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Little Malaysia in the heart of New York City

Assembling Malaysian booth reminded me how truly amazing Malaysia is…from the world’s tallest twin towers (matching the height of the Empire State Building, currently NYC’s tallest), to exceedingly exotic fruit, the most culturally diverse cuisine and the largest flora and fauna (phew that Atlas moth is huge)!

The tropical climes of Malaysia may be thousands of miles away from the shiny Big Apple, but on Monday last week it felt like it was just on the doorstep. My children’s school—The British International School of New York—was celebrating international week, and I couldn’t resist creating a booth full of all things Malaysian….I have such fond memories of my four years there…

I enlisted a mum registering strongly on the OCD side of the creativity and imagination scale, and the pair of us whisked up a truly Malaysian experience, attracting swarms of curious children in a dining hall bursting with international booths ranging from Slovenia to South Africa.

And we are still debating what was Malaysia’s biggest draw: the guess how high the Petronas Towers are and win a boa constrictor (of the soft cuddly variety); “largest flower in the world” photo booth (using a rafflesia made to real-life proportions); spot the difference between an Asian versus African elephant picture quiz; make a felt leatherback turtle sock pomander or taste the durian fruit challenge. The latter admittedly caused quite a stir given most here have never heard, let alone sampled, a durian fruit.

You can buy almost anything in Manhattan. And foraging through the exotic fruit stalls lining Chinatown’s bustling streets brought back fond memories of many a Sunday spent shopping in Taman Tun Dr Ismail wet market.

Rambutan, longan, mangosteen, jambu, red and white dragon fruit and guava were all for sale. Heavenly…although I did tut and manage an “aiyo” or two at the Chinese fruit-sellers given their outrageous prices—$8 (25RM) for a pound of rambutans and $5 (15RM) for a small white dragon fruit. No free sampling neither: stark neon signs on stalls announced in both English and Chinese “50cents (1.5RM) to sample fruit”; a necessary exercise perhaps given the distance they had travelled.

I was about to abandon the idea of conjuring up a ‘wow-factor’ on international day, when, on a quiet backroad, I stumbled upon a whole tray of aromatic Thai Musang durians sat outside a grocer’s store. Gripped with excitement, I rushed over to gently scoop up the largest for inspection, a wizened Chinese shop-owner watching slightly bemused as I did so; I don’t think I fitted the make-up of his usual Chinatown customer. I couldn’t resist telling him that my last durian had cost a fraction of the price that I was now paying—$31.00 (122RM)—eek!

I left Chinatown $100 (313RM) lighter and with several bulging bags; the only thing I couldn’t source was sugar cane and banana leaves—next visit perhaps.

Imagine a school dining hall full of quietly competitive mums kitted out in exuberant costumes: Viking-horned Norwegians served children hot waffles; Sweden’s football fan mum wore a bright yellow-and-blue mohican wig, which was just, well, a little scary. But the prize had to go to the down under table sporting cute koala-eared and kangaroo-tailed mums doing convincing kanga leaps across the floor while dishing out chocolate Tim Tams.


The Australian table leapt ahead on the entertainment-front!

International week is an event where all stops are pulled out. A mini Taj Mahal painstakingly constructed out of paper; ‘stitch-n-sip’ evenings spent cutting hundreds of felt turtle pieces over wine and animated discussions about the merits of glue guns. And, as I congratulated the UK mums for sourcing a solar-powered hand-waving statuette of the Iron Lady herself, I couldn’t help but think what a parody of our former selves we were!

In the not too distant past, we held down high-pressured city jobs as lawyers, doctors, accountants, bankers and even TV personalities; a cornucopia of talent. What misty rose-speckled ideas we held of motherhood a decade ago when contemplating our exit from the corporate world, for something more meaningful?


Spot the Musang Durian—the Asian King of all fruits!

The durian proved irresistible: “I’ve always wanted to try one of these, it’s a jackfruit right?” one teacher proudly exclaimed; “It smells like a bag of rotting onions” one mum commented in her thick Derbyshire accent; and reassuringly; “my grandmother is from Malaysia, and I’ve seen durian before”, a year three girl said in very erudite manner.

In case you are wondering—the durian wasn’t wasted. Our Indonesian head of music, who had had her beady eye on it for most of the day, got her wish when the last of the 250 children had filed out. After carefully wrapping up a piece for the hubby (who is durian fiend), Inge and I scoffed the remaining pieces, licking our custardy yellow fingers clean, ensuring none was wasted. The feast was followed by the mandatory mangosteen segments; a truly Malaysian affair.


Even the teachers couldn’t resist our flowery photo booth!

Everyone seemed to enjoy their own taste of Little Malaysia. And, I feel sure we have sown the seeds for several long-haul trips over to its palm-laced shores in the very near future…

Even the teachers couldn’t resist our flowery photo booth!

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