Culture? Where to start?!

Our guest blogger Alex, who is currently on a placement in Malaysia, shares some of his thoughts on the culture there:

Culture in Malaysia is not simple. Anyone who’s been here would struggle to simply mention a ‘few things’ about it… I mean, where to start? Here’s some of the parts I found the most unique – the most “Malaysian”, I guess.

Coffee, Malayisa Gap Year

Coffee pic by Alex Krabbendam

Who here likes their tea or coffee with sugar?  In the UK, many prefer it nice and bitter. After all, nothing wakes you up better than a strong coffee in the morning. Well, Malaysians have found a different solution. If you order coffee (or ‘Kopi’ in Malay), your drink will come swamped with sweet condensed milk with a few scoops of sugar added, just to be sure. You see, when you’re stocked up on caffeine and a tonne of sugar, you know you’ll stay awake. Genius!

This isn’t just done with coffee; any drink that’s ordered will be sweetened. At first it is quite off putting, but you grow to accept, and even enjoy the sweet taste.

Menu, Malaysia Gap Year

Menu pic by Alex Krabbendam

But that isn’t all that makes Malaysia, well, Malaysia. There is a general rule here, which goes like this: if no food is provided, you don’t have to come. At the school where I work, we recently had a meeting with the other teachers, guess what was provided at the end… food! It ‘s the only way to guarantee everyone will show up.

It is easy to understand why. In Malaysia, there are so many different food choices that menus are often on Excel spreadsheets. Many places don’t bother with menus, so you just guess and hope they have what you want. I’ve been here roughly 8 months, and I doubt I’ve even tried half of what’s on offer. But the best thing is that each state has its own version of everything, as well as many local specialties.

And that’s what makes it so difficult to talk about Malaysian culture. There is just so much of it. This is the best part of Malaysia. Even within the state of Sarawak, there are roughly five different major ethnic groups, each with their own language, cuisine and architecture!

Cutlery, Malaysian Gap Year

Spoon pic by Alex Krabbendam

There are a few things that are universal though. If you eat food with your hand, it’s only done with the right hand. But in Malaysia, things are slightly different. We were told, “only use the fingers – the palm is the graveyard!” There is a real skill to using your fingers to hold the rice, and using your thumb to push it into your mouth. Once again, in Malaysia, it gets slightly more confusing. With white rice you eat with your hands but with coconut rice, you don’t. Noodles you never eat with your hands, unless there isn’t any cutlery. And if the rice is coloured, it’s a guessing game.

But don’t forget – never, never use a knife when you eat. If there is one thing I’ve learned here, it’s how to cut chicken with a spoon. It’s a lot harder than you first imagine – nothing beats almost breaking your plate and launching your chicken halfway across the table. Knives do exist, don’t get me wrong. People are more than happy to hack away at a coconut with a massive cutlass – just don’t expect them to use anything other than their hands or a spoon to rip things apart on a plate!

Why all the rules you ask? Culture, I say!

Culture in Malaysia is a strange thing, a crazy thing sometimes but in the end, it’s also a great thing. Never in my life have I had such a bizarre time with people, food, and condensed milk. In Malaysia, it’s not the culture that defines the people. It’s the people that really define the culture. Malaysian culture is quirky, fascinating, and laid-back, and the people are just the same.

Humans of Project Trust: Trabs

“In Malaysia, it’s not the culture that defines the people. It’s the people that really define the culture.”

Humans of Project Trust: Trabs

“In Malaysia, it’s not the culture that defines the people. It’s the people that really define the culture.”

Our guest blogger Alex, who is currently on a placement in Malaysia, shares some of his thoughts on the culture there:

Culture in Malaysia is not simple. Anyone who’s been here would struggle to simply mention a ‘few things’ about it… I mean, where to start? Here’s some of the parts I found the most unique – the most “Malaysian”, I guess.

Coffee, Malayisa Gap Year

Coffee pic by Alex Krabbendam

Who here likes their tea or coffee with sugar?  In the UK, many prefer it nice and bitter. After all, nothing wakes you up better than a strong coffee in the morning. Well, Malaysians have found a different solution. If you order coffee (or ‘Kopi’ in Malay), your drink will come swamped with sweet condensed milk with a few scoops of sugar added, just to be sure. You see, when you’re stocked up on caffeine and a tonne of sugar, you know you’ll stay awake. Genius!

This isn’t just done with coffee; any drink that’s ordered will be Sweetened. At first it is quite off putting, but you grow to accept, and even enjoy the sweet taste.

Menu, Malaysia Gap Year

Menu pic by Alex Krabbendam

But that isn’t all that makes Malaysia, well, Malaysia. There is a general rule here, which goes like this: if no food is provided, you don’t have to come. At the school where I work, we recently had a meeting with the other teachers, guess what was provided at the end… food! It ‘s the only way to guarantee everyone will show up.

It is easy to understand why. In Malaysia, there are so many different food choices that menus are often on Excel spreadsheets. Many places don’t bother with menus, so you just guess and hope they have what you want. I’ve been here roughly 8 months, and I doubt I’ve even tried half of what’s on offer. But the best thing is that each state has its own version of everything, as well as many local specialties.

And that’s what makes it so difficult to talk about Malaysian culture. There is just so much of it. This is the best part of Malaysia. Even within the state of Sarawak, there are roughly five different major ethnic groups, each with their own language, cuisine and architecture!

Cutlery, Malaysian Gap Year

Spoon pic by Alex Krabbendam

There are a few things that are universal though. If you eat food with your hand, it’s only done with the right hand. But in Malaysia, things are slightly different. We were told, “only use the fingers – the palm is the graveyard!” There is a real skill to using your fingers to hold the rice, and using your thumb to push it into your mouth. Once again, in Malaysia, it gets slightly more confusing. With white rice you eat with your hands but with coconut rice, you don’t. Noodles you never eat with your hands, unless there isn’t any cutlery. And if the rice is coloured, it’s a guessing game.

But don’t forget – never, never use a knife when you eat. If there is one thing I’ve learned here, it’s how to cut chicken with a spoon. It’s a lot harder than you first imagine – nothing beats almost breaking your plate and launching your chicken halfway across the table. Knives do exist, don’t get me wrong. People are more than happy to hack away at a coconut with a massive cutlass – just don’t expect them to use anything other than their hands or a spoon to rip things apart on a plate!

Why all the rules you ask? Culture, I say!

Culture in Malaysia is a strange thing, a crazy thing sometimes but in the end, it’s also a great thing. Never in my life have I had such a bizarre time with people, food, and condensed milk. In Malaysia, it’s not the culture that defines the people. It’s the people that really define the culture. Malaysian culture is quirky, fascinating, and laid-back, and the people are just the same.