7 Things That Confuse People Overseas When You Tell Them You're From Malaysia

IMHO, based on my travels, people in other countries never really knew these things about us.

Cover image via Eunice Tang

In the past six months after uni, I have travelled across 20 countries in Asia, Europe and Latin America

Image via Eunice Tang

Most of the time, especially when I solo travel to more off-the-beaten-paths with distinct cultural differences, like Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania, Moldova and Peru, I would be the odd foreigner out. 

When you travel to places that are generally not populated by a Malaysian crowd, chances are you'll realise the truth of the world's knowledge about our country.

Based on my travels, here are seven things I discovered foreigners never knew about us:

1. They can never quite guess where you're from






And then they will proceed to list every country in Asia, except Malaysia.

When they run out of guesses, they surrender and ask you directly, "So where are you from?"

When I reply, "Malaysia", they will exclaim "OHHHHH!" thinking why they had not thought figured that out before.

Image via Eunice Tang

2. They'll think you only speak 'Malaysian'

"So what languages do you speak?"

"English, Chinese... Malay."

"Wait, you speak Chinese?"

"Err, yes..."

"I thought you only spoke Malaysian."

This also happened when I met Chinese people from mainland China, once during my travels to Romania. They were actually so amazed that Malaysians could speak Mandarin well.

I would also have to start the historical explanation about my ancestry - talking about my forefathers' migration to Malaya and how they settled down, and the segregation of the races in Malaysia, and how we still maintain our original heritage and culture.

They don't know much about the different dialects we speak either.

Teaching in Kenya.

Image via Eunice Tang

3. They don't understand how we can shower up to three times a day

Because almost everywhere else in the world has four seasons - or perhaps a varying climate of hot and cold seasons. Our multiple showering habits are cultivated here in hot, humid, tropical Asia as we have the sun beat down on us all 365 days of the year.

Some foreigners find how we have only one season exciting - as we all have seen how everybody on this Earth enjoys sunbathing... except Asians!

Image via Eunice Tang

4. They find our habit of eating rice and noodles for breakfast, lunch and dinner eye-opening and bizarre

I once brought my Turkish friends to try out authentic Malaysian food in the Malaysian Hall in London. 

They were overwhelmed by the burst of flavours in our food. When I pointed to the nasi lemak coated with red hot sambal paste and told them that it's our typical breakfast, their eyes opened wide in shock. Because, I guess, even in the Middle East, their typical breakfast would be light: fresh vegetables, olives, soft cheese and/or baked eggs. Having rice, spicy at that, is totally alien to even the people of the Middle East.

Also, the other day I was savouring the leftover fried rice from the day before and my fellow Italian hostel-mate walked in and gasped. His eyes opened wide as he exclaimed, "This? FOR BREAKFAST? No!"

Hey, I love my rice. End of discussion.

My Turkish friends and I on the way to try Malaysian food in London's Malaysia Hall.

Image via Eunice Tang

5. Speaking of food...

There are times I'd want to describe what we eat for tea or desserts, to which I have to wreck my brain to translate 'kuih' to English. Pastries? Cupcakes? 

Words like these just don't translate the nuances of our fantastic variety of desserts, and I end up just showing them pictures and getting delightful responses from my new acquaintances.

The only time that people would be more appreciative of Malaysian food is if they have actually lived in Malaysia before. This I stumbled twice in my time abroad: once when I was introduced by a mutual friend to a Swedish guy who had lived in Malaysia for a few years when he was in school, and the second time by chance on an ambulance when I accompanied a friend to the hospital in London. 

The paramedic who was on duty so happened to have spent a few of her schooling years in Malaysia as her father was stationed there for work. She had missed Malaysian food so much that she asked me to recommend her places to taste authentic Malaysian food, right there in the ambulance!

Teh tarik madu Kelantan.

Image via Eunice Tang

6. They will never ever dream of driving two hours just for food

The first time I had ever heard of this was when my British uncle found it absolutely strange that we drove an hour all the way to the port in Tambun, Penang, just for some fresh curry crabs. This idea would be equivalent to them driving from Oxford to London and back just for the food, which to a British person is beyond comprehension. 

Foreigners generally don't know how varied, flavourful, and diverse Malaysian food truly is. A typical Malaysian, as we know, would drive two hours to Ipoh just for dim sum or chicken rice, have our meals, and drive back on the same day.

If you tell this to a foreigner, I guarantee they will find you soooo bizarre! "Like why?", they will ask. Because Malaysian food is worth going all the way for!

I met this bubbly crew of Moldovan people from a bus ride from Bucharest (Romania) to Chisinau (Moldova) whille travelling solo in Eastern Europe.

Image via Eunice Tang

7. The only thing they ever know about Malaysia is well, the Twin Towers... and perhaps the Formula 1 races

... unless they have visited the islands off our coast which we all know is truly paradise on earth!

I have also actually met people whose bucket lists include visiting the Petronas Twin Towers.

Many of them don't know that Georgetown in Penang and Melaka are UNESCO sites either. I guess that says a lot about how much they know about Malaysia.

A family I met at the Peruvian Gastronomical Food Festival. They are keen to visit Malaysia after hearing me tell them how wonderful it is back home!

Image via Eunice Tang

This story is the personal opinion of the writer. Contribute stories as a SAYS reader by emailing us at [email protected].

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