Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The Shores of Malaysia

For the New Year Owl washed up on the shores of Malaysia. More specifically, she arrived in a five star hotel in downtown Kuala Lumpur to begin Orientation for her Fulbright grant to teach English. At first she did not know what to do with herself. She had sailed through the month of December in a delicious haze of sleep and books, and she was not prepared for the dazzle of Kuala Lumpur, the chatter of her fellow grantees.

Actually it is a wonderful thing to have the run of a five star hotel in the middle of downtown Kuala Lumpur with forty nine other like minded people. Kuala Lumpur is a city of glass buildings and towers squashed between extravagant shopping malls built of marble and light. Here, the days stretch into the nights, and the nights into day. Everyone is bright with laughter and fellowship. The party is all the more hectic because everyone knows the time is short. Orientation is three weeks long, then the party is over, everyone disperses to a remote town.

People are easing into Malaysia, some sinking comfortably into its softness, others landing awkwardly and bruising. It is not easy. Malaysia is different, roughly 70% Malay, 20% Chinese, 10% Indian; three cultures folded into one, and so mixed that their edges blur and it is difficult to distinguish one from the other.

The breakfast buffet has Chinese porridge, Malaysian nasi lemak, Indian dosas and while most of Owl’s cohort marvels (or despairs) over the food, Owl is jaded. Owl has seen it before. This is exactly what Owl grew up eating, it is a combination Owl never expected to see outside of her house.

And this is where Owl struggles.

Malaysia is more home like than home.

Owl is the product of an Indian father and a Chinese mother who was born and brought up in Indonesia. Owl grew up in the flatlands of the Midwest where non-Caucasian people were a rarity and anything like her combination was unheard of. Owl grew used to explaining her heritage constantly, almost hopelessly in an attempt to explain who she was and what she knew, because still, no matter what she said people would say, oh you are Asian! Oh you are Indian! And the combination of all three was always lost.

It is too complicated, a professor told Owl once when she tried to write a story about her heritage. You must choose one culture to write about.

He did not understand, poor man, that he was saying, pick your mother or pick your father.

At some level Owl grew to accept that she would never fully be understood, and conversely that she would never fully understand a culture and for this reason alone she would always be somewhat of an observer.

Occasionally to fit in with her cohort—Owl has learned by now that it is on her to fit in, not for the world to fit around her—she feigns surprise over whatever it is that is being presented. Oh my. A dosa. Now what is that again? A paper crepe stuffed with potatoes and onions and, good lord what are those black balls? (Mustard seed.) How strange. But oddly delicious. A little bit of condescension is the hallmark of fitting in, Owl has discovered.

And sometimes Owl does this so she doesn’t come off as a complete asshole, because, because my God, Owl walks down the street and it’s an explosion of Bahasa. Owl with the proprietary ignorance that comes from growing up as a minor minority, considers Bahasa to be her private language, something to use in public. Woven into the Bahasa are bits of Chinese, lumps of Hindi, everything sprinkled over with English, and this is Owl’s language, this is the language she grew up hearing and never, never expected to hear anywhere outside the walls of her house. In her mother’s family it was always Bahasa-Chinese, in her father’s family, Hindi. Never, all three together.

And Owl’s Bahasa, broken, inarticulate, bubbles out of her, Owl is stuffing her face with her mother’s food, her father’s food, her food, and Owl is spinning around and around looking at the streets, the stalls, trying take it all in, cram it into her soul, because this belonging, this strange strange familiarity is utterly foreign.  

Chinatown, Kuala Lumpur

And in the midst of all of this, Owl discovered something else.

Owl has a passing knowledge with food and gestures of her heritage, enough to make polite conversation about eating and the weather, but beyond that her cultural and literal vocabulary is limited, anything more complicated than “I am fine, a little tired,” or eating bread with her hands, is utterly beyond her. Morals, values, ways of thinking? Owl is utterly American in her thoughts, and her philosophy.

It’s not easy to identify what it means to think like an American, it is one of those things you discover during a conversation with someone else in another culture. The conversation goes, it goes, and then it hits a wall and the two people are left staring at each other bewildered. But why do you do things like that? It is wrong. It is unthinkable, one will not say. And of course the only, also silent, reply is, What do you mean? You’re the crazy one, not me.

People can gloss over food and handshakes, but try sex, gender roles, religion, race and politics and things start to go pear shaped.

So far, for Owl, American means a certain amount of confidence, a firm handshake, a fierce desire for equality and attention; a belief that she deserves to get whatever she wants, and that she’s going to get it.

In Malaysia the handshakes are limp, and actually you aren’t supposed to shake hands with the opposite gender. Everything is divided alphabetically by gender. The boys are slathered with attention. They are served first, they get the best, and the most. There is a certain amount of racial profiling, people fall neatly into categories that define who they are, and the more Owl interacts with Malaysians the more she understands that this is just the tip of the iceberg.

It is not that much of a task to change your handshake, but to live in a different belief system, to take a back seat to boys when you have never had to do that before, all of that is a shock.

Owl’s familiarity with Malaysia is surface, as surface as the earth’s crust.

Owl isn’t home. Not really.

Malaysians on the street go up to Owl, they see her brown skin, black hair, and if she keeps her mouth shut, and all of them, the Indian-Malaysians, Chinese-Malaysians, and Malay-Malaysians, and they speak to her in Bahasa, they say oh, you are one of us. There is nothing in Owl’s appearance to warn them otherwise.

And Owl, Owl who has been told she looks like and Indian except there’s something terribly off about her, Owl who is never identified as Chinese, and Owl who always wants to fit in, who has never been claimed as the child of one country or another, Owl clenches her fists because a slow desperate scream is rising inside of her that grows louder each day:

I am an American. An American.

Owl is oh-so American