March 2, 2011

the art of multitasking

Behold! My bathroom:

Did I write bathroom? Because it’s actually a walk-in dishwasher. And by walk-in dishwasher, I mean shower. Just kidding! It’s actually the laundry room. With a toilet.

Besides giving you a small glimpse into my daily surroundings, I’d like this picture to serve as a representation of the uncanny ability of Malaysians not only to multitask, but also to repurpose. These days, I know you can’t turn on NPR for two seconds (or maybe even exist for two seconds) without hearing somebody somewhere using trendy enviro-buzzwords like “sustainability”, “eco-chic”,  or “carbon footprint”. The first month or so that I was here in Malaysia, it made me angry to find out that no one here recycles, and that the use of plastic bags is - all jokes aside - OUT OF CONTROL. But my general frustration has alleviated upon slowly realizing that rather than throw things in a recycle bin, Malaysians would simply prefer to just find a new use for something when they’ve exhausted its original function. Likewise, they see the value in using things simultaneously for different purposes. 

Why not wash your dishes while you shower? And do laundry at the same time? And maybe even pee!  When one small room has the ability to offer so many services, the distinctly American need for a separate room in the house for every little thing seems excessive. I mean seriously: “mud room”? A room for mud then, or something? And “living room” – as if the rest of the house wasn’t suitable for living in? Some people still have a “sitting room” or “drawing room”… I don’t even know what that means. Or the “study”… Malaysians know better than anyone that studying can (AND SHOULD) be conducted anywhere and anytime (meaning all places all the time… gotta get those A’s!). And don’t even get me started on “breakfast nook”… The bottom line is, it is exactly this quintessential American excess that gives my students the idea that I have seven cars at home, am related to Selena Gomez, and have a personal Big Mac delivery service. If my house in America has a breakfast nook, surely I MUST live next door to Taylor Swift.

Other things Malaysians repurpose:

Rice – not just for dinner!

Actually, nasi (rice) isn’t just for lunch either. Actually, it’s not just for breakfast, lunch, and dinner… it’s for dessert too! Nasi is incredibly plentiful and affordable here, and it is part of EVERY meal. Even when I thought I was having a different kind of starch when I was eating kway teow, I later found out that the noodles are actually made with rice flour. Sometimes the nasi is pressed together and cut into cubes. This makes eating rice a slightly different chewing experience, but it fundamentally remains the same product. Sometimes the rice is blue, sometimes it’s yellow, and sometimes it’s just plain white. And those weird multicolored jelly desserts here? Yea, they’re made from rice. Those little glutinous coconut-filled balls? Nasi is the main ingredient. Any way you look at it, you’re going to eat rice approximately every 4 hours here. Period. 


Ok, so I have to give Malaysians some credit in the transportation department: they use public transportation a LOT, and not many people have cars (a basic sedan here costs around 100,000-150,000RM, equivalent to $30,000-$50,000 – yikes!). Instead, they have motorbikes.

I may have mentioned that I really (REALLY) want to buy a motorbike, but my request has been met with various forms of opposition and “maybe later”s, but I’m pretty confused as to why, because almost everyone here has one. By purchasing one of my own, I would simply be participating in the cultural exchange that Fulbright so frequently promotes. Anyways, motorbikes aren’t just for zipping on down to the 7-11. No… they are the Malaysian family vehicle. It is not unusual when I’m walking around Kuala Berang to see a motorbike with not one… not two… but in fact four people riding it: typically two adults, each holding onto an infant or small child. You heard it here first: motorbikes are the new baby strollers. Here in Malaysia, motorbikes are also:

-        An excuse to scream across the road whatever you please. Normally, if I’m within 50 yards of anything, it’s “Mat Salleh! HALLOOO DVD MOVIE JUSTIN BEIBER HOW ARE YOU” (translation: White foreigner! LET ME TELL YOU ALL THE ENGLISH WORDS I KNOW!). When in a car, Malaysians practice vocal restraint, but out in the open air, anything goes!
-        A place to nap
-        A form of exercise. Instead of going for a jog or a bike ride, from what I can tell, many Malaysians just prefer to take their moto out for a spin. Maybe it tones the wrists or something…

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