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Bathroom Words: Studying Abroad in Malaysia

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By Leigh Lambert
Sunday, November 2, 2008

One of the primary reasons for studying abroad is to understand and accept other cultures. But judging from some of the nicknames for the Semester at Sea program -- "Semester of C Minuses," "the Floating Mattress" -- I don't think all of the 500-some students who signed up with me in 1991 for the University of Pittsburgh program were there to expand their minds.

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In an effort to enforce some small measure of appropriate behavior on our trip around the world, the faculty taught a mandatory course on the culture before we arrived at each port. Certain advice was for our own protection, such as "Don't eat raw vegetables or street food," which I totally ignored. But much of the instruction covered how to keep from offending other cultures: Women wear skirts in Muslim countries. Don't eat with your left hand in India, that sort of thing. The dean of students armed us with cheat sheets of useful native phrases and always reminded us as we disembarked, "Keep an open mind and don't expect all the comforts of home." I took this to mean travel with toilet paper.

When we landed in Malaysia I was eager to try all it had to offer, starting with the cuisine. The fact that it was just eight in the morning served as no deterrent. Even back then, I would go anywhere in pursuit of novel flavors and shunned the Western chains for native restaurants where English wasn't an option.

I ducked into a tiny storefront and emerged with laksa, a spicy noodle soup, and an iced coffee. After slurping it all down, I set out with my friend Kim to wander the streets of Penang. But it wasn't long before my stomach began rumbling. I scanned the shop signs for a restaurant to use their restroom. Unfortunately, to an ignorant Western eye, Asian symbols in red neon all look like restaurant signs.

Desperate, I ducked into the next open door. It was a watch shop. I tried to make myself understood as quickly as possible to the older man behind the display case. Thankfully, my hand gestures and pidgin Malay were enough to gain access to his back facilities. No toilet, just a drain, a hose and a pair of work boots. I kept an open mind, which was irrelevant, as this was going to happen regardless of the amenities. It wasn't pretty. Afterward, I wiped my brow, popped a couple of Pepto-Bismol and headed back into the front of the shop. That's when Kim announced she was going to use the bathroom, too.

"You do not want to go back there," I warned, too embarrassed to offer details.

But there was no persuading her. Moments later, she returned, still breathing.

"Listen, I'm really sorry," I said. "I tried to warn you."

Kim shrugged. "What? It wasn't that bad."

I was shocked. She was unflappable.

"Well, I mean, for starters there was no toilet," I said.

"What do you mean?" Kim replied, clearly puzzled. "There was a toilet in there!"

To my sudden horror, I realized I'd just relieved myself in the shop owner's work room.

Leigh Lambert studied abroad during the 1991-1992 academic year while a student at Colorado College. She is an editorial aide for The Post's Food section and can be reached at lambertl@washpost.com.


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