Gratuity in Penang revisited

Years ago, early in my time here in Penang, I wrote an article about tipping in Penang.  In summary, I put together a case for why I don’t leave a tip at every restaurant I visit when I go out to eat.  I think back to those days and wonder if I made the right call, and gave the right advice here on this blog.  So this time around, I’m going to put forward some of my thoughts on the subject and perhaps amend my recommendation.

i've got lots of tips for you, son : san francisco (2014)

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Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - December 30, 2015 at 1:34 PM

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Weird doesn’t have to be a bad word

How to Make Your Own LemonadeWhen I was growing up, I wasn’t allowed to call things weird. Especially if I wrinkled up my nose and said it dripping with disdain. That was the case when the family would be invited to a large 12 course Chinese meal and the foods that were served passed beyond the normative range of an American Born Chinese kid. Picture a large platter of fresh sushi on ice with two lobster heads as the centerpiece. Now imagine a 14 year-old getting freaked out because the decapitated lobster head facing him just moved its eyes to watch me eat its flesh.  My mother was quick to point out, the meat is “so fresh!”  That just wasn’t good enough for me.

Weird is part of being a TCK

Now the tables have turned and I’m the parent, and my children are the third culture kids.  They are finding things new and different and weird in this land of Penang.  There are new customs, new festivals and holidays, new foods.

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, third culture kid, let me recommend the book Third Culture Kids: Growing Up Among Worlds by Pollack and Reken. A TCK is a person who grows up outside their parents’ home culture. Expat parents should get familiar with the challenges and benefits that comes with being a TCK.  More resources below.

But my point is, I’m having to hear from my kids that things are weird.  I’m not entirely comfortable to say that they need to stop.  I think we just need to redefine the term.

Redefining weird

Let’s take the wrongness out of weird.  Let’s remove our egocentricity and see things from another perspective.  And now we realize that weird can mean different, without being bad.  An egocentric person would consider anything outside of my personal frame of normalcy to be wrong.

With this simple tool of allowing for someone else’s normal we take the first step towards living cross-culturally successfully.  We can go into these cross cultural situations and think, “that’s different, but I might like it.”  You can also give yourself (and your children) permission not to like it as well.

I’m finding that this new sense for the word weird to be freeing.  We are now free to experience the weird and look at things that are different.  We can keep our judgment to ourselves or to be discussed at home.

Now conversations can be like “Wow that’s weird.”  “I know cool huh?”

More TCK resources

Read at least one book about TCKs to familiarize yourself with the issues.

Participate in a twice monthly twitter chat under the hashtag #TCKChat (1st and 3rd Wednesday, 10am and 10pm).  For those of us in Penang that’s 11pm Wednesday or 11am Thursday.  Send me a message @livinginpenang and I’ll show you how to participate in a twitter chat.




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Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - January 21, 2015 at 8:14 AM

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Early December – second Durian season

Here in Penang, we get two Durian seasons.  The first is the one with the big Durian festival that last through the month of June.  It’s a pretty big deal because tourism is one of Penang’s top industries.  Durian is a big draw for many tourists.  Yes, some people do go out of their way to find a bit of the stinky fruit.  My family has two.

We’re at the start of Penang’s second Durian season, which if the harvest is good, can last until the end of Feb.  The best stuff can be found closer to the farms.  Go out to Balik Pulau, There are pop up stands all along the road past the Teluk Bahang Dam.

There are going to be pop up stands all over town, and they should be fresh Durian.  How could they not be, they fly off the truck to the eager fanatics in Penang.  In my experience, the pop up stands won’t know the varieties they are selling.  They don’t know a D7 from a D11.  You need to get out to Balik Pulau to get that kind of information.

So here’s my Advice to first time durian eaters  

  1. Go with a friend.  Bring a fanatic.  They aren’t hard to find.  Their enthusiasm for Durian is hard to miss, and sometimes infectious.  The other advantage of getting Durian in a group is that you can sample more varieties.  Ask for the sweetest ones your first time.
  2. Get it fresh.  Don’t buy from a container the first time.  Don’t try Durian-flavored ANYTHING.  Watch them crack the spiky fruit open.   Video it for your facebook feed.
  3. Eat from closer to the stem.  The tastier meat is closer to the top of the fruit.
  4. Bring water, tissues and hand sanitizer.  Your hands will get dirty, if you eat durian correctly.  hand sanitizer will help get the smell off your hands.

Post your pics on the Living in Penang Facebook page.  Have a lovely durian feast.

Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - December 4, 2014 at 10:16 AM

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Hungry Ghost Festival Penang

Well the gates of hell are about to break open and hordes of demons will need to be appeased with song dance and food for the 7th month of the Chinese Lunar calendar.  Yes it is the Hungry Ghost Festival, widely observed (celebrated) here in Penang, Malaysia.  This year (2014) the festival starts on the 27th of July and will run for a whole lunar month, til the next full moon on the 24th of August.

This year the start of the festival will coincide with the end of the Muslim month of fasting, Ramadan.  The big holiday, Hari Raya, marking the end of fasting, is going to be the second day of the Hungry Ghost festival.  It should be interesting to see how the two cultures work together, or work around each other during these days.

Traditional observance of the Hungry Ghost Festival

The story is that the gates of hell open up for the souls of Chinese ancestors to come to earth to wander, to bother, and to eat.  The living honor the dead, and appease them, by burning joss-paper, and paper maché material goods, like houses and clothes.

Chinese opera stages are set up and loud performances run through the night for the hungry ghosts.  For many a foreigner trying to sleep near these monstrosities, this highlights the hell-on-earth aspect of the festival.

Special Hungry Ghost Festival foods

The Hungry Ghost Festival is an opportunity to find some Chinese delicacies that only become available during this month.  Look around for a colorful sweet dessert called si koh th’ng.  You can find grilled cuttle fish and Jellyfish satay. 

Where to go in Penang

The Tourism Board has a facebook event page.  Follow the Living in Penang facebook page for event announcements as well.

4 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - July 23, 2014 at 1:36 PM

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George Town Heritage Celebrations

Georgetown World Heritage Site

In 2008, UNESCO declared the city of George Town, Penang to be a World Heritage Site giving it status as an important cultural nexus.  Every year, 7 July is a Public Holiday in Penang State to celebrate the anniversary of the declaraion.  There is an organization called the George Town World Heritage Inc that organizes events throughout the year promoting and preserving  the culture and the history of George Town.  The pinnacle of the year is the Heritage Day celebrations which will be on the 6th and 7th of July.

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Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - June 27, 2014 at 2:32 PM

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Floating Chariot Procession

Living in Penang, you come to realize every day is a holiday.  Not in the sense that you can kick back and relax, in fact everyone I meet is on the move, working hard.  No I mean every day is some kind of celebration or observance for someone living here.  Right on the heels of Chinese New Year, which ends today with Chap Goh Meh, comes this weekend’s Floating Chariot Procession which will take place in Teluk Bahang.

Click to see a beautiful photoset of this event

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Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - February 14, 2014 at 10:08 AM

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Chap Goh Meh Chinese Valentines Day

Chap Goh Meh (sometimes spelled Chap Goh Mei) marks the last day of the Chinese New Year celebration.  It’s been two weeks of fun food and firecrackers, with Hokkien New Year being the halftime show.  Now it’s time for the unmarried ladies to go down to the Esplanade and throw oranges in the water.  Wait… uh why?
Chap Goh Meh Read more…

Be the first to comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - February 10, 2014 at 9:30 AM

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Can’t find a baby monitor in Penang

If you’ve been following this site, you know all about how we’ve recently had a baby and how we went through all the necessary hoops to get him a new passport.  I’ll be sharing more about living with a baby in Penang in the coming weeks.  The first thing I want to share though is the incredible hole we’ve found in the baby market.  Why can’t I find a baby monitor in Penang?

I will admit that we did not conduct an exhaustive search for baby monitors.  We probably tried a total of eight retailers and malls to find one.  And came up with zero.  And it made me think, why can’t I find a baby monitor in Penang?

My Theory for no baby monitors

Years ago I was on a driving range with an American buddy in Bali.  As I was swinging away and launching my golf balls dozens of yards in to the distance, I saw a Balinese man on foot collecting the balls back into buckets, to be sold to the next customers.  I pointed him out to my friend.  He said, “In the US you’d see a vehicle driving around scooping up all those balls.”

It’s true.  I don’t think I’ve ever seen a person collecting the balls on a US driving range on foot, and doing it by hand.  We tend to have technological solutions to our problems.  There are even robots who do it for you now.

Human solutions rule in Indonesia, and, as I’m learning, in Malaysia as well.  A problem might have a technological solution, but a human solution might be just as well, and often cheaper.

Who needs them?

The problem being solved by a baby monitor is to hear your baby crying from another room.  Well for many homes that we’ve been in, that hasn’t really been much of a problem.  In fact, you can probably hear babies crying in other homes from your own home.

Nannies, babysitters, and relatives are available to tend to your child if you can’t.  There is a whole culture of ah-ma nannies and house keepers.  There are reputable (and otherwise) agencies that will find live-in child care from all over Southeast Asia.  I’ve met many Indonesian and Filipina nannies when I take my own kids to the neighborhood park.

We need a solution

Well we can’t get a baby monitor because we can’t find anyone who sells them.  And we don’t want to hire anyone to watch our child.  So what will we do?  I’ll share my solution later this week.  Stay tuned.

3 comments - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - July 15, 2013 at 5:46 AM

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What is Baba Nyonya culture

Baba-Nyonya and Peranakan are terms that refer to a subset of the Chinese population in Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.  These are the descendants of the Chinese immigrants to this area, the Malay peninsula and the Indonesian archipelago in the 15th and 16th century.

Where did these terms come from

Peranakan is a Bahasa Melayu term meaning “descendant”.  It does not refer to what they are descended from, just descendant.  This term is used mostly when speaking in Bahasa Melayu or Bahasa Indonesia.  In Indonesian, it was not often complementary.  The Chinese population in Indonesia would rather be called orang Tiong Kok or Tiong Hwa.  This isn’t really a term that is commonly used in English.

In English, and in Malaysia, we tend to use the terms Baba-Nyonya when referring to the people and the culture.  Nyonya is the term for the women and Baba is the term for the men.  The origins of these words are quite interesting too.  Baba finds its roots in Sanskrit and Indian culture and language, meaning “grandfather.”  Nyonya is a Javanese pronunciation of dona, an honorific for women, like Madam, probably borrowed from Italian or Portuguese.

Who in my neighborhood is Baba-Nyonya?

This is a hard one for me to nail down.  I often ask my Chinese friends if they are Nyonya and most reply that they aren’t.  Their mom might be, or their father might be Baba.  But most don’t identify themselves as Baba-Nyonya.  It doesn’t seem to pass down through any particular line, father or mother,  you either are fully Baba-Nyonya or you aren’t.

I think part of it is the language used at home.  It seems as though, if you speak Hokkien or Mandarin, you aren’t Baba-Nyonya.

But it seems like the culture continues through the cuisine.  Nyonya cuisine is very popular and seems to be a tradition that is being preserved in kitchens around Penang and beyond in the rest of Malaysia.  My friend who has a Nyonya mother, cooks Nyonya food in her own kitchen all the time.

Nyonya cuisine

This is going to deserve its own post another time, but I’m going to try to give my own spin on what Nyonya cuisine is.  It seems to me that Nyonya cuisine is Chinese cooking that uses Malaysian herbs and spices but melds Melayu, Chinese and some Indian techniques.  So the flavors differ from traditional Chinese food because of the spices.  It was fusion food before fusion was a thing.

Nyonya curries tend to use all fresh ingredients from the market (rather than curry powders), and these ingredients get ground into a paste.  The curry paste is the start of every Nyonya curry.

A popular Nyonya dish is called Ayam Kapitan.  My wife has the recipe for it on her blog.  We’ll be featuring more recipes like this soon.



1 comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - July 5, 2013 at 6:19 AM

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Thaipusam celebration in Penang

Thaipusam in Penang

Crowd at the Thaipusam celebration in Penang Malaysia.  Courtesy of

Crowd at the Thaipusam celebration in Penang Malaysia. Courtesy of

The Indian holiday of Thaipusam is coming up this Sunday.  If you’ve had the opportunity to drive down the end of Scotland Road on the way to Jalan Gottlieb you would see the tents that have been set up in preparation for the festivities.  Many of us foreigners living in Penang have no idea what Thaipusam is about, so I did a little research and this is what I found.

My friend Dave Ray started my information gathering.  Last year he spent a week following a group of Kavadi makers (more about this below) living in Penang.  Dave narrated a slideshow of his stunning images, definitely worth your time to watch.

Timing of Thaipusam

The name Thaipusam comes from the Tamil month “Thai”, which falls around January and Februrary, and “Pusam”, one of the stars in the hindu astrology.  Pusam is most austere (prominent) during the full moon of the month of Thai.

The Legend of Thaipusam

The story behind the festival involves the Hindu god, Murugan, also known as Kartikeya (AKA Subramaniam, AKA Sanmukha, AKA Shadanana, AKA Skanda, AKA Guha).  The festival commemorates goddess Parvati, Murugan’s mother, giving Murugan a ‘Vel’.  The Vel is a magical weapon that has sakti or powers that Murugan uses to vanquish three demons, Surapadman, Tarakasuran and Singamugan, representing the forces of ego, passion and greed.

The Observance of Thaipusam

It is said that a true devotee of Murugan will gain the power to overcome ego, passion and greed, if he objserves fasts and spiritual disciplines during the period before Thaipusam.  Some say 3 days of fasting, others say up to 48 days.  Stricter Hindus don’t just fast from food, but from a whole list of activities: sex, sleeping on the floor, and if a death should occur, the devotee would not be able to participate in any mourning ceremonies.

The Kavadi

During Thaipusam in Penang, the devotee carrying the Kavadi, pierced through the cheeks and tongue.  Courtesy of

The devotee carrying the Kavadi, pierced through the cheeks and tongue. Courtesy of

The Kavadi is the burden carried by the devotee who is the designated burden carrier.  I encourage you to watch Dave’s slideshow to see the awe inspiring devotion that goes into making and carrying the Kavadi.  Before putting on the Kavadi, the burden carrier has piercings put through his cheeks and his tongue.  The Kavadi, weighing more than 100 lbs is carried on the shoulders of the devotee.  The devotee then walks, dances and sometimes sprints along the parade route to the Hilltop Temple.

The Trek to Hilltop Temple

In Penang Thaipusam is celebrated at Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Temple (Hilltop) along Jalan Waterfall in Georgetown.  The Penang Hindu Endowment Board (PHEB) told the Star newspaper that a million devotees are expected to throng the  Arulmigu Sri Balathandayuthapani Hilltop Temple this year.

Family activities

From all reports, this is not a family friendly festival.  Hindu families are expected to meet the burden carrier at the temple.  The Kavadi burdens are quite elaborate, and interesting and will be something to be seen and photographed, but the piercings are pretty graphic and can be scary for younger children unprepared to seeing it.

I would go if a Hindu friend’s family invited me and my family to join them.  I don’t think I would show up on my own.

Please share about Thaipusam in Penang

Have you seen Thaipusam in Penang?  Please share your experiences in the comments below.


1 comment - What do you think?  Posted by Daniel - January 24, 2013 at 5:45 AM

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