Malaysia: What’s Not to Like?

MalaysiaTo be clear: we have all loved our time here in Malaysia. It’s objectively pleasant to be in a country full of wonderful people where the temperature runs in the 70s to low 80s all year round. Beyond that, watching my children learn what living internationally can teach — and the expected and surprising lessons for myself and my lovely and talented wife — are a gift. Malaysia is great. Travel is great. Life traveling in Malaysia is great.

That said…

…there are aspects of this journey that have not been the very best experiences of my life. Last month, I waxed enthusiastic about some of the things we love and will miss about this adventure. Today, in the interest of fair play, I’d like to share my four least favorite parts of living in Malaysia.

1. The Vimes Boots Problem

Terry Pratchett’s “Vimes Boots Theory of Economic Unfairness” notes that buying cheap things at 1/10th the cost of an expensive thing costs more in the long run, because the expensive thing lasts more than 10 times as long. Malaysia is a broke enough country that everything is cheap and breaks all the time. Toilets are plastic. Sandals break after a second wearing. Electronics departments in stores test the items before you leave with them because it’s quicker than dealing with complaints because of the many (MANY) duds.

My most painfully amusing experience with this was stepping onto a stool with a sprained ankle, only to fall through the top of the stool and land on my sprained ankle, then fall sideways and impaling my leg on the shards of the stooltop. You might have heard me cussing all the way back home.

We deal with this by buying very little, and by considering what we do buy to be more of a rental situation. Eventually, entropy calls in the lease and it’s gone from our lives. The whole situation has become an exercise in voluntary simplicity, learning to live with less because there’s little point in buying anything.

2. Trash and Filth

Despite the hilariously copyright infringing “Don’t Mess With Melaka” campaign, Malaysians litter everywhere. There’s a shocking amount of trash on the streets and in the parks, and no money to hire people to clean it up. It’s everywhere, and because it’s so hot here it smells pretty rank on some days.

Don't Mess

In fairness to Malaysia, this is true of most broke countries (and even some wealthy ones like Japan — the only difference is they can hire people to clean up). It’s still probably my least favorite aspect of this place.

Sadly, I haven’t figured out what I can do about it. We’ve just learned to ignore it where we can and step carefully while on the go.

3. Added Complexity

“Complexity” might not be the exact right word to use here: processes are about as complex here as in other places. Thing is, they’re harder to navigate because there’s a whole extra process of figuring out what to do.

In the states, if I wanted a burger I’d walk into a burger place, order one and buy it. Here, I have to first figure out which sign in three languages indicates a spot one might buy burgers. Then I have to figure out what the menu means (“Single special” means a burger with an egg and lots of chili sauce). Then communicate with somebody who may or may not speak English or any other language I know how to order a burger in. Then figure out what the currency means. Somewhere in this process I have to understand that I can get the burger in beef or chicken, and indicate which I want. All of this comes automatically in the place you live, but it requires thought and energy abroad. Most of this time, it’s just part of the adventure — but it can be exhausting.

Now, imagine what it was like to get a visa.

The solution here is my favorite: make friends. I cannot begin to account for how much easier our life here has been because of the locals we’ve befriended. They coach us through the tricky stuff, take time out of their schedules to accompany us, give advice and generally help out. I am incredibly grateful to Zein, Nadya, Afif, Rosmini, Hamizatu and all of the others, and hope everybody can come visit us in the States so we can return the favor.

4. The Phone Situation

Remember last century, when dialing a phone number that was in your area code required 7 digits, but dialing to another area code required 10? That situation exists here still, plus

  • Nobody lists the prefix for their own area code
  • Area codes differ for cell phones vs. land lines
  • The dialing process from a cell phone differs from land lines
  • The dialing process from cell phones with different carriers differs
  • Phone numbers are not of uniform length, even within the same area code

It’s a nightmare, especially when you consider that I prefer to do everything online via websites and email. If I’m forced to make a phone call, it’s probably some kind of emergency. And I’m searching the web for the rules for making this particular call, because it’s different from the last five calls I made.

Not a lot to be done about the problem, but it has been an exercise in working on myself. Calmness, preparedness and not procrastinating are key skills this is helping me to develop.

I want to re-reiterate that none of these things, even all combined, makes me wish we hadn’t come or want to hasten our return. (The only thing that comes close to that is how much we miss our friends and family at home — though Facebook mitigates that substantially). These are just some of the challenges inherent in this journey — challenges that, like all challenges, can make us stronger and more resourceful human beings.

What are some of your favorite challenges from your various adventures? How did you navigate them? 

3 thoughts on “Malaysia: What’s Not to Like?

  1. Nice post. One typo — “surprising lessons for myself and my lovely and talented life” in the first paragraph ought to be “wife” I believe.

  2. Thank you Roger. I love having editors around who actually read my stuff. What would I do without you? And Lorna? And occasionally Troy.

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