Daniel has a book called 101 Things to Do Before You Die. He used to pore over it when he was 12, thinking about how he could check off scuba diving and going up in a hot air balloon, paying less attention to the ones that would take a lifetime to complete, such as seeing certain animals in the wild and the tallest buildings in the world. The Petronas Towers are in it, were the tallest from ’98 to ’04 and remain the tallest twin buildings ever built. From the smooth highway in the air conditioned bus he saw them in the distance, and looked forward to checking them off his list when he gets home.
Daniel was most taken aback by the Asians wearing headscarves. Malaysia is a Muslim country after all, but somehow he didn’t expect to see so many tudungs. Nor did he expect so many Western stores at the airport, or white people in his mostly full 24-bed dorm room. But Kuala Lumpur is an alpha city, so it makes sense that at his hostel, there’s free wifi and blonde German girls. So he made his bed, showered off the sweat on his body from last night’s airport sleep, and went out to eat.
Except for a couple of lychees he’d eaten, pit and all, given to him on the bus by a Finnish girl, he’d been fasting since last night. He arrived at 4 this afternoon but there was a three and a half hour time change, and he slept most of the four hour plane ride, so it’s not like he was out in the fields working on little to no energy. There’s a big market across from his hotel, the kind of touristy strip that sells fake bags and tchotchkes and overpriced food, so he avoided that. He wanted to go somewhere real, somewhere Malaysian. So he walked farther down the street, into Chinatown, which is the downtown, past Indians and white people and tudung-wearing Asians.
The first restaurant he saw was translated into English as Fish Head. That was what he was looking for. Not fish heads, but that kind of authenticity. He sat down and ordered a pork soup, rice, green vegetables and hot tea. Oh, and when it came he thought of how his foodie friends he’d taken to his alma mater Super Taste down on Eldridge St. would be jealous. About halfway through his meal he looked down and near his foot crawled an inch and a half cockroach. He shivered and remembered how Ivan had told him he’d eaten one, fried, somewhere in China, and how it took him like fifteen minutes to chew and swallow. The young girl who had taken his order and seemed to be the heiress of the restaurant walked past. He said, “Excuse me.” He pointed, “There’s a big cockroach.” But the cockroach was under the table now. It had been walking away from him, its antennae feeling the wall stupidly, and as if on cue it turned around and walked back to him. She walked to him too, evidently not understanding. He looked down. It was there! He had his chance. He stomped its guts onto the floor. He said, “Sorry,” and ingenuously made a face of disgust and regret. She smiled and walked away. The roach’s legs were still twitching and Daniel half-expected it to get up and start walking, leaving its guts on the floor. But it didn’t and he scooted forward to put it out of sight. When he had finished dinner and stood up to leave, its antennae were still twitching.
Dinner was about six dollars, which is about three times more than it usually is in India and Sri Lanka, but its deliciousness and the fact that the same dinner would have cost ten dollars in NYC made Daniel very pleased with his find. When he circled up and around, past the fake Louis Vuitton bags and coconut and palm oil treats, one of which he sampled for free, he was even more pleased when he saw greasy raw chicken turning on a spit in what seemed to be a Malaysian rendition of the kebab. The mango ice cream he licked was a cherry on the gastronomic cake.
Sure, there are surprising things about Malaysia such as the mosque symbol he saw on the green highway sign and the language in Roman characters that’s almost understandable, probably due to its Portugese and Dutch influence, and the three hour time difference from Sri Lanka. But as Daniel stood in the middle of the road, waiting for the light to change and the European-built buses to pass, he felt like he could be in almost any Chinatown in the world. Like the phrase on shirts he keeps seeing and hearing repeated everywhere in this part of the world, Malaysia’s the same same, but different.