In 2008, after a short 4th year of medical school, I caught a flight to Kuala Lumpur. My first trip to Asia. Solo. I cannot remember how I came to choose Malaysia. I think I wanted to go to Asia, wanted an English speaking setting and importantly somewhere warm. Sri Lanka was another option but I didn’t know anyone there so Malaysia was the choice I made.
My mama as a human rights activist worked with an organisation with close links to Malaysia so she had been to visit many times and had made some good friends there. When I asked her for help, she was on it. She contacted her friends and asked whether any of them had medical connections in Malaysia. Fortuitously, one of her friend knew the health minister in Kelantan State. The only question was did I want to go to Kelantan, being the most conservative of states, quite ‘Muslim’ in its ways? Well, being a very modern Muslim I could see why some would question my willingness to be in a community that was rather more conservative than I chose to live my life. But I wanted an experience so I had no hesitation in saying yes. Then I had to find somewhere to live for the month. Another one of my mama’s friends had a GP husband who was resident in Kota Bharu, the capital city of Kelantan state where the hospital was located. His home was too far to walk to and from the hospital so he organised for me to stay with his sister.
A few days before I was to fly out, he emailed to say that unfortunately his sister had a family emergency so she wouldn’t be in Kota Bharu (KB) for my arrival and he didn’t know when she would be back. Before I could panic, he went on to say I was welcome to stay at his and I would have to catch rides with his grandchildren to and from the hospital. So back to the beginning, I arrived in Kuala Lumpur on a warm afternoon. As I got off the plane after my 12-hour trip, I felt a queer tingle in my feet. I looked down and lo and behold my feet was swollen and my toes resembled little chipolatas. Remember I was only 22 years old so this was rather foreign. I wriggled my little sausage toes and poked both feet. Clearly, I should have mobilised more on the long flight. Noted. I made my way through baggage retrieval, immigration and customs and got to my hotel without incident. One of my sister’s uni friends generously came to find me later and took me out for dinner. The next day, after he kindly took me to get a phone and camera, we went to the Twin towers. What a sight! My jetlag was cured and I was suddenly filled with excitement. My first adult adventure in foreign country! The next day, my mama’s friend who had been instrumental in organising the whole trip took me to the famous Batu caves where we took in the impressive sights and also had one of the best Indian meals I have ever had.
I think the sister in KB being away was a huge blessing in disguise. My new digs were rather luxurious compared to what I had been expecting. Dr R and his children were excellent hosts and made me feel at home. Bibi, their Indonesian housekeeper, was a godsend. She couldn’t speak a word of English and I couldn’t speak a word of Malay or Indonesian (a variant of Malay). It didn’t matter! She was a lovely lovely woman. She was short (average for the population) and portly for want of a better word. A little like Mrs Potts in Beauty and the Beast – very motherly figure. She always had a smile on her face and fed us beautifully. When I came home, there was always a jug of iced tea waiting to cool me down. It was very hot in the afternoons and the icy drink was like manna from heaven. I would change into my cotton Malay dress and throw myself down on the sofa in the upstairs living room which I made my own and down the cold fluid. That was all the activity I could manage until the sun went down and brought with it some refreshing breeze.
The only cloud on the sunny Malay sky, apart from the relentless over 30-degree heat, were the mosquitoes. I was told soon after landing in KB that we were in the middle of a Dengue outbreak, spread by pesky mozzies. Now I am one of those who will get bitten wherever I go, regardless of covering or insect repellent. I like to say I have juicy blood. So what were my chances of contracting Dengue. Well, reassuringly (not!) I was informed the virus was only carried by the mosquito with the striped-back. I laughed about this – pray how was I supposed to tell whether a mosquito had stripes on its back? And if I had such keen senses, surely, I could just squash the little terrors before they bit me (whether they were the evil striped ones or not). Also I was helpfully informed that I was more at risk of catching Dengue Haemorrhagic fever in my first episode of the illness (I have since learnt that you are more likely to catch the severe strain on a second episode). Fabulous, I was at risk of catching a deadly disease (risk of death from the haemorrhagic disease was significant, 2-3 per 100). I got a few bites despite precautions but avoided Dengue fever thankfully.
The medical experience was quite opening. Based on the old British system, it was still quite paternalistic and the doctors knew best in most cases. A big population of KB was poorly-educated farmers and fishermen so many of the patients had no interest in being given hard choices. They wanted the doctors to diagnose them and tell them what was to be done. The nurses and healthcare assistants were also very much directed by the doctors and there was a noticeable hierarchy. The respect for doctors was palpable and that extended to us the medical students. To be fair, the doctors I came into contact with were respectful in return.
I was with a group of female medical students, most of whom were indigenous Kelantanese girls coming home from KL for their elective. They were lovely girls. Very welcoming. They were my unofficial translators with the patients and did the job without minding how much of a drag it was. They were all quite petite. I think the tallest was 2-3 inches shorter than I was. At 5 foot 6, I never thought of myself as tall but there I was being referred to as the tall foreigner. It felt rather nice. The girls all wore the hijab (hair covering with their traditional Malay dress) and were all shocked to learn that I was Muslim as I wore the lightest formal clothes I could find and no head covering. However, they didn’t judge me. If anything, they seemed to be impressed by my independence. One of them, Nurul became quite close to me and I got to visit a more traditional Malay family and eat with them. Again, her family was so welcoming and humble that I wanted to adopt them all. Nurul had a small car which she generously used to take me and the girls to the markets, museums, cultural centre and even the seaside. Their culture was beautiful as was their food, music and natural environment.
Back in Dr R’s home, I made friends with the loveliest little girl called Ayin. His granddaughter, the youngest of his 3 grandchildren who I shared the school runs with. She was a tiny little thing. I think she was 4 or 5 years old and either she didn’t understand that I understood not a word of Malay or she didn’t care. She would come to my room after work and tell me all about her day (in Malay). She would share jokes and laugh. She would admire my little knick-knacks and tell me how much she loved my things. I would laugh with her, reply in English and invite her to look closer at my things and show her what new things did. She particularly loved my Malay silver butterfly earrings which I got there in KB and I would let her borrow them. One afternoon, me and my little friend were hanging out and chatting when Dr R came home early from his GP practice. As he walked past my room, he heard us conversing and was amazed. At dinner, he asked what it was we were talking about. It amused him to hear that I had no idea what Ayin was talking about but that we had these conversations. I was her ‘aunty’ and she was my little niece. Didn’t matter one bit that we spoke completely different languages but we were great friends which was all that mattered.
The month in Malaysia flew by and although I was off on holiday to Thailand for 10 days, I was quite sad to leave my new family. I had an absolutely amazing elective in KB, met the most wonderful people and experienced healthcare with different levels of expectations and resources. I haven’t been back since then but I definitely want to take my husband and baby there so they can experience the great country that is Malaysia.