Somewhere Like Home

After a 10 minute hike down the road from my hostel, I arrive at the AEON Shopping Mall in Johor Bahru’s Bukit Indah neighbourhood. I know cabbies will stop along the main roadway to pickup fares, but I didn’t feel like waiting and after four nights here, I know there will always be a throng of red and yellow cars here waiting to pick up visitors to JB who have otherwise given up on the city’s lacklustre public transit system. I need a ride to the airport, and I give thumbs up to the first taxi driver who courts me.

About 20 minutes in to the 40 minute ride to Senai International Airport, a news report comes on the cab radio. There are a lot of local news stories, but Sarah Palin endorsing Donald Trump’s presidential bid also makes the cut on the newscaster’s lineup. There are a bunch of trades in English Premier League football – which is followed in Malaysia like religion. As the report concludes, the music on “Red FM” (one of a number of national English-language radio stations here) starts up.

“Hello, it’s me…”

The taxi driver reaches for the volume knob on the radio and pushes it up a few notches. Adele is – unapologetically – his jam.

There is no fear of Adele needing that sweater here in Malaysia. She won't be cold.
There is no fear of Adele needing that sweater here in Malaysia. She won’t be cold.

It’s striking to realize while I am half a world away from North America – within spitting distance to Singapore, if spitting there wasn’t illegal – there are so many things here in Malaysia which feel familiar.

Shopping malls dot the landscape of every city I’ve visited (even historical Melaka). A familiar refrain of shops lining their halls – H&M, Uniqlo, Zara, Topshop… the clothes all start to blur together after a while.

There's something familiar in the halls of a Malaysian shopping mall.
There’s something familiar in the halls of a Malaysian shopping mall.

A “restaurant street” in these malls also has a noticeable pattern – Starbucks, Pizza Hut, Burger King, KFC.  Most bizarre is a blast from the past as the Kenny Rogers-themed chicken restaurant that was once a going concern in the United States (but no longer is) is damned near everywhere here in Malaysia.

This is not to say that Malaysia doesn’t have its own cultural or commercial identity – in fact, every city I’ve been to has amazing, independent stores which are awash in the essence of where they’re located.  There’s even a shopping centre in KL where almost all the tenants are local mom and pop retailers.  However, news has it that mall will probably have a date with a wrecking ball in the near future, as the property it sits on is surrounded by concrete and glass towers.  It’s the only anomaly on the block.

Despite attempts by retailers to keep it open, Ampang Park Shopping Centre - Malaysia's oldest mall - will probably have a date with a wrecking ball in the near future.
Despite attempts by retailers to keep it open, Ampang Park Shopping Centre – Malaysia’s oldest mall – will probably have a date with a wrecking ball in the near future.

Wandering through the mall, I go from store to store – checking out the textiles, the clothing, the cameras.  Eventually, I wander in to a restaurant that is not playing traditional Malay music, but rather has the radio on.  Like a scene out of Groundhog Day, one song ends, and the next one begins.

“Hello… it’s me…”

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