I'm in Kuala Lumpur today on business. This is the first time I've been back in Asia in some time, and the first time in Malaysia in about ten years. I arrived late at night, but right from the beginning I felt discombobulated. It is strange to be back in a place that is at once so familiar - at least, close enough to Singapore that it certainly feels familiar - and at the same time so foreign. In some small ways I am beginning to remember some of what it was like to be an expatriate.
The first and strangest experience is the one of suddenly feeling out of place. I do not speak Malay, and despite the outward similarity to my familiar years in Singapore, upon arriving in Kuala Lumpur I was suddenly disoriented by the lack of English speakers. Exhausted and confused, it was an hour or so before I could orient myself enough to figure out how to get a cab ticket.
When I got to the hotel, other things began to make me feel out of place. I have never been comfortable with the obsequious way in which foreigners are treated, and it was no different arriving there. I was given prompt and attentive porter service, and the person holding my bag accompanied me directly to my room. In the elevator with us, on the other hand, was a Malay family - with kids - obviously also just checking in. They were carrying their own bags, and while the porter greeted them amicably he didn't offer any service. It felt very wrong.
Since my arrival, I realized that where I am staying happens to be located directly adjacent to an upmarket mall. This also felt strange, mostly because it was also so familiar. The ethnic makeup of the people visiting the mall changed radically to be mostly ethnic Chinese and a smattering of obvious foreigners. The language of the mall is not Malay but English or Chinese. While Kuala Lumpur is about 45% Malay, this mall could not have been more than 10%. It was a stark reminder of how ethnicity is tied to wealth in this country.
Finally, it was some time before I figured out why everybody insisted on speaking to me in English and treating me like an obvious foreigner. I would order my food in mandarin and have people serve me meals with a fork and spoon (the ethnic Chinese would get chopsticks). It was confused for a while, but suddenly remembered: in Singapore, and in Asia in general, I am always singled out as a Westerner, despite the exact opposite being true in the United States.