Nasi Lemak at Midnight
It's almost 8 o'clock and I'm wandering around KL Sentral. The city's transportation hub that was meant to be the beating heart of all commuter movement. In the early parts of the evening, you see families, friends and individuals seated in the many restaurants, sharing meals and conversations.
Soon, they will part ways - a farewell and excited waves expressed as their loved ones cross the turnstile to head to the intercity train awaiting them below. For others, it's waiting for a fleet of buses that will bring them halfway across the state to KLIA, where an airplane will bring them outbound.
Hubs like these, are where we exist in-transit. The in-betweens of here and there. From our previous location to the next destination. Airports are notorious for this; hour-long waits before your flight takes off and you amuse yourself with a book or mobile game.
And tonight, I chanced a meeting with Hiroaki Tanaka, a young Japanese backpacker who himself was in-transit and hanging around in between.
"Where are you headed to next?" I asked after exchanging pleasantries and a brief conversation about how I've been to Japan, and how I enjoyed Osaka. Hiroaki's response to my enthusiasm about Osaka wasn't too well-received. He said it was one of Japan's more rowdier cities. I wasn't surprised. Hiroaki was from Kyoto, one of Japan's most-cultural cities and arguably (depends who you ask), its best.
"Cambodia. I've been in Kuala Lumpur for a two days now." Hiroaki's bus was due to leave at 11 o'clock, hours away from now. Being in-transit gives him the breathing space to recollect his time here, as well as share me his thoughts.
His two days in KL was summed up in an awe of the city's diverse community, its efficient train system and despite how he prefers the countryside, found KL to be modern and sophisticated. The last point accentuated by his admiration for KLCC. It struck me that out of all the 16 countries he's traveled so far, Malaysia was unlikely to be memorable.
He said that Malaysians were both unfriendly and friendly, and that the best meal he's had here was mee goreng nearby his hostel.
I was horrified. "You're kidding me. You've been here for a few days and you've never tried nasi lemak?". Nope. There was no decency among my countrymen to introduce the nation's most well-loved dish to a guest of this country.
My mind was set. Hiroaki's bus to the Sepang LCCT was a few hours away. I'm going to introduce him to nasi lemak. And I knew exactly the place.
This mamak is where a lot of Bukit Bintang alumni boys like myself would hang out, and occasionally bump into one another after work. It's well-known for its nasi lemak ayam goreng, with a lot of emphasis on the fried chicken that's cooked to crispy perfection.
If there's a bona fide eatery to introduce Japanese tastebuds to - this would be the place.
After a quick order of teh tarik, teh o' ais and two nasi lemak ayam goreng, we set our discussion to Malaysian politics, something that Hiroaki had learned a little during his undergraduate years in political studies. He set me explain the Malaysian monarchy - a touchy subject, and one close to my heart.
"Just like how you have the Emperor back at home, you can liken our monarchy to the same role and function. Very much a symbolic one but with some limited functions when it comes to culture, tradition and religion." I had a strange feeling that I was probably the first person whom he's had this frank conversation with, and that he had mostly kept to his own during his travels.
"I just find it interesting. That you have a lot of Kings who seem to have some leadership power, and people who love them. Yet have a government that's in power as well," Hiroaki replied.
"Yes, well. You have a few people here who believe that the Royals should be in power. Fact is, one of our former Prime Ministers revoked some of their privileges when a big controversy stirred up about decade ago."
"Mahathir." I concluded. A name that resonated a lot for the Japanese, especially in the developing years of the 80s and 90s, when the former premiere set Japan as an example of cultural and technological excellence. Hiroaki smiled and explained how Mahathir was among Malaysia's well-known Prime Ministers, even to this day.
Our conversation for the next few hours revolved around his backpacking adventures in Kuala Lumpur, and how he's got here. Hiroaki was among the growing number of young Japanese who are rejecting the traditional practice of pledging loyalty to corporations immediately after studies, and are driven instead by the pursuit of a life beyond the island nation.
"My parents weren't too happy in the beginning, and quite honestly - I think they still aren't." I sipped my teh o' ais, contemplating the huge step he must have made to chase his individuality in a society that demands uniformity.
Soon, it was time to leave. I paid, offering the meal as my treat to a guest who finally had his taste of a national dish. He thanked me, and we headed back to the city. "Is it alright if you drop me off at my hostel?" he asked.
I suddenly realize the grave error of my mistake. I had imposed myself on him to pursue a meal, and he was likely too polite to have declined. "I apologize, Hiroaki. It was rude of me to not realize that you may have had other plans". He assured me it was no problem, only that he was just hanging out in KL Sentral to pass the time away, and hoped to head back to the hostel after getting dinner. Pack. Then get a taxi back to KL Sentral.
It was 10 o'clock.
I warned him against taking the taxi, knowing too well the stories of fraud and overpriced meter readings. He declined at first, not wanting to trouble me. But in the end, agreed when I pressed on. It was a way for me to make up for imposing on his time, and the least I could do to treat a guest of my country.
We drove to Petaling Street, where I parked my car by the roadside and he disappeared around the corner. It was almost twenty minutes before he came back. "Sorry, I had to check-out with the counter and double-check my stuff", he was exhausted.
I drove straight to KL Sentral, the place where our little adventure began. The drive wasn't long, only a simple fifteen minutes. And I was happy to have saved Hiroaki at least RM10 for the short ride. As we arrived the gates, he thanked me - a small head-bow accompanying his Japanese demeanour. He turned around and walked to his next destination.
In-transit, in those brief hours of self-reflection, we learn a little bit more about ourselves, others and where we've been to. I hoped for Hiroaki at least, a discussion of the Malaysian monarchy over a steaming plate of nasi lemak ayam goreng had given him a little bit more flavour to his time in this bustling city.
I met Hiroaki Tanaka on the 17th February 2014.
You can listen to the interview I did with Hiroaki about his time in-transit (before the whole nasi lemak adventure) on BFM 89.9's I Love KL programme, or here: