When I first moved to Malaysia – I didn’t expect to last 2 weeks here. From the very first moment I glanced at it, the city seems almost lost in white mists. There was nothing distinct except the jutting skyscrapers and the vigor of tropical decay.
To me, KL (as Kuala Lumpur is usually called) was synonymous with the perpetual torrid fever, the unrelenting congestion on the muddled expressway, and unwelcome airborne death particles that leave me feeling like a walking satay stick. It is the last metropolis in a sinking country oozing out like an unstoppable concrete oil spill. And the day you find yourself reacting to a crying baby in a crowded mega-mall, you realise that this is a city that exists permanently at the end of tether.
But from the ground, the city is very distinct: a prosperous place, bustling and building – Kuala Lumpur, translated as the ‘muddy confluence’ has neither the over-disciplined severity of Singapore or the anything-goes upheaval of Thailand. Only 150 years ago, the city was a rough and steamy riverside trading post run by Malay royalty and Chinese merchants. Today the mood is of moneymaking, of hipster coffee shops, of coconut-infused rice, and the muddy confluence of sprawling conglomerates and rosy startups.
It is a city dripping with unremitting paradox – old cafes tucked under gleaming expressways, calls to prayers beckoning professionals from towers of steel and glass, new technology disrupting traditional industries, and the disparate ethnic groups that live and work together to give this city the badge of cosmopolitan flair.
It contains the remnants of originality that produces dissenters, industrialists and thinkers – an unlikely place that holds the key to all that is exciting and rich and mysterious. As an outsider, I think KL is highly under-rated – by both the homegrown and recluse parties. It is no longer a dingy outpost chopped out of the jungle by tin prospectors, so why do so many people still treat it like one? The erroneous undertone is of a place that has developed economically but still struggles to find its soul.
I’m not entirely sure how I’ve lasted this long, but there is something eerily familiar about this place, like the morning heat rising up from the floor or the ghost of summers past. After a while, even the city’s unrelenting traffic jams take on a humorous form.
Perhaps it’s the people that have captivated me, those pioneering adventurers with the intent of learning, the singular meetings that materialise into long conversations and divulge off into sharing favourite hideaways, my co-workers who never fail to mesmerise and cheer me, and the entire pool of older folks who have suddenly become my ‘uncles’ and ‘aunties’. Some make you laugh out loud. Some are intent on educating, while others just want to entertain. Their attitudes are as unique as their personalities, but they are united in one thing – proud locals of this unique place.
When I think about KL, I’m never sure what to expect. I am well aware that I have a new-home giddiness that will eventually rub off, but there is something serious and serene about this place, something witty and cheeky, in an eccentrically Malaysian way.
I may grumble about the heat, and although I still can’t cross the street without a buffer or tell the difference between kopi-c and kopi-o, I am glad I get to call this city, for the time being, home. There are moments in KL when you feel like you’re surviving, not actually living. It’s a land of startups and traffic jams and tolls and mega-malls and nasi lemak and kopi tiams and mangoes and durian and haze and constant summer. If you can love half the things on that list even a little bit, you’ll be just fine.