My Time In Malaysia: No Smiles In Penang


I got married, became a father overnight, and moved to a completely alien (to me) country. And then I stopped writing. I think we can all agree that that was really dumb. So with the next few posts I hope to catch everyone (including myself) up to speed. Living in Penang was not what I was expecting. As an American Muslim of South Asian descent, I had no cultural or linguistic framework for what I came across in Penang. I expected (naively) Arab-style hospitality-- you know, where they see a foreign person on the street and then invite them for tea or dinner. That happened to me all the time in the Arab world (especially Egypt). Instead, about a month into my stay in Penang I noticed that nobody was smiling at me on the street, post office, grocery store, anywhere.

In fact most looked away, and seemed to go out of their way to be unhelpful... especially the Malay Muslims.

I'm not that ugly, am I?

So I started asking EyeDot and all of her friends what the deal was. The consensus was that because I looked Arab, and international Arab students [especially Gulf-Arabs] at Universiti Sains Malaysia had bad reputations, I was lumped in with them. This was confirmed by Nur-al-din, an Algerian shopkeeper I met one day. He moved to Penang in the early 1980's.

"Back then," he explained, "so many people smiled at me that I would lower my head and avoid people because my cheeks hurt every night from smiling so much." He also blamed the not-so-savory characters from the Gulf.  Now nobody smiles at him either.  His cheek muscles atrophied.

Bummer. I'm the kind of person who lives off of small, happy interactions throughout the day.

At one point, I was feeling so down that in an act of desperation, I started posting flyers in our building asking for friends.  It had that an illustration of our family and everything.


No one responded.

To survive, we would escape to other parts of Malaysia where we had friends, like Kuala Lumpur and Kuching, or travel to nearby countries, like Thailand and Indonesia.  To illustrate just how deprived of human affection I was, let me tell you about the time MrsHM took WarriorPrincess (WP) and me along on one of her business trips after a relatively long time away from Kuala Lumpur.

On our first morning there, I took WP to Kinokuniya, a Japanese-owned bookstore in KLCC, the mall below the Petronas Towers. Unbeknownst to me, everyday when the bookshop opens, the employees line the entrance, smile and bow to the first few people in who come in.  That was me.

I was so overwhelmed with joy and happiness after spending smile-less months in Penang, that I actually raised my arms and my voice, squealing, "THANK YOU FOR THE WONDERFUL INTRODUCTION."

Of course, the Universe was just preparing me for what was about to happen next: discovering WarriorPrincess had lice, and spending the next few hours with a nit-comb, some toxic shampoo, and a screaming 5 year old.  The result?


Shaving our heads was much easier.

In any case, BinGregory was really surprised to hear about my struggles in Penang. He's a blogger and dear friend of mine living on the other side of Malaysia, on the island of Borneo, with his large, and always-entertaining family. He also happens to pass for Arab, and he has had the opposite experience from me. It seems that since there aren't as many Arabs living in Borneo (hence, even fewer unsavory characters) they don't have the bad reputation that they have in Penang. Every time I've visited, I've been greeted and smiled at all over town.  It's great!

Like in Borneo, our trips to other parts of Southeast Asia like Thailand and Indonesia were full of smiles and hospitality. I don't know enough to write more about this. I can't say why people in Penang are so not smiley.  All I know is that it made living in Penang really gloomy despite my otherwise beautiful life in Malaysia.

It is also a pretty large part of why I wouldn't ever consider living in Penang again.