Reflections Of Home (From A Nomad’s Perspective)
The dense and sticky air filled our lungs as soon as we walked out of the sliding doors of KL International Airport. Chris, no longer used to the humidity, felt like he is hit by a ton of bricks.
It was still the middle of winter when we left Germany for Kuala Lumpur. Only fourteen hours ago, we were covered in scarves and three layers of clothes. We’d been dreaming about Malaysia’s tropical climate for a while now. I’d plodded through the snow-decked streets, daydreaming about the day when we would wear shorts and flip-flops.
The blissful warmth and sunshine that played out so wonderfully in my imagination was quickly erased by stark reality: the real 32°C deal was less pleasant than I thought.
It’s only for two weeks, I can do this.
When I first told my dad that I’d quit my job and am leaving to travel, his face flushed red and his eyebrows knitted into a severe frown. When are you coming back, he’d asked. I don’t know, I said a little too excitedly.
I was 23 years old, and had just handed in my resignation letter to the Public Relations firm that I was working for. It was the first resignation letter that I’d ever written and upon handing it to my boss, I felt all grown up and ready to plunge into the unknown.
Deep down, I knew it wasn’t an act of courage. It was an act of retaliation. I wanted to start living for myself instead of conforming to society’s notion of a successful lifestyle. Cloaked in youthful naïveté, the younger version of me was certain that there was nothing to lose. I had owned neither a house nor a car. And I had not much money to speak about. The worst that could happen is that I’ll be forced to come home if I run out of money.
Thankfully, that has never quite happened. Somehow the universe had worked in mysterious ways to help me fund my wanderlust lifestyle.
Seeing Kuala Lumpur From A Foreign Perspective
I have been coming back to Malaysia for the past decade in spurts. Sometimes my visits were short and sparse; sometimes they were longer than others. The visits however had all one thing in common: I always was on the way to somewhere else.
Over the years, I have been dropping by Kuala Lumpur for visa applications, collecting important documents, attending a wedding or two and reconnecting with family and friends. In between, I eat and travel.
I have learned to be a tourist in my home country. Ironically, this is how I feel most comfortable as, when I navigate through the familiar nooks and crannies. Playing tourist in Malaysia helps me cope. It reassures my restless soul, that I have somewhere else to leave for. It didn’t even matter where so long as it isn’t here. It was the journey that I was looking forward to.
This was not Chris’ first time to Kuala Lumpur. When we were living in Singapore two years ago, venturing to Kuala Lumpur, Penang and beyond was our favourite sort of distraction. The chaos and liveliness of Malaysian cities were always more seductive than livable but predictable Singapore. Singapore may thrive with technological efficiency and breathtaking contemporary architecture but that’s just as good as it gets.
Malaysia is not lagging behind in terms of modernity and its steely wonders either. Whenever someone asks me about my origins, I’d tell them Kuala Lumpur. This is when magic happens. Their faces would light up and I’d watch them break into a wide smile.
“Ohhhh, you have the famous twin towers!”
In my experience, no one has reacted the same way to Marina Bay Sands.
Having grown up in Kuala Lumpur, and having attended school in the heart of city center, I have taken the glorious landscape for granted. Instead of gaping at the Petronas Twin Towers every time the bus drove by, I slept. For work, I’d take walk past the magnificent towers everyday without glancing up to admire them. It didn’t charm me like it charmed tourists. I was grossly nonchalant.
But now, when discussing popular sights of Kuala Lumpur with other foreigners, I’d beam with pride. Petronas Twin Towers have come to represent my identity as a Malaysian.
There were many other things that I had taken for granted too. Back then, I relied heavily on the LRT to get around. The trains that had ferried me back and forth between Petaling Jaya and Kuala Lumpur were integral to my daily routine. I knew the whole schedule and stations by heart. I knew when to avoid taking trains and when to take them. I knew which station leads to where and what. It had never occurred to me, to sit in one of such carriages and marvel at the certainty that I will arrive at my destination. The only time I took note was when it didn’t function well: if the train was late or if it was too congested.
Chris didn’t share my nonchalance. Despite hailing from a country that gave the world sleek and efficient driving machines, he still rode the Kelana Jaya LRT network with unadulterated joy. The fact that he was more impressed with our LRT system instead of the inconsistent Deutsche-Bahn made me more mindful of our country’s progress the next time I took the train.
“It was so awesome! These trains just self-drive!” he later revealed to his family when we returned to Germany. He looked as excited as a kid who suddenly found himself in a candy store.
“You come from such a modern country, Ying! You should be proud of it.”
As A Malaysian, It’s All About The Food
Ah, but I am proud of my country. I bear a significant amount of pride when it comes to Malaysian food. I have traversed the world and I have yet to come across a land where its food variety and taste is comparable to Malaysia’s. The diversity of our local cuisine is hard to replicate. Not every other country embraces multiculturalism as much as we do.
From our trips, Chris had learned what food means to a Malaysian. Food simply defines us. To eat is to be Malaysian. And to seek out good food and eat them, even more. In Penang, he’d learned that to sample something worth trying, one must put in the effort. We’d gone out of our way to try steaming bowls of Asam Laksa or to nail down the right Food Court. We’d circled around blocks to look for the perfect bowl of Cendol or for that popular Dim Sum place that only serves piping hot Siumai from 6pm onwards.
Our recent trip was no different. I’d planned our schedule around food. I had a food checklist prepared and the mission was to tick off as many as possible.Nasi Lemak was high on the list, alongside with Char Kuey Teow and Curry Laksa.
We even ventured into the grittier side of Chow Kit to eat the original Kin Kin Chilli Pan Mee. Tucked between car workshops and opposite mouldy and dilapidated buildings, the obscure noodle shop that isn’t even on the main road thrived nonetheless. Apart from Chilli Pan Mee and some side soupy dishes, they don’t even serve anything else.
Yet the plastic bowl of noodles that was placed in front of me was every bit perfect. Springy flour noodles, a golden poached egg, topped with minced meat and spring onions. In the centre of the table lay a large container of a not-to-be-skipped secret ingredient where you can help yourself to: the Chilli.
How can something so simple be so delicious? Chris could not get over it. We’d never get something like this in Singapore, Paris or Berlin.
Fernweh is a German word that I live for literally.
There is no English translation for it. The two syllables express a world of longing for the strange and for the unfamiliar territories. It describes the urgent need to leave the familiar routines behind and escape the everyday by transporting yourself to the furthest away possible.
I have suffered dearly from Fernweh. Fernweh has taken me across countries and seas.
But no matter how far I go, I know I’m always a Malaysian through and through.
An edited version of this article originally appeared on Dreamcatcher Magazine.