Tag Archives: Culture shock

Photo Challenge

Here’s your sign…

Today’s Blogging 101 task is to participate in a blogging “event.”  These are things like a writing prompt or a flash fiction challenge designed to build community by having bloggers respond to a shared topic:

blogger-hosted events are fun, free, spirited ways to get even more feedback on your work, build your audience, and make friends

I chose a photography challenge called Signs:

For this challenge, share an image of a sign: it can be a sign near your home — a comforting sight after a long journey — a sign that doubles as art, or other types of signs that hold meaning for you.

This challenge spoke to me because we saw a fantastic sign on our jungle trek this weekend.  We couldn’t understand most of the words on the sign, but its meaning was clear nonetheless.

The consequences for rule breaking are quite dire, apparently.

The consequences for rule breaking are quite dire, apparently.

Without knowing any Bahasa Malaysia, you still get the idea that there is something you should not do.  And if you do it, you might get shot.  A combination of the unmistakeable image and not knowing the text makes this very frightening.

Let’s break it down.  We know dilarang masuk, that’s a phrase we’ve seen in various places, and dilarang is even more common.  Dilarang means Do Not . . . do not park, do not smoke . . . we’ve seen that word a lot.  Dilarang Masuk means Do Not Enter.  So now we know that we aren’t supposed to enter the park and/or the hiking trail (or we’ll get shot.)  A little closer examination of the sign shows us some numbers at the bottom: 8.00 pg – 6.00 ptg.  If you hadn’t seen the blue sign behind that shows you that pg is equivalent to am, you might still be able to deduce that this is something about time.  So now we think we know that we aren’t supposed to enter the trail between 8:00am – 6:00pm.  OK, that’s pretty standard, aside from the threat of being held at gun point and/or shot if I enter at the wrong time of course.

But what about the rest of it?  The day we saw this sign, it was totally opaque to me.  Other than the “Do not enter” phrase that I knew, and the clear consequences if I break the rules that I can’t read, I had no idea what this sign said.  We were with a trekking guide, so I felt confident that we wouldn’t break any firing squad-worthy rules. . . that day.  Because we were with a guide, the sign seemed kind of funny at the time.  I mean, really, would a trespasser really get shot on the spot?  When I decided to do the photo challenge and use this sign, I started thinking about it a little more.  I have no idea what that sign says, other than do not enter.  With the obviously dire consequences, the sign is no longer funny – it’s terrifying.

We haven’t had a lot of language barrier challenges within KL, at least nothing huge, but we really are at a disadvantage for official communication.  What if the rest of that sign tells me not to bring something in to the park?  What if it tells me not to do something once I’m in?  What if, what if, what if?  This sign reinforced the need to thoroughly research what we are doing, where we are going, and what we are allowed to do once we are there.  It also reinforced the need to take the phrase book with us when we go outside of the city.

Beyond the language barrier, the imagery on this sign is very different from standard “do not enter” signs in the U.S.  I have never seen an official sign that clearly threatens violence like this.  I can picture a sign that says “Violators will be prosecuted” or something similar where there might be an implied threat of unpleasant circumstances.  I’ve also seen, or maybe just heard of, “Trespassers will be shot,” but only on private property.  I would never expect a sign like that in a public park.

This sign served as a reminder of how far away from home we really are and how different life can be in Malaysia.

(Oh, so what does the rest of the sign say?  “Do not enter except during the allowed days.  Operating hours, Friday-Sunday 8:00am – 6:00pm”  Not so scary after all.  Except for the picture.)

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On Grocery Shopping

This little expat went to market…

I’ve talked about grocery shopping in malls before, here and here.  Recently a friend from home commented that she liked hearing about the grocery store and that she finds foreign grocery stores really interesting.  I started thinking about it and realized we have had some grocery store adventures, probably enough to write about!  Because we don’t have a lot of space at the hotel, we don’t keep a lot of food on hand and I find myself at the grocery store a few times a week.  I am definitely becoming very familiar with the ins and outs of grocery shopping!

We have 3 stores that are within reasonable walking distance.  One of them is at Pavillion, the mall that is a little farther away.  Mercado, the store there, feels bigger and is set up like most grocery stores I have ever seen in the U.S.  The other two stores are in the mall at the Petronas Towers, which is only about 2 blocks from our hotel.  I have a definite preference for one store, Isetan, over the other one, Cold Storage.  I spent some time at Cold Storage earlier this week to see why I didn’t like it.  I don’t really have an answer- they sell similar products at comparable prices- I just like Isetan better.  Both of these stores feel different than U.S. stores to me, but I can’t totally identify exactly why that is.  Part of it is that the aisles aren’t laid out in neat rows, it’s more like blocks of aisles.  The space between the racks in the aisles is very narrow, too.  Isetan is also a department store.  It feels about comparable in price/quality to JC Penney- not a high end store, but it’s not a really cheap discount store either.  Two weeks ago, I went into the women’s department, bought a sun hat, and then went downstairs to go grocery shopping.  So not only do I grocery shop in a mall, I grocery shop in a department store.  Weird.

We were prepared to be flexible about what we would find at the grocery store.  Isetan has a wide variety of food, but it is true that they don’t have many Western products.  The first time we went grocery shopping, the first day we were here, it was a little overwhelming to stand in an aisle and not really recognize any of the products.  But it has gotten easier.  We have never been tied to a specific brand of anything, and we don’t eat a ton of processed food either, so this hasn’t been an issue for us personally.  If I want crackers, for example, I might not be able to find Wheat Thins or Triscuits but I can definitely find crackers in general.  (I like Jacob’s brand.  They have the buttery taste of Ritz but the delicacy of a water cracker, if that makes any sense.)  We can also buy pork products and alcohol at the stores here, which is something we were concerned about.

Because Isetan is in the tourist mall, they cater to a wide variety of nationalities. They have a Korean grocery section and a Japanese grocery section where I can’t read any of the labels and have to guess what the sesame oil looks like.  Still haven’t identified anything that I think might be sesame oil.  They have Australian groceries, which is where the quinoa is, for future reference.  Actually, it seems like they get a lot of products from Australia and New Zealand.  We bought Australian beef last week, and I bought honey from New Zealand a few days ago.  They have a cafe so you can eat there and they sell prepared food to go at a very reasonable price.  In general, the prices are fairly inexpensive.  Prices for meat of any kind seems about on par with what I was paying in Texas, but produce prices are really cheap.  I bought a bag of about 10 large carrots for the equivalent of $1 USD.  Since the bulk of our grocery budget has always been produce, this is great!

“The rules” of grocery shopping are a little different here.  By “the rules,” I mean the little things that you just know how to do because it is ingrained in the culture of grocery shopping and it wouldn’t occur to you to do something else.  I bought pork the other day and took it to the register with the rest of my items, like I did with beef the week before and like I would in the U.S.  Apparently, one has to pay for non-halal items at a separate counter.  Oops.  Another rule I have struggled with is buying produce.  A lot of the produce comes pre-packaged with a bar code on it somewhere.  That isn’t so tricky to buy.  If you choose to select your own produce though, and put it in one of those flimsy plastic bags yourself, you have to take it to a weighing station to get a sticker with a bar code on it.  Then the cashiers just scan the bar code, rather than weighing the item and keying in the secret code to get the price.  I actually really like this idea, my favorite Texas grocery store does this, it speeds up the check out time immensely.  But it helps if you know the rules about it.  The first time I selected one dragon fruit and tried to pay at the register, I learned I needed to use the weighing station.  There were several people in line behind me.  Of course there were.  Fortunately, the employees are used to having people not understand “the rules” and have customer service folks willing to help out.  I’m sure I have annoyed some of the other customers behind me with my transgressions, but the employees are always kind and helpful.

Culture Shock, Part 2

So here we are, a little more than 2 weeks into living in KL.  After the initial culture shock wore off — things like remembering to walk on the left side of the sidewalk or hallway and using the malls to do all of your shopping, including for groceries (read that post here) — we started to settle in to some normal routines.  Micah goes to work, I sometimes work (sometimes at home and sometimes from a coffee shop), I take an afternoon stroll, and sometimes I acquire ingredients for dinner or other necessities like cheese, bread, and wine.  We also try to plan some outing for the weekend, so I spend time figuring out the logistics of which train to take, what time to leave, etc.

Last week we started to think “yup, the shine has worn off,” before we realized it was really the next wave of culture shock and adjusting to our new environment.  I got annoyed at tourists for being at the mall (which is admittedly a tourist destination) where I buy groceries.  Seriously?  Why do tourists go to the mall?  Wait, better question: Who goes grocery shopping at the mall?!  People in KL do, that’s who.  You better get used to it, or get used to walking a little farther to the less touristy mall.  Micah got annoyed with everyone working on “Malaysian time,” which generally means they aren’t in a hurry to do anything.  It’s frustrating that transactions that we think should happen quickly take a long time, but we are the guests and we need to adjust our thinking.  We aren’t in Texas anymore, as it were.

When I realized what we were really reacting to, that it was really just more culture shock, we started talking about what else baffles us about KL.  By unanimous agreement, we are both confused about escalator behavior.  All of the malls are multiple stories, usually 6 stories, and each level is connected by escalator.  Micah and I grew up around escalators, they are nothing new or confusing to us, and they probably are fairly self-explanatory to a lot of Americans.  But apparently there are a lot of tourists here who don’t have much experience with them and therefore aren’t sure how to approach it.  This shocked me.  We came face to face with this realization when we were trying to grab some dinner at our favorite hawker market (in the mall) and there was a huge group around the top of the escalator to go down a level.  There was a middle-aged woman in a sari at the top of the escalator, apparently not getting on it and subsequently blocking everyone else from getting on.  I thought her sari might have gotten stuck in the rails, but I couldn’t figure out why no one had hit the emergency stop button and also why the security guard was just watching instead of helping.  Turns out she was just afraid to step on it.  Huh?

The other piece of escalator behavior etiquette that I can’t explain is people stopping at the top of the escalator.  I mean, right at the top.  They take that first required step off the stairs, and then … just stand there.  “Buddy, you know there’s about a million people behind you?  And you know that there’s going to be a pile up unless you take about a half dozen more steps?”  It seems like common sense.  I used to ride escalators for fun when I was little.  I’m familiar with what happens when you reach the top – you keep moving out of the way.  Apparently not everyone knows this rule.  The malls here are huge.  Did I mention they are big?  They are gigantic.  So people frequently need to pause and consider where they are going as it is very easy to get lost.  I get that, I need to get my bearings too.  But please either move to the right or the left while you do it!

Didn't bring your compass to the mall?  At least take a few more steps before trying to locate the North Star please!

Didn’t bring your compass to the mall? At least take a few more steps before trying to locate the North Star please!