empire state of malaysia
new york is one of those topics that is relatable across borders. if you haven’t been there yourself or hope to get there someday, then you at least know someone who knows someone who has taken a selfie in times square. in every country, new york translates to the same thing: pretty damn awesome. it’s always a conversation piece, and a reason to tell a story, which is how i found myself with an aussie and two british expats singing the city’s praises and dancing to our de facto ambassador, jay-z, some 10,000 miles from home in the shadow of kuala lumpur’s petronas towers.
it was my last night in kl. i was stranded at the final dinner of the tourism conference i was attending — a three-hour indiana jones-themed nightmare in the perdana botanical gardens with a mandatory dress code of cartoonish-ly oversized adventurer’s hats and absolutely no bar. grace, an australian transplant living in nyc whom i had befriended on the way over to malaysia, and i were no less than outraged. our window of opportunity to see kl’s nightlife was rapidly slamming shut, and we couldn’t even get a cocktail to dull the pain. it was already after 11pm and we had a 7am flight to borneo the next day. we decided to be truly dramatic and bum a cigarette off some park employees. sneaking behind a brick wall, we lit up like a couple of high school bad girls trapped at a pep rally. we decided that when we finally managed to break free, we’d at least get one drink just to say that we did.
finally, around midnight, we made our way toward the flashing lights and heavy, headache-inducing beat of the touristy changkat bukit bintang strip of bars. while flashing lights and techno pop typically make me want to crawl into a dark hole and stuff my own hair into my ears, it was our last night in kl; we had to take what we could get. the least obnoxious of all the establishments was healy mac’s irish bar, so we took a table and ordered a couple of beers, which we sucked down in relief.
for about an hour we sat there, people watching, skin swollen and damp from the soupy heat, recanting the last few days of 20-hour flights, long meetings, and all the street food we could get our sweaty, city-grimed palms on. as the last few drops of beer lingered in our bottles, we were about to call it a night when the travel gods decided to intervene. enter a and j: two british expats who had been living in kl for the past few years. tall, cigarette-toting, bearded(!), and, unfortunately for our night of sleep, not ugly. it was a’s last night in kl before moving back to london and the two boys were out for a farewell. seeing as we were all saying our goodbyes to the city, and that misery loves company, they joined us.
before long, one beer turned into one more into again another into a round of jäger bombs (#gooddecisions). blood was warm, music was loud, and the air was filled with cigarette smoke, which somehow always seems a lot more seductive when you’re in another country. a and i had taken to unleashing our inner fred and ginger, spinning and twirling in the tiny narrow bar in some sort of jäger-induced display, knocking into customers and busboys who were, 1. definitely not dancing, and 2. not too thrilled about this theatrical routine that they did not, in fact, come to see.
we were almost ready to close our broadway-level set when the familiar voice of jay-z bounced out of the speakers: “empire state of mind,” the unofficial anthem of new york city. play that song at a bar anywhere (ANYWHERE) in the world, and the entire place is packed with new yorkers — or at least they’re new yorkers for four minutes and 41 seconds. there’s only one thing to do: dance like you’re standing on the brooklyn bridge looking west toward that twinkling, magnetic skyline that, after nearly 29 years, still sends shivers up my spine. which is exactly what we did.
it was approaching 3am when grace and j called it quits. flying high on this happenstance encounter, and the rush I get from talking about new york, i went back to the grand hyatt with a to keep the dance party going (and only a dance party [i'm serious.]). when the doors of the elevator opened onto the lobby, we were smacked in the face with a full frontal view of the petronas towers, the iconic twin towers of kl. feeling invincible (or at least sufficiently drunk and entitled), we did our best friends impression and kicked off our shoes, jumping into the lobby fountain. (i mean, really, what were we supposed to do?) “empire state of mind” still playing in our heads, we danced fast and hard under the watchful eye of kl’s giants before slipping and sliding our wet, barefoot way back across the marble floor into the elevator, just in time to dodge an irritated security guard. it was one of those travel nights of legend when the mix of alcohol and anonymity create a perfect blend of random successes that you couldn’t recreate if you tried.
i know the magic of my city, but sometimes it’s nice to be reminded. there’s no better feeling than being oceans away from home, blurred off cheap booze, and dancing with a stranger in a hotel fountain to the theme of the beautiful and bizarre place that we call new york.
**this story appeared in new york natives.