First Encounter with an Expat
Kuala Lumpur has no shortage of “expats” with a large majority coming from all over the USA, Australia and United Kingdom. Despite their large numbers, as a Caucasian you are still very much aware of being in a small minority in KL amidst ethnic groups of Malay, Chinese, Indian and travelers from nearby by Arab countries. Rather than staring at all the people different from us, we actually found ourselves staring when we saw other westerners! There was a temptation to wave or give a nod as if we somehow already knew one another and were friends (if you have ever owned a Jeep, you know what I’m talking about). But that would be kind of odd, would it? Well, this is the story of how one gentleman from Australia did exactly that, and more…
About five days into our transition to KL, we were walking down the path away from an apartment building where we just viewed a vacant unit we really liked and figured we would end up renting. Suddenly, a tall (6’2″ or so…”VERY” tall for KL), fair-skinned, well-dressed chap made a witty comment at us about the construction going on and began to chat with us. It was clear none of the three of us were from KL so we already had something to talk about.
We asked this fellow if he lived in the building we were considering and if so, was it nice? “Well, what do you mean by ‘nice’? I’ve been ‘ere three ‘n ‘alf years…it’s clean, safe and I can walk to work…if that’s ‘nice’, then yea…it’s nice, I suppose. Plus ‘ere’s a bus that leaves right over thair every weekend to Singapore with WiFi on board, and of course ‘ere’s the Baskin Robbins next door.” (try to imagine all that with the Aussie accent!). John introduced himself and asked, “Have you got 10 minutes or so…I’ll take you up and show you around where everything is?” Skeptically, we accepted and so we went back inside with John from Adelaide, up to the 22nd floor.
Our new guide proceeded to walk us to the end of three separate breezeways to point out landmarks and visible points of interest to the South, West and East. Then he offered to show us his flat. Cautiously, we accepted but in the back of my mind I slipped into defense mode and scanned my brain trying to remember anything Coach Black (a coaching colleague and friend who is the closest thing to Jason Bourne in a real person I’ve ever met), had taught me so that if the stranger we met became more foe than friend, I would be ready.
Then John opened the door to his flat and we were met by his 5-year old son William (born in Russia) and 3-year old son Stewart (born in Adelaide) doing cartwheels, with mom in the background comforting 5-month old Catia (born in KL). I relaxed and knew it was “safe”. We received the grand tour of a beautiful 4-bedroom condo, and learned the family history “straight-away”. Turns out that before his time in KL, John worked four years in Russia where he married Rita, who is from a Japanese part of Russia (which will explain the photos of the boys). John and Rita opened their home and family to us, treating us with the utmost in hospitality. After the tour, we were about to leave and John insisted that we sit for coffee and cake that Rita had made that day. The kids agreed and there was no saying “no”.
After sharing more stories about where we were all from and how we arrived in KL, it felt like surely by now we were intruding on their evening and it was time to go. As we hinted of our exit, John asked Rita (as if he hadn’t even heard us start to leave), “what’s for dinner, mum?” Lasagna was the reply, which was met by cheers from the boys (John included). “Mmmm, that’s mum’s best, don’t you think, Stewy? Willy-Billy…I think Uncle Dan and Auntie Jenny should stay don’t you?” encouraged John. More cheering, giggling and vehement nodding from the boys.
So, “Auntie” Jenny and Rita set off to work on a salad, while John, Stewart and “Uncle” Dan walked downstairs and across the street to a local bakery for some baguettes. After we returned, while we were waiting for dinner preparations to finish up, John and I watched BBC news and talked about current events while Stewart and William gave me a make believe haircut with a brush, complete with tissues tucked in my collar (to keep the hair off me they said). It was very thorough and realistic, and was followed by several matches of scissors-paper-rock. Stewart threw a curve-ball at me when I landed a rock at him, while he showed his open hand, palm-side up and proudly said, “pond…your rock sinks! Ha! Ha!” Hadn’t heard that one before, but there was no arguing about the winner.
Dinner was delicious, the conversation and company was fantastic, and we must have laughed until our sides hurt with the show the boys were putting on at the table. They were cute, hysterical and slightly out of bounds, but it probably didn’t help John’s efforts to discipline them as we gave in to more giggles and laughter. Approaching three hours since we first bumped into John, it was finally time to say goodnight when out blurted John, “Mum, we have ice cream right? You guys are staying for dessert, right?” What could we say at that point…
Fresh cut pineapple, pecan pralines and strawberry ice cream from the aforementioned Baskin Robbins made for a perfect treat at the end of an oddly amusing and endearing experience of the evening. As we are ready to leave (for real), Stewart (who breaks into the conversation by saying “Scuse me…Uncle Daaan…”) asks if we are going to stay (as in sleep over). Much to his and William’s chagrin, we had to leave and sleep in our own beds. But we had 3.5 hours of fun, hearing them speak Russian and French as well as English, playing make believe and even receiving hand-made artwork from Stewart as a parting gift.
We hugged Rita goodnight, thanking her and apologizing profusely for intruding on her home and their evening, to which she replied several times over with “thank-you for coming”. We shook hands with John at the door as he instructed the boys to walk us down to the elevator.
William and Stewart (donning a Santa Claus hat pulled down over his face) rode the elevator down 22 floors with us, allowed us to snap a photo (which they immediately wanted to see), and gave us goodbye high-fives. By the way, William was disturbingly good with an iPhone for being 5-years old.
A free (delicious) meal, warm hospitality, friendly conversation, loads of insight on living in KL, and additional background about traveling in the region…maybe there is merit to striking up a conversation more often with fellow westerners, just building on the common ground that we’re in a foreign place together. Cheers, mate!