Introduction:Penang makes one feel at home right away. Whether it is the spice hawker who enthusiastically helps find the best cardamom for a crazy low price, or even the 55 year old Hokkien Chinese woman who unabashedly belches at full volume one ATM machine over, the people are neighborly in the best way.
Nearly everyone speaks English, and to an advanced degree ( far superior to my Bahasa Malay). Even so, new newbie starts speaking Malay-English. Want that food 'to-go'? You'd better ask for 'take-away' otherwise you'll be met with confused looks. Better yet, say bungkus [pronounced 'boon-koos'] (Bahasa Malay) or 'ta-pau' (Hokkien Chinese).
The local population is a mix of Malay, Hokkien Chinese and Indian people, with a smattering of Euro/US/Australian/Chinese/Japanese expats here and there. Unlike in the US, where 2nd generationals typically assimilate into being fully American, each of these groups retain their language, customs and religions. Many are 5th generation Malaysian, but they still know how to speak their mother tongue (and more likely than not, everyone else's mother tongues to some degree too!). My theory is that it is this comfort with others, this elastic coexistence, that predisposes locals to being so gracious to expats. But that's just a guess.
In Penang, personal networks activate faster than it takes to complete a sentence. We'd been here a few weeks and still couldn't find popcorn anywhere (I mean just the straight popping kernels - not the crappy microwave buttered bag stuff). I expressed this need to a few people. Before long, I was being whisked away to an old market off the beaten path that had been built to supply the Australian airforce. Sure enough, they had our precious popcorn - and for cheap too!
Our Muslim neighbor has a rear window sticker on her car. It's in the shape of a big question mark and inside the question mark are the words, "Where's the Party?" That's awesome.
When we first moved to Penang we knew no one outside of work. Having seen locals skimboarding at a nearby beach, we bought a skimboard and tried it out. Everyone shook our hands and introduced themselves. We pretty much fell on our butts a lot but the skim crew was very friendly and encouraging. After just that one day, hubby and son gave up, but I kept at it. One day, a local skimboarder, with black hair down to his butt, approached me to chat. Before long, he was giving me pointers. Now I consider Dzul my skim guru (even if I haven't skimmed in a year - due to an unrelated shoulder injury). I'm still nowhere as talented as the locals, but I'm getting there. And it is all thanks to their friendly help and encouragement.
Penang is a relaxed, international, resourceful base to live in SE Asia.
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