Nostalgia Reigns the Longer This Pandemic Lasts, Or Why I’ve Been Missing Malaysia Recently

We’re now sitting at over 14 months since the pandemic shut down everything in the San Francisco Bay Area in March 2020. I feel like I’ve gone through a whole gamut of emotions and experiences since it started. There’s been a lot of feeling of disconnect from the life I had prior to the pandemic. Not seeing people in person has led to me connecting with different people than I may have otherwise, and various friends are being impacted by the pandemic in different ways. In some ways, it’s been easier for me to connect with a few friends who also went through job losses, for example, and I find I’m less likely to reach out to friends who kept their jobs. I assume my employed friends are experiencing zoom fatigue with how many video meetings they’re probably having, so they’re less likely want to hang out with friends over video chat in their free time, and I don’t want to overwhelm them. My social life has primarily been sitting on my Facebook feed and reading from the friends that Facebook’s algorithm deems to share with me. As a result, I generally know how things are going with the virus in both Australia and Malaysia because I used to live in both of those countries.

Though I’ve had both of my COVID-19 vaccine shots and will be considered fully vaccinated this coming Saturday, it still feels like it’s going to take me a while before I’m going to feel comfortable acclimating back into the world of seeing friends in person. I have had two job interviews scheduled for this week (one down, one to go!), and somehow returning to the world-at-large through a work environment feels easier than re-engaging socially with friends in person. I think this is the result of being trained with the pandemic message of protecting my friends and family first. It’s like… I want to connect with people in person, but after more than a year, I’ve forgotten how to have deeper connections, and I need to ease my way back into socializing with people I’m technically less familiar with.

Due to all of this, I’ve had more time alone with my thoughts over the past year or so, reflecting back over my life, various things that changed me, and who isn’t in my life any more. The last part kind of came from my final appointment with my therapist (who I’m no longer seeing, because I’m mentally stable and have good structure to deal with things when they get hard), when he asked me about who I lost from my life as a result of my relationship with my ex-husband, and would like to reconnect with. I will delve into that a little deeper later on.

Petronas Twin Towers, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Photo by the author, Dec 2013.

Recently, I took a course on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace, and in joining a zoom group for that, I had an opportunity to relate some relevant information I had learned through living in a foreign country that others in the group weren’t aware of. Also, I’ve been thinking a lot about how there has been a significant rise in hate crimes against Asians in the US, and this month is AAPI Heritage Month here too. With the connections I’ve made over time, I’m grateful for the opportunity to see a lot of this related content in my social media feeds. Living in Malaysia for five and a half years in my twenties shaped my perspective on the lack of Asian representation in US film and television, so it’s been interesting to see—roughly 7 years after moving to the US from Malaysia—things feel like they’re finally beginning to change in that regard. One of the shows I’m regularly watching at the moment is Kung Fu on The CW, which is set primarily in San Francisco’s Chinatown with a predominantly Asian cast, but also recently covered Black Lives Matter content.

I have had a lot of thoughts and feelings coming up about all of this, and as a result, some of this blog post may feel a bit disjointed, but this is how I’m choosing to process things today. First I want to address what may seem like an elephant in the room. As a person who largely sees herself as white¹, I recognize the challenge of writing about topics I do not have certain lived experience with, and how that can come across. I’m not a fan of poser white people who virtue signal racial diversity, though I know it is a fine line and I’m not always sure where that is or if I may accidentally cross it. When, or is my voice needed on these topics? I don’t want to play into a white savior trope, because damn, I hate that trope and rejected a ton of submissions in my Amok anthology because of writers submitting such stories. I also don’t want to feel like I’m fetishizing anyone.

On the other hand, my time living in Malaysia gave me a window into certain experiences that have been interesting for me to examine, especially after living in the US for so long, where I’ve met and befriended numerous Asian Americans as well. The Asian American experience is very different from the Asian-born in an Asian country experience, and I’ve had opportunities to listen to stories from both sides of the Pacific ocean. Something humorously acceptable in an Asian country may not be transferable to the US primarily due to the historical lack of representation, and far too much anti-Asian sentiment in the US. I mean, even San Francisco was built with anti-Chinese perspective, which I learned a lot about as a tour guide.

I’m going to do my best to cover this topic with care, but acknowledge the possibility that I may slip up and make a mistake. I am human, after all, with my own biases. Feel free to call me on it if you think I do say something wrong, so I’m able to learn from my mistakes. This is important to me because I’m autistic and can sometimes be completely unaware someone is quietly upset with me because they never told me about an unspoken mistake I’d made. I’d rather know what I did wrong so I can correct myself in the future.

Now with that disclaimer aside, let me dive into some of the reflective thoughts I’ve had in the last couple of months.

As a former stand-up comedian who occasionally performed in Malaysia, I learned about Malaysian culture through watching live stand-up comedy, and meeting other performers. I learned there are things I could say on stage there that I wouldn’t dream of saying on stage in the US, because context is everything. In my last blog post, I mentioned having this stand-up bit about being an anime schoolgirl. I wanted to go into an explanation as to the context of this character in Malaysia, but it felt like it would’ve been out of place in that entry, so I decided to contextualize it here instead.

The author in one of her anime schoolgirl costumes (including cat ears from Japan, and red hair) performing stand-up comedy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia
(Comedy Kao Kao, Mont Kiara, April 2014)

When I started doing stand-up comedy in Malaysia, I didn’t have this characterization immediately. It sort of grew out of watching how much race-based humor I saw on stage that wouldn’t fly in many other places, but appeared common in Malaysia due to the ethnic diversity of its population. Whilst over 50% of the population is Malay/Bumiputera, there is still a significant percentage of the population that is Chinese, Indian, or a mix of two or more of these—and they all performed stand-up comedy. That didn’t mean I was going to start writing racist Asian jokes like some of those I watched, though, because naturally it comes across differently from a white person’s mouth, even if you are the minority at the time. As I said earlier, and always tell my kids, context is everything. What I could do, however, was play into my own stereotype, and it was one of those gags that worked well in that country. It felt like smart humor, because I understood the difference between Asian countries, but a not insignificant number of white people do. And Malaysia is one of those countries that is largely ignored in Western media and representation. Sure, the plot of Zoolander involved a plot to assassinate the Prime Minister of Malaysia, but that movie got banned there, and they got the ethnicity of the Prime Minister wrong (if you know anything about Malaysian politics, you would know why, too—live in a country amongst locals long enough, you’ll learn these things). Although this sort of thing doesn’t happen often, the most recent reference to the country I noticed was on Peacock’s 2021 series of Punky Brewster, all grown up (I totally need to write another blog post about more TV I’ve watched during the pandemic). It was so glossed over, though, that unless you have some intimate connection with the country, you probably wouldn’t have noticed or cared.

The other side of the anime schoolgirl gag simply came about as a result of me being someone who already dyed her hair unnatural colors, and then wound up buying this cute Korean-made fashion top (not the one pictured above, see below instead) in a Malaysian store and I ended having all the fashion needed to create the look. Gosh, I loved the fashion I found in Malaysia so much. The clothes I buy in the US are quite boring by comparison. Kinda makes me want to go back just so I can buy nice clothes again.

The author wearing the aforementioned Korean-made top, inclusive of striped tie and waistcoat², laying on a shag black rug with her green hair sprawled out above her head.

The kicker? Whilst I enjoyed some anime like Hayao Miyazaki movies, Pokémon, Ghost in the Shell, Astro Boy, and Cowboy Bebop, I didn’t actually watch a whole lot of anime. I didn’t need to in order to make the gag work though. The premise of the joke was just that when I learned I was moving to Asia, I got my hands on as much Asian media as I could so I could learn how to fit in, and obviously Japanese animation is more widely distributed than Malaysian film and television (have you seen any, if you’ve never lived there? Most of the Malaysian movies I’ve seen were a result of knowing people who acted in them, so I went to see them in the cinema so I could see people I knew on the big screen. I especially recommend Crayon if you can figure out how to get access to it). A la, a culturally unaware white person character who doesn’t understand the difference between various Asian cultures. It worked amongst an Asian audience, but it wouldn’t have translated to the US the same way. I didn’t even bother trying out stand-up comedy in San Francisco because probably at least half of my jokes wouldn’t have worked with a non-Malaysian crowd, and I was more invested in getting involved in improv instead.

It all feels like a lifetime ago, and so much has changed since then. I mean, it’s even surreal that the first stand-up comedian I met and made me feel welcome in Malaysia, who I attended the wedding of, now has his own Netflix special. If you want a taste of Malaysian stand-up comedy, you can check out that link, or Dr Jason Leong’s Netflix special, or Harith Iskandar’s, though I haven’t watched their specials yet. I watched Kavin’s special when it was just released in 2018 because he’d been actively posting about it and I believe he was the first Malaysian comedian to have a Netflix special. Even though I met both Jason and Harith, I didn’t feel like I knew them as well as Kavin, so I just haven’t gotten around to watching their specials yet. Side note: Jason started doing stand-up in Malaysia after I did and rose on the scene pretty fast and is the comedian who ran the Comedy Kao Kao show I included an image from above, whereas Harith is one of the longest-performing comedians and considered the Godfather of stand-up in Malaysia, and I believe started running his own comedy club after I left.

It’s hard to stay connected with people when you no longer live in the same country. I tend to stay informed on some of what’s going on in Malaysia through whatever Facebook’s algorithm deems to show me, but I rarely interact much. I might hit a like, but rarely comment. Sometimes I wonder if my old friends would even still remember me if I went back to visit, because whilst I know what I see in my Facebook feed, I don’t know if they’re seeing any of my content unless they react to it—and that’s rare, too. Only one of the comedians I met there—and his wife and son—have come to visit me in San Francisco since I left. Otherwise the only comedians I met there who still occasionally reach out to me to chat are an Indian Malaysian comedian I once had to imitate during an improvised stand-up show and found myself flirting with a lady in the audience as a result, and a Ghanaian comedian who left Malaysia before I did. I interact in Facebook comments a little more with the non-comedian Malaysians I know, but it’s weird to me in a way given how much of my social time was dedicated to stand-up comedy in Malaysia.

A bunch of Malaysian and expat comedians after a Timeout KL show at Zouk nightclub, June 2012. The author is in the purple shirt, red jeans, and—shock, horror! natural brown hair.

I’m in a better place in my life now, and given certain life circumstances around my kids, I’m glad we wound up moving to California. I didn’t know I was autistic when I lived in Malaysia, and I’m not sure I would’ve learned I was if we’d stayed there. I did have suspicions I might have ADHD while I lived there, but my therapist at the time dismissed it without analyzing why I thought so. I only found out I’m autistic because my son was diagnosed in 2017, and that may not have been picked up if he’d been going to school in Malaysia instead. This lack of awareness certainly impacted my ability to connect with people back then, along with the time it took me to listen and try to understand cultural differences. I don’t know how different things may have been if I’d known. But there’s a certain beauty in just listening without contributing too much, too. I know I learned a lot by observing and listening. It was only when I wound up on anti-depressants and I started performing again instead of just attending shows and socializing afterwards a few months before moving to California where things began to look differently. I recall this one conversation around these chocolates I used as a prop on stage, and ended up explaining how the name of the chocolate is a racial slur for Japanese people if you were to use the term in the United States, thanks to atrocities committed during World War II. Like I said earlier, context is everything.

Living in Malaysia gave me so much more opportunity to learn about different Asian cultures as I traveled a lot in the region, and it also allowed me to develop more of an interest in putting historical context around the impact the United States had on different Asian peoples. That’s the sort of thing I would spend my time reading about when I went to museums in places like the Philippines, Vietnam, and Hawaii. I feel like I’m constantly invested in reading more about the Japanese internment camps in the US whenever an opportunity presents itself—like, I jumped at the opportunity to buy and read George Takei’s graphic novel They Called Us Enemy from my local comic shop, Cape and Cowl Comics, when that was released. I highly recommend it if you haven’t read it.

I don’t know if any of my white friends think about these things as much as I do. I’ve always felt more comfortable listening to and discussing such things with people of Asian descent, because I know they understand it on another level. But as I’m also acutely aware of not wanting to put others through undue emotional labor if they don’t want to, the conversations usually happen just when they come up naturally, and I wind up thinking about these things more than I talk about them. Most white people have never lived in a country where they’re considered a minority race like I have. Sometimes it feels like, as a result of all the time I lived in Malaysia, I think about race significantly more than your average white person, but the context I come from is so very different than it would be if I’d grown up in the United States. It still gave me strong feelings about combating systemic racism in the US though.

Monkeys in a local park near where the author lived in Taman Tun Dr Ismail, April 2014

Let me now revisit one of the sparks that led to this blog post that I mentioned above—my therapist asking me if there was anyone I wanted to reconnect with, who I’d lost touch with due to my relationship with my ex-husband. It’s no secret that I got divorced during the pandemic (though the process began in 2019, pre-pandemic). I’m not sure I’ve talked much about the impact my ex-husband had on various friendships though. Back in 2009, he’d made some decisions that had left a bad taste in the mouths of some of my friends, and whilst I’d initially sided with him, the more I listened to my friends, the more I grew to understand their perspective. It left me in a very difficult position of feeling like I had to choose between my then-husband and my friends. I ultimately ended up picking my marriage at the time, but it left my ex-husband feeling insecure, vulnerable, and unable to trust my ability to choose my own friends and build friendships. It was like he was constantly afraid they’d eventually somehow lure me away from him, and I’d pick friends over him in the future. It actually reached a point where, once we moved to California, I just didn’t often invite him to events where he could meet the friends I made here because I didn’t want him to pass judgement on them to me (it was hard enough hearing him tell me I “couldn’t trust them” and people were “just being nice” to me rather than authentic when I told him about things that happened), and I didn’t want to hear my friends asking me why I stayed with him when he gave off negative vibes around them.

This wasn’t as much the case when we lived in Malaysia together. I listened to my ex-husband more back then, and tried to make decisions around what would make him feel more comfortable. I didn’t want him to feel jealous of my friends, and I didn’t go out as often as I might’ve wanted to because I felt like he always wanted me to spend more time with him, and he wasn’t as interested in going to stand-up comedy as I was. Sometimes, because we were polyamorous and I was feeling the pressure from him to get other partners of my own, I’d wonder about the possibility of getting together with someone romantically rather than just comfortably and naturally letting a friendship grow and leave it at friendship. This is now making me think about an Indian Malaysian guy I used to hang out with a bit and have awesome conversations with, and he would point out that older Indian men would look at him when we were out in public and give him this look like he’d done well to score a white girl, even though we weren’t dating³. He wound up severing our connections on social media without an explanation, but I’m pretty sure was a result of my overwhelming him in a way that likely never would’ve happened if I’d been in a monogamous relationship. That’s not the friendship I thought of when my therapist asked me that question, though.

No, my mind jumped to a Malaysian friend I initially connected with over movies. The first time we hung out one-on-one was to see a movie together, then we got dinner and stayed in the restaurant talking until the 1Utama shopping mall was closing for the night. He was also the person who really motivated me to get back on stage and do stand-up comedy again, I think in part because he told me he’d had a crush on me after seeing me perform a gig I’d thought I’d bombed at, and still remembered me when we finally met years later. I guess he liked the anime schoolgirl look. *laugh* Over the course of our friendship/relationship, we watched so many movies together—the ones I remember include Grand Budapest Hotel, The Wind Rises, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, X-Men: Days of Future Past, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and Moonrise Kingdom. He played an Iron Man movie for my kids while he visited me on a vacation and we hung out in the bedroom. A couple of days after my appointment with my therapist, I asked my 14yo kid if they remembered anyone from our time in Malaysia, and this man was mentioned. My 14yo remembers playing video games with him—and bear in mind, this was 7 years ago, so I was surprised my child remembered this person they knew at the age of 7. The nostalgia for my lost friendship grew deeper, but he had cut me off by ghosting me a few short months after I moved to California for reasons that, again, would not have happened had I not been in a polyamorous marriage.

Additionally, maybe a couple of weeks prior to talking about him with my therapist, I woke up one morning having just dreamed that he had come to visit me in California because he had wanted to reconnect, which was the opposite of all the dreams I’d had when he initially severed our friendship. I wondered, was it a sign? Was he thinking about me? I felt pushed back and forth, between wondering if I should listen to my therapist and try to reach out to him again, and being reminded that he had cut me out of his life, so there was a chance I’d be causing him distress if I tried to open communication again, despite the fact he never dropped me as a Facebook friend like the other guy did. I settled for writing the letter I’d want to send if I could, without sending it, and that seemed to calm me down a bit. If he cared about reconnecting with me, and would be open to do so now that my ex-husband is no longer part of my life, then it’s not like I’m hiding and inaccessible. We’re connected on Facebook, so he can look me up and see what’s going on in my life. I’m not the one who severed ties.

I know it’s nostalgia, and maybe not based on reality, that I miss that friendship. As an autistic person, sometimes it can take a lot for me to develop the level of friendship with a person that I had with this man, so it cuts me deeply to lose something that meant so much to me. I don’t really have anyone in my life I can talk to about movies to the extent I would talk to him. But he’s probably changed a lot in the last 7 years, just as I have. And whilst I have in the past managed to salvage a friendship I’d damaged due to my ex-husband’s impact on my life in the past, that was a different kind of relationship than this one was, and I just don’t think this guy would be as receptive to another apology from me. The whole experience has felt like an Adele song. I keep reminding myself there are also cultural differences at play, and just because he watched a lot of Western media and went to university in Australia doesn’t make him culturally Western.

Perhaps the biggest tragedy here is that the breakdown of that friendship led to me feeling conflicted about whether or not I could maintain a friendship with other people I knew in Malaysia. I had over a dozen guests at my main goodbye party, but how many do I still have the occasional interaction with now, 7 years later? Maybe 4? There’s a part of me that would love to go back and visit Malaysia again, but there’s another part of me that worries about running into this person who decided he wanted nothing to do with me, and what he might think if I showed up there again.

Guests at the author’s going away party upon leaving Malaysia for California, June 2014. Note the moving boxes in the background!

I felt like I squandered my chance of connecting with more people on a deeper level as a result of trying to appease my ex-husband, not knowing I was autistic, and fear of not fitting in or being good enough. Once I started on anti-depressants in late 2013, suddenly I had more courage to interact more and have better conversations. I’d spent years traveling all over Asia and other parts of the world to escape my lack of deep personal in-person connection, but finally I had started to feel like Malaysia was home and I was building better connections with people. It was upsetting that just as I was coming into my own after my 30th birthday and I was doing well performing stand-up again, my ex-husband quit his job and it felt like he was ripping me out of my life. But, trying to be an optimist, I made the most of the time I had left, performing even more than I had during the few months I performed about a year after the initial move to Malaysia. I even ended up dropping the anime schoolgirl schtick and developing other content.

One of the author’s final stand-up performances in Malaysia, sans schoolgirl outfit, at One Mic Stand, Petaling Jaya, June 2014.

Despite my fears around whether or not the people I spent time with in Malaysia would want to see me again, I know there are other things I miss. I miss the blend of different Asian cultures. I miss the food, but I shop at a Chinese grocery store in Oakland to buy some food items I enjoyed there, like roti, teh tarik, and ginseng coffee. I know where the Malaysian restaurants are in the Bay Area and I would tell my tour bus passengers where to find the ones they could reach from my bus when I still worked as a tour guide. My Malaysian and Singaporean guests especially loved that I would mention them on the bus (they’d always tell me where they were from when they left the bus), but sometimes I’d get appreciation from other guests who wanted to try Malaysian food. There’s a Chinese restaurant I can walk to in Alameda that does sweet and sour chicken the way I liked it in Malaysia, rather than the Western style Chinese food. It’ll be nice to go back to any of these restaurants once I feel comfortable going to restaurants again.

Malaysia made me feel more comfortable living in a culturally diverse place, to the extent that I feel so out of place if I’m surrounded solely by white people. I remember experiencing that the last time I returned to Australia—it was like that reverse culture shock. It just feels wrong. Sometimes I wonder if it’s partly because I’m autistic, so I was used to feeling different and out of place. But when you’re surrounded by a group where everyone’s different, then it’s like those differences are more accepted. I value that about living where I do in the Bay Area. Where there is a mix of cultures and it feels like more people are celebrated.

Maybe I’ll still never return to Malaysia, but now that I’m single, it feels at least like it’s on the table, because I now have more freedom to choose how I spend my money. And maybe, if I get either of the jobs I’m interviewing for this week, I’ll actually be able to save up enough money to afford to return.

¹ Technically, according to my DNA, I’m not 100% white, but I’m still figuring out how the other 25% of myself relates to my identity because I wasn’t really raised with cultural awareness of the Hispanic and Native American part of my ancestry.

² Followers of my improv in California may recognize this tie and waistcoat—I also use them in my So You Want a Job host costume. The purple shirt in my SYWAJ costume? Was bought in India. Like I said, I just like fashion in Asia better.

³ I just wanted to side note here, but felt like it would be too long for a parenthetical. Race relations in Malaysia when white people are concerned is kind of complicated and nuanced, and varies considerably. In some ways it feels a little like I imagine exists with India’s caste system. I would love to say every race is considered equal in Malaysia, but in reality, that’s not often how society functions there, and money and finances tend to play a part, kind of like how Black and Brown people in the United States have higher poverty rates than white people. This is the closest kind of comparison I can provide about Indian Malaysians—they, on average, tend to be living with lower incomes than Malays and Chinese Malaysians. Meanwhile white foreigners are naturally assumed to be rich by way of the fact they hail from rich Western countries. That’s a big part of why I have strong feelings around seeing a white man with an Asian-born Asian woman. I can’t help but have a bad feeling about the possibility of it being a significant power imbalance relationship and worrying about the woman. I know, #NotAllMen, right? But it happens enough times that this tends to be a gut reaction for me. On the other hand, when I was briefly involved with a Chinese Malaysian man, our race differences didn’t seem to be a big deal in the beginning, but reached a point where he wouldn’t hold my hand in public because he was afraid what people would think of him being with a white woman. I’m still not really sure what that was about, whether it was fear of being seen as a race traitor or something else. White women/Chinese men don’t have the same assumptions made about power imbalances as White men/Asian women do, so it didn’t feel like that.

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