My first job out of uni was at FPA Health. It was a great place to work; my work colleagues were fantastic people, I gained a huge amount of knowledge about reproductive and sexual health, and I feel like my time there really put my heart in the right place.
At the end of my contract with FPA Health, I had the opportunity to attend the East & South East Asia and Oceania Region Roundtable in Kuala Lumpur on ICPDat10 as the Australian Youth Representative. The aim of the roundtable was to provide a forum for discussion on the links between population, sexual and reproductive health and poverty, and to see how we were going ten years on from the ICPD.
There was also funding for a youth forum as part of the roundtable and over twenty five young people from the Asia-Pacific region were selected to attend. It was an interesting meeting of worlds. I think people were a bit surprised that I was the Australian rep because I was, well, Asian. Also, a lot of the kids from Asia had no idea about any of the Pacific island nations and vice-versa, so I felt like I was in a really unique position as an Australian who had a decent grasp of how all these nation states fit into the picture.
I also realised that I had a large amount of professional knowledge because the vast majority of young people there were volunteers. Initially I felt like I wasn’t entitled to be there because of that fact but it later proved to be a huge asset.
There’s a lot more I could say about the youth forum, the roundtable, and my subsequent role as a co-spokesperson on behalf of the youth forum – but suffice to say the whole experience gave me a lot of insight into international NGOs, the difficulties of implementing reproductive and sexual health strategies across cultures and nation states, and a whole raft of other valuable work and life lessons. It was a truly transformative experience.
Below is me with some of the other youth reps after we had given our presentations – Arthur (Philippines), Kun Tang (China), Iris (Hong Kong), Rodelyn (Philippines), Mahai (New Zealand).
To make the trip really worthwhile, I arrived a few days early to have a short holiday before I came back to start my new job at Liverpool City Council. Up until this point I had never actually visited a city in Asia as my two previous trips overseas had been to Europe. However, Kuala Lumpur (or KL as it’s known) was a city that I instantly loved. It was a cultural melting pot of Malays, Indians and Chinese, and it was remarkably easy to feel at home there. The city is gritty and immediate and really gets under your skin.
It was pretty humid during July and because of that, every afternoon there would be a massive downpour of rain which literally stopped you in your tracks. There was something very liberating in the way that people waited under shop awnings letting nature take its course before they resumed what they were doing.
While waiting in a queue to go up the Petronus Towers, I befriended an English traveller named Al who I hung out with for two days before he headed off to Hong Kong. On his last day in KL we met up with some other English tourists to see the Malaysian national football team play a friendly against Norwich City Football Club at Bukit Jalil Stadium (Norwich had just been promoted to the Premiership and their sponsors were Proton, a Malaysian car manufacturer). It was great fun and we came back to the city around midnight. The lights were still blazing because everything was still open so we tucked into some Chinese food and Tiger beers. I don’t know what it was about that night but beer has never tasted that good before or since.
Most of my time in KL was actually spent inside the Hotel Istana, a five star hotel not too far from Bukit Bintang Plaza which is a commercial area full of places to spend money. The roundtable took place at the Istana so I didn’t see much sunlight during those days. I also spent an obscene amount of time in my hotel room watching old Sex and the City episodes (with all the rude bits cut out).
Of course, no account of Malaysia could be complete without mention of food – they really love their food over there. The Istana had a great breakfast buffet. Japanese was my mainstay, but I was also keen on the Malaysian fare on offer which consisted of nasi (rice) cooked in coconut, slices of cucumber, boiled egg and anchovies. Since Malaysia is a Muslim country, all the food was halal. Which takes me to the next part of the story…
It struck me that a lot of the guests at the hotel were wealthy tourists from places like Saudi Arabia. Some women were covered from head to foot in burkahs. I’ve never really seen tourists like that in Australia, probably because we can’t easily accomodate their needs; for example, the women I observed were not allowed to eat in public and needed private dining areas. Over the course of my stay in KL, I rather disrespectfully tried to spot women eating while unveiled but with little success. I came close a few times at the Middle Eastern restaurant around the corner – every now and then one of the children would move the curtain and I would surreptitiously glance up from my hommus and lamb –
So without expecting it, I feel like I got my first experience of the Middle East in KL. This was further reinforced one night when we all smoked strawberry tobacco from a hookah and I was taught some hypnotic Arabian dance moves.
KL was also my first introduction to India; in the city centre there were a couple of streets dominated by Indian shops, and their music blared from stereos so it was pretty hard to miss. One night, the Malaysian Youth Rep, Shalinee, took us all to the Sri Mahamariamman Temple which was truly magnificent. I loved its beautiful interior as well as the fact that there were no pews or seats in the temple; everyone had to sit on the floor. A couple of us, including myself and HK from Korea (pictured with me below) had holy ash put on our foreheads to remind us of the cycle of life. Looking back, I had an unexpectedly spiritual experience in KL; I really gained a better understanding of where I fit into the universe.