People Watching

As a Torontonian, I love my city's iconic buildings, skyscrapers, and monuments—I'm weirdly comforted by their presence, and landing over my hometown at night remains a surprisingly emotional moment, even though I've done it 636437373838 times.

That said, the top floor of the CN Tower is not exactly my natural habitat.

A city's structures are exactly that—they shape and define how its residents think of themselves collectively, and what their shared values are all about. As an example, the Petronas Towers showed us that Malaysians collectively take a lot of pride in honest hard work. But individual Malaysians—their faces, their fears, their guilty pleasures and daily struggles—we wanted to know that, too, and we knew we weren't going to find it in the Petronas Towers gift shop.

And so yesterday we set out to swap sight-seeing for people-watching. It was a hilarious and rewarding decision every single time—KL-ers seem to be very open, inquisitive and playful people. It was surprisingly easy, too—Shanti would pull over on any given street, we'd jump out, and we'd walk maybe four steps before running into some kind of strange and compelling scene.

Whether it was a bride joking around with her gaggle of bright pink bridesmaids after her wedding ceremony, teenage boys smoking and coughing as they cheered on a motorbike rally, or a little girl in a headscarf having a meltdown in a grocery store, I love just wandering around and watching the Malaysian versions of some undeniably universal experiences.

Malaysia Wedding

The motorbike street rally we happened upon yesterday was especially fun—the machismo, the pipe exhaust, and the inexplicable leather pants in 30 degree heat.

Malaysia Bike Race

Colin started snapping photos, which only amped up the bikers even more, and immediately they started posing for the camera with peace signs, flexed muscles, and Tough Huge Man faces. They excitedly invited us to sit on their bikes, to be in their photos, and I got many protective leather arms around me when a motorcycle would come speeding past.

The wedding procession we sort of crashed yesterday was another serendipitous reward for just stepping out onto a random street. As a bride and groom squeezed through the bike rally, Colin quickly became their unofficial wedding photographer.

Malaysia Wedding Party

The bridesmaids were giggling, hamming it up for the camera, and endlessly curious about who we were and where we had come from. And like brides the world over, this one was very eager to see how the photos turned out. She gave us her contact information and told us she'd be expecting copies of our shots.

I had a chance yesterday to wander into an enormous shopping centre while the boys were off filming something. KL takes its shopping quite seriously, and this mall was not messing around—seven floors of designer brands, mega sales, and elegant cafés. I know Malaysia collectively promotes its world-class shopping as a reason for tourists to visit, but the best part of my mall meandering was three individual Malaysians—a group of teenage girls sitting on a bench surrounded by shopping bags of the day's loot. They were engaged in a heated conversation, almost panicked it seemed, and then they all took out their cell phones and made three very solemn-sounding calls. They weren't speaking English, so I had no way to understand what was going on, but I recognized that panic as well as the ensuing phone call —I made the same one from the Eaton Centre at the same age when my friends and I had lost track of time.

I know a contrite mom call when I see one.

Text and Photos by Sophie Kohn