Penang Momma is OOO for a few weeks, and luckily I have some fellow bloggers to help fill in the radio silence! This post from Sally over at Dew Diaries is so helpful at knowing what to expect when you first hit the ground. This is her impression after 3 months. Enjoy! Thank you and see you soon!
After living here for the past three months, I thought it might be fun to document some of the main cultural differences I’m experiencing, a sneak peak (if you will) into my daily life in Penang.
First, the languages spoken here are different. Unlike in Texas, I don’t hear much Spanish, though I do have several expat friends that are native Spanish speakers. I commonly hear many other languages spoken around me, primarily English, Melayu, Tamil, and Hokkien. Even my familiar mother-tongue English is affected by the accent and word choice given to it (Australian, British, etc.), and I love hearing its variety. One recent example was when my shipment arrived and the guards called to inform me that my “lorry” was here! (Penang was formerly a British colony.) The official language of Malaysia is Bahasa Melayu (meaning “language Malay”), which acts to unify the three primary people groups (Chinese, Indian, and Malay). I am currently enjoying an 8-week crash course and having fun practicing simple phrases. Selamat petang! (Good afternoon.)
Living as a white Westerner in a sea of darker skin tones, I am more aware of my light skin but almost always welcomed. It has been fun attending a local Baptist church and representing a minority race! There is also great variety in women’s dress here, ranging from fully-covered Muslim women showing no skin at all to teen girls in miniskirts. I try to dress modestly, following the conservative approach of some of the other Malaysian states, but most styles are acceptable in laid-back Penang! I have, however, been more aware of customs and cultures when considering what to wear so as not to offend anyone. I wear brighter colors and less black and white, since these colors are often associated with mourning, and of course, I always remember to remove my shoes prior to entering any Malaysian home (a practice I might just have to bring back to Texas with me!)
Eating is delightful in this town, but like everything else, my habits have changed radically in terms of what I eat and how I shop. Local food is very yummy and cheap. Since the food is much better than I can make myself, we end up eating out about 3 days/week. At a typical hawker center, there are 15-20 food stalls, each specializing in one type of cuisine. Upon arrival, you sit down at a table and someone comes by to take your drink order. Then you walk up to whatever stall you want and order, telling them your table number. They make and deliver it to you, where you pay right then. Typical meal prices are between $2 and $5 US. Dishes are usually rice-based (“nasi”) or noodle-based (“mee”), and whole-wheat/whole grains are few and far between. Despite this, I am eating well and have still managed to lose 8 pounds since moving here! =)
Shopping for food is also different. For someone accustomed to the weekly, one-stop-shopping experiences of HEB, I now shop more often at more places. Almost everything can be found here, with a few exceptions (ranch dressing, good salsa and tortilla chips), but they don’t have everything all the time. You might have to adjust your recipe, or scrap it altogether, for something else they do have. Also, if you are buying pork products or alcohol, there is a separate counter you must pay at, since these items are considered “non-halal” (forbidden) for Muslims. When I had only been here a week, I unknowingly brought some bacon up to the normal counter and felt awful when the cashier asked me to turn it over and bag it myself because she didn’t want to touch it. I haven’t made that mistake again!
In addition to grocery stores like Cold Storage (my favorite due to its larger selection of “international” foods (ie, shipped from Western countries)), I also go to local wet markets twice/week. Only open in the mornings, here is where the locals buy all fresh produce, poultry, and seafood. And by fresh, I mean that morning, it was swimming in the ocean, or walking around eating feed! A huge variety of fruits and veggies await your palette, and it’s been fun sampling new things. Almost everything has multiple growing seasons and is locally grown. Eggs are readily available, though never refrigerated. Chicken and seafood are fun to buy, but not for the squimish. You tell the butcher how many of what pieces you want and then stand back while they chop, de-bone, and/or skin it for you on the spot. I always leave feeling very sweaty (it’s hot there!) but proud of the fresh ingredients that I spent so little for, inspired to cook, and anxious to get everything into my fridge as fast as possible!
As for life at home in my super-condo, there’s not much to complain about! We are spending quite a bit on air-con, but I try to open windows and use the fans alot. For air-con and water heaters, there are individual units in each room that you turn on and off as needed. Dryers are also not common here. Most locals hang up their clothes to dry, but I insisted on one for our place. Ovens are also not common, but our convection oven/microwave makes cookies and bread just fine! I am spending more time doing dishes, since our place doesn’t have a dishwasher, but make up for it with inexpensive help from my wonderful housecleaner. We are spending less on food and maid services, but more on travel (worth it!) and alcohol (also worth it, but much more expensive since it’s non-halal). I am also getting stronger arms from having to carry all my groceries up from the car in one load; you’d be amazed what I can carry! Watching TV is possible through Astro cable, but reception is sporadic, and the DVR feature doesn’t work. Mostly, we use our VPN to watch things from Netflix or hulu.com since there are no video rental stores on the island. Our kids have been pleased to see the familiar faces of McDonalds, KFC, Chili’s, Pizza Hut, and Baskin Robbins, but there is only one drive-thru in Penang! Food still tastes about the same, except the pizza, where chicken or beef pepperoni stand-in for the real thing. Just not the same as pork . . .
Another main difference is the use of the metric system! C vs. F and km vs. mile keep me on my toes, and I’m getting pretty good at typing “350 F in C” into google to convert for recipes! Time is much more laid back here as well. “Malaysian time” is consistently late (hard for some time-driven Americans to adjust to!), and when people say they’ll show up at a certain time, don’t expect them for at least another half hour to hour. Even Starbucks doesn’t open before 8:30, if you can believe it, and locals eat dinner closer to 8:00. (We’re attending a wedding tommorrow and are trying to figure out when to show up so we won’t be too early!)
Using the “tandas” (toilet) can also take some getting used to. Though toilets are common in many places, some facilities have “squatty potties”, which is exactly what it sounds like. Sometimes there is a small fee to use the toilet, and usually, it’s necessary to grab toilet paper prior to entering a stall, or to bring your own!
On another note, make sure to keep your umbrella handy, since unlike in Texas, it actually rains here. (I’m still adjusting to the beautiful color green!).