It was December 2001. I was visiting Malaysia – more specifically, on this particular afternoon I was visiting the covered Central Market building in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown – for the first time. My dad and my stepmom were three months into a three-year expat residency in KL, and I was a fresh-faced, jet-lagged rookie traveler, ready to take on Asia.
My dad had suggested that I roam around on my own some, stretch my legs, get a feel for the place. I would meet them upstairs in half an hour. When the time came, I pushed the button for the elevator and waited. The dull metal doors opened, I stepped forward – and paused, one foot over the threshold. Inside the elevator was a Malay man, young, not very tall. He wore a white t-shirt, silk-screened with an image of the World Trade Center towers falling in smoke and ruin, and the words “Bin Laden vs. Bush-rael.”
I stared at the t-shirt for a too-long moment, stepped back from the elevator, waited for the doors to close, and took the stairs.
On that initial two-week visit, I didn’t stray far from my dad again. And though, on the next three visits I made to the country – three weeks in May 2002, another three weeks in May 2003, and more than a month in June and July 2004 – I did eventually loosen my grip on the parental escort and venture out on my own, I never really got to know the city. I never browsed for street food. I never wandered aimlessly, getting lost and then found again. I never let my guard down or allowed myself to feel comfortable in the place; I never really grew to like it.
Instead, mostly, I ricocheted between my dad’s high-in-the-sky, government-provided condo apartment, and the giant mega-mall a five-minute walk away.
May 2003. I was at the mall again, and for once I was actually planning to shop. I’d spent the morning refreshing and refreshing and refreshing the web page where the final grades from my just-completed second year of undergrad would eventually appear. Finally, I’d gotten the results, including the A+ in Intro to Ancient Greek that I’d been dying for. A reward was in order.
Sitting at the foot of the Petronas Towers, the KLCC, central KL’s glitziest mall, looks small in comparison. It isn’t. It’s six levels of brand-name shimmer, all gleaming surfaces and pricey, miniscule scraps of clothing. Even before my shopping expedition, I already knew it well. I’d spent whole afternoons there, wandering the icy corridors, staring through the glass at mannequins draped in Benetton, Guess, Polo. I’d pace laps around each level, ride the escalators up and down and up and down alongside haughty women with designer purses and full black abayas – Malaysia, according to my dad, had been courting the Saudi tourist dollar – and haunt the English-language sections of Kinokuniya, the big-name Japanese book chain. Sometimes I’d buy an iced café mocha from a chain joint on the bottom level and wander out into the adjoining park, with its top-to-bottom view of the towers. When my mocha ran dry and I started to sweat, I’d head back inside.
I felt safe at the mall, like I belonged – though I could neither afford nor fit into most of the clothing on sale. It was cold. It was quiet. And nobody looked at me twice.
The walk there or back again was always a brief, hectic gauntlet of damp heat and noise and traffic, sometimes livened up by the inevitable late-afternoon downpour. It was a straight quick shot down the arterial Jalan Ampang, then a left onto a quiet lane leading to my dad’s gated building, Hampshire Residence. I made the walk clutching my purse white-knuckled – I’d been warned repeatedly about purse-snatchers on motorbikes; recently, a woman had been dragged to death, unable to free herself from her tiny accessory backpack in time – and along the way I ignored the men I passed, most of them emitting hisses and clucks and other noises that suggested they were trying to get the attention of a reluctant house pet.
On the day of my celebration, I walked home with a shopping bag banging against my bare leg. I’d wound up in a store that seemed to specialize in a sort of Victorian imperial safari chic, and I’d bought myself a breezy, long-sleeved linen shirt and a fatigue-green pencil skirt. I figured a retro colonial look would be perfect the next time I tagged along to one of my dad’s stuffy diplomatic events.
When I wasn’t at the mall, I was at the condo, pacing its marble floors, reading on one of the hard, silk-covered matching couches, or sunbathing down by the compound pool. I felt guilty about my self-imposed isolation; I knew I was wasting an incredible opportunity, four – four! – free trips to Asia, the Canadian government’s mandated “family reunion” perk for diplomats and their dependent children. But I’d been overwhelmed from the start, and I’d never recovered.
It would be too easy to say that the encounter with the Al Qaeda fan soured me on Malaysia. I’d already been unprepared for the visit. Unlike the confident, cosmopolitan, lifelong “dip kids” I’d met – teens and twenty-somethings who’d spent their lives shuttling between Bogota and Athens and Washington DC – I hadn’t grown up with this life. My dad had joined the foreign service when I was just starting high school, done his few years of training time in Ottawa, and then delayed his first overseas posting until I was headed off to university. Before that first Malaysia trip, three months after 9/11, I’d left Canada exactly once, for an all-inclusive bender in Mexico. The hissing men, the insufferable heat, the proud, faceless Saudi women that ignored me at the mall: I wasn’t ready for full immersion in an alien culture.
Most days, even the condo felt alien enough. Our home in Ottawa had been a narrow, aging townhouse in a leafy granola neighborhood adjacent to downtown. It had sloped and slumping hardwood floors and exposed red brick walls; the place fit like an old shoe. Our couch had been a tattered brown velour number, its springs flattened from years of comfortable napping; when we left town, even the Salvation Army didn’t want it. And now, here I was in a government-provided spread on the 17th floor of a glittering highrise. The marble floor was cold and impassive; if I paced too long (as I often did, circling the place like a zoo animal) the balls of my feet got sore from the repeat impact with its unyielding surface. The embassy-issued furniture was hard, stiff and formal: a matching dining room set, a matching living room set, a matching sitting room set, all silk-covered and built for discomfort.
At 5am every day the jetlag and the eerie melody of the call to prayer would conspire to wake me. The occasional gecko skittered across the walls; once, I found a cockroach the size of a small rodent in my shower. Go outside for cultural immersion? I figured I was getting plenty without leaving the house.
During the three years that my dad spent in Malaysia, I learned to be a traveler elsewhere. On each visit, I plotted a side trip or two: I visited Australia, New Zealand, Thailand, England and India on my own. None of those places intimidated me quite the way that Malaysia continued to do.
Still, things got better. My dad stopped using his special diplomatic pass to come fetch me at the gate when my flight arrived; eventually I was navigating the airport, the airport express train, and two separate LRT lines to make my way from the plane to the Hampshire Residence on my own. Considering the hand-holding I’d needed in the early days, it felt like a major accomplishment.
Some days, instead of walking to the mall I’d follow Jalan Ampang for a few minutes in the other direction, to its intersection with the chaotic Jalan Tun Razak, and meet my dad and his colleagues for lunch at a little hole-in-the-wall restaurant on the upper level of a small, cluttered, concrete shopping plaza, ten minutes’ walk and two galaxies away from the KLCC. I’d order an unnamed dish, spiced veggies and tofu and rice, and a tall, steaming cold glass of lime juice, served with a small metal pitcher of liquid sweetener. I’d use my chopsticks mostly competently and I’d walk home again, while my dad headed back to the office, feeling like I’d carved out a local ritual for myself.
By my last visit, there were things about Malaysia that I knew intimately. I knew the sound of the Malaysia Airlines in-flight DJ’s voice – “The Fly Guy,” a fast-talking Asian man who spoke English with a faint Australian accent. I knew the layout of the mall, down to its payphones and restrooms, with their faint imprints of shoe soles on the western-style toilet seats. I knew the rhythm of the afternoon rainstorms; I knew how the surrounding mountains looked as dawn broke, before the city’s wall of smog and heat haze rose to obscure them. I knew how to offer well-wishes and thank-yous in Bahasa.
A few days before I left Malaysia for the last time, I took the LRT from the station near the condo to KL’s Chinatown. I walked the few blocks from the train to the Central Market, and I wandered through its displays of tiny carved Buddhas and paper fans and souvenir chopsticks. I pushed the button for the elevator, and when it arrived, empty, I rode it up to the top level and back down again.
I didn’t know if I would ever return to Malaysia – my parents were packing up for their return to Canada, I had a year left of undergrad and a stack of grad school scholarship applications waiting for me, and it hadn’t yet occurred to me that I might write about travel for a living. But I knew that if I did return, if I got my second chance with Malaysia five or ten years or even decades down the line, I wouldn’t waste it. Next time, I’d be ready.