IN one of those “through the looking glass” moments I get being an expat in Asia, I was handed a student guide last week which outlined the enforcement of a “Formal Day” every Monday at the university in Kuala Lumpur I am (thankfully) leaving soon.
The rules of Formal Monday instantly struck me as being directly juxtaposed to what schools and offices in the US would encourage: Casual Fridays. You can pretty much flip any inherent norm attributed to an American Casual Friday, and you’d have yourself a pretty well outlined “Formal Monday” in Malaysia. As shown above, anything resembling “casual” dress is forbidden, and subsequently punishable by formal (there is that word again) warnings and “one-on-one advice.” Reeducation, after all, can be a facet of education.
Doning flashy duds does come by default to some cultures in the Far East (China and Japan come to mind), as even when joining the most friendly outings they convey strictures of prestige, affluence and, to a lesser extent, power. Dressing in sandals and in faded T-shirts with some off-base phrase or picture connotes the opposite. What’s the difference in this Occident/Orient divide you may ask? For a man, not dressing to expectations in Asia would mean that he is perhaps not well-born and probably poor, whereas in the West there is collective memory that serves us and says: This is not nessecarily the case. For women in Malaysia’s case, as some of my Western expats friends have noted, lets just say it wouldn’t draw the right kind of attention. How Chinese Malaysians get by in this context I have yet to discover.