The warm, smiley woman who works at the school kantin (cafeteria) asks me “you are free tonight? You come to my house?” “Sure!” I said! Later in the evening, she and her husband roll up to my place in a bright blue car and lead me to their nearby kampung. The word kampung is usually translated as “village,” but I think a better description is “neighborhood.”
“My house is only simple kampung house.”
“Oh but I love your house!”
The walls are each a different color: Blue, green, pink. They welcome me to sit on comfortable leather couches in the open-air living room and chat with the family.
“You must meet our daughter and teach her English. She wants to be stewardess. Maybe she can work on Arab airline. But her English is not good. You can teach her!”
I chat with their daughter, who has great English but is just shy. The family pulls up a table in front of me and brings in orange juice and homemade creampuffs. “Eat! I made them myself!” Then they bring mini egg tarts (tart telur) and big, fluffy pieces of white chocolate birthday cake from a recent birthday. “Please, help yourself! Eat! It is delicious!” They bring a dish of tropical fruits soaked in salt brine that a relative just brought them from Penang. “This you can only find in Penang!” I taste one. The fruit is smaller and tougher than fresh fruit, and salty. Strangely delicious…sedap.
Little kids hide in the doorway, watching as I chat with the family. “Oh! So malu, so shy to talk to you!” An aunt pokes her head in through the window behind the couch and introduces herself. The room is filled with family and neighbors, the difference between the two unclear.
My host’s niece comes in. She’s a woman around my age who’s a university student in Kuala Lumpur back for her mid-year break. She studies creative writing and film and has nearly perfect English. We hit it off instantly and end up discussing differences between American and Malaysia, what teaching is like, and what she thinks of KL. Then the niece’s mother sits next to her. I ask “what is your job?” “I am nurse! Actually, very soon there is Spanish team coming to my hospital to do charity heart surgery. It is part of international team of Malaysia and Spain. I am on the surgery team!” “Wow! That is incredible! Maybe I can come see your hospital sometime?”
My host comes in, “Christy! Here is a gift for you! It was my niece’s!” She holds out a skin-tight leopard print mermaid dress with silver fringe. “You must try it on! Now!” I stand up in the living room and pull the dress over what I’m already wearing. “OH! Miss! Wow! So beautiful! You must wear to school tomorrow! No, no, cannot…too sexy!”
Next we all decide to go to dinner at a new roadside restaurant. The daughter and niece pop-on hot pink tudong, spritz some perfume, and we’re off. The restaurant specializes in Tom Yum soup, and it’s some of the best I’ve tasted. We talk and laugh and eat and drink cold teas from mason jars all evening. Finally, it’s time to go, and the daughter walks me back to my car to make sure I get there safely.
“Thank you so much, Christy, for your visit!”
“No! Thank YOU so much! You are so much fun and so nice to spend time with!”
“Yes! You will come again? Maybe we can go out many times?”
“I would LOVE to! Thank you so much!”
I had a genuinely wonderful time with my new friends. It didn’t feel like “Cultural Exchange” proper. It felt like finding a group of people who I really connect with. It didn’t matter where we were from. Each new day in Malaysia I start seeing the people I meet here more according to their personalities and less according to our two cultures. Language barrier aside, I’m learning that personality transcends culture.