When I finally left the Philippines, never to live there again, I felt lost. No matter how much I had traveled before that, often for months at a time after moving out of my latest Manila condo, I always knew that I had a country to come back to in the end – a place to settle down for another year and live something like a sane life. (And no, my birth country of Canada doesn’t count, because my feelings toward that place are so weighed down with painful memories and bad associations that I feel hesitant applying a warm and fuzzy word like “home” to it.) When I left the Philippines, I felt relieved to be free – free to travel and move around, without having to worry about my furniture, appliances and dogs. But I also knew I didn’t have the energy to embark on a whirlwind around-the-world backpacking adventure. So I paced my travel plans, let myself stop to soak up the local atmosphere in different countries, and that’s how I began living little lifetimes – Those periods when I stayed in one place for a month or less, but where the experience was so intense, and my feeling of immersion was so deep, that I felt like a different person living a different life. These little lifetimes had their own dramatic arcs, beginning with initial enthusiasm, following into frustration, and ending in peaceful acceptance of the limitations of my new, temporary life. And each of these lives would feel disconnected from everything that came before and after.
My first little lifetime was in Taipei, where I spent a month in a craggy old apartment in a colourful, historic neighbourhood, literally across the alley from a night market. I met a pretty Taiwanese woman on the subway, and we had an intense, aching, laughter-filled, strangely chaste month-long romance with a built-in expiry date. But my overall experience of Taipei remains so raw that I am not yet ready to write about it. My second little lifetime was in Kuala Lumpur.
I’ve been regularly visiting Malaysia for ten years. It began with my first Southeast Asian backpacking adventure, back when I was an adorable young man whose porcelain skin was as-yet-undisturbed by the cruel tropical sun. It continued through almost a decade of sightseeing tours and brief stopovers on dirt-cheap Air Asia tickets – The fact that KL is a budget airline hub kept drawing me back before I got a bit older, very slightly more prosperous, and learned the joys of free check-in luggage and complimentary peanuts on full-service airlines.
I saw Kuala Lumpur as a place to eat, to see the friends who I had amassed through the years, and to enjoy the delirious mixture of cultures – Malay, Indian, Chinese, Middle Eastern, with a dash of pretty much every other country under the sun. But until last year, I never saw it as a place to live. After Taipei, I had planned to spend a few days in Brickfields, Kuala Lumpur’s Little India, in a somewhat dubious hotel in some darkened side street. I would emphatically not live there – I would stay in a neighbourhood that was mostly for tourism and business. I would eat out for every meal, enjoying the super-oily curries that are so deliciously Malaysian. I would fly to Indonesia a few days later, having enjoyed a no-stakes distraction of a stopover.
And originally, it went as planned. On my first night, I sang karaoke at my hotel’s rooftop bar with a gregarious bearded German, and became tragically and unrequitedly smitten with a Filipina member of the hotel staff, who was singing with us on her night off. I ate a whole lot of curry. I met a Filipina prostitute off Tinder – and it’s merely a coincidence that she was also a Filipina – who didn’t bother to mention she was a prostitute, and whose opening line in person was “How much will you pay me?” (Apparently, she had assumed that Tinder was exclusively for arranging transactions between prostitutes and Johns, and so she didn’t feel the need to mention this to me beforehand. After I made it emphatically clear to her that I was not going to be her customer, I reluctantly gave her cab fare home, wondering if this technically counted as paying a prostitute.)
But then, Ramadan happened. I had planned for 3 weeks of glorious backpacking gluttony in Indonesia, not realizing that a month of fasting would begin shortly after my arrival. The sneaky thing about Ramadan is that it moves around throughout the year, and apparently I couldn’t be bothered to keep track of its slow, regular, forward drift through the western calendar. And so I already had my ticket to Lombok, but did not relish the notion of living off of convenience store food and Chinese stirfried vegetables each day until sunset. (I bet my dinners would’ve been amazing, though.) Being able to eat amazing food whenever I have a free hand to stuff it into my mouth is always one of the major selling points of visiting Indonesia, and not being able to do that seemed to defeat the very purpose of going. And so I did something atypical of me – I threw away my plane ticket and junked all of my old plans.
I moved out of the sketchy hotel and into the only cheap Airbnb I could find on short notice – A “basement” suite in a large home owned by a prosperous, semi-retired, and fairly folksy Malaysian Chinese couple in the suburban district of Petaling Jaya. It wasn’t a basement per se, but entering the suite involved descending the stairs from the driveway down into a kind of hollowed-out garden area, and entering the suite from there. The garden was also the home of their dog, creatively named Brown. Brown was a lovely mongrel, hyperactive but undeniably sweet. She reminded me of the dogs I had reluctantly given up in the Philippines, and that made me sad. I was afraid to show her too much affection because I knew that this poor, attention-starved animal would eventually be deprived of my affections, anyway.
The owners also had another dog who was clearly the favourite. A fancy little purebred whose materialistic symbolism was rather pointedly emphasized by her name, Nike, she had the privilege of living in the house and yipping noisily at me. Allegedly, Brown couldn’t live in the house because she was too hyper, which I know from experience is highly specious and somewhat circular reasoning – Dogs will be hyper in the house until they’re used to being there, and they won’t get used to being there unless you give them a chance to get their house-related excitement out of their system.
The owners also had a daughter. She must’ve been in her early-to-mid 20s, and she was gorgeous. She was also unfailingly unfriendly on the very few times that I got to see her. I lived on the first floor, she lived on the third floor, and my only chance to see her would be if I entered through the second (ground/driveway) floor. Almost every time I saw her she was rummaging through the refrigerator, as she seemed to have no other reason to be in the common areas – She certainly didn’t seem to be one to seek out the company of her parents. And so the open refrigerator door became a symbol of my unrequited longing for this irrestibly aloof, gorgeous Chinese goddess. I would often intentionally enter the house through the second floor entrance just for a chance at a glimpse of her refrigerator-rummaging perfection. But sadly, it was quite impossible to time my entrances to coincide with her snack runs, and I only saw her a few times during the month.
There was also an LRT station a ten minutes’ walk from the house, and these walks are some of my most indelible memories of this period. I remember an endless procession of huge, empty-looking suburban houses, with barely a human being in sight, all of the respectable people zooming past me in their cars. I remember sweating – endless sweating, in the day and in the night. I remember hiding from the awful tropical sun in the daytime, and being enveloped in the thick blanket of muggy air while enjoying the stillness of the night, so far from the busy center of Kuala Lumpur.
There was also a Malay/Indian restaurant nearby, one of those classically Malaysian places where you’re not entirely sure where one ethnic group’s food ends and another begins. I thought the food was good, but when I went back this year it wasn’t good at all. However, I suspect that the restaurant had two big things going for it: Tandoori Chicken, and my Bro. Bro was a super-friendly Pakistani man who worked there, and was naturally curious about their lily-skinned customer at their restaurant, so far out from the tourist and expat centres of KL. Instead of making me feel like some sort of white curiousity, I was genuinely charmed by his sweetness – A welcome compensation for my crippling inability to make friends with men most of the time. I honestly can’t remember his name, because I’m terrible with names, but I immediately became charmed by the way that he would address me as “bro” – Something that I soon realized was quite common among South Asian men. But he added his own flair to it, anyway, rolling that r with exquisite emphasis: brrrro! And truly, he was my bro, too.
Tandoori Chicken in Kuala Lumpur is a feast for the eyes and also for the mouthhole: a highly-trained Tandoori chicken expert, usually brought in from Pakistan or Bangladesh, fishes piping-hot tandoori chicken and naan out of an outdoor cooking drum using an enormous skewer. Not only was the Tandoori chicken at Bro’s restaurant uncommonly tender and delctable, but the Great Tandoori Spectacle also served as a perfect compliment to the classic Kuala Lumpur al fresco experience – Groups of Muslim men and women sitting outside on folding chairs at metal tables, wholesomely drinking tea and snacking, maybe watching sports or dumb action movies on a projector, and enjoying a very Halal time. And to be honest, I prefer my nightlife Halal, as well.
But of course, there were other kinds of night spots, too. Due to my girl-craziness, I would allow friends to drag me out to KL’s sordid night spots. As someone who doesn’t drink and can’t dance, I rarely feel comfortable in the human carnivals of the night that also tend to be full of gorgeous women, and which I accordingly force myself to endure. There are some exceptions, like Mexico, where the friendliness of the drunken locals is so overwhelming that I briefly forget how much I hate people, but in general, I’m better off staying home. But if anything, KL’s nightlife is an unusually off-putting combination of seediness and snobbery. My memories of the non-halal side of KL are mostly of snooty women at wine bars, horny strangers grinding against each other while I gawk uncomprehendingly, and douchey alpha males literally pushing me out of the way as they approach their next prospect.
I would often let myself be dragged out to Bangsar, a noted hangout for expats and toney Malaysians. I went out to meet a female friend who is certifiably nuts, and about whom I have some stories that, while exceedingly entertaining, would probably push even the very loose boundaries of decency that exist within this blog. She wanted to enjoy all-you-can-drink wine during Ladies’ Night at La Bodega, a Spanish wine and tapas bar that is exactly as unpretentious and proletarian as it sounds. On my way in to the bar, I met two lovely Japanese women in their early 20s, both of whom seemed to be pretty taken with me at first. I chatted with them at their table, and things seemed to be going well, notwithstanding the fact that one of them (whom I shall henceforth refer to as Retainer Girl) rather unsubtly suggested that I might be able to flirt with her better if I bought her food. Her friend (whom I shall henceforth refer to as Short Girl) was a bit less exuberant in her solicitations.
My limited attempts at being charming were interrupted when a corpulent Malaysian Indian gentleman in a sports jersey with the number 69 on it (no, really) bolted up to the table, took Retainer Girl by the hand, and led her to the bar. I initially assumed he worked there or knew her, but later realized that he was just an Alpha – one of those men who can get away with anything (including, in his case, being pretty ugly) through sheer, maniacal confidence.
The Alpha then managed to use his size and some strategic placement of his big asshole arms to ensure that I couldn’t even get close enough to either of the girls to talk to them. Not Retainer Girl – his choice for the night – nor her Short Girl friend. When I tried to get close enough to at least make pleasant small talk, he feigned anger about me violating his personal space, and looked quite ready to pick a fight. In retrospect it would have been interesting to see how far I could have pushed him – I tend to be quite foolhardy about these things – but in the end I backed down. Through this all, my batshit crazy friend was quite peacefully enjoying her free-flowing wine. Eventually I wandered off into the night in my usual dejected state, bidding my friend farewell and leaving her to her reverie.
The next day, Batshit helpfully informed me that, after I had left, this enormous asshole (by which I mean, an asshole who is enormous) received his unjust reward in this karma-free universe. He eventually managed to escape the watchful eye of Short Girl, who was presumably trying to stop her increasingly drunk Retainer Friend from doing something stupid, and managed to whisk his drunken conquest away in a taxi to enjoy his reward. All’s fair in love and war, I suppose, except not really. In any case, this unneeded bit of information courtesy of Batshit really brought home the point that I probably should have just stayed near my home and had tea and roti with my Muslim brothers.
I had plenty of other nights out in that month, and they were all bad, and tea and roti would have been better than all of them.
Soon Ramadan began, and as I had hoped, I would indeed find it much easier to survive in a cosmopolitan megacity like KL than in a village in Lombok. Although I was saddened by the temporary closure of some of my favorite food vendors during the day – including Bro’s restaurant. But I was also inspired by the discipline of Malaysia’s Muslims as they once again deprived their bodies and souls for one month, as they had done each year before.
Along with all of my awful Bangsar memories, I do have one good one: There is a sidewalk food vendor that sells the most delicious chicken rendang, and I came to look forward to eating their food before another night of fresh humiliation at the bars of Bangsar. One day during Ramadan, I ordered my food and realized that the Muslims at the neighbouring tables were waiting patiently for the breaking of the fast. Far from looking hungry or restless, they were quite contentedly twiddling their phones. Although I wouldn’t have the fortitude to deprive my body of food and water during an entire day in a tropical climate, I figured that the least I could do was join them in their wait. And so, for twenty minutes, I sat there with my food while getting countless smiles of appreciation from the neighbouring tables. After a few dozen Whatsapp messages, chanting erupted from the mosque loudspeaker – presumably a classical Arabic equivalent to “Let’s eat, guys!” – and my neighbours began to casually dig into their plates, not rushing in the least. The chicken rendang was delicious, but it probably would have been even more delicious if I had fasted for 13 hours instead of 20 minutes.
And for a month, I lived my life in the suburbs of Kuala Lumpur. I went to the supermarket, and I cooked Chinese vegetables. I brewed strong, dirt-cheap Malaysian coffee with dubious additives. I went out with friends I had met during past visits, and I made new friends. I had Internet dates that ranged from wonderful to transcendentally awkward. Through the way I rushed out of the house en route to my next adventure, I reminded the beautiful dog waiting expectantly just outside my door that she could never be my dog. I suffered and delighted in suburban isolation, and I ate roti.
When I tried to revisit my old stomping grounds in Petaling Jaya one year later, I was reminded that, as the old cliche says, you can never go back. I arranged for a fresh visit with my old hosts – and I can neither confirm nor deny that this was done partly in the hopes of seeing an open refrigerator upon entering their home. Unfortunately, the refrigerator remained stubbornly closed, and I sat in my old hosts’ home making awkward small-talk. They offered me snacks which set off my nut allergy, and while I was reacting the husband decided to engage in a debate with me about what is or isn’t a nut. (Since, apparently, the person with the nut allergy would have a shakier notion of what is or isn’t a nut than the person who has no goddamn idea what he’s talking about.) The wife offered me some “fruit enzyme”, and after one sip of it I became convinced that anything this potent had to contain alcohol, which led to another moronic and futile argument.
We also stopped by the Bro Restaurant, but Bro was nowhere to be found, and the other staff only seemed confused when I asked about him. (And no, it’s not because I referred to him as Bro – though remembering his name might have helped.) And there was no tandoori that night, because it was the tandoori man’s night off. All that was left to do was eat mediocre food, drink mediocre drinks, and make mediocre small talk.
Although it lasted only a month, that little lifetime contained enough bittersweet, aching memories to feel much longer. And although it happened only one year ago, the door has already closed – not unlike a refrigerator door closes – on that place, on who I was when I lived there, and on how it felt to be there. I’ve had numerous shorter stays in Kuala Lumpur since then, and KL remains one of my favorite cities in the world, but I doubt I’ll ever be able to have the same intensity of feeling that I did in May and June 2017. All that is left to do is to keep creating new little lifetimes, and hope that they add up to a big lifetime where I can find some sort of happiness without going utterly mad from such a disconnected sequence of unbearably intense experiences.