01 October 2015

Shopping Should Be Easy

We arrived in Malaysia on a Friday in 2004. Mom, being Mom, decided that the most reasonable thing she could possibly do was to start homeschool on a Monday. It made perfect sense. After all, we'd only moved across the world into a mostly unfurnished house three days previously. Let the homeschool year begin!

I was given an extra week's reprieve from school and was assigned to be Dad's shopping buddy, as he ventured out on the bus in order to buy all those things people like us need for life--things like bedsheets and pots and plates and dish soap and trash cans.

We didn't exactly know what we were doing, but Dad was able to get the names of a few shopping malls from our new neighbors and general instructions about what bus stops to get off at, so we set off on our shopping adventures together. Not to brag or anything, but to this day, Dad is still the person I'd want navigating in a completely foreign country where you don't recognize any of the landmarks and where you don't exactly know what any of the signs mean. He's in his element during utterly confusing navigation scenarios like that. We made it to the mall easily.

It was only after we arrived that things got a little more challenging. We'd arrived at a supermarket-type store, where we were able to load up on all sorts of practical home goods--cleaning supplies, some grocery staples, etc. But we really needed a trash can, and as we wandered the aisles, we weren't seeing any. 

Dad asked a lady who was working there, "Do you have any trash cans?"

She looked at him in utter mystification, "Sorry, sir? What are you looking for?"

"A trash can, a small one, or a big one, do you have any?"

"I'm sorry, I don't understand what you mean. Let me see if my manager can help you."

The same conversation was replayed with the manager. This time, Dad mimed wadding up a piece of paper and throwing it in a trashcan. I hid in a neighboring aisle, trying to pretend that this tall skinny white girl was in no way related to the tall skinny white man acting out charades about trash in the middle of the store. The two store employees looking at him like he was somewhat nuts, but eventually, an idea dawned on them. "Sir, are you looking for a rubbish bin?"

"Yes!" Dad nearly shouted in relief. "Umm, yeah, a rubbish bin, that's what I want. I think."

They led him to the rubbish bin/trash can selection and we found what we needed. That was the day when we actually realized the fact that American English and British English or the version of it used in Malaysia have differences substantial enough to impede communication. 

I looked for a picture of my Dad and I from 2004 when this story took place, but none exist, so here's the next closest thing, my Dad and I in 2008 at a wedding. My dad doesn't appear in a lot of photos since he's usually the photographer.

We carried our heavy plastic bags full from the successful shopping trip back to the bus stop and waited for our bus home, and headed out again to a different mall the next day, this time specifically in search of bed sheets. When you have 8 people in your family, the number of bed sheets you require is no small matter. We found out that there was no such thing as "twin" sized sheets here, only "single" and "super single," so we made our best guess as to the appropriate size that would fit our mattresses. Dad found it somewhat confusing when he realized that the sheet sets at the store didn't contain flat sheets, only a fitted sheet with matching pillowcases, but we bought those, and set off to the bus stop where we would wait for our return bus.

We had to cross a one-way street to get to the bus stop. We dutifully looked in the direction that cars were supposed to be coming from and stepped into the road. Dad was promptly run into by a man on a motorbike traveling the opposite direction from the one intended for that street. Dad was okay, he'd instinctively reached out and blocked his body with the bags full of sheets that he was carrying, and the impact hadn't even been hard enough to knock him over. However, some of the sheets that we’d gone out to get were not so fortunate, as they had made contact with the motorcycle and they’d had a hole torn in them. We agreed not to tell Mom anything about the little motorcycle incident. The bed sheets that had been torn were a single-sized set, not a set for Mom and Dad's double bed, so it was possible she'd never even come across the hole. Years later, she found out, as moms in general have a way of making all secrets come out in the end, and was horrified, but I still think she was less horrified than she might have been if she’d known that her husband had been hit by a motorbike within days of arriving in their new home. Sometimes a couple years do soften the blow of bad news.

Foreshadowing alert: This is not the last story about being hit by a motorcycle that will appear in this series.

PSA: Always, always look both ways, and look both ways again, when crossing a one-way street. 

{This is the 2nd post in my Write 31 Days Series: 31 Days of Growing Up in Malaysia}


  1. Hah! I love how adventurous a trip to the mall become. Rubbish bins... huh, I could totally start calling them that. Glad that you had the dad along to figure out the confusing road signs and such! He sounds like he really is in his element. And I'm glad to hear that he's all right--my goodness, good thing he has such fast reflexes!

  2. How cool it must have been to spend time living in another country! Your dad sounds like someone who would do well on The Amazing Race!

  3. The rubbish bin story is funny... when I was translating a book for students arriving in Germany, I was constantly perplexed by the British and American English issue - sweater/jersey, trash can/rubbish bin...

  4. Your rubbish bin story reminds me of the when I was in Japan, trying to order water at McDonald's. We didn't know the word, so my friends and I kept miming taking a drink, but the employees kept saying "Coke? Coke?"

  5. WOW so glad your dad is ok! I would have been pretty shaken up the rest of the day seeing that!!

  6. Rubbish bins and motorcycle collisions, oh my!! I'm pretty sure if there's anyone who can take these challenges head on, it's you and your fabulous family.

  7. -That is hilarious! One of the biggest differences in English between Great Britain and America is pants. Pants=jeans/bottoms in America. Pants=underwear in Englad and Wales!

  8. Is it me or do your parents always look so young and youthful in the pics you post!? You've got some good genes going on!

  9. What an adventure! How did young-you feel during all this? Did it feel like a happy adventure, or was it overwhelming? I could see it going either way for a kid...

    Looking forward to the next installment. :)

  10. That's crazy! omg thank God your father was and is OK! I agree sometimes it takes a few years to soften the blow, LoL, imagine if that were Angel? I'm sure you wouldn't want to know either! You always need ONE person who is outstanding at navigating in the relationship otherwise, how would you get anywhere in life? lol. Have a great one Rachel!! -Iva

  11. Oh my goodness. This is golden! I am loving these posts and can't believe I'm like 5 days behind! Ugh. Must catch up!

  12. Oh man! Scary! I always tell my husband that when he is in Malaysia.


  13. I just love this because I feel like I can relate to shopping in a foreign country! Also, the CRAZY motorbikes. Maybe it's a common thing in all foreign countries to have motorbikes everywhere not following a single traffic law?

  14. I love this series! Growing up in Malaysia was so different than the US, I'm sure, but now you get a whole new perspective, and a whole bunch of fun stories to write! :)