“My monkey has a problem,” said my Chinese Malay friend, Sheung Di. We were sitting in a Mamak, a restaurant run by Muslim Indians, in Kualalumpur, Malaysia, drinking “pulled” Indian iced tea with milk. They call it “pulled” because when they prepare the tea, they hold the teapot over their head, and pour it from a great height into a cup, to mix the sweet milk and tea together. A proper glass of Indian ice tea has a nice, sweet, frothy foam on top. I liked to call it Malaysian cappuccino.

In New York, people didn’t usually open a conversation by gossiping about the problems faced by their monkeys. The sophisticated metropolitan citizens of Gotham knew to keep their monkey business at home. But Sheung Di and I had been working together for months. He had been my translator, driver and cameraman in both Malaysia and Cambodia. Actually, in Cambodia I did all of the translating, but he still handled the camera.

Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

Photo: Ian Walton/Getty Images

“He doesn’t know how to climb trees,” continued Sheung Di, referring to the monkey. “No one taught him.”

Apparently, a few weeks earlier, Sheung Di and his girlfriend Nu Peun Yo were driving to some remote hiking location. A lot of Chinese, Malays, from what I could see, couldn’t be bothered to go to a gym or play sports, but they loved to go hiking in nature. They worked extremely long, hard hours in the fast-paced metropolis and were always looking for a healthy way to recuperate mentally and spiritually. Sheung Di, was an exception. He didn’t work in a hectic fast paced job. He worked for me. And a lot of his days were spent filming me getting beat up by various martial arts masters or translating my interviews with those masters. In between shoots and translations, we spent a lot of time sitting around in Mamaks, drinking iced tea or iced coffee and eating my favorite treat, banana roti. Almost every culture on the planet has a dish called roti. So, when you visit a new country, it is always fun to order a roti and see what arrives on your plate.

In Malaysia and Thailand, a roti is a special treat, made by Muslims. It consists of a thin dough, which they pull and toss and flop, sort of like at Papaleoni’s Pizza back in Brooklyn. The dough is then fried on a super hot, flat cooker, and served up with toppings. In Thailand, we usually eat roti as a desert. My favorite is filled with banana and smothered in sweetened condensed milk. In Malaysia, the banana roti was served with a choice of three curry sauces. Every time I ordered a roti, I would see Sheung Di get a little nervous because he knew that he was then going to have to speak Malay to the waiter, and explain that I wanted my roti with sweet condensed milk. The explanation sometimes took a long time, because the waiters assumed either they had heard wrong or I was nuts. But in the end, I always got my Malaysian special, converted to Thai style.

Malaysia is a fascinating country for a linguist or a cultural anthropologist. The population is made up of three major ethnic groups, Malay, Chinese, and Tamil. There are other Indians, apart from Tamil, and there are other smaller groups like Brits, expats, Arabs and Iranians who came when the Sha was deposed. The predominant religions are Islam, Buddhism (both Thai and Chinese versions), Hindu, and Christianity. The main languages spoken are Malay, Mandarin, Tamil, and English. But I have to put an apteryx next to Mandarin; more on language in a minute.

First, the religion: The largest religion in the country is Islam. The Indian community is predominantly Hindu, with the exception of the Mamaks, the race who generally run the great 24-hour eateries. They are Muslim. There is also a small Sikh community, and probably some other smaller ones, that I am unfamiliar with. Most of the Chinese are Buddhist. Interestingly there is a small community of Muslim Chinese and an even smaller community of Jewish Chinese (extremely small). On the island of Penang there is even a Jewish cemetery with Chinese graves. Because Malaysia borders on Thailand, a significant number of Malays, both Chinese and other, are Theravada or Thai Buddhists. In fact, my translator, Sheung Di, is Thai Buddhist, because one of his grandmothers was born on the Thai side of the border.

I love studying the various races and religions and seeing how they interact. Sheung Di told me that most Malay Buddhists didn’t see a big separation between the two forms of Buddhism and if they were traveling or were away from home, they would pray in whatever type of Buddhist temple was available. “Even the Hindus use our temples and we use theirs,” he said.

When I lived and studied in monasteries in Thailand and with monks in Cambodia, I saw that Theravada Buddhism had origins in Hinduism. The gods, Shiva, Vishnu, Genesh and Hanuman were shared by both religions. Living and studying in a monastery in China and with ex-monks in Taiwan, I could see that Chinese Buddhism was further away from Hinduism. A Nepali friend told me that in his country they didn’t make any distinction between the three religions.

It was nice to see that recognizing a common root allowed three religions to live in harmony. I wish three other religions that shared a common Book would also learn to live in harmony.

Borneo, a large island, which belongs half to Malaysia and half to Indonesia, is one of those places that just evokes incredible images of adventure. I absolutely can’t wait to get there and explore the tribes, the jungles, and the cities. But what is also interesting about Malaysian Borneo is that much of the population is Chinese and a large number of them are Christian.

Now, on to my favorite topic, apart from martial arts: the languages.

Malay is straightforward. In addition to being the language associated with the largest ethnic group, it is also the national language required in all public school exams. As a rule, anyone, regardless of ethnicity, who has graduated public high school speaks, reads, and writes Malay.

Next, Tamil. While Tamils make up the largest group of Indians, and their language is the most widely taught and spoken, there are other Indian groups, such as Sikh, Mamak and recent arrivals who may speak Hindi or any other Indian language, depending upon where they came from. Interestingly, in the Indian community you will find some of the best and some of the worst English speakers in the country. Many of the older Indians may have come from families that had close ties to the British. For example, under the British, the Sikhs were police, but that is just one example of Indians who worked and studied close to the British and so retained a high standard of English. The Indian private schools also maintain high levels of English education. So, children graduating these schools are excellent in English. And of course, educated immigrants from India would also speak excellent English. At the other end of the spectrum, however, some of the lower, menial labor jobs are done by Indians who don’t seem to speak much or any English at all. When they communicate with customers or with their employers, they speak Malay.

Now, the group I know the most about, the Chinese. As a speaker of Mandarin, when I arrive in a new country, to begin work, I normally seek out translators, drivers, and cameramen from the Chinese community. I am fascinated in comparing the Chinese diaspora communities across Southeast Asia with each other and with Taiwan, a country where I lived for three years.

Sheung Di explained to me that the Chinese community in Malaysia is broken into dialect groups. The Hokien speakers tend to stay with Hokien speakers. The Hakka stay with Hakka, the Tieuchiew with the Tieuchiew, and the Cantonese with the Cantonese. Sheung Di, who is 26, explains that when he was young, there was no Chinese TV channel in Malaysia. Taiwan and China hadn’t begun exporting TV yet. So, the only Chinese TV channels and movies came from Hong Kong. And they were in Cantonese. In reality the Cantonese-speaking population of Malaysia is quite small. But, because all of the Chinese Malays were watching Cantonese TV, they learned to speak Cantonese. And when people from different groups met, they spoke Cantonese to each other. So, Cantonese became the lingua franca among the Chinese communities.

In recent years, Chinese private schools, through high school, have become very popular. These schools are taught in Mandarin, so all of the children who attend them read, write and speak Mandarin well. Taiwanese pop music and tele-dramas have become very popular, and now, even Mainland China is exporting TV and movies. So, Mandarin has become the lingua franca among the young Chinese Malays.

“But what do you do if you meet a Cantonese speaker who doesn’t speak Mandarin?” I asked.