This Christmas vacation I went to Malaysia to debate, and every Malaysian that I spoke to, from the Minister of Higher Education, to the college president, college students, and the cab drivers told me to tell all my American friends about Malaysia. So here I go.

I went to Malaysia with two other Fairfield students to compete in the World Debate Tournament that is held annually in different countries. I’ve gone the past three years, with Malaysia being my final trip. Incidentally, it was the one most fraught with problems, hijinks and hang-ups.

For one thing, there was the tsunami, which I didn’t know about until we landed. I couldn’t get internet access until Dec. 29, (we left on Christmas day), so by the time I got word to my family that the area we were in was not at all affected by the tsunami, they had already been worked into a frenzy by 300 people who had called them asking if I was still alive. They reacted pretty well. They only called the State Department.

Compared to other countries hit by the tsunami, such as India and Indonesia, Malaysia escaped much of the devastation. When I left, a total of 66 people had been declared dead, with hundreds more injured. During my time in Malaysia I believe I read about each of those 66 people, along with dozens and dozens of survivors. They took it personally. The Prime Minister cancelled all government sponsored New Year’s celebrations and asked that all private ones be cancelled as well.

So the first thing I want you all to know about Malaysia is that they watch out for their own and take disasters, even if not as personally affected as other countries, very seriously.

Malaysia is the first Muslim country that I have ever visited and I was relieved that everyone treated us very well, even after finding out we were American. In fact, if people did find out we were American, we were often engaged in long political discussions. Along with the discussions of American policies, we learned a lot about Malaysia. One cab driver explained to us that Malaysia was a “good Muslim country” that allowed people to live together (I’m assuming unmarried) and avoided the extremism of other Muslim groups. Cab drivers, whatever country, are the greatest sources of knowledge when touring a foreign country, although you do need to make sure that the meter is running while they’re driving you around.

Malaysia, even though officially a Muslim country, is very diverse at the same time. There was a large population of Indians and Chinese living there, as well as smaller groups of Asians.

Consequently, the next thing I want you to know about the country is that it’s a well-integrated nation that could teach westerners a lot about how Muslims live.

Tourism is Malaysia’s third largest industry, but that didn’t sink in for me until I realized most of their tourists were Asian. I didn’t see very many Caucasians walking around the city at all, and if I did, they were congregated around the flagrantly touristy areas that had a Starbucks. The three of us were like panda bears; everywhere we went people took our picture either on the sly or asked for pictures with us, for no reason that I could figure out, other than they didn’t see Caucasians very often. Walking around the city was like walking around Manhattan, but with every single person staring at you as you go by.

The third thing I want you to know about Malaysia is if you visit it, avoid the touristy spots, and prepare to feel conspicuous.

Do not avoid the KL (Kuala Lumpur) Tower or the Petronus Towers (also called the Twin Towers), even though they are very touristy. This was the part of Malaysia that felt like Manhattan. The construction was awe-inspiring; the towers could be seen from practically the entire city. The best Indian food I have ever had in my life was at the base of the KL Tower. The buildings that comprised the skyline of Kuala Lumpur were made with Islamic design in mind, which added elegance and beauty to what in America would just be another office complex.

The final thing I want you to know about Malaysia is that it’s on the rise, especially the capital city of Kuala Lumpur. There are parts of it that look like you would expect Asia to look like, parts that you would expect Europe to look like, and parts you would expect America to look like, all in one easy package.

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