Friday, June 22, 2012

Fluent in Malaysia

What do you know about Malaysia? Do you know what's the national language of Malaysia? How about it's capital? Or that it's the largest practicing Muslim country in the world? What about even where is it on a map?

Before I went to Malaysia, I really didn't know much. It's not covered in our classes at any level of schooling unless you go into some sort of Asian studies (which I didn't). So after visiting, I went from practically zero knowledge to having so many different things I could rave about--the modernness of Kuala Lumpur, the cheapness, quality, and variety of food, or the friendliness of the people.

Obligatory picture in front of the Petronas Twin Towers

But the one thing that shocked me the most, more than that in a country whose official language is Malay, you can use English without any guilt.

To put it in perspective--in the Philippines, where English is actually a national language, I felt embarrassed speaking English. Being Asian in an Asian country, you get looks when you don't speak the same language locals do. This goes for China, Japan, South Korea, Vietnam... pretty much anywhere (except maybe Hong Kong or Singapore), you get funny looks. Why is this local guy not speaking back to me? Oh... he must be from somewhere else. When I went to the Philippines, it's worse. Because a lot of Filipinos can speak basic to fluent English, but using it is a sign of  wealth/status, it's different than other Asian countries. Instead of asking where you're from, it's more, why aren't you talking to me in Tagalog because you clearly (look like) know it? Why are you acting so stuck up? It's borderline disrespectful to use English over Tagalog.

In Malaysia, I blend in. But instead of being talked to in Malay or even Chinese, it's English first. It's weird, but because there are so many different kinds of people in Malaysia, the default language to communicate in is English, no matter how rudimentary it may be.

I had the fortune of getting a behind the scenes look at a TV channel 8TV. Although its demographics cater to the younger generation (think along the lines of MTV), I couldn't help but be impressed by the use of English. Here, in Malaysia, where the official language is Malay, everyone uses English, both onstage and off. One of the shows I got a behind the scenes look at was called Showdown, like Malaysia's version of America's Best Dance Crew. The announcers spoke mostly in English with bits in Malay to keep the show's bilingual status. More surprising, though, was that most of the team interviews were in English except maybe 2 teams who felt more comfortable in Malay. Even the one team who was ethnically Chinese preferred English for their post-dance interview. This was no exception either--when checking out clips from some of the other shows during a studio tour, I couldn't help but notice all the English.

 Converted control room for the Season Premier of Showdown

I know it may not be like that in the rest of the country (I only visited Maleka/Malacca and Kuala Lumpur), but what a strange, neat, and new experience--to use English when I wasn't expecting it. I still want to learn a bit of Malay (especially since it shares words with Tagalog), but at least for this trip, I can safely say that with English, I felt fluent in Malaysia.

Sitting at the judges' table for Showdown--friendly judge and mean judge


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