This experience is yours

First impressions of KL

A tall Chinese man covered in pin-up tattoos takes my unruly hair into his rough hands. I jolt a little in my seat, overcome by the sudden fear of stepping into an Asian salon and trusting this surprisingly gentle giant.

“Sorry, I’m just really nervous,” I say in a panic. “Because, you know… these curls have a mind of their own.”

He laughs, pushing back his bleached tresses. “It’s all right. I’m up for the challenge. It’s a new experience at least.”

There’s something symbolic to dying your hair, even if you purposely put yourself in a stressful situation just to feel a thrill. For the past three and a half months, I’ve been a resident of Kuala Lumpur. Now, it’s time to let the growing pains of summer limbo go and step into a new stage. This – this intangible feeling of change – is why I dye my hair.

Let’s back up to a couple of months ago. Seated on the veranda of a hostel in Cameron Highlands, Kyla and I enjoyed the company of a few bold backpackers – a pair from the U.K. and another from the U.S. Exchanging travel travesties and triumphs, we all decided to try the Cameron-renowned “Steamboat” special (basically Asian fondue, also a really great icebreaker because you’re all putting random food into a big pot).

“You have to ‘do’ Bali,” the California girl told us, putting a prawn into the stew. “It’s unreal.”

I nodded politely, engrossed in the conversation of getting lost and finding yourself – the same as any 20-something would. “Doing” places is common travel lingo and usually refers to passing through different places to get a sample taste of culture.

“And what did you think of KL?” I asked.

Cali girl’s eyes lit up. “I loved it. So clean, so nice! Hardly any traffic compared to Indonesia.”

Did we both see the same city? This intrigued me. As an expat, I’ve seen the cracks and pseudo-modernization chaos of KL. As a passer-by, she saw the “glistening” city for a few days and then carried on to the lush tropics of Taman Negara.

Neither of us is right. And neither of us is wrong. After all, my first impression of Singapore was that it’s a better, more efficient version of Kuala Lumpur.

“I loved it! So clean, so nice!” 

First impressions are always deceiving, usually fixated on the first attractive detail you can find and then over-exaggerated to the point of creating a caricature. There’s nothing wrong with backpacking or taking weekend trips, but there’s also something to be said for truly staying with a place and appreciating it for its quirky political grit and grime.

Last week, I booked a ticket to Bangkok to indulge in the backpacker’s dream. Optimistic, Kyla and I were planning on roughing it all the way to Phuket with our friend Natalie. Yes, I thought. Finally time to explore. 

Then, a couple days later, I got a fever. At a walk-in clinic near the Petronas Towers, I was diagnosed with “haze-induced cold and flu.” Basically, the city was making me sick. The “haze” is a common term in Southeast Asia for smog mixed with forest fires from Indonesia and northern Malaysia. After a summer of commuting from downtown KL and back, I was advised to take it easy.

Instead of backpacking, I’ve been welcomed by a family friend into their home. Now in the green neighbourhood of Ampang, I can finally breathe and my energy is coming back. Although I can’t “do” Bangkok, I can thoroughly enjoy the hospitality of Kuala Lumpur that made me first fall in love with Malaysia.

Maybe it’s not my time to be an adventurer. Maybe I won’t have crazy stories about backpacking all over Southeast Asia and running myself into debt. That’s okay. Because what I’ve gained from this trip is a sense of self throughout the ups and downs of financial and medical stresses. I don’t want to be someone who travels abroad just to collect countries as if they’re Pokemon cards. I want to be someone who appreciates the quality of travel over the quantity of passport stamps. At the end of the day, Malaysia is my second home and the friends I’ve made have shone through the cracks of crazy KL.

Oh, and my hair did turn out all right. I’m back to my natural colour of dark brown and feeling better.

Sometimes, you have to go outside your comfort zone to realize that, at the end of the day, you will survive. You will be fine, no matter where you go. Because this experience is yours and no one else – not even a travel aficionado in Lonely Planet – can define that for you.


KLoset: Hijab fashion with Hannan

It’s 7:29 p.m. at KLCC Park. The city is filled with hunger and anticipation as Malays sit patiently with their take-away containers, eyeing the towering Maxis clock.

7:30 p.m. 

Let the feast begin.

Ramadan in Malaysia is equivalent to the lingering, contagious feeling of Christmas in Canada. There’s a certain joy that overcomes Kuala Lumpur as dusk hits – night markets blossom, mosques erupt into song, and friends chat late into the night.

Starting on August 19th, the week-long celebration of Hari Raya marks the end of fasting. Before heading off to Singapore (for an encore. Love it or hate it, I think I cleansed my KL lungs) and Thailand, I’m hoping to get a taste of the festivities with some of the great Muslim friends we’ve made here.

One of these friends is also quite the fashionista.

Hannan gives the camera some tudung ‘tude

I first met Hannan when I was working the KL Alternative Book Fair back in June. A bubbly student in her final year of an Honors Bachelor of Law at Universiti Teknologi MARA in Shah Alam, Hannan was kind enough to talk tudung (Malay for hijab) fashion. Even though we couldn’t meet up in person, she snapped a couple webcam pics of her own style – a frenzy of patterns paired with classic black.

What is the significance of the hijab to you and when did you first start wearing it? 

I started wearing hijab when I was 13 years old. At the age of 13, I wore hijab because my mother told me to do so since she said it is compulsory for female Muslims. But when I grew older and gained more knowledge, I realized female Muslims have to wear hijab not just because it is compulsory, it is to protect our dignity and from the evil intention of men. Islam really protects the women, as we were told to cover our body except our hand and face. The cloth must be loose. Islam appreciates the female very much and we are special. Covering ourselves save us from many bad things. When I wear hijab, I feel safer and more confident and it does help me to improve my attitude.

Is there a uniquely Malaysian way of wearing the hijab? 

Malaysians have many fashions of wearing the hijab. Sometimes I feel like calling it an evolution because I enjoyed watching the fashions evolved and the markets changed according to it. But in a serious note, it is acceptable as long as it met the Islamic guideline I’ve mentioned in the first question.

Yuna is a very edgy Malay pop star. How do you think she (or other stars) rocks the hijab?

Yuna has her own fashion and as long as her style is according to the Islamic guideline, she can rock it! I also love to mention Wardina Safiyyah, Dian Pelangi and Hana Tajima as the stars that look beautiful in their own fashions and [are] icons to other female Muslims.

Malay pop star Yuna reinvents tudung fashion and makes huge impressions on American record execs

What are you looking forward to most this Ramadan? 

I love Ramadan because it is a month full of blessing. Any good deeds we’ve done will be rewarded more than in other months. I look forward to making more good deeds and I hope I can really fast. It means that to not only restrain myself from eating and drinking, but also from any evil thought, jealousy, hatred, bad mouthing people and other bad attitudes. Ramadan is also a month of love and this is the time where we will strengthen the bonding with family and friends. It means to help each other and love boundlessly. Besides, if we can really work hard to achieve the real target in Ramadan, which it to purify ourselves, the day of celebration after Ramadan (or ‘Hari Raya Aidilfitri’) will be very meaningful and fun!

Selamat Hari Raya!

The next couple weeks are going to be, as the eloquent Jay & ‘Ye might say… “cray.” With work winding down and travels on the horizon, I’m going to try and write up a few things before taking off to Bangkok on the 24th. It’s our last official week in KL until we head home… and is it ever bittersweet.

Last night, we ordered Canadian Pizza (which only exists in Southeast Asia. It’s pizza, but it sure as heck ain’t Canadian. Unless you count specialities like “Greek” or “Tandoori Chicken” ‘zas to be of a Canadian nature) to enjoy the irony, but we’ve still got much more to feast our eyes on here (*ahem* elephant adventures and Full Moon partying).

Until the next update… here’s a list of procrastinated ends and odds:

Coming up: The William Beckett interview (I swear to the Fueled by Ramen gods), an interview with Malaysia’s up-and-coming indie-pop sister act The Impatient Sisters (they just opened for the Jezabels in KL), and another interview with a young Canadian musician on the rise, Liam Callan.

The latest column for London Community News, inspired by an earlier blog post: