I sent the following story to Caffeine Society some years ago and they published it on their site. It was a fun little piece (no money changed hands) and I haven’t heard from them since, so I don’t know what kind of traffic it got. Anyway, I ran across it in my archives and thought I’d resurrect it here.
Coffee in KL
I am sipping a café latte at a Starbucks in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I am in an enormous shopping mall, surrounded by big and bright stores, filled with diminutive brown-skinned people chatting in unknown languages as they bustle to and fro, and I have found an American coffee house half a world away from where it should be.
What is even more interesting to me is the teenage Malaysian couple sipping lattes at a table nearby. A Starbucks short latte costs as much as an entire meal in a non-tourist restaurant. Mind you, when I was a teenager trying to woo a girl, money was no object. What better way to impress her than lunch at McDonalds followed by coffee at Starbucks?
You may not think of McDonalds as haute cuisine, but you can find them throughout Southeast Asia, and they are usually packed. The menu even looks the same, aside from the taro pies and shrimp burgers. Malaysia in particular has embraced the English language and select bits of Western culture in efforts to attract foreign business and investment.
While the country is officially a Muslim nation, there is a high proportion of Chinese and Indian immigrants. In fact, the politicians boast of their country’s religious and cultural tolerance. White skin definitely sets me apart, but no one gives me a second glance, unless they want to sell me a knockoff Rolex.
Indeed, as I wander about Kuala Lumpur, or “KL” as the locals call it, I sense no antipathy. The locals are generally friendly toward tourists. Of course, in any foreign country, it’s important to know the major dos and don’ts. For example, in Malaysia it is rude to touch people on the head, or face the soles of your feet toward them. One should cover one’s mouth when yawning or using a toothpick. Men generally do not shake hands with women. Possession of illegal drugs carries a mandatory death sentence. That last in particular is a good one to keep in mind.
I admit I was a little worried about coming here at first, given the whole American-Muslim tension thing. Fortunately, no one I spoke to hates America or Americans, although their sympathies tend to lie with the Arabs in any middle Eastern conflict, and there is no love here for George W. Bush. Thus, as with my in-laws, I am careful not to bring up politics or religion, and we all get along fine.
In the shops and in all my business affairs everyone has been polite. As with all Asian cultures, following rules and having good manners are very important, except when in a vehicle. There, anything goes. I’m sure any Westerner who spends an hour commuting while entombed in metal can relate.
But here, motorcyclists and scooterists spice up an afternoon drive by zipping around and between traffic at high speed, wearing shorts and sandals and apparently being driven by a perpetual death wish.
The taxi drivers are truly insane. Buckle your seatbelt if you can find it, and hang on to something. The cabbies are honest enough, although they often want to go flat-rate instead of using the meter, which will probably cost you double. Most of them speak English, but conversation is mostly a wash. Other than asking me where I’m from they would rather talk about themselves. Oh, and when you exit the taxi, shoulder check first because there is likely someone there clipping along on a scooter.
So this Starbucks is in the KLCC, which simply stands for KL City Centre. It’s a spacious six-story modern mall with a beautiful park behind it, all crouching at the base of the two tallest buildings in the world, the Petronas Towers. Okay, they are not necessarily the tallest, depending on how one measures these things, nonetheless they are a magnificent sight. The whole package was obviously meant to attract tourists, which may be why I haven’t seen a Starbucks in the cramped and crowded malls outside of the main tourist areas, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.
They don’t grow coffee in Malaysia, as far as I can tell, but Java is only a couple of islands to the south. Yet I have seen no Malaysian cafés. Tea is popular, as you would expect from a former British colony with millions of Chinese immigrants, yet I have seen no tea houses either. Perhaps it’s the concept of having a shop dedicated to the selling and drinking of a specific beverage that is novel here.
Restaurants abound, and the food is delicious. Some dishes are like Thai and others are quite unique. However only the relatively expensive restaurants sell coffee. So perhaps a cup of joe is our olive branch to the East. I have been to several countries in Western Europe, and coffee is everywhere there. So is Starbucks, but Europeans have their own coffee shops and their own ways of drinking coffee, and they mostly resent Starbucks. A hamburger makes a more suitable olive branch.
Asia, however, is virgin café territory. English has emerged as the de facto international language here. For the locals, the ability to speak English means a higher paying job in the tourist industry. Western things are viewed as being progressive by the old and cool by the young. Selemat datang, Starbucks, and terima kasih for bringing us a cup of Vienna roast and a slice of apple pie.
The teenage couple have finished their lattes. Their conversation has ebbed, and they are relaxing and looking around. Perhaps they are sharing my coffee ruminations and romanticisms. Perhaps we have made a mental connection here, stoked by caffeine and steamed milk. Perhaps people come here so that together, we can build bridges from East to West, one cup at a time.
Or maybe they just like the buzz. That works too.