Grace Wong allows herself to be led into a wonderworld by her BFF, Hamid, where cultural traditions and matters of faith can and do coexist.


It’s a hot July afternoon. I’m wedged in a throng of sweaty and impatient college students. We’re edging towards the open door of the campus shuttle bus, trudging along in the heat. A sneaker scrapes the back of my ankle. I turn my head to shoot at look at the offender. It’s Hamid, my friend. He puts his pinky finger out. I take it in mine, and return his smile. We’re good.

I would have the same wtf look on your face (I’m imagining one, and it’s hilarious) but this is an Iranian gesture that I’ve learnt from one of the best friends I’ve found in college, Hamid Reza Azarmi.

Pinky BFFs don’t come by easy; and one that I’d willingly hook a sweaty pinky is even harder to find. Mine comes from over 6,000km away.

I’ve known Hamid for five years. His family moved from Tehran to Malaysia the February of 2007 so he could pursue his tertiary education in HELP University College in Petaling Jaya.

But this country wasn’t new to them. His father was part of one of the earliest batches of Iranians to travel here for work in the late 80s and early 90s, and remembers a time when KL looked different – no KLCC, for one.

Hamid, the youngest of 4 siblings, remember trips to Kuala Lumpur with his father. They eventually settled here for 7 years, and his parents enrolled him at Sayfol International School in Ampang but returned to Tehran when he was 8.

In 2007, his parents tagged along instead. His 77-year old dad, a guy who looks like he sauntered out of the pages of a mafia screenplay, works in international marketing, mainly for the oil and gas industry. He figured he could run his business from here, so the family packed up and moved to PJ where they appreciate the balmy weather, comfortable housing areas, safety, and accessibility to shops.

In college, Hamid had to take a preparatory English course despite speaking the language as well as his lecturer. Then, he enrolled into the Foundation in Arts program, which was where we first met.

I remember how he reminded me of a teddy bear, or what I’d imagine a living teddy bear to be. And I stand by my statement that the resemblance was – and still is – uncanny, with his big expressive eyes, too-pretty lashes, gloriously fuzzy self and propensity for hugs.

Both of us contributed to the foundation department newsletter Matr!cs. I wrote awful gig reviews and he illustrated the pages with his trademark caricatures. But we didn’t hang out much outside editorial meetings. It was only after helping me stagger out of a club one of those fateful, debauched nights during a mutual friend’s birthday celebration and making sure I was sent home safely that our friendship was sealed.

For Hamid, the multicultural society in Malaysia was a cultural shock for him — Iran is largely homogenous. Add to that the scores of international students that swarm the underground corridors of HELP UC’s main block.

“College was the first place I was exposed to so many types of people,” he says. “There’s the general Malaysian culture, specific cultures of the Diasporas, and in college you have the Burmese, Koreans, Australians, Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Japanese and so much more.”

There are 60,000 Iranians living in Malaysia, according to The Star Metro. Most of them, like Hamid and his family, live in the Klang Valley.

Malaysia and Iran are members of the Non Aligned Movement and Organization of Islamic Cooperation. There are strong economic trade ties, mainly in the energy sector, and just last year Iran and ASEAN opened a joint trade center in Malaysia to promote trade ties between Iran and the region. There is also a thriving tourism market. Some 160,000 tourists from Iran visited Malaysia last year.

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