Saturday, June 21, 2014

O, ya I'm in Malaysia!

I'm in Malaysia from the 14th to the 29th of June. Selamat tinggal!

I have an Indonesian friend at work, Hari (the Malaya word for day), who got bored of my constant questions about Bahasa Malaysia, the language that Malaysia and Indonesia more-or-less share, and told me to stop asking him about it, lah. Which is unfair since he frequently asks me about English. He'd no doubt point out, if challenged on this, that that's what we speak here in Australia. He'd say he just needs a bit of help every now and then with the nuances of a work email whereas my language dilettantism is pointless. Tida' apa.

But languages are my angle, my way into a culture, the same way that cooking, food blogging, or watching TV shows about food are the ways others might get into a region of the world for example. So learning a bit of Bahasa Malaysia while on holiday here is the perfect complement to seeing the sights. I have the discipline to plough through a beginner's language book on holidays - in fact, I thoroughly enjoy it. I suppose that makes me a language geek, a language otaku. Given that we flew to Malaysia last Saturday I have a gilt-edged opportunity at the moment to improve my ground-floor-level Indonesian.

First of all: the question of how similar Indonesian and Malaysian are. I've been using them interchangeably here like they're the same. I mean in the scrappy exchanges with supir taksi (taxi drivers) I've been using terms from my "Teach Yourself Indonesian" book, and far from minding, the drivers often get so excited that I know a few scraps of Behasa they slap me on the knee in happiness. Well, one did, and another withdrew at the very last second. Because I have a slightly hairy knee I could sense the proximity of his hand. Despite it being a precarious moment for us both, I took great succour from his encouragement, however maladroitly expressed.

Wikipedia says they're mutually intelligible, Behasa Indonesia and Behasa Malaysia, or in fancier terms, that Malaysian is over 95% cognate with Indonesian. So as far as I'm concerned they are the same. I'll worry about the differences later when they begin to threaten my fluency.

To someone like me who's also learning Chinese, Bahasa Malaysia seems a lot like Pinyin, without the (non-Latin) characters. Pinyin is the romanisation system used to help people whose alphabet is the Latin one - we English-speakers - learn the language. In Malaysia they got rid of the original Jawi characters recently, so as a result modern Malaysian is as phonetic as...Spanish, for example, which means that what you see is more-or-less what you get. Lo que vees es lo que tienes. Much easier than Chinese.

With travel writing, it really helps to have an angle. You can't just barge in the front door of a country. As I've said, language and words are my angle. You see any amount of food blogs on the web, but not nearly as many articles tackle a country or culture with that most suitable tool for the job: words. Though I must admit, food blogging is something I've been doing on a very superficial level, posting the odd photo of nasi lemak, durian, etc. It's simply because a honking great durian or a leaf-wrapped pyramid of nasi lemak is such a visual treat that it becomes the natural thing to become an amateur food blogger.

Anyway, while in Malaysia I'm posting photos and some observations on Google+, writing about being in Langkawi, Penang, Ipoh, Cameron Highlands, and KL. Google+ ghost town my Celtic arse: I've had some interesting, friendly comments and tips from Malaysians to the pics I've posted. Stuff I put on Twitter, by contrast, languishes unengaged with, unmentioned, and frankly, unretweeted.

I'm going to attempt a few words of Malaysian with hapless shopkeepers, hotel staff, and hawkers, and write about it as an entry point to writing about Malaysia in general. I'm even going to essay some Chinese along the way - Georgetown in particular is very Chinese-flavoured - although in fairness the Chinese are everywhere. We've already befriended some Chengdovians (demonym for Chengdu people I just made up) in Langkawi with whom I got some rough Chinese practice in. They speak Sichuanese, mind, which doesn't help.

So stop by on Google+, or Flickr, where there are now 40+ photos of our Malaysian trip. Selamat jalan!