Strangely Familiar

It shouldn't be any surprise given this would be roughly my 7th visit to Malaysia. The first (according to the photos) going back to when I was around four years old.  The last only two years ago when I came with my wife as newly-weds. 

So the cultural shift that occurred in the time it took to travel from Auckland to Kuala Lumpur*  didn't catch me so much unaware, rather it was more of a "oh thats right.." moment. 

*(I don't recommend the Air Asia flight that lands in KL at 3am btw no matter what the savings - in the fog of landing I managed to lose one of my slippers at the airport. Not really a slipper though but an Allbird lounger - gutted!)

Oh thats right, same same but different. Things can look similar but they're different in ways both nuanced and striking. Yes there are systems, ones we can recognise from "home" and some of them done much better here, but under the surface you find a shift taking place that a Eurocentric worldview is going to have a little trouble with. The application of this Western/European lense is hard enough to defy within New Zealand where we find ourselves surprised when encountering difficulty working within the maori world; yet when here it seems almost irresistible - planning, communication, punctuality, they all rub against our expectations and sense of norms around how shit gets done. I guess this is a natural response to new places, making comparisons between the familiar and unfamiliar. Seems weirdly competitive though when you wander into the "what's better?" territory. Same same but different. 

Grab is the superior Uber here in South East Asia, in-fact Grab just took over Uber in the region, not over took but a proper take over. Downloading the app ahead of departure was a good move. Opening it and ordering a car at KLIA (Kuala Lumpur International Airport) was easy and then this..

"so far! No one will take you, for 90 can" ..checks the route.. "NO! 75km! Too far!"

Yes there is a really well established app based alternative to conventional taxi's here. It's well designed and really effective until the driver thinks it's too far to drive you. So it's ultimately discretionary then. The problem wasn't that it was too short a trip with too small a fare, the opposite. The guy I'm talking too asks another driver hanging out next to us and we just get a raised eyebrow laugh. So no car out to Rimbun Dahan where I'm staying then. For those in Auckland we know we are on the cusp (arguably already amongst) of seeing some major infrastructure projects roll out in our city, in Kuala Lumpur this has been underway since the establishment of the town in 1857 (it's younger than Auckland) and it can be seen in the public transport system. The train running directly from the airport to town starts up at 5am, which is just over an hour away.

The KLIA Ekspres got me to Sentral Station in half an hour and it must have been just before 6am when I arrived at Rimbun Dahan. My Grab (successful from Sentral Station) took me up the long drive and dropped me into a pack of barking dogs. Welcome.

The key that was meant to be out wasn't but I get into my allocated studio via an unlocked roller door. Good: bathroom attached to studio = shower. Not so good: Still locked out in the dark with swarming mozzies. Rubbing up against those expectations around how things get done much? Yeah, a bit. I'm at the mercy of the mozzies, within the studio I find half a mosquito coil but have no way of lighting it.. so close.

Despite this I'm smiling through it all, partly due to the lack of sleep but mainly in response to just being here. "Here" is a number of things; yes it's being at a residency where I get to focus primarily on the production of art (something I haven't had the luxury of in a long time),  but more so it's about being in the position to spend a decent amount of time in a city I have a lot of fondness for but not a lot of understanding of. "Here" is the opportunity to personally and creatively engage with "place", a place my father was born and my grandfather lived his life. I don't have long roots here, the Chinese in Malaysia are relatively recent immigrants and the Hakka people from which I descend have been in constant movement for centuries, so much so that the word Hakka translates as 'guest people/families' or 'strangers'.

In lieu of a bed or comfort in general I walk the grounds at sunrise and come 9am there's still no one about so I go look for food down the road. Oh thats right... The smells, the sanitation, the way life works, the way of life. Not so same same, more different. Being the overwhelming racial minority (if I discount being Eurasian in NZ), different. Holding effectively zero cultural capital, different. At least I have some familiarity with hawker food and some clue around the way it works. Breakfast is Rendang and Hokkien Noodle. I get a silly wave of pride a few days later when I learn a residency mate got ill after eating there. Not me mate, my capsules of Slippery Elm are a bit of a secret weapon in that regard, that and good luck.

Back at the compound I meet Angela, one of the hosts and I get a tour and a key. The key is more welcome than the tour at this stage (having effectively been in transit mode for about 19 hours) though Rimbun Dahan is a beautiful expansive place. I am lucky to be here. There is enough about it that matches my recollections of staying with my Gung Gung and Po Po in their village as a kid. Not that different, mostly same same and defintely strangely familiar.