That place beside the big names

It’s interesting how Penang has so many corners, and equally as many hidden surprises just waiting to be discovered. Take the famed street art collection scattered throughout Georgetown for instance. While some are big and obvious, located strategically at a busy intersection or a shop front, others need to be searched out, appearing in the most unlikely places. Corners, alleys, behind a towering building.

As with many things, there will always be that one big name of a place that has crowds shoving in day and night. That place that is in all the tourist magazines and guidebooks advertised as a “Must See” or “Must Do” when in Penang, and is therefore crawling with visitors from all over the world. But, have you ever looked beyond, away from the crowds and the famous names of restaurants, museums and attractions that are sung from one end of the island to the other? Let me tell you a secret, which may not be that much of one but is certainly less widely understood. You would be surprised at what you can find when you looked a little further, digged a little deeper. You may just discover that hidden gem that not many know of, but to those who do, know that that’s the place to be.

I recently had such an encounter. I almost always eat at the gigantic, heavily lit food court nearby my workplace when I’m too late to grab the last morsels of food left in the staff kitchen. The place is huge and obvious, signboards everywhere bearing the name, “The Jetty Food Court”, the convenience of parking lots inside and nearby it. It is filled with organized hawker stalls offering a good variety of cuisines to hungry tourists and locals alike.

I like the food court, albeit its slightly higher prices, because it had a vibe to it, the right atmosphere and was a good place to get some decent food. As nice as all this sounds, we all sometimes get bored eating at the same place all the time. Well, at least I was. Feeling a bit adventurous, I decided to take a longer walk beyond the bustling food court to see what I can find.

Tucked into the corner of a plain-looking building across the road at the far end of the food court was a similarly plain setting of what seemed to be yet another hawker-style shop – until you took a closer look.

“Clink, clank”, went the charred, oily wok as it was hit by a lady holding a Chinese-style metal spatula. As she was finishing up the dish she was making and packing it up for her customer, I heard what seemed like a conversation done in Hokkien (one of the many dialects of the Chinese language). When she was done, I asked her about the menu. I then learned that she was serving Thai cuisine. In fact, I also picked up the fact that her accent sounded Thai. As I later learned, she really was Thai, although she married a Malaysian and has been here for 20 years. Imagine that!

While waiting for my food, a group of four at the table next to me chatted loudly and animatedly in a language that was foreign to me. To my surprise, the lady at the wok also started talking to them in this language. What was even more surprising was when they started not only to talk in their own language, but with a mix of English and Malay!

So jolly was their conversation with laughter and jokes inserted here and there that I could really feel the sense of community going on right there and then in their circle. Now, while this is just an assumption, and I haven’t had the facts confirmed, I believe they may be those foreign workers who came to Malaysia in search for better work opportunities and to be better able to provide for their families abroad.

Seeing their smiling, happy faces, you almost can’t see a hint of their struggles and hardships, the hard work and labour they put in everyday, working the kinds of jobs that educated Malaysians nowadays actively try to avoid by being picky about jobs or not working at all. I’m talking about jobs such as waitressing, retail shop minding, building offices, houses, bridges and roads (which is a shame, really, since these are the heart and soul of a country and its identity, in my opinion).

There is something to be learned here. Happiness starts when you decide, and when you decide to live life to the fullest, accepting every shortcoming and making the most of what you have while treasuring time spent with those who truly matter, that’s when life really starts to have meaning.

Thanks for reading!



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