By Nina Huang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Though Malaysia’s influence on American culture hasn’t been as huge as its neighbor Thailand, several greater Seattle-based Malaysians want to make it known that they have a rich and diverse culture to share with the United States.
Putting Malaysia on the map
Malaysia has its fair share of celebrities, including recent Oscar award winner Michelle Yeoh who was the first person of color to win in 21 years. She was also crowned Miss Malaysia in 1983.
“Her recent explosion of fame in Hollywood has helped raise awareness among Americans that there is a place on this planet called Malaysia,” Fuzz Jamaluddin said.
Some other notable Hollywood names include actors Henry Golding and Ronny Chieng, as well as director of horror film, Saw, James Wan, and shoe designer Jimmy Choo.
In an online mothers’ book club group that Chinese Malaysian Cheryl Chan Hardee belongs to, they are about to discuss the book about intergenerational trauma, What My Bones Know, written by Malaysian author Stephanie Foo. Hardee plans to read it soon, but said it feels wild to pick up a book and see that a Malaysian author is making headway in America.
Hardee’s father is from Ipoh and her mother from Miri and she moved to Washington, D.C. for college.
“I think she’s going to do good things to put Malaysia on the map,” Hardee added.
Melting pot cuisine
“You can’t talk about Malaysian culture without talking about the food. To me, food and culture is synonymous,” Kristy Chooi, who identifies as a Malaysian Australian, said.
Chooi was born in Kuala Lumpur, but her mom is from Penang and dad is from Ipoh. Her parents met in London and moved back to Malaysia in the late 1970s. They eventually migrated to Sydney, Australia in 1989, where Chooi grew up.
She also shared that the Malaysian presence in Australia is so much bigger which she found to be surprising especially in New York since that is considered the epicenter of multicultural food.
Malaysian food is very unique because of the combination of Malay, Indian, and Chinese flavors.
Chooi said that Malaysian food in Australia is just as popular as Thai or Japanese cuisine. Popular Malaysian dishes include satay, laksa, nasi lemak, char kway teow, and roti canai.
Kristi Kershia Binti Khiudin said that nasi lemak is a dish that Malaysians usually eat for breakfast. It’s steamed rice with coconut milk and pandan leaves with side dishes with a curry, fried peanuts and anchovies and a boiled egg on the side.
“The best part is the spicy sauce called sambal because it blends everything together,” she added.
Singapore and Indonesia have their own version of sambal as well, but they have a different way of mixing their spices, according to Khiudin.
Ruth Bayang, who is from the Malaysian state of Sarawak, shared that Anthony Bourdain once called Sarawak laksa, “the breakfast of the gods.”
There’s also a popular Malaysian dessert called kuih. Khiudin said there are many ways to cook this dish: steam, fry, bake, or boil.
The British influenced Malaysian culture and Malaysians enjoy high tea time as well.
“We will eat those desserts during tea time in the evening between lunch and dinner. It’s common in Malaysia to drink tea and coffee,” Khiudin said.
Chooi would also like Malaysia’s “supper culture” to be introduced in the U.S.
“Every time my family and I visited Malaysia, we would have dinner at a ‘normal’ time, and then a few hours later, we would have a second dinner (aka ‘supper’) sometime after 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. We’d all go out to the local hawker stalls for a delicious Malaysian meal right before bedtime. Lots of people, adults and kids included, would just go in their pajamas, and these hawker stalls are bustling with hungry people eating and socializing in the middle of the night!” Chooi shared.
In addition, Chooi said that a good way to measure the authenticity of a Malaysian restaurant is to try their char kway teow. Because the dish is cooked in a wok at a high temperature, it has to have a smoky char taste. If it doesn’t, then it’s just chow fun, according to Chooi.
Chooi wishes more Americans were exposed to these flavors because it’s a very distinct cuisine that can be hard to describe. Her husband, who’s Caucasian, loves it.
“We need more Malaysian food in America. I miss it a lot and it feels like there’s a gap here,” Hardee said.
Despite a large Asian population in Seattle, there are only a handful of Malaysian restaurants in the area.
“Malaysian food is amazing, but due to the lack of blue collar immigrants from Malaysia to the U.S., Malaysian food has been relatively undiscovered. And when it is being presented to the masses here, it’s usually inauthentic and inferior to even a mediocre version you can get in Malaysia. Americans don’t know better so the disappointment is shared only among Malaysians who long for an authentic taste of home. I am hoping that the Malaysian government can invest in promoting our food in the U.S. like the Thai government did,” Jamaluddin said.
Hailing from Kuala Lumpur, Jamaluddin is a mix of Chinese-Indian on his dad’s side and Malay on his mom’s side.
“The food in Malaysian culture is a true representation of the cultural amalgamation of the diversity you see in Malaysia. Here, if someone makes a chicken curry pizza, it’s groundbreaking. In Malaysia, that’s just a normal take on food. We marry everything together and we don’t care because it makes things better,” he added.
Rich cultural and racial diversity
Malaysia is a very multicultural, multiracial, and multireligious country.
“Our country is a diverse community, there aren’t just Malays but also Chinese, Indian, and native tribes including Kadazan Dusus, Bajaus, Dayaks, and Ibans,” Khiudin said.
Khiudin was born in the Malaysian state of Selangor, grew up in Kuala Lumpur, and moved to the U.S. in 2009.
Her dad is Chinese and mom is Malay, and she leans more towards the Islamic religion. She’s learned to read and write Arabic and is more fluent in Malay.
“We’re influenced by neighboring countries and we have a little bit of everything. We share similarities like food and languages, but still have significant flavors and culture to it,” Khiudin added.
Lelian Solip was born on the island of Borneo, which is the east side of Malaysia in the state of Sarawak where there are 26 different ethnicities. She is native to the island and is of Bidayuh ethnicity.
“Within the Bidayuh community, we have different dialects among the same ethnicity, there are some other people here who are Bidayuh but we don’t understand each other, so we communicate in English,” Solip explained.
Because Solip grew up in a very ethnically diverse community, she never really thought about people being different because they were so used to the diversity and they knew how to live with each other in a harmonious way. They would celebrate events and festivals from other ethnicities and cultures and vice versa.
Passing down traditions
Khiudin wants her kids to stay connected to her Malaysian roots so she’s given them Malay names.
“Binti” means daughter of and “bin” for boys in Malaysian culture. Khiudin says this naming convention is quite common for Malays.
“It shows that we have two cultures combined together in one family. It gives them a chance to learn more about my culture, too,” she added.
Solip tries to teach her daughter about where she comes from by passing traditions down to her.
“She wouldn’t understand superstitions and she would laugh at them, but over time, she does know what they are and starts to understand them. I still teach her all those things,” Solip said.
“By extension, I wish I could share some of my cultural background through food with my kids. I try to cook Malaysian dishes so they’re more exposed to it,” Chooi said.
Malaysian culture also has a strong Chinese influence.
Ming Choo who hails from the eastern state of Sarawak, speaks seven languages: Hakka, Hokkien, Cantonese, Fuchow, Mandarin, English, and Malay.
Choo identifies as Chinese Malaysian and shares her culture with her extended family by practicing customs during Chinese New Year like giving red envelopes and introducing the food.
In addition, Hardee, who is a new first-time mom, shared that she helped her son celebrate his full moon (one month old) celebration last year, and also follows the tradition of valuing family and respecting elders, and handing out red envelopes during celebrations like birthdays and Chinese New Year.
“We moved to the West Coast to get more acquainted with Asian culture. I really want him to eat spicy foods and be more exposed to all of that,” Hardee added.
Jamaluddin shared that Malaysia’s influence on American culture and society has been minimal partly because they’ve never been impacted in any refugee crisis that resulted in mass immigration to the U.S. like Vietnam or South Korea.
“Our ties to the U.S. are probably some of the weakest among Asian countries. We are also not very good in general at promoting our culture globally. Even our smaller neighbor Singapore is better at that and we basically share a lot of the same culture. We have a stronger relationship with the Crown so most Malaysians immigrate to the UK, Australia, or Canada,” Jamaluddin explained.
“It’s so rare to meet a Malaysian person in the U.S.,” Chooi said.
Khiudin has also had people tell her that they’ve never met anyone from Malaysia before, and she wants more people to know that Malaysia exists.
“There’s not enough Americans that are familiar with Malaysia and know how different we are from countries like Indonesia or Singapore,” Khiudin said.
What makes Malaysia unique is their true diversity.
Jamaluddin shared that in Malaysia, there are public holidays for Eid, Diwali, Christmas, Chinese New Year, Vesak, Thaipusam, the Prophet’s Birthday, and more.
“That’s something Malaysians can bring to American culture. We should learn to embrace and respect other cultures and embrace people from other countries and religions. For us, it’s second nature to us,” Solip said.
Nina can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.