Kuala Lumpur: Reflections on Malaysian Culture Posted on January 30th, 2020 by

The Gustavus Symphony Orchestra and Jazz Ensemble at the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur.

dispatch from Carley Swanson-Garro ’23, English and communication studies major 

On a nondescript Wednesday in March 2019 I was mentally preparing for my AP U.S. government and politics class when I received an email from Dr. Ruth Lin with a travel brochure for the 2020 Gustavus Symphony Orchestra (GSO) and Jazz Ensemble tour to Malaysia and Singapore. I didn’t know where either country was. I had never even been outside of the U.S. The tour seemed like a chapter from a biography of someone else’s life. I would have to complete many challenges (auditioning for and getting placed into GSO, obtaining a passport, and financing the trip myself) before I could step onto that first flight that would eventually take me and 65 other Gustavus music students halfway around the world.

Carley Swanson-Garro ’23

Thirty travel hours later, the automatic doors of the Kuala Lumpur airport whisked open and I gathered my courage and belongings and crossed from the air-conditioned marble of the lobby to the sticky Malaysian night. 

I began a game of compare/contrast. There were many differences: climate (it was 30°F and dry when we left Saint Peter and 80°F and humid when we landed in Kuala Lumpur), ethnicity, religion (approximately 60 percent of Malaysians practice Islam, but other religions such as Hinduism were made evident to us as we excitedly traipsed up the steps to the Batu Caves), and culture (from different toilets to language barriers to showing respect by giving and receiving things with the right hand because the left hand is for personal hygiene.) 

Despite these differences, as our bus wound its way through dense jungle towards the heart of Kuala Lumpur (or KL, as the locals call it) I noticed similarities between KL and major American cities. When we visited the Petronas Twin Towers the following day, jetlagged and bleary-eyed, it evoked memories of my first ride up to the 86th floor of the Empire State Building. As I soaked up the view of KL from the Petronas observation deck, KL Tower’s arching, top-heavy structure reminded me of Seattle’s Space Needle. 

Another beautiful similarity was people’s friendliness. “Minnesota Nice” extended to KL, which was full of Malaysians ensuring we felt welcomed. For example, a security guard at our hotel found ice for my sprained ankle so I wouldn’t have to go all the way down to the lobby. Our tour guide brought us cases of water at rehearsal so we wouldn’t be dehydrated, and one of the teachers at the ASWARA Academy, our first performance venue, found us a replacement cello when one of our rentals broke.

Of course there were challenges along the way. Our luggage truck got a flat tire the first night we arrived and later, as a cellist, I spent a few hours doctoring cellos with my section so they would be playable by our performance at ASWARA, but with teamwork among our Gustie musicians and help from our Malaysian friends, we worked together to overcome these difficulties and share our cultures with each other through the medium of music.


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