Tag Archives: malls

The Holidays

There are something like 18 public holidays in Kuala Lumpur. Some of the holidays are religious occurrences and some commemorate civic events, like important dates in history. Regardless of the type of holiday, everyone gets the day off. Because not everyone celebrates all of the holidays, some businesses might be closed and others will be open. Though as far as we can tell, the malls are always open.  One of my blogging comrades at Experimental Expats recently wrote about his experience with new public holidays when he moved to Canada, and wondered what the holidays would be like in Malaysia when they arrive here. There are a lot!  And virtually none of them were familiar to us.  It’s also very different that the holiday is celebrated on whatever day of the week it falls on, not “observed” on a Monday or Friday.  This makes for some crazy work weeks when the holiday falls on a Wednesday!

31 August, which happened to be the weekend we arrived, is Merdeka Day, which celebrates the 1957 independence from the British. We used our jet lag to our advantage and saw the parade at Merdeka Square. Meredeka Day is quickly followed by, and should not be confused with, Malaysia Day on 16 September. Malaysia Day celebrates the joining of the various provinces and territories into one, unified Malaysia in 1963. 5 October is Hari Raya Haji, to celebrate the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca. 22 October is Deepavali. Deepavali was a big deal, on par with Christmas in terms of public decorations. That was fun to observe from the outside, since Micah was sick we ended up not checking out a lot of the celebrations on the actual day. Since Thanksgiving is uniquely American, no one celebrated here, though there were some giant Butterball turkeys at the grocery store that I have only seen that one week. Some of the Americans took the day off from Micah’s work, but we decided we’d rather save the vacation days for fun excursions.

Just recently was the Sultan of Selangor’s birthday on 11 December. Kuala Lumpur is a federal district, much like Washington D.C., so it’s not really “in” Selangor. But Selangor surrounds the city geographically and KL follows whatever Selangor-specific holidays there are. I have no idea what kind of celebrations people have, whether there is some kind of a public birthday party for the Sultan.  It might be like President’s Day in the States – it’s a civic holiday, but not a holiday for a celebration.  Christmas is a public holiday, which I will describe in more detail below.

Upcoming in January is New Year’s Day, which doesn’t need to be explained, as well as the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday on 3 January.  Because the Islamic calendar and the Gregorian calendar don’t line up exactly, the date shifts around a little bit.  This year, it falls on a Saturday, so Friday might be a “replacement” holiday.  February brings Federal Territory Day, only celebrated in the Federal Territories, on 1 February.  It marks the day that Kuala Lumpur was designated a Federal Territory in 1974. 3 February is Thaipusam, which is a Hindu holiday celebrated by the Tamil community.  We’re told that Batu Caves is the place to go to observe the celebration.  We have two days for Chinese New Year, this year it’s 19-20 of February.  March and April do not have any holidays that KL will celebrate, although there are a few that will be celebrated in other states. In May we’ll celebrate Labour Day on 1 May.  6 June is Agong’s Birthday, the Agong is the head of state of Malaysia, we have heard him colloquially referred to as the King.  He is chosen from one of the current Sultans and serves for a five year term.  In July we’ll have several holidays to celebrate the Muslim holy month of Ramadan: Nuzul al-Quran commemorates the day the Quran was revealed to Prophet Mohammed.  Ironically, it falls on 4 July this year.  17 July is Hari Raya Aidilftri, which marks the end of Ramadan and the end of the fasts.  Then we are back to Merdeka Day in August.  It’s been very interesting to see several different religious traditions equally celebrated with public holidays.

On Christmas

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According to the 2010 census, Christians make up less than 6% of the population in KL, so we weren’t sure what to expect for Christmas.  We knew it was officially a public holiday, but would there be decorations and to-do like back home?  Never fear, it’s a bigger deal than I could have ever imagined.  Much like in the U.S., Christmas here is very commercial. Decorations started going up in the malls the week before Thanksgiving- or at least the date that Thanksgiving is celebrated in the U.S. This left 4 weekends of shopping until Christmas, so that seemed reasonable to me. Much better than the “right after Halloween” trend in the States! There are cute decorations, trees, and lights in all of the lobbies at the hotel, as well as in the restaurant at breakfast. All of the shops, malls, and the hotel are playing carols non-stop.  In many ways, this is exactly what I’d expect in the U.S. However there is absolutely no association with the religious “reason for the season” that I can see- no angels, no mangers, not really even any stars.  (Surely the Christian churches are celebrating with displays of the manger or angels or something, but there aren’t any churches in my daily circuit, so I have no idea what’s going on there.)

Animatronic snowmen at Christmas Magnificence.  They were a little creepy.

Animatronic snowmen at Christmas Magnificence. They were a little creepy.

Micah’s work had a Christmas celebration this weekend, dinner at a really fancy buffet restaurant. If that sounds like an oxymoron, it’s not. Traditionally, Malay restaurants serve food buffet style. This place had all kinds of amazing food choices, from Western to Indian to sushi to Malay and what I’m going to call “choose your own adventure”. You picked some raw meat, whatever type and quantity you wanted, and they cooked it for you. Almost like a Mongolian BBQ type thing, but only meat- no veggies and no sauce. I think they grilled everything, but I’m not completely sure, we weren’t encouraged to watch the cooking methods. I chose chicken tikka masala from the Indian food section and several things from an amazing salad/veggie bar. Micah tried several different things from all over and liked the lamb chops from the “choose your own adventure” section best. It was a fun evening, and I only committed one faux pas (that I am aware of) when I was introduced to one of Micah’s devout Muslim coworkers and I offered my hand for a handshake. Touching women (to whom one is not related) is taboo, but he quickly got over his moment of shock and graciously shook my hand. In my defense, several other people I was introduced to offered their hands to shake first, so I assumed that it was acceptable in that environment. Apparently the others were not Muslim, or not devout. Either way, lesson learned: Don’t be the first one to offer a hand to shake, wait and reciprocate with whatever gesture is offered.

The center piece of Christmas Magnificence.  A two story tall Santa.

The center piece of Christmas Magnificence. A two story tall Santa.

The restaurant was close to our hotel, less than a 15-minute walk. After eating too much delicious food, though, we decided we wanted to take a longer walk before heading home for the night. The obvious choice was inside a mall, since they are air conditioned and safe to walk in at night. We decided to check out the Christmas Magnificence display at Pavillion, one of the malls. In the display space in the center, they set up a walk through of trees, lights, and various animatronic scenes. We’ve seen it from a distance when we’ve been at the mall for various errands or meals or whatever, but had yet to walk through it.

Center court display at Suria.

Center court display at Suria.

Just like everything else at the malls, the Christmas decorations are way over the top.  Besides the Christmas Magnificence display, Pavillion also has trees lining the walkway to their main entrance, and a nightly light show. (At the time of this writing, we have yet to see the light show.) At Suria, the mall in the Petronas Towers, they have a giant tree in center court as well as other over-sized decorations (a rocking horse, presents, and something that I think is supposed to be a toy box). I guess it’s supposed to make you feel small to better experience the wonder of Christmas, or something. Outside the mall, in a plaza near the park, there is an absolutely giant tree with giant baubles on it. This one is probably my favorite decoration, maybe because it’s in one of my favorite spots.

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The entire center court display at Suria.  Prime family photo spot!

The entire center court display at Suria. Prime family photo spot!

There are two things about the Christmas decorations that baffle me, though. I’ve seen so many people taking family pictures in front of the displays in the mall, particularly at Suria. This, by itself, is not so odd. But I see an equal number of Muslims in religious attire taking pictures there, too. From my conversations with some of the employees at the hotel, Malays (who are typically Muslim) don’t usually celebrate Christmas.  I don’t think the Indian or Chinese populations celebrate it either, so I don’t know who in KL is celebrating besides the expats. The only reason I can see for all the group photos is just because of the spectacle of the decorations. They are pretty, and they are impressive, so I guess that is reason enough on it’s own. I feel like I’m walking on a thin line here… my point is that it seems strange to me to want to take family pictures in front of icons of a celebration I don’t take part in. As a tourist opportunity, I guess it makes sense. I took a lot of pictures of Deepavali after all, but I don’t think we took any pictures of us at Deepavali.

Regular ol' Santas.

Regular ol’ Santas.

The other thing I can’t wrap my head around about the Christmas decorations is the imagery. It’s exactly what I would expect in the States: snowmen, snow flakes, sleighs, various characters skiing, Santas and elves dressed for North Pole weather. All of the characters have Western complexions (which further supports my theory that it’s expats who are celebrating), and there isn’t any trade in Malaysia- or Kuala Lumpur-specific decorations. One tradition that Micah and I have is to get an ornament on our trips, so our Christmas tree becomes a way to relive our various adventures. In the U.S., no matter what time of year, you can usually find location specific ornaments at tourist locations. For example, Cowboy Santas in Texas and we have a Santa on the beach wearing a tropical shirt from a trip to the Caribbean. Here, there is no Santa at the Petronas Towers, no Santa with a wau (a traditional Malaysian kite and a symbol of Malaysia), no Santas wearing batik prints, nothing. All of the ornaments we can buy are nearly identical to ones we could buy in the U.S. (We settled on a small wood carving of the towers that’s supposed to be a key chain- easily modified into a Christmas ornament! On that same note, we acquired a small elephant key chain in Thailand for the same reason.)

No Malaysian Santas, but I can buy ice skate ornaments in snazzy animal print!

No Malaysian Santas, but I can buy ice skate ornaments in snazzy animal print!

In some ways, it’s really nice to see the trees and decorations. It’s comforting to hear all of our favorite Christmas carols, Bing Crosby, the Beach Boys and all! In other ways, this Christmas just feels strange. With no seasonal weather change, not even a slight one, it’s much more difficult to feel “ready” for such a seasonal holiday. But the biggest disconnect I feel is not celebrating with our families and our traditions. A family member mentioned missing my Christmas cookies this year – spending days baking, decorating, and then sharing Christmas cookies is one of my favorite traditions. I’m really bummed to miss out on that this year. (And before some suggests I make cookies to share at the hotel, we don’t have an oven. Insert sad trombone here.) We have been talking about how we will celebrate Christmas, and we decided we should go out for Chinese food. If it’s good enough for Ralphie’s family in A Christmas Story, it’s good enough for us!

Merry Christmas, y’all!

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Celebrating Deepavali

How do you celebrate a holiday when you don’t know what it is?

Malaysia has a lot of public holidays.  A lot.  Micah gets something like 15 public holidays at work, compared to 8 in the U.S.  Some holidays are equally “for” everyone, like Merdeka Day or Malaysia Day, which commemorate Malaysia’s independence from the British and the establishment of the Malaysian federation respectively.  Some are “for” one group more than others.  Not long ago we celebrated Hari Raya Haji, the end of the pilgrimage to Mecca.  This is a holiday celebrated by the Malay community, not so much by the Chinese or the Indian communities- but everyone gets the day off.  Last week was Deepavali.  There were decorations everywhere- the main concourses in the malls, the stores, our hotel.

This raised the question of how to celebrate holidays and festivals that aren’t “our” holidays.  It was easy to decide to go to the parade on Merdeka Day.  Parades are public and they are for everyone, that felt OK.  Religious holidays, like Hari Raya Haji, are also easy to decide not to celebrate, because they are private religious holidays.  But what about Deepavali?  Is Deepavali something we can celebrate?  Deepavali felt both public and private to me, similar to the way that Christmas feels in the U.S.  Yes, Christmas is a religious holiday for Christians, and Christians celebrate it at church with their church family or in whatever other spiritual way suits them.  But there is also a secular aspect, with no religion required, that is celebrated very publicly.

This is as much as we learned about Deepavali by asking people:

  • It is the Festival of Lights.
  • It celebrates the triumph of Good over Evil.
  • People celebrate it by welcoming friends and families into their homes.

I considered learning more about Deepavali and trying to write a meaningful explanation of the holiday – and I did spend a few minutes reading about it on Wikipedia.  But then I decided that my main point here isn’t to describe what the holiday means in an in-depth way.  My main point is to describe the conflict we feel sometimes about participating in holidays that we have no cultural/religious/ethnic experience with.  This conflict has come up before and I expect we will return to it, frequently, this year.  For example, we are also traveling to Thailand in two weeks because I need to leave Malaysia every three months to renew my visa.  We picked the dates to coincide with a lantern festival.  We did some investigating to determine whether it was acceptable for tourists to view/participate in the festival before we booked tickets.

We want to have all the experiences that we can while we are here, especially those that are unique to this corner of the world.  “When in Rome…” after all!  But as someone who is perhaps too culturally sensitive for her own good at times, I am very cautious about exploiting or otherwise using special events as a tourist spectacle:  Not everything is for tourists, and that’s OK.  It’s sometimes hard to know where that line is as an outsider.  After thinking about what we could/should/would do about Deepavali, I thought we had a great solution:  We would take a walking tour through Little India on the weekend before Deepavali.  We could see Little India, learn some things, and have an opportunity to decide if there would be other events it would be OK for us to attend.  There were also some public music and dance performances at KLCC, the mall at the Petronas Towers.  Those were a no-brainer:  public events in a public/tourist place are OK for tourists.  In fact, these events were really for tourists as I highly doubt any local residents would go to KLCC just to see the performances.

The walking tour, which was interesting but not my favorite of the ones we’ve been on, ended near a market place that was clearly set up for Deepavali.  They had a stage, food vendors (LOTS of food vendors), and many other vendors as well.  This seemed to be very public and our guide said we would absolutely be welcome to come back to look around.  We elected not to stay that day for various reasons, but Micah and I planned to go back on Wednesday – the actual Deepavali holiday – to see what was going on.  Between going back to Little India and seeing the performances at KLCC, I felt like we had a good way to experience the Deepavali celebrations.  It was OK for us to be at both places as outsiders and we could get a feel for the holiday.

I tried to capture the sense of movement from the dance (the male dancer) as well as the precision of the movements (the female dancer).  And, of course, the costumes.

I tried to capture the sense of movement from the dance (the male dancer) as well as the precision of the movements (the female dancer). And, of course, the costumes.

But, “the best laid plans of mice and men”… Micah got sick.  He had a really nasty cold and cough and spent three or four days pretty sick.  I did go see the performances at KLCC by myself, and I’m glad I did, but neither of us went to Little India.  At first I was disappointed, I thought I was missing out on something cool and fun.  (And we probably did.  Next time we go to Little India, I don’t think there will be the same festival atmosphere.)  But I don’t feel that we missed something inherently important to our experience in Kuala Lumpur.  I do feel that I got a good, tourist’s introduction to the celebration.  I appreciated the decorations, the music, and the dancing- the things that were easily available for public consumption.  And sometimes, as a tourist, that is all you can expect.

Extra Stuff:  I took a short video of the music and one of the dances.  Both are under a minute, because I didn’t want to watch the performances through my camera.  I also took way too many pictures of the sand paintings and of all the dances.  The designs on the sand paintings (kolams) speak for themselves and are not captioned.  I chose not to caption the dances, either, because I don’t know how to contextualize them well enough.  As someone involved in a performance-based sport, I will say that I appreciated the attention to detail that many of the dancers had.  The movements were sharp and precise, the costumes were gorgeous, the facial expressions really added to the performance, and sometimes the synergy among the dancers was fantastic.  I learned a lot of lessons I hope to be able to bring back to my skaters.

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.