As my grandmother doesn’t speak any English and my cousin doesn’t speak anything but English, I’ve been acting as a translator for her. This has forced me to push my Cantonese into areas I generally do not venture – mainly because I lack the vocabulary, partly because I do not think to ask the questions that my cousin does. The result of this is that my Cantonese has improved again. To my pleasant surprise, I’ve found that I haven’t lost as much as I’ve thought I had and even if my Cantonese is still very poor in comparison to real Cantonese speakers, my accent and pronunciation of the words that I do know is authentic enough.
Encouraged by this, I’ve started to try to speak more Malay as well. The last two days of shopping around the more Malay areas of town and talking to various people even if it has been on a very simple basis had reminded me of something that I’d forgotten which is that culturally and temperamentally, the Malays can be a lot more open, friendlier and relaxed than the chinese. This could be due to the fact that my malay is actually still quite good and accent wise is hardly chinese accented and that combined with my neither here nor there appearance makes me a bit of a novelty. The malays have also generally had more of an alternative sub-culture than the chinese and my dreads may not be as much of a peculiarity; I’ve spotted a number of malay men with dreadlocks in town.
The result of my increasing confidence and proficiency in Malay and Cantonese in the final two days made a remarkable difference with the people I was speaking to. Previously, it was pretty clear that I fell into the tourist category as soon as I spoke English but speaking their language got me a lot more acceptance (in some cases delighted acceptance). Barriers I hadnt really thought were there came down. I’m not idealising this acceptance, it’s not one that recognises me as being local myself, I dont speak that well after all. Rather it’s an acceptance that comes with comfort as they are not having to struggle with a language they are not so proficient in. The burden instead shifts to me and that makes a difference in the way we relate. If my proficiency was terrible, communications would become a problem again but as I am reasonably able, that problem does not arise.
This has warmed me to KL much more than I thought would be possible in such a small space of time. I now remember how this had also occurred the last time I came to KL, that after I spent more time wandering around town talking to the locals in malay and chinese, I became happier and more comfortable in the city. It’s also a lesson I’ve learnt in Australia in my travels around it, especially in rural areas.
Language is important.
On Saturday night, standing at the airport waiting in line to check-in my bags, I felt sadder leaving my family and the city then I’d ever had in the past. Living away from the family home had made a big difference as had having my cousin for company and someone to debrief with. I’d like to think that wasn’t the only thing that had changed, that perhaps I’d laid some ghosts to rest and changed as well.