and Orchid gardens), the Islamic Arts Museum, as well as a few other museums.  We’ve explored a lot of these parks and museums and somehow hadn’t seen the Butterfly Park yet.  We had a free weekend last weekend, so we finally made it there!

Inside the park, the mood was quite and contemplative.  We wandered around enjoying the sounds of the water fountains and the bright color splashes of the flowers and the butterflies.  Even through the heat and humidity of Kuala Lumpur, it was relaxing to spend some time with these little guys.

Who is an Expat?

My academic and professional background is in Linguistics (the objective study of language). I’m really interested in how language and identity are tied together, and I think it’s pretty clear that part of my own personal identity, currently, is being an expat. I’ve used that word, expat, as a word that has an easy and unproblematic definition. I’ve even played with it by calling ourselves “Tex-pats” (since we lived/will live in Texas). I have never considered that there might be a second meaning hidden within it. Someone in my social network shared the following article on Facebook recently and I’ve been thinking about it a lot: Why are white people expats when the rest of us are immigrants? The author argues the point that White/Europeans get to claim expat status, while other racial/ethnic groups have to claim immigrant status. I’m not sure I completely agree, at least as far as my experience in KL, but I do think there’s some merit to the overall claim. It does raise the question, What exactly is the difference between an expat and an immigrant?

A quick Google and check of various expat sites shows that, among the expat groups listed in KL, not all of them are White/European, but most are. (Disclaimer: There are some statistical sampling issues here as there could very well be groups listed in other places that I am just not aware of and/or didn’t show up on the first page of Google hits.)

The listing on for several cities in Malaysia includes some non-European nations, but it’s undeniably primarily White/European. This is the most diverse group, as well as the biggest:

  • US
  • Great Britain
  • France
  • Pakistan
  • Africa (yes, I’m aware this isn’t a country.  But the group is the “African Ladies Group” so that’s what I’m going with.)
  • Canada
  • Germany
  • Japan
  • Korea
  • Australia & New Zealand (in one group)
  • Netherlands
  • Switzerland
  • Scandinavia (again, not a country, but that’s what is listed in the group name.)
  • As well as a Welsh group and an Irish group

Internations includes many of the same national groups as, though not as extensive a list.  It’s also much more heavily weighted to European/Western nations:

  • India
  • France
  • US
  • Italy
  • Canada
  • Great Britain
  • Germany
  • Australia
  • Spain
  • Netherlands

Finally, includes an Indian expat group by name, but doesn’t specifically include any other expat groups. There are plenty of other special interest groups, just none that have “expat” in the title.

The inclusion of Indian expat groups on both Internations and is interesting to me because KL has a large Indian population. Indians, along with Chinese and Malay, are one of the three primary ethnic groups of KL. I think this probably relates to what any expat seeks when joining an expat group: finding people who are in my shoes, more or less. The local Indian community will obviously have a different experience living in KL than someone who is here from Mumbai or Delhi for a year or two.

For me, I think “expat” refers to people who go somewhere for work for a relatively short time while “immigrant” implies something more permanent. For us, it’s a year. For others we have met, it’s 3-5 years. Most of us have intentions of going back home, regardless of where home is, at some point in time. Though I have met people who consider themselves expats who live in Southeast Asia more or less permanently, so I feel conflicted about my definition. And I know people who have moved to (or will soon move to) Southeast Asia for retirement and would likely consider themselves expats. But the “short term” requirement is really what comes to my mind first.

Privilege is certainly a large part of it. Among the other expats we have met at the hotel, the thing we have in common is working for big, multi-national corporations (or our spouses do). I clearly don’t know everyone’s salaries, but I can guess that no one here is working for minimum wage. We all have the ability to pack up our lives back home (where ever that is) and move over seas for some time. I would say we all share a certain amount of privilege in our home countries because of that ability. (We definitely share a certain amount of privilege here in KL…more than a “certain” amount to be honest.) In KL, I think this shared privilege is probably a more important distinction to “expat vs. immigrant” than a race or ethnic distinction.

For me, this article raised a lot of interesting questions to consider. Certainly some food for thought!


Thaipusam is a Hindu holiday, this year celebrated 2-3 February. For an official explanation of this holiday, please read this Wikipedia article.  For my very limited understanding, please read on. This holiday celebrates the victory of Lord Murugan over the devil. Lord Murugan is glorified by the giant gold statue at the foot of Batu Caves. I feel pretty confident that what I’ve said so far is accurate. I feel less confident about the following because I don’t have a very in depth knowledge of the Hindu belief system, so I’m sure I will get some of the specifics wrong. My apologies in advance and I would welcome any corrections and opportunities to learn in the comments!

A devotee with his (rather large) milk pot offering.

A devotee with his (rather large) milk pot offering.

Devotees pray to Murugan for his help to overcome some obstacle in life. When Murugan helps you through this obstacle, you celebrate him and make an offering to him on Thaipusam. It reminds me of Catholics celebrating a particular Saint’s feast day, actually. (But I’m not Catholic, so what do I really know about that, either.)  Devotees cleanse themselves through prayer and fasting before making their offering. One traditional offering is a milk pot. You carry your milk pot (on your head) up the steps at Batu Caves- there are 272 steps so it is not a simple journey.  When you reach the temple at the top of the steps, a priest gives your offering to Murugan.  (And I guess you get your milk pot back?  I’m not sure.  I don’t remember seeing either a pile of milk pots or people carrying empty ones back down either.) The shrine ends up looking like a giant pool of milk. We saw people carrying small-ish containers that I assume hold between a half-gallon and a gallon and people carrying much larger containers. We also saw one family offer a pint of milk, still in the plastic bottle that you can buy at the corner store. I think the vehicle likely matters less than your intent.

If you want to make an even larger offering, you can build and carry a structure that I learned is called a kavadi, which means a physical burden. It might be relatively small, and you can carry it over your shoulders without much of a support crew. Or it might be several meters tall and require a shoulder rig and several people to help you. The kavadi were very elaborate and often brightly colored with flowers and peacock feathers.

The kavadi-bearers got to use the wide center stair.

The kavadi-bearers got to use the wide center stair.

You might also choose to pay tribute to Lord Murugan by practicing flesh mortification. I believe most of the kavadi bearers did this, but there were others not carrying a kavadi who practiced this as well. Maybe you will pierce your face with a large steel bar. Maybe you will pierce the skin on your chest or back with fish hooks and hang chains or other small objects from them. Maybe you will do something else. If you choose to go this route, a holy man will remove the piercings once you reach the top of the stairs. (There are also medics nearby should you need them.  The Wikipedia article says that no blood is shed either during the piercing or the removal.)


I actually don’t know what this is, but someone was pushing it in a wagon and it was pretty cool looking.

This all sounds very dark but there was definitely a festive atmosphere. There were emcees leading chants and playing music, as well as perhaps offering narration or prayers- it wasn’t in English, so I’m not sure. The support crews for the kavadi-bearers often included people playing drums or other percussion instruments, singing and chanting. Many people carrying the kavadi danced while they waited their turn to ascend the steps.  The plazas at the base of the steps were also filled with food and drink vendors.

We chose to experience this holiday and festival as tourists. (We didn’t give an offering, but we did donate monetarily to the temple.) We did walk up the stairs in a giant crush of people, and back down again in the same giant crush of people. It took several hours, where as it might take one hour or so on a non-holiday. Someone asked me at the hotel afterwards if I had a good time. I don’t think this is really a “good time” kind of thing, but I appreciated witnessing the festival and having a cultural experience that I will likely never have the opportunity to experience again. What made the biggest impression on me was seeing the variety of ways that people chose to express their faith and devotion as they made offerings to Murugan.

In addition to the pictures included here, there are more on our Flickr page along with some more in-depth captions. Please be aware that many of those pictures include devotees practicing flesh mortification. There’s no blood or gore, but it might not be your cup of tea and I thought you should know that before you clicked on the link. (Not all of the pictures are of devotees and flesh mortification, but there are some.)