Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Liuzhangli Cemetery: New Year in Taipei

It is said that the activities you do on the first day of the year are the most reflective of who you are. I thought about this while strolling through the Liuzhangli cemetery on January 1st, 2014. Earlier that morning I had lunch with my in-laws at one of the city’s pristine malls. We shared a feast of dumplings and then my partner and I politely excused ourselves and caught the train to Liuzhangli station.

For the better part of the day I wandered through this massive cemetery that spreads itself in all directions. It stretches miles into the horizon, and expands on the vertical, graves plotted like stairs down the hills. From wherever I stood, there were tombs above me, below me, and to all sides surrounding me.  

I don't know why it took me a year to write about this cemetery, nor do I know why I have to be writing it from a cafe in Vientiane, Laos. But for some reason, the approach of 2015  reminded me of climbing up those concrete steps.

What amazed me so much about this cemetery, as observed on a golden winter day, was the boldness of color, not just on the tombs, but in nature. Patterns were everywhere. The way moss grew along the edge of every stone, the roots of trees woven together like yarns, even the way crispy leaves landed on the ground was somehow perfect. I saw it all that day. 

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Al Baik in Kuala Lumpur

Al Baik. Saudi Arabia’s fried chicken fast-food chain. Ever since I saw the Saudi Arabia episode of Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations I have been trying to get to Al Baik.

Getting into Saudi Arabia is nearly impossible as an American. There are no tourists visas  and even if you are lucky enough to get in on a business visa, there is no guarantee you will be able to get into Al Baik – as a woman. When my female coworker was sent to Riyadh on business she was forbidden from entering Al Baik because they didn’t have a “family section,” which is a segregated section of the restaurant for women and families. As a single woman, she was not allowed to walk on the streets of Riyadh alone, and most of the restaurants in Riyadh were men-only, so she couldn’t join her male colleagues in those establishments either.  She ate every meal in the hotel.
Based on what she told me, I had all but given up on visiting Al Baik.

Flash forward a few years. I'm walking around the streets of Kuala Lumpur and what do I find? Al Baik! The chain has gone global and now the rest of the world, including women, can know the joy of this fried chicken.

The restaurant itself was pretty abysmal. A few Saudi families quietly dined on their homeland feasts. The bathrooms were appalling. There were only four items on the menu: 5-piece shrimp meal. 10-piece shrimp meal. 2-piece chicken meal. 4-piece chicken meal. At least that makes things easy. Once you order a meal all you need to do is request “original” or “spicy.” They were out of “original” chicken when we went, so that left “spicy.” Then you pick your drink. I chose Strawberry Mirinda. I got my meal to go since the thought of eating there depressed me.

At home, the feast was extraordinary. The chicken itself is just like KFC or Popeye’s, but the sauces are a local concoction of awesomness. One garlic sauce, and another is their “cocktail sauce” which is like a spicy-sweet mayo. 

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Writer's Guide to Cafes in Kuala Lumpur

Easy access to free and fast wifi is one of Kuala Lumpur’s best features. Don’t get me started on its worst features. I actually hated this city, but these cafes are almost good enough to make up for the things I disliked. Almost.

Let’s start with the best first. Here is a place everyone needs to go: VCR. Occupying an entire house, with indoor and outdoor seating on both floors, this is one of the most relaxing and atmospheric places in the city. I would come to this place again and again.

2, Jalan Galloway, Bukit Bintang, 50150 Kuala Lumpur, Wilayah Persekutuan Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Coffee stain
Located on the Japanese-themed floor of a large mall, the atmosphere is less than ideal, but the drinks and cafes are good.

Solaris Dutemas Mall

Journal by Plan B  
A fantastic café/restaurant in the Publika Mall. I can forgive its location because the classy interior makes me forget I'm in a mall. I had the best French fries in my life, and the Melaka cupcake, with coconut frosting, puts all other cupcakes in my life to shame.

Publika Mall

Three Birds Café
Technically walking distance form Sental (not Sentral) station, though you have to brave a few slums before finding this gem on the first floor of an interiors design complex. The outdoor seating was gorgeous, but it was humid and sunny, so we stayed indoors. I ordered a salmon croissant which was paired with green apples. Salmon and green apples – they actually go well together! I will miss this little place.

D7 Jalan Sentul, 51000 Kuala Lumpur, Federal Territory of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Hijab Magazines of Malaysia

Whenever I visit a new place I always make sure to check out the magazine section of a local bookstore. This is part of the cultural research I undertake. What are people reading? What is the standard of beauty here?

In most countries, I am disappointed to find Vogue, Elle, Cosmo, and the same magazines from America, wrapped in import packaging and projecting American beauty standards onto foreign audiences. However, when countries do produce their own magazines, I’ve made some interesting observations around the world. For example, while American women’s fashion magazines tend to emphasize celebrities, Japanese fashion magazines emphasize models and candid street style. They also have more information of travel and shopping. In Korea the 1/3 of the content in fashion magazines is related to beauty products and skincare. 

In Malaysia I had a different treat: Hijab. I nearly squealed in the bookstore when I found a copy of the coveted  Hijabista (Hijab + Fashionista = Hijabista). This magazine makes me so happy. I am happy to see women reclaiming hijab as a fashion statement. Happy to see forms of beauty that are more about concealing than revealing. Happy to see the focus on women’s style, not women’s bodies.  Happy to see a magazine that is reflective of its readers (based on my observation, in big cities like Kuala Lumpur, around 50% of the women wear hijab, and in rural areas it's more like 90%).  

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