Published on Medium

The Unwritten Etiquettes of Southeast Asian Culture

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Photo by Solen Feyissa on Unsplash

“It’s just the way it is” has been one of the most repeated phrase in my vocabulary when trying to explain the many unwritten rules of Southeast Asian culture.

I appreciate how it may be confusing to a foreigner, especially one who has never traveled to Asia (much less Southeast Asia). Some rules are baffling to me as well, and I find myself questioning its logic only to realize that sometimes, there isn’t any.

But for the most part, there are obvious reasonings to why we do what we do.

I personally feel Asians are generally more attentive to culture etiquettes because we’ve been surrounded by it our entire lives. It has become a norm to us.

For instance, Malaysia is a small country with three main races (Chinese, Indian, and Malay) and four main religions (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, and Islam) that come with an exhaustive list of etiquettes.

We’ve yet to include other races and religions such as the Portugese, Kadazan, Minangkabau, Baba Nonya, Catholicism, Taoism, and many more.

Can you imagine the assortment of cultural beliefs and etiquettes in that country alone?

We were taught at a young age to respect other cultures. We learn aspects of it from our friends by celebrating festivities like Chinese New Year, Hari Raya Aidilfitri, and Deepavali.

What I’ve noticed is that while foreigners are aware of our festivities and tradition, some may not be privy to the unwritten rules of etiquette when in Southeast Asia.

I hope to share some of the intricacies of Southeast Asian culture and why it’s such an interesting topic. For this piece, I’ll lay out some ‘ground rules’ per se, if you’re ever planning a trip to that region.


Remove your shoes when entering someone’s home

This is pretty common, and I’ve not met an Asian family (living in Asia) who wore shoes in their homes. They’re usually barefooted or equipped with house slippers.

Logically, removing your shoes before entering a home does not only keep dirt off your floors, it also protects it from scratches or damages. You’re also showing immense respect for their home when you remove your shoes because you’re helping to keep their house as clean as you can.

A not very commonly mentioned reason is that Asian lifestyles are centered around the floor. In many Southeast Asian cultures, meals and conversations are usually held on the floor, around a coffee table.

Most of my family members prefer to sit on the floor as it provides a better interaction flow with the rest of the living room. It gives a sense of comfort and informality that usually promises good, wholesome family time.


It’s not just a gift

Showing up to a social gathering, be it for New Year’s or a housewarming party with a gift is a sign of appreciation and politeness.

You’re thanking them for having you. It does not have to be an extravagant gift as it’s meant to be a small token of appreciation. A basket of fruits, a bottle of wine (if they drink) or a box of desserts are perfect gifts.

A birthday gift on the other hand is a little more personal and you should be aware that certain gifts have a negative connotation to it. Here are just some:

  • Gifting a clock to a Chinese person means you’re counting down the hours and minutes to their “departure”.
  • Sharp objects like a set of kitchen knives, no matter how expensive means you’re severing the relationship.
  • Gifting leather goods to a Hindu is very disrespectful, as cows are deemed sacred in that religion. Some Hindus are also vegetarians.
  • You should not gift Muslims any food items that contain alcohol or aren’t kosher as is not in line with the religion.

During these modern times, some Asians may not take offense to any of these gifts. I would honestly appreciate a set of kitchen knives! But it is always better to be on the safer side of things.


Don’t raise your voice

“You seem very quiet” — is something I hear a lot. It is not just a personality trait, it is also a cultural trait.

Asians are boisterous but we are generally non confrontational and would rather not get into a scuffle if we don’t have to. It is far better to solve the problem amicably, or just ignore it so it doesn’t turn into a bigger problem.

Just let it go… so to speak.

This sometimes gives the impression that we are submissive. We are far from that. We just prefer to choose our battles and to not raise our voices if we don’t have to.

Raising ones voice, especially in public is deemed to be rude, crass, and offensive.


Listen and observe before you respond

I’ve come to the realization that there are two very distinct types of Asians — one that isn’t afraid to speak to truth no matter how offensive it may be, and the other who relies on indirect communication to maintain the peace.

The first type usually do not mean any direct harm. It’s likely that they just see it as a fact even though it may be hurtful to the other person. For instance, they wouldn’t be afraid to let you know you’re not liked purely because they do not wish to waste your time or theirs.

In their mind, it’s better to lay your cards on the table and move on from there.

The second type is someone who usually understates their point and chooses to be polite instead of assertive. This sometimes means it can be difficult to understand what they truly mean without asking a few follow up questions.


Physical contact

In this day and age, the normal handshake is widely used and accepted in Southeast Asia.

That being said, it’s good to know that some cultures may be a little more conservative than others. An example would be the Islam religion where it is unacceptable for a man and a woman who are not related by blood or marriage to touch.

My best advice to you is to take a step back, observe those around you and wait for a gesture.


Keep political viewpoints at bay

In most Southeast Asian countries, speaking ill or negatively about the government, royal families, or leaders could possibly land you in prison. This includes comments on social media, or in person conversation in a public place.

Most Asians are very up to date with politics, but have very strong viewpoints of it.

Unless you’re sure of the company you’re with, I would suggest keeping political conversations to a minimum.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but I hope it provided some insights to a culture that is not only vibrant but rich with traditions.

What are some of the other Southeast Asian etiquettes you’ve heard of?

Thank you for reading.

Originally published here.

Love and relationships, Published on Medium

A Letter To My Dramatic Teenage Self

It was never your fault.

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Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash

Dear Younger Jill,

First of all, your world is not coming to an end.

I know right now, you’re in bed, crying your eyes out and threatening your boyfriend with suicide if he decides to break things off with you.

I also know you can feel my eyes rolling, and the sense of being judged is overwhelming you. You’re thinking “it’s bad enough that other people judge me, now my 32 year old self is judging me too?”

No, I’m not. I’m here to tell you what your mother should have been there to tell you — it will get better and it’s no use crying over a boy like that.

You’re probably thinking “isn’t my mother your mother too?”

They’re the same person, but two very different individuals.

She’s not there with you now, and the only memories you have of her are the ones where she’s either in bed or stuck in front of the computer, and her constant yelling over your little wrong doings.

It seemed like nothing you did was ever good enough for her.

Even then, when she left two years ago, you convinced yourself that it was because of you, and that she didn’t love you.

I’m here to tell you that you’re wrong. It was FOR you.

You miss her but you’re also angry at her. You refuse to speak to her when she calls and you refuse to speak about her to anyone. It will be that way for awhile, but you need to know why she did what she did.

She did not want to burden her teenage daughter with the turmoil of her depression, especially when you’re going through one of the most exciting part of your life.

You needed a stronger parent to guide and support you, and she knew your father would have been able to do that better without having to take care of her as well.

She was right.

It wasn’t fair for you or dad. But you had each other, and he made you the strong woman I am today.

She’ll come back into your life in a few years and it’ll take another few to mend the broken relationship. But you’ll be glad you gave her that opportunity.

That’s when she’ll start becoming my mother — the loving woman who supports and rallies for me and someone I can confide in.

My advice to you is to not take so long to forgive her. She’ll always be there for you, but you’ll be moving far away from her to start your own life and family.

Treasure the time you will have with her and let go of the anger you feel for her now. I know you think she should have tried talking to you, but you’ll realize you wouldn’t have understood what she was going through until much later.

This will be the biggest lesson in forgiveness for you.


Now back to that boy you’re crying over.

Wipe your tears and sit up because you need some tough love.

Stop being so dramatic.

You’re not going to kill yourself if he breaks up with you. You know it deep down that it’s not worth it. Don’t try to guilt him into staying with you just because he’s done the same to you. You’re not karma.

He is just the beginning of many more heartbreaks. This is your first real relationship and I still have no idea why our father allowed you to date at such a young age. But you’ll learn a lot from this and the other ones to come.

I know it’s hard to process all the different feelings you’re having. It probably feels like being on a never-ending rollercoaster.

Some days, it feels like he’ll be the one you marry. On other days, you have this nagging feeling that you deserve better.

YOU DO.

It wasn’t your fault he cheated on you. You were right to not have sex when you weren’t ready. You’re strong that way and you’ll just grow stronger.

He may seem like everything you’ve ever wanted, but let’s face it — you don’t really know what you want, and you certainly don’t know what you need yet.

He’ll take away your trust in people for awhile. He’ll give you the presumption that it is normal to feel insecure, jealous, and insignificant if you’re in relationship. How else would you show him you love him if you didn’t get jealous over every little thing?

That couldn’t be further from the truth.

You’ll learn that a loving relationship consists of mutual respect, genuine admiration, support for each other, and team work.

You’ll find yourself coming out stronger after each heartbreak. You’ll struggle with trust issues for while, especially in your next relationships. But you’ll come to realize that the right one for you will never give you a reason to not trust him.

Things always happen for a reason.

It feels horrible having to go through it and sometimes it feels like there is no light at the end of the tunnel. You’ll just have to toughen up and try to find the silver lining in everything.

That’s how you’ll start looking at life and that is what will make you stronger.


If I could tell you to change one thing in your life right now, it would be to not let the negativity get to you.

You’ve always allowed other people’s opinion deter you from what you truly want to do. It is time to stop and listen to your heart and mind a little more.

Figure out what you really want to do, who are you now and who do you want to be, what do you want out of life, and how are you going to achieve all of that.

Don’t let people’s opinion steer you away from the path you want to build for yourself. Don’t be dwell in the toxic things people say about you.

You are not spoilt. You are not fat, and you are definitely not dumb.

You are a beautiful, intelligent young girl with a good head on her shoulders, with a little touch of color and drama.

You’ll prove all that to them one day, and even then it won’t be enough. But it wouldn’t matter anymore because you’ve outgrown it. You’ll come to realize that people can act any way they want. That is the judge of their character. How you respond to it is a judge of yours.

I promise that once you learn to love yourself, you will become the best version of yourself. Listen and trust yourself, and everything will fall into place.

With love,

Jill

Life in Malaysia, Published on Medium

5 things I don’t miss about Malaysia

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Photo by Omar Elsharawy on Unsplash

Before the big move to the US, family members, friends, and colleagues warned me about how homesick I was going to be in a couple of months. Most of them stemming from personal experiences of having to study or live abroad for a number of years.

The year is almost up, and I’m not feeling it one little bit.

As I recently published a list of what I missed about Malaysia, specifically Kuala Lumpur, I thought it would be apt to follow up with a list of what I didn’t miss.

I do not hate the country by any means. I’ve merely realized that the grass is a little greener here from where I’m standing.


Traffic and road rage

Driving in Malaysia is a feat on it’s own. You’d be battling bottleneck traffic jams at all times, motorcyclists zooming past, busses and trucks swerving into your lane, and the sheer volume of vehicles on the road.

From queue-jumping to driving on the shoulder to tailgating… Malaysia has it all. The stress of driving is amplified if you’re a lone female driver as it is automatically assumed that you are unable to drive nor defend yourself.

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Photo by Nabeel Syed on Unsplash

I have had a few harrowing experiences where a driver would speed up just to cut into my lane. One unfortunate event saw the driver swerve and hit the front left bumper of my car as he was trying to cut me off. He hit the brakes, got out of his car and tried to blame me for hitting him instead. He then got back into his car and tailed me for 20 minutes.

I drove straight to the police station and spent an hour filing a report and waiting for someone to escort me home because I feared for my safety.

It was a completely different experience driving in Tennessee. Almost everyone on the road are courteous, and there seems to be a sense of mutual respect between drivers.


Always having my guard up

Malaysia is generally safe and peaceful, coming in 16th on 2019’s Global Peace Index. While terribly violent crimes are somewhat low, petty crimes including snatch theft and pickpocketing are relatively high.

I was always taught to be aware of my surroundings, never venture out walking alone at any time, and to have a key or pen in my hand while I’m walking to my car.

There was always a sense of danger and the awareness that people aren’t always prepared to help unless they absolutely have to. So, I was a little surprised at the level of trust and general kindness people have for each other where I live now.

My fiancé and I were at a store late one night. As I was browsing the produce section, I didn’t realize he had disappeared and was trying to sneak up on me from the other aisle to scare me. I assumed he looked very suspicious as an older man came up to me and offered to walk me to my car after I was done shopping because he thinks someone is following me.

The older man gestured to the other aisle and I saw my fiancé peeping out from the corner. I explained that it was my fiancé trying to scare me and he looked relieved that it was just a couple joking around.

Things like this rarely happen in Malaysia.


Weather

Everyone talks about how warm and sunny Malaysia is. Being a tropical country, it is summer all year round with bouts of thunderstorms but it gets old after awhile.

I much prefer the different seasons. I love fall and winter but by the time I’m over with the cold, summer is just around the corner. I love having the option of wearing seasonal clothes and watching the trees change color.


Censorship

Censorship has always been an issue in Malaysia, but has gained notoriety over the recent years. While citizens have freedom of speech, it is under the watchful eye of the government and anyone can be persecuted for disseminating hate speech or misleading information.

They’ve recently up the ante for films by completely banning the live-action Beauty and The Beast and heavily censoring Bohemian Rhapsody as it contained “LGBT friendly scenes”.

This is a touchy topic that deserves a piece of its own. I’m just appreciative of the fact that I can now freely consume any kind of media without having to jump through hoops.

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Photo by Brian Wangenheim on Unsplash

Crowding

I definitely do not miss the volume of people in Malaysia. The humidity was already something to deal with but adding a crowd of people into the mix makes it almost unbearable.

There was no way to shop in peace or dine at a restaurant on the weekends. You would constantly bump into people and would have to wait in long lines for a table, even it if was at a mediocre restaurant.

I was taken aback when we went to the local shopping mall here. I had to ask my fiancé a few times if he was sure it was still open for business.


These points have a lot to do with preferences and personal experiences. I was just fortunate enough to travel and eventually find a home away from home. It does not mean Malaysia is any less beautiful and I would still encourage anyone to visit it at least once in their lifetime.

Life in Malaysia, Published on Medium

A dive into the sound effects of Manglish

Manglish — a mix of the Malaysian and English language

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Photo by Nick Fewings on Unsplash

Aiyoyo! What happened to you? Long time no see lah! Want to go yumcha to catch up?

Translation: Oh goodness! What happened to you? I haven’t seen you in a long time? Should we go for a drink to catch up?

Yes, that was English, or more commonly known as Manglish — the illegitimate child of the Malaysian and English language. If you’re ever planning a trip to Malaysia (after Covid, of course), you might want to pick up some of these to conversate with locals a little better.

Trust me, we love it when you try to use our sound effects or slangs because it shows you’re interested in our culture. We’ll even give you a few more tips and tricks on how to use and understand them.


When I started working on this piece, I came to the realization that there are so many slangs, terms, and sound effects that make Manglish special. It’s a little too complex to unveil them all in one article.

So we’ll just stick to the sound effects today, which I personally think are more fun. I’m a default expert in this purely because I was born and raised in Malaysia. I do not know the origins of it, neither will I be able to comprehensively explain the correct usage of it.

But I’ll do the best I can. Just remember, there are always exceptions to the rule.


Lah

Pronounced la

This is more of a suffix used to emphasize a sentence. Usage of this sound effect depends on the sentence and intonation of the ‘lah’. This is the most used sound effect.

Ok lah! — Similar to ‘FINE!’. To be used when you’ve been married for 30 years and your wife bugs you to take the trash out.

Ok lah… — Similar to ‘oh, alright…’. To be used when your new girlfriend asks you to take her to the movies.

I don’t know lah! — To be used when you’ve given up on life.


Aiyo / Aiyoyo

Pronounced I-yo / I-yo-yo

I would describe this as an exclamation to a sentence. It’s usually used to express distress, frustration or regret. Not to be confused with it’s cousin — Aiya.

Aiyo…— Similar to ‘crap…’. To be used when your boss hands you a stack of documents to file when it’s already 6pm.

Aiyo! — Similar to ‘the hell!’. To be used by your mum when she finds your wet towel on the floor.


COMBO USAGE

Aiyo! Whatever lah! — To be used when your girlfriend can’t decide what to have for dinner.


Aiya

Pronounced I-ya

Also an exclamation to a sentence, usually used to express surprise or exasperation.

Aiya…— Similar to ‘oh shit…’. To be used when you accidentally sent a text message to the wrong girlfriend.

Aiya!— Similar to ‘urgh!’. To be used when you’ve tripped on something.


Ah

Pronounced ah

This is another suffix that can sometimes replace a pause in a sentence.

You know ah… — Similar to ‘did you know…’. To be used as an opener of a gossip you know is juicy.

I tell you ah! — To be used by your mum as a final warning for that wet towel on the floor.


Fuyoh

Pronounced foo-yo

An exclamation to be used when wow just isn’t wow enough. Most of the time similar to ‘holyyy shit!’. Not ‘holy shit’.

Fuyoh! Did you see that? — To be used when you watch a Jackie Chan movie.


Eh / Wei

Pronounced eh / way

I honestly have no idea how to intellectually describe this. It’s just how we address or call anyone, really. Similar to ‘hey’ or ‘bruh’.


Nah

Pronounced nuh

Not to be confused with the American or British ‘nah’ of rejecting something. This is a sound effect used when you’re handing someone something or when you’ve managed to prove someone wrong.

Nah! — Similar to ‘here you go!”. It could sound happy or angry.

Nah! See! I told you so! — This is pretty self explanatory.


Hor

Pronounced… like how you would expect to pronounce it.

A sound effect used to agree or seek agreement when you’re not sure/suspicious of it.

Oh, yea hor… — Similar to ‘oh yea, that’s right…’. To be used when you’ve been proven wrong

Correct hor? — Similar to ‘I’m right, right?’. To be used in the office.

COMBO USAGE

A: Nah! See! I told you so!

B: Oh, yea hor…

Translation: —

A: I f***in’ told you so!

B: Oh yea… that’s right.


There are so many more sound effects used in Manglish but I think we’ll take a break from our lesson today. As you can imagine, I was sounding these off as I was writing, so I may not have done them justice.

Let me know in the comments if you found these useful! We might work venture into slangs next time.

Life in Malaysia, Published on Medium

6 things I miss most about Malaysia

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Photo by CK Yeo on Unsplash

I was having a conversation with a friend one night when the topic drifted to Malaysia. We spoke about family, friends, our old jobs and while she had no problems naming all the things she missed from Malaysia, I found myself struggling to come up with a decent list.

Sure, I miss my family. But that couldn’t be the only thing I missed? I realized then that while I do miss little aspects of Malaysia, I’m not terribly homesick either. Having moved the United States about 8 months ago, I’m still adapting to life here but I don’t regret the move one bit.

Malaysia is by no means an ordinary country. With it’s colorful culture, abundance of food, and amazing hospitality, it’s definitely a country you’d want to visit at least once in your lifetime.

For clarity — I moved to what is known as the “deep south” in Tennessee which is vastly different than the city of Kuala Lumpur (KL) where I was born and raised. After some thought, there were some things I miss, and it made the thought of going back for a visit that much more exciting.

How easy it was to shop for ingredients

Asian cuisine isn’t widely available (or very good) where I live but I’m fortunate enough to know how to make them at home. However, I sometimes struggle to find certain ingredients here that would otherwise be readily available in Malaysia.

Items like bean sprouts, freshly made kimchi, rendang paste, cili padi (or bird’s eye chili), are not easy to find in my local grocery store. It tickles me that they have an “Asian” section that’s half filled with soy sauce and the other half with oyster sauce.

There are two Asian grocery stores in the area. They’re each about a 40 minute drive away, which means I usually compile a list of what I need and make only one trip every 2–3 weeks for a huge haul. That also means a lot of freezing of ingredients which I’m not particularly fond of unless I decide to buy a bigger freezer.

I’ve yet to venture further around where I live (thanks Covid-19) to see if there are better Asian restaurants than Panda Express. I’ve got my fingers crossed for this.


Shopping malls EVERYWHERE

There’s a huge shopping mall culture in Malaysia, particularly KL. Skyscrapers connected to a 10 story shopping mall that’s a walking distance to another shopping mall, and another, and another…

You could find almost anything in just one shopping mall. My favorite one were The Gardens Mall and Mid Valley Megamall, known to be one of the biggest malls in KL. The Gardens Mall is a premium shopping mall housing more luxury brands while Mid Valley Megamall had more of a variety. Yes, there is a link bridge connecting both malls.

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Image credited to Trip Advisor

The biggest mall I have here now is a 2 story building with JC Penny’s and Sephora as their anchor outlets. No complaints from me! While shopping in KL was a lot more convenient, it was also a hassle going through that many stores to find what you need.


Not tipping and having taxes included in prices

This was really confusing for me when I first moved to the US. I was already aware of the tipping policy, but didn’t realize that taxes were not included in the prices of their services or products. I had to stop myself from correcting the cashier on the price of an item.

In Malaysia, what you see on the price tag is what you pay. No ifs, ands or buts. There is a believe that the customer is not responsible for how much a server makes. This made it so much easier to budget or go Dutch at a restaurant. We also got rid of the 1 cent which was a blessing!


Everything seemed closer

Maybe it was because of where I used to live, but everything felt like they were closer to each other. Restaurants were only a 5 minute drive away. Shopping malls were 10 minutes away. The city center was only 15 minutes away.

Although I still live about 15 minutes away from the nearest town now, it just seems like it’s a further drive, but not an unpleasant one. Everything worthwhile will take more than 20 minutes to get there. I miss how quickly I could run out to grab just a few things and be home in that amount of time.


Humor

Malaysian humor is unlike any other. It’s filled silly puns, language twists, and most of all, racial stereotyping. It is all in good fun and it is not meant to be offensive by any means.

Malaysia is a melting pot that personifies diversity. There’s an understanding that to live harmoniously together, you should be able to tease each other. We even have classic jokes that have been passed down from one generation to another.

That doesn’t seem to be the case here. Because of that, I find myself watching what I say in public a little more carefully. I did try to crack a joke about the Chinese (because I’m Chinese) just to gauge their reaction and I’m usually met with a horrified and confused look.

When my fiancé (who is Caucasian) and I joke about each other’s race, we were also met by a confused and slightly horrified look. It’s like they’re not sure if they’re allowed to laugh with us or not.


FOOD

I saved the best for last. Food is synonymous to Malaysia. It is the heart and soul of the country and it’s people. The variety alone could overwhelm you if you’re only visiting for a few days. Food is the first thing you think about when visiting or leaving Malaysia.

We’re talking about nasi lemakroti canailaksasatay, available 24/7 at almost every street corner, restaurant or home. The spiciness (in the sense of heat) of a dish is different from anything you’ve ever tried. Almost everything is cooked fresh and smells mouthwatering from miles away.

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Photo by Jordan Ling on Unsplash

If you go to a Chinese restaurant, you’re going to get real Chinese food. Likewise if you were to go to a Thai, Japanese, Korean, German, Lebanese restaurant… the food is always authentic.

While I’m aware that states like New York and Chicago are known for their food as well, I don’t have much of a variety where I live. It’s either Mexican, fast food or American cuisine. They’re not horrible but there are days I wished I could just drive to a Japanese restaurant and order me some genuine ramen and fresh sashimi; instead of going to a Thai restaurant and ordering sushi from the “sushi bar”.


At the end of the day, it’s all about adapting to your surroundings and making the best of it. Missing these things will not make me regret migrating, but it’ll make me appreciate things more when I return to Malaysia for a visit.


Also published on Medium