January to March, 1987
by Hugh M. Lewis
I had gotten to the airport a couple of hours before the flight and I checked my luggage directly in as I came into the Departure floor of the Tom Bradley International Terminal. Fortunately, the MAS ticketing counters were the first ones by the front door, so I didn't have to reel my luggage very far inside the terminal building. They took my tickets and put luggage tags on my two larger bags, the other one I carried on board with me.
I went through the metal detector and airport security without any difficulty. Waits at predeparture gates are always tedious. One watches the planes taking off and landing in the distance, and once in a while a large one comes taxiing by, a couple nosing right up to the window. Then all kinds of men in different uniforms come out to perform their jobs on the large beasts.
I watched them load the MAS flight. They loaded a red sports car and a lot of baggage. I wondered if my bags were somewhere at the bottom of it all. I couldn't but help thinking how they could put so much in a plane, plus all the passengers and the plane could still be expected to take off at the end of the runway. I looked at the wings and wondered how they could be built strong enough to withstand so much stress from the flight. At some interminable point a barely audible voice could be heard over the loudspeaker system announcing the loading of my flight number to Narita Airport, Tokyo, and to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
I found my assigned seat and sat down and waited the half-hour or so for everyone to settle on board and for the plane to begin taxiing down the runway, make a turn, wait for a couple of minutes, and then suddenly take off into the air. The first taking off and landing, when the forces of acceleration and deceleration are most noticeable, are the moments of greatest consternation of the entire flight. Human beings were not naturally meant to fly, and the feeling of taking off under so much force from the jet-engines comes as one that's fundamentally hard to get used to.
I took right to reading that first flight. It was one of those Anthro-300 type texts, "The Clash of Cultures" that a friend of mine, the head of the anthropology department at my old alma mater, had given me as a gift.
I read most of it the first few hours of the flight, and ignored almost everything going on around me on board the plane, including the stewardesses serving the meals and the coffee and drinks. Mid-way through the book I grew tired of it, and then turned to learning Malay words from the vocabulary list I had made up from the dictionary I had. I think I was relieving the anxiety of the flight as well as of a trip alone to an unknown part of the world. I noticed that the "The Tres Hombres" with Chevy Chase was being shown as an in-flight movie, and how strange it was to watch a movie without hearing any sound, trying to figure out what was happening by the gestures and actions of the actors. At some point I returned to the book I had put down and finished it. I looked at my watch and I still had about 4 or 5 hours to go before we landed at Narita. I thus had one overweight extra text-book already read that I didn't need to carry around with me for the remainder of my journey, and yet it was one I wanted to hold on to because it was a gift from a "VIF" or "Very Important Friend." I put down the book I had been reading in the dark because everyone else seemed asleep and the entire plane had been darkened and all the window blinds pulled down. I was afraid to tackle the other book I had brought for the journey, the large, logical, fine print "Historian's Fallacies" because it was too large and too small of print to try to tackle sitting there in the darkness of the plane. Besides, I figured I'd better save something for the rest of the journey.
I sat there, half asleep and half awake, trying to look comfortable and happy for the oriental looking stewardess so that she would not feel too bothered by me, for the remainder of the trip. By the time the plane was banking in to land at Narita I remembered feeling very relieved that we would have a chance to get off the plane and onto solid ground again for a little while.
The plane landed, and after another interminable wait of taxiing and standing in the aisle we at last were allowed to walk out and through a long man-made flexible tunnel, pushed along at a rapid pace by all those passengers from behind. The Japanese girls were waiting at the end of this tube, with a perpetual smile frozen on white faces and their hands motioning like motorized mannequins pointing out a special at the grocery store. Behind the girls were standing some very stern looking Japanese men, about a head taller than the women, dressed in blue suits and looking somehow very important.
We found ourselves within a large circular departure lounge with only limited access down the hallway to some overpriced souvenir shops and a soda-snack shop and the toilets, for which almost all the men and women headed at the same time. I remembered to put my toothpaste and toothbrush and comb in my pocket, for my main objective in getting to the bathroom was to clean up a little and brush my teeth to get the after-taste of the last ten hours out of my mouth. I washed my face and stubbly whiskers with some water from the faucet that kept turning off by itself, only to discover that there were no napkins or hand-towels in the room, only the hot-air blow driers for the hand that miraculously turned on by themselves as soon as you put your hands under them and turned off again as soon as you removed them. Since I always felt pretty ridiculous standing there trying to dry both my face and my hands at the same time, I decided that I would look in the toilet stalls for tissue. There I saw a dispenser for the longest roll of toilet paper one could imagine--a roll that must be a few thousand miles long when completely unrolled. What havoc a small child or a kitten would play in such a stall with such a long roll of paper. I wiped my face dry with some of this toilet paper only to find that now there were white pieces of paper left on the whiskers of my face. Managing to brush these off, while a couple of Japanese were studying me curiously, I felt good enough now to go out and join the unfriendly crowd waiting on the backless black vinyl benches outside.
I have come to the conclusion that there is no comfortable place to sit and no way to completely avoid feeling at least a little awkward in such situations. No matter which place you find to sit and which direction you look in, there is always someone facing you on the opposite side so that you get to look at each other and study one another and even sometimes smile at one another, without ever exchanging a single word, especially if the other person is a Japanese or Malaysian or some other foreign nationality.
And then there are always the one or two loud voices you always can hear above the din of all the rest. The young woman going to conduct research on such and such a topic, the business man exchanging local knowledge of good hotels and exotic places to visit that one never even heard of before.
At some point, after several hours of going no where and doing nothing but look at the many planes outside, they announced the boarding of our MAS plane and everyone again crowded around to be first to go through the small man-made tube. I went back through a new set of stewards and stewardesses were standing by the entrances of the plane, smiling and saying welcome and watch your step, etc.
As tired as most of us who had made the first leg of the flight were, we were immediately treated to a third coarse of our menu and then to another in-flight film--about a couple of intelligent young upper middle class boys who play hooky from school and take one of their father's expensive sports cars for a romp. More modern American culture being exported to the rest of the world.
The last leg of the journey seemed interminable and everyone seemed both exhausted and on edge. A British man, dressed in a funny camouflaged uniform and with a strange short hair-cut, would not sit down and just paced back and forth and stood near the door of the airplane. I kept wondering whether he might suddenly push the door open and jump out, as it looked almost as if one of the bags he had with him was a parachute.
I realized we were about to land in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia at about midnight when the air hostesses brought around little entry cards that we had to fill out that had the "Death for drug trafficker" warning. I peered through the window of the plane as it slowly banked on its long descent. I could see only small crumbs of lights in the middle of a see of darkness, and thought to myself that I was indeed about to land in the middle of the jungle.
I felt as if we had reached the point of no return, sort of like the bus pulling into boot camp in the middle of the night with Drill Instructors waiting outside. There was no turning back now, no matter what I was in for on the other side. It was an ominous sign, "Death for drug traffickers"-- one that was reemphasized by a big bill-board that was plainly visible as we taxied down the runway.
So we landed and waited and finally walked down off the plane onto the tarmac in the old style that one always saw in the movies. My very first impression of Malaysia, besides the strange music being piped over the airplane and the incomprehensible speech of the pilot and the curious smiles of the strange, dark-eyed air hostesses, was the insufferable heat and humidity that hung like a fine mist in the midnight air over the runway and felt as if one was descending into a boiling pot.
We were lead into a terminal building and I followed the crowd down a flight of stairs and along a long corridor. Why there are always corridors that were so long at air-ports I will never know-- until we were led through the immigration counters where they checked out passports. It was a moment of truth. I was already dripping in unrelieved perspiration. The person quickly looked at my passport, and without saying anything gave it the rubber stamp and handed it back to me. I didn't know what he had stamped in it at the time but I was grateful that he just returned it to me. Then we waited for our bags to come out of the luggage room on the conveyor belt. I was surprised to find my small plastic duffle bag that I had bought just for the trip had popped open at the zipper to reveal all my jungle equipment that lay inside. I gathered all my bags over my shoulders and my book bag and luggage cart in my hands has I then made my way to the customs counter. I wondered what their reaction would be when they discovered my first aid kit and my camping equipment, but I was surprised and wore a grateful smile when the woman just waved me through. I came through some glass doors to the hot night air outside through a group of swarming men. I was assaulted by a group of men offering to give me a ride. I didn't really have a plan and didn't know where I was at. I didn't even know that there was a hotel just across the road.
Finally a nice looking Malay man wearing some kind of name tag came forward and asked me where I was going. I told him I didn't know but figured I should try to find a hotel in KL, which I somehow imagined I had landed in the center of downtown. He told me that it was a 20 minute ride by taxi to get to hotels in KL and that it would be hard to find a room because it was the beginning of Chinese New Year. I agreed to let him drive me into KL and he went to three or four different hotels until he found one that was used a lot by the police with a spare room. I paid him 50 dollars for his troubles and he helped me up to my room with my bags. He told me that he would call on me the next morning.
It was a clean but old looking room. It had a deep red carpet and a bed with a night-table and the walls were veneered with a wood that I liked because I was part carpenter and appreciated anything done in wood. I looked out through the window and could see the lights of the city spreading out below--of course I couldn't know what it looked like in the darkness. Just so many red and blue and white stars twinkling through the dark window pane.
I had fallen asleep around 2:00 AM only to be awakened by the Muslim criers a few hours later whom I could hear all over the city. It was a strange sound I had never heard before and realized even more than the giant dadah billboard that I had landed in a Muslim world. I couldn't sleep anymore and so got out of bed and drew the blinds to behold a morning panorama of tall buildings and jungle and hills at the distant edge of a pretty large city.
Someone had slipped a New Straits Times under my door and I decided I had better look through it partly out of courtesy of having been given the gift and partly out of curiosity of what an English language paper contained. My eyes caught a short article that described the case of a young man being whipped under Muslim law for having been found at a dark bus stop with a young lady. This article reinforced my vision of a thoroughly Islamic social order, in which I had somehow managed to end up in the middle.
It was not too long before I heard a knock at my door and the Taxi-driver had returned with his two small children, who were at first very timid to come into the room and to look at me. He had one small boy and a small girl, both with curly black hair.
He offered to take me out to see the city, and we went to A & W to have a small breakfast. He drove me around downtown that he said was mostly Chinese. I will never forget that my first impression of KL and of Malaysia, besides the "Death for Drug Trafficker" sign at the airport and the criers in the morning, was of Ronald MacDonald sitting up in the back seat of an open convertible VW bug like it was a parade with a loud speaker blaring, waving to all the little Asian kids who eagerly lined the sidewalks of the downtown street to see him. I thought it a strange twist of fate that I had come expecting to combat leeches and tigers and pythons in the midst of dark jungle only to be greeted with a very familiar clown figure of my own childhood. It was then that I most realized that I was not getting what I had expected or planned to get.
We talked awhile and he wanted to take me to the national zoo. He said it was OK, that he had the time. It was understood in our discussion in his car the night before that if I paid him a small sum of money he would act as a tour guide for me and show me some of the sights about the city. I asked him how much he wanted for this service and he told me it was up to me, counting on my own American generosity and naivete. Since my days overseas in the service I've always been fundamentally suspicious of such fast arrangements. I said that I would think about it.
So there we were the next morning, sitting in an A& W, eating the food I had paid for everyone, and looking at Ronald MacDonald drive down the road outside. We drove out to the zoo on a windy road which led away from the city along what I took to be the edge of the great jungle. He pointed out a few squatter huts that he said the government tolerated because the people were leaving the kampongs in the interior and had no place to stay in the city. He himself had left his Kampong not too long before to seek more gainful employment in the city, and the airport had allowed him a kind of quasi-official status to serve as taxi.
We got out to the airport to find a couple of young men acting as parking attendant. We walked into the zoo and I again paid for everyone's admission. The zoo I found to be interesting, though quite old and some of the buildings in dire need of renovation. My friend the taxi-driver cum tour-guide enjoyed mostly the big fish in the large aquariums as he pointed out all the different kinds that could be found in the rivers.
I remember the black and white Tapir, and, though I had seen it in photos, wondered what a strange combination of colors could bless such an odd-shaped creature. I wondered what it would be like if people were half black and half white.
We spent most of the day at the zoo, and ate a lunch on a large green area. The only untoward experience was when a group of 8 or 10 young Chinese men, faddishly dressed, began laughing at us and two of them began acting as if they were mounting each other in front of us. My friend became angry at them but paid them no further notice.
That evening my friend took me back to his home--it was a flat several stories above the ground. His wife had made a fish curry and seemed nice. She wasn't wearing a veil and I thought that Muslim women must be more relaxed in the domestic privacy of their own homes. She had a nice cupboard with glass doors filled with nice plates and dishes and small ornaments. We sat down to eat and it was the first time I realized that Malays eat with their fingers without the assistance of a knife or fork or spoon. I had never known that before and was always taught that it was the epitome of ill-manners and dirty as well to eat with your hands. Also it was the first time I had ever eaten a curry mixed with rice. At first, I almost felt like vomiting, though I tried to hide my discomfiture from my exceedingly polite host. But at some point I gradually had gotten used to the idea of eating with my hands--they were already covered with rice and curry--that I decided to try to finish it all on my own. I think though that in the course of my meal I must have somehow disgusted my host and his wife, who couldn't refrain from laughing at me at one point.
The little girl at some point had taken to me during the day and managed to sit on my lap as I sat on the floor eating the food. I didn't mind it but felt a little nervous because I thought that all Muslim women were supposed to be shy and retiring in the company of men.
We talked and he told me about his family and how hard it was to make a living in KL. He had some sparklers and his children had fun playing with them out on the balcony. I told him about myself and my interest in getting in touch with the University system there in order to teach or do research in Anthropology. He seemed quite impressed and told me he would try to help me out as he knew some people in the University system.
He then settled in to watching a movie on television. It showed Americans in Saigon during the Vietnam war and struck me as quite graphic. It was not an American movie and I had never seen it before. I was growing tired as my friend seemed totally engrossed in the movie. Finally I asked him if he could take me back to my hotel room, even though the movie was only half finished. He agreed but seemed reluctant to leave the TV.
On the way back he asked me about the Vietnam War and why the Americans left Vietnam and why the morale was so low. I tried to explain it as best that I understood it, based upon my own experiences in the post-Vietnam era Marine Corps and my ethnographic work among the Vietnamese Refugees.
The next morning was Saturday and he came a little later, about 10 or 11 in the morning. I heard the sound of his children's voices as they came running up the hallway and knocked upon my door. His wife had accompanied them this morning and she was dressed in a pretty red and pink flower patterned one-piece outfit with a veil over her head. They all appeared genuinely happy to see me and he wanted to take me to the national museum.
It was a sunny morning as we drove out to the museum near a large green area on a hillside. On the way he again asked me about why the Americans couldn't win the Vietnam war, and I again tried to explain to him how I understood it--the army had become demoralized and there was no front-lines and the war had become increasingly unpopular at home. Many soldiers had tried to do a good job but were often arbitrarily constrained from fighting effectively.
The children all came into my room and looked around in the room as if they had never seen a hotel before. We went back out and I held the children's hands as we went down the corridor and took the elevator out to the street below.
It was a nice sunny morning and we drove out to the museum. When we tried to find a parking spot at the busy parking lot that a Chinese man came in a pretty nice car and tried taking the same spot as my friend. They got angry at each other and exchanged a few words.
We spent several hours inside the museum. I found it quite interesting and my first introduction to the culture of Malaysia--the krises and the Nonya wedding chamber and the Malay kampong house. That afternoon we stopped at a shopping center somewhere downtown. He parked inside a multi-tiered parking garage and we had a dinner at a MacDonald's.
The next morning he and his family, with his wife, drove me down early to the train station. At some point he had decided that I should go to Penang to visit for a while. I had no idea of what or where Penang was, but he assured me that it was a nice place to visit and that I would enjoy myself there. I bought a Rail-pass that gave me unlimited rail-travel within a two week period. I thought it was a bargain, although that was the last time I was to ride on the train for several months.
Since I had so many bags I decided the night before to repack everything and leave some things behind with my friend. Thus I left my nice pair of leather shoes, my leather book bag, a couple of heavy books and my luggage dolly in the trunk of his car, so that I had only two overweight bags to carry on board the train. He promised to keep them safe for me until I returned and gave me his address, phone-number and name on a slip of paper.
As the train lurched forward on the platform I remember waving to my Malay friend, his wife and their kids, wondering if I would ever see them again, and not really knowing whether we were traveling north, or south or east or west. I had luckily gotten the air-con coach and there were not many people riding in the car that day.
An older Sikh man with a white turban and long white beard came up and sat across from me on the train. I had a seat number and remained in my assigned seat, even though there were a lot of empty seats and people came and went from one seat to another. I began talking to this man. He told me that he was just retired, and that he was the ex-police inspector of the KL police force. He showed me his home that was along the railroad track as we passed by. I told him that I was in anthropology and had come to pursue my studies. He told me his daughter was studying in Australia, which fact he seemed quite proud of. At some point he asked for my address and I wrote it down for him. Because it was a P.O. box I wrote the "#" sign before the number and he was quite interested in what this sign stood for, as he had never seen it used this way before. I told him it meant number. I told him I was headed to Penang, though I didn't know what Penang was. He said it was a nice city, and highly recommended that I stay at the YMCA--it was in a quiet place and was clean and safe and not too expensive. He said he knew the manager there and that I should give him his name. He asked me all about the U.S.
He started talking about women. He said that he had traveled to Europe but found that the European women were all spoiled and conceited, and that no Asian man could afford them. At the time I was quite inclined to agree with him. Then he told me that I should go to Thailand because the girls there are the best and know how to treat a man right. At that point I felt a little embarrassed by what I interpreted to be his blatant male chauvinism, and wondered what he really thought of his daughter in Australia when he had such attitudes about women in general.
He told me that Penang was a Chinese city and that he knew everything about the Chinese gangs. He then warned me to be careful and not to do any drugs. He asked me if I did drugs and I told him no. He gave me his address and told me to look him up when I came back down to KL. He got off at Ipoh, which he called the cleanest city in Malaysia.
The remainder of the journey I watched the jungle and the train turning along the tracks, the sound of the rails as the wheels rode along, entering tunnels in hillsides and the deep jungle growth outside. I saw mile after mile of plantations, and large holes in the ground that had once been tin mines, and clothes hanging outside of wooden homes and terrace houses and children waving at the train as it passed and workmen doing construction along the edge of the rail line and a wide lake that we seemed to ride out on the middle of. I kept watching into the jungle growth to see if I could spot any wildlife. I saw a few buffalo but that was about it. The train would pull into a small station and the voice on the loudspeaker system would announce the stop in Malay. I was afraid to leave the train because I didn't know how long the train would stay at each stop, but shortly it would move off again, staying just long enough to unload and load new passengers.
The train arrived at Butterworth which I thought was Penang, in the evening after dark. I came down off the train carrying the two bags under my shoulders just as I remembered humping my sea bag and equipment in the Marine Corps. A young dark Indian man offered to carry my bags for me but I told him no, because I didn't trust him and thought he would steal my bags. He looked a little offended at me and I just walked off along the length of the platform.
When I got off I didn't know where to go or what to do, so I just followed the crowd as it walked up off the train platform along a raised wooden concourse and came down on the other side where a bunch of buses were waiting. I was sweating profusely again, and I stopped a young Malay man and asked where the YMCA was. He looked a little bemused and told me I must go back along the platform and take a ferry. So I picked up my bags and walked back along the wooden concourse to where there was a turn and another concourse that lead onto a large ferry that was waiting to launch and was filling up with people.
I got on it at the last moment as the gates raised behind me. The ferry was crowded with people and I put my bag down by the rail and sat on it, trying to internally control my sweating and feeling quite grateful that the wind helped cool me down after the ferry launched. I saw only lights all around and the foam of the water being cut by the ferry below. The motion of the ferry could be felt below, and it had been a long time since I had been on boat like that. A couple of Malay women were staring at me as I sat there on my bag, not knowing where I was or that I had to take a ferry to "Penang" because it was actually an island and not just another city.
When the ferry bumped into the other side and the gate opened and the walkway dropped I followed the crowd off the boat and along another long wooden covered concourse to where it let out among some shops and a lot of taxis and men trying to get me to ride in their trishaw. Finally I reached the end of the line and didn't know which way to go. A young Indian man offered to take me in his trishaw and I asked him if he knew where the YMCA was and if he could get me there and how much it would cost.
I remember riding at night through that strange city. I felt like I had landed on Mars and was completely disoriented as we rode down one street and up another. I had lost complete track of any direction and sat feeling more helpless than I ever felt in my life before. The lights and the strange architecture of the buildings were all completely new to me.
He charged me seven dollars and I paid him ten, when he let me off at a small hotel called the "New Asia" in the middle of town. I asked if this was the YMCA and he told me no but this was a safe hotel at a good price. I later found out that the hotel people paid him a commission to bring customers off the jetty to their hotel.
He helped carry my bags up the narrow flight of stairs and I was greeted by an old Chinese man in a tank-top t-shirt. I paid about 17 dollars for a room and noticed they had beer in a refrigerator for sale. The Indian took my bags to my room, which was the next floor up. I found the room sparse and in a curious design which seemed thoroughly Chinese. The beds were low and had a thin mattress on hard planks, and the chairs sat back low to the ground almost like black Adirondack patio chairs with short legs. The ceiling fan twirled round and round and the spare light bulb cast shadows on the walls. I put my bags down and sat there, and then went back down to get a quart of beer and a glass full of ice. I learned to drink beer with ice with the Vietnamese. The beer had a thick flavor but was quite good as I hadn't had one for several days and I was hotter than hell. The beer helped calm me down a little and I imagined all sorts of things about being in a genuine-Far Eastern city in which everyone was a member of a secret society. Stepping out onto the balcony and watching the street below reinforced my view of the city, as it was close to midnight on the 9th day of the Chinese New Year (a fact I only learned afterward) and they had all sat out large red tables with roast pig and fruit and cakes and palm fronds adorned the entrances of their shops and huge piles of paper money were set in the streets. I noticed as I had come up the second flight of stairs to my room a large strand of fire-crackers hanging from a rafter from the ceiling. I took them to be decorations, as they were almost as large as red sticks of dynamite.
After twelve I discovered that they were indeed real as they exploded with a loud "BANG, BANG, BANG" that I thought could wake the dead, as they indeed woke me up. I went out onto the balcony and believed I had indeed landed on the moon, as everywhere large piles of curiously folded paper were burning up in large bonfires in the middle of the streets and everywhere was the sound and smell of firecrackers in a ceaseless, cacophonous repetition.
I laid on the hot bed, watching the ceiling fan, wondering if this happened every night and how long it would go on for until it ended. I was too tired and hot and confused to feel annoyed.
The next morning I woke up early because of the heat. It was hot and sunny outside. I walked outside and found myself in the midst of a morning Chinese market where people were buying and selling elbow to elbow while motorcycles came and went. I tried smiling and saying hello to some Chinese, but they just gave me a stern face as if I didn't exist and I decided that the Chinese in their little shop houses must be among the most unfriendly and impersonal people on earth, whose only purpose on earth must have been to make money.
When I came back I decided I'd go see some of the local sites and the young Chinese man at the desk showed me a map with some of the things to see and do. I decided I'd go to see the Khoo Kong Si building and traced out how to get there from the hotel. He seemed quite friendly. As I walked down the road a young Malay man started following me and then came up beside me and asked me if I wanted some drugs. I told him no and tried to move off but he stalked behind me. I turned around and told him to stop following me, and just then I saw him give another young Malay some money while the other one gave him a small little piece of round substance which he then showed me and told me it was heroin. His eyes were glazed over and he seemed to walk as if he were on clouds. I walked away leaving him across the street.
I somehow managed to find the Khoo Kong Si. Just outside the square on the street a young Australian man was being peddled by in a trishaw, looking every bit the white Raja with his bags under his arms. I was standing there holding my Olympus camera with the Mickey Mouse strap I had gotten at Disney Land a couple of years before working with Vietnamese children. He pointed to me and stopped the trishaw in the street and came running up to me and just took the camera out of my hands as I stood there. I was surprised and didn't know what to think as he started asking me where I got the camera and accusing me of stealing his at the airport in Sydney, Australia. I told him I'd never been to Australia and I suppose he realized that it wasn't his camera after all, and he handed it back to me without an apology or anything, got back in his trishaw and rode off down the road. I just stood there wondering about what had just happened and how rude and nervy the guy was.
I took pictures of the Khoo Kong Si building and its intricate, ornate carving and furniture and wall paintings. I had never seen anything quite like it before, it being a far cry from Grummon's Chinese Theatre on Hollywood Blvd. I felt like I had just descended into the heart of 16th Century Ming China.
On the way back I got lost, and was feeling hot. I stopped by a small booth selling flowers and pictures of Hindu child deities. The young Indian man behind the counter started talking to me. Soon he was asking me if I liked to have sex with men and he wanted to come and visit me in the hotel. He said he had made it with many Europeans and he liked to play the role of the woman. I wouldn't tell him which hotel I was in and told him I wasn't interested. As I was moving off he told me to come and visit his house behind the snake temple, which was just a short walk down the road.
Since I was feeling hot and lost a sense of what direction I was in, as I was standing beside a large yellow mosque, an Indian trishaw came by and I decided to pay him five dollars to take me back to the New Asia hotel, at which door he shortly dropped me off.
The strange events and interactions in the morning left me with a sense of alienation and a fear to travel too far from the hotel for fear of getting lost again or into some kind of situation I couldn't get out of. That evening I came down to eat a bowl of Laksa from a hawker lady just outside the entrance of the hotel, and a Chinese man from across the road who was drinking some coffee came over and started talking to me. He told me about Penang and about the Chinese and how the Malays owned all the land on the Mainland.
He told me that he would come the next day and take me out to see the sites, if I wanted, and that he worked in a shoe factory just across the road. He told me about the thieves market that went on there every morning at dawn and how sometimes snake-charmers would come and perform.
That evening I invited the Indian trishaw driver up to drink a beer with me who had brought me to the hotel the first night, as he was outside the hotel resting in his trishaw. I bought him a stout and we sat outside at a round table in an open court by the hotel lobby. He told me he was married and they were trying to build a house with bricks. He told me how he punished his children when they were naughty by making them hold their arms out while holding something--he would punish them like that when they did poorly in school or did not understand their studies. He told me he earned about 18 dollars a day as a Trishaw, and that he worked more than 12 hours peddling each day.
The next morning I got up early and went out to see thieves market. I saw a few odd-looking men sitting along the opposite curb with blankets spread out and a few odds and ends on them. There were not many people out and I was afraid that one of them might try to steal my own camera. I walked down the road and came to a gate that looked like another Kong Si house in a square beyond. Three Chinese men were sitting around a small table near the front of the gate under a tree, playing draughts. As I asked if it were all right if I took a picture of the building they said "OK" and one of them then got up, bid farewell to his friends and followed me out onto the street as I walked. He asked me where I was from and where I was going. At first I didn't want to be bothered with this man, as he was thin and wiry and left me with an uneasy feeling.
He told me he was a construction worker and had a couple of days off and had nothing to do and would show me around the town if I only gave him a few dollars and paid for his food. I told him I wasn't sure of it but I decided I'd let him lead me around for a day as I wanted to see some of the city. So we went to see the Burmese Sleeping Buddha the first day, having taken a bus from the main depot at the shopping center. That evening he came back with me to my hotel. He had told me that he now lived with his mother in Tanjung Bungah, and that he was married but now divorced and that he had to give money to his wife to support his daughters. He then asked me if I had five dollars to spare and I gave it to him and told me to wait out on the street while he went up to a old Chinese shop house, where he wanted to give his wife some money for food.
He came back down and we ate some rice with curry for only 40 cents per plate in an outdoor hawker complex under a wooden roof. It was a part of town that was full of older buildings and the people looked poor.
That night I followed him to watch a live opera perform at night. He walked fast and didn't wait to cross streets. I learned how to walk fast and jay walk across busy roads without getting hit, though in hindsight it seemed dangerous and a crazy thing to do.
We stood and watched the opera for over an hour. Old men and a few children were sitting in chairs as the actors performed. The women were dressed in the gaudy, glittery traditional costumes, with white made up faces and red mascara. It all seemed a very strange and fascinating thing to watch, as live musicians played just behind the stage.
He brought me back to the hotel and asked me if I could put him up for the night since it was too late to catch a bus out to Tanjung Bungah for the night. Since there was an extra bed in the room I agreed, although I was wary of my travelers checks and cash which I kept in a secret pocket on my leg just below my knee at all times. The old watchmen at the lobby who let us in didn't want to let him up to the room and they got into an argument but the young man came up anyways.
When I came back from taking a shower I had found him going through one of my bags, trying to find things to take out of it. I didn't mind too much as he had seen earlier that I had brought extra cigarettes in the bag as 'gifts' even though I didn't smoke, and he wanted some of them. So I gave him a bunch of cigarettes and a small bag of other assorted "gifts" I had brought with me--small travel sized bottles of Tylenol tablets, combs, disposable razors, etc.
He was pleased that I gave him these things and he laid down on the other bed and went to sleep. The next morning we went to the Kek Lok Si temple and he showed me around. I met a young Malaysian Chinese couple who asked me to take their picture for them, as they saw I had a nice camera and was taking photos. He told me that he had been to school in Texas and had majored in art. He then looked at my self-appointed tour-guide and told me to be careful because some people were not to be trusted.
That afternoon my tour guide decided that he wanted to take me fishing from a fishing village, and told me to check out of the hotel I was in. Since he seemed fairly trustworthy and his story was not as yet inconsistent, we took a bus to his Mom's home in Tanjung Bungah where I left my bags. I took a bath there, not realizing that the large basin of water was for dunking water in a small plastic scooper and pouring over yourself. I ended up getting into the basin as if it were a bathtub, not knowing how else to bathe myself. When I got out my friend realized what I had done and scolded me for wasting all the water. I felt very sorry and embarrassed for what I had done and never repeated the same mistake.
We took another bus out to some fishing boats at the 'end of the world." He knew some of the fishermen there and spoke Tamil to them and said he liked to go out fishing with them sometimes. We paid a boat driver about 15 dollars to take us around a point and drop us off on a beach where there was nobody. The boat let us off about twenty feet from the edge of the beach in water that was waist deep. I felt bad that I was going to get my travelers checks wet in my secret pocket on my leg, but I had wrapped them up securely in plastic and so didn't worry about them much, and was later able to slip off the pocket without being noticed and make sure that they were still dry.
My tour-guide spent the evening digging for little "ciput" shells which he collected. I was amazed by his boundless energy in the heat which easily fatigued me. We built a small camp fire on the beach and had bought some sodas and some canned sardines with us. We ate and drank this and soon laid on the large square of plastic I had and slept until morning. The next morning we caught a large long centipede in the trees and he found a plastic he put it in. He wanted to take it back to make medicine with to eat it. We made our way back along a trail that wound around the coast and over a couple of ridges and streams and around a couple of big boulders. We came across an area that was restricted where experimental work was being done, and a young Malay man waved us on.
When we got back to his mom's house, she exchanged a few words with my tour-guide and I found that my bag had been gone through while I was away. They began accusing me of being a drug pusher and I picked up my bags and walked down the road. My tour-guide followed me down and was behaving very rudely too me, scolding me. I went down the road through a Kampong and came out to a bus-stop at the bottom of the hill. He was standing near me, pestering me, and followed me on as I got onto the bus. I sat in the back of the bus with my bags as the young man stood by the rear door and kept looking at me. I felt embarrassed and didn't know what to do, but I quickly formulated a plan. When he followed me off the bus downtown I immediately hailed a yellow taxi and told the taxi to take me to the police station, and then I told the young man to get into the car with me, as I thought he should explain himself and why he was bothering me to the police. But as soon as I said this and turned around he had disappeared into the crowds, and I have never seen him since.
The entire incident left me feeling very nervous. I got off outside of the gate of the Police headquarters and told the guard at the gate that I wanted to report the incident. I waited in the guard booth a few minutes, until a young plain clothes Chinese detective came out and told me that I should be careful with people here and to check into a better hotel that was just down the road.
I went to this hotel, which was more modern and more expensive than the first. It had nicer accommodations and a television and a phone and a nice large bathtub with hot water. I washed my clothes and was afraid to go out. By that time I had been in Penang for less than five days and I was already feeling totally alienated and disoriented. I realized I was not really cut out for long distance travel, and everybody I had met so far seemed ingenuine and who only wanted my money. I made a long distance call to my mom and told her that things didn't seem to be working out for me very well and that I was going to return home the next day.
I soaked all my dirty clothes in the tub with my woolite travel pack and then hung them up to dry on my elastic clothes line I had brought with me. I watched television and laid down and slept a while.
That evening I came down to the lobby and ate a meal at the fancy Indian restaurant that was in the basement of the hotel. It was only the second time I had had Indian food, the first being with my Indian friend who once had me to a nice Indian dinner in the states. I had a hot mutton curry with dosa. I sat there along, eating my food with a beer. A large table just next to me was set around for a large party and soon a whole group of young Australian men who looked as if they were young military officers came in and started eating and drinking and boisterously laughing. I watched them while I ate my meal, remembering back to my days in the Marine Corps and the young officers I knew then. A couple of them stopped and turned and looked at me, and one of them said something to the other, then they laughed, and turned and ignored me. I got up and left, thinking that the Australians must be the rudest people on earth since I had met the one who grabbed my camera several days before and these young arrogant blokes.
I decided I would stay one more day as I would catch a train the following morning back down to KL to arrange my flight home. I went to see a movie that afternoon at a theater close by the Hotel. The movie was about a ship captain in old China who had married a beautiful Chinese woman but who was excluded from the rest of the white community, even though he was a founder and leader of the community. It was a strange theme for me in that dirty and dark theater in a strange Chinese city in a strange country.
After the movie I went back and noticed that there was a sushi bar nearby the restaurant, and I decided I would eat sushi for a change. My friend and his Japanese wife had introduced me to sushi a few years previously, before it had become a yuppie thing to do, and I remembered having sushi while I was stationed in Okinawa about a decade before. When I went in I didn't realize how expensive it would be, almost over $70 dollars for just one person. I ate a few pieces of fish and rice and had a couple of beers. A couple of young American women were there and I talked with them a little while. They had just come from Burma and were taking their summer vacation traveling around Southeast Asia. They were school teachers who worked in Alaska. I felt they were a breath of fresh air as they were the first genuinely friendly people I talked with since being there in Penang. I remember that I felt like they were old salts as seasoned travelers compared to myself who couldn't even last an entire week in a foreign country without falling to pieces. After eating and paying my enormous bill (what the heck, I was leaving the next day without spending anything anyway) I returned to my room.
On my way back to the hotel I noticed a hotel lounge was open and I decided I'd stop there to have another beer before going back up to my room. I went in and found that it was a Japanese Karaoke bar. I sat at the bar and ordered a draft mug from a young Chinese bartender who spoke pretty good English and seemed pretty friendly. A couple of Chinese women were in the bar, not too pretty but it was hard to tell in the dark. I noticed that they would not come over to sit by me, but stayed sitting in the low cushioned square chairs talking with themselves, until a few Japanese customers came in. These girls immediately went for the Japanese customers, who started drinking and singing into a microphone so that they could hear their own voices being played back to music. I thought it was all pretty absurd as I watched the haughty Japanese and the girls who hung closely on to them. I joked with the bartender about it and we laughed. The bartender then poured me another beer on the house.
I told him that I didn't like it here much and that I was leaving to go back in the morning. We talked for quite a while about this and that, and I had quite a few beers before I left and went back to my room.
The next morning the bartender came in his little white car and he brought his Chinese girlfriend with him, whom he introduced to me as his sister. He offered to take me around the city to show me the sites but I was dead set on getting back to the ferry terminus to get the train leaving that morning back to KL. He kept insisting and then I finally gave in and said that I would let him take me to the ferry, and only the ferry, if he let me pay him a little. He agreed and I got reluctantly into his car. We drove around for more than a half hour, and then he took me to his home out in Tanjung Bunga. I was more than a little pissed at his deceit, but he was friendly and apologetic enough and I went into his house and met his mother and his father. It was a nice, sizeable, comfortable two-storey house. He offered to let me stay there as long as I wanted without any charge.
I changed my mind at the last minute, seeing how I wasn't going to get to the Ferry that morning, and told him I would stay there for just a couple of days. That afternoon they drove me around the island and we stopped and ate makan at a few food stalls along the way.
He was heavily into his religion and for a couple of days I followed him and his girlfriend about to the different temples where they would make offerings and prey. I met the whole family and they all seemed quite friendly and pleased to have me there. One day turned into two, and two turned into three, and three into four, and with each passing day it seemed like a more and more difficult chore to get down to the ferry to leave. It turned out that his "sister" was pregnant, and one morning I followed them down to the maternity ward at the General hospital. Her boyfriend walked me through the hospital as if we were visiting doctors or something, and one Malay man came up and asked me in English if I were there to see a European man who had been hit by a car a few days before and was in pretty bad condition. It seemed as though nobody knew who he was and they didn't quite know what to do with him or about him. I told him I didn't know the man and didn't want to get involved.
Because I was getting to see many different small temples and followed my "friend" around with his network of other temple-followers, I felt as if I were indeed getting something interesting happening finally, and that I may actually have broken through the barrier before which everything is just a matter of money and that's all. So I stayed there, and with each passing day became more and more comfortable.
I began noticing some inconsistencies in my friend's story. I was always careful to carry my traveler's checks and money on my person and never to leave anything of any value in my bags. In hindsight this was wise because I afterward found out that my friend and his "sister" whom he stayed with in the same room and made pregnant had most likely gone through my bags, and on more than one occasion. He kept talking about getting enough money up to start a hawker business and then to make a down payment on their own flat, even though I plainly saw a nice, empty stainless steel hawker stall sitting empty outside their front-door. I surmised that he was leading up to asking me to loan him a few hundred dollars, but he never got around to coming out with it.
It was actually his own father who warned me away from him. One day I paid the old man who spoke very good English in the proper manner a couple of hundred for a month's rent there. He told me his son was no good and feared he was involved with gangs to whom he owed money for gambling debts.
Then I met Rosie, a young Chinese woman who was renting a room from this family. At first my "friend" and his "sister" told me that Rosie was nothing but a "fat ugly pig" and not to bother to talk to her. I didn't understand why they said it and thought it was a mean thing to say. One day I stayed home and Rosie was there and we played games with the youngest daughter. I got to know Rosie and found she was a friendly person who spoke good English. Her mother and daughter had died and she was all alone there.
Once I started to talk with Rosie, my relationship with my bartender friend suddenly changed and they put on a totally cold face and ignored me. I moved my bags from their room where I had been sleeping on the floor, and was going to catch a taxi to leave when Rosie told me to stay and leave my bags with her in the room she rented where there was an empty extra bed. She had a small black and white television set which she watched in her room so that she didn't have to be downstairs with the others.
She told me that our "friend" had on more than one occasion broken into her closet and stolen her money, and that he and his girl friend were really not to be trusted. Rosie seemed to be a nice person and I felt sorry for her as she was all alone. She cried when she told me that the family would threaten her and had tried to beat her up one time, and that they always wanted to take her money for themselves. I started to wait for Rosie during the day and take her out at night, down to town to see a movie or go to dinner or go window shopping or to the Pasar Malam that came into town about once a week.
In the mornings I would follow the old mother down to the morning market where she would shop and sit and have coffee with her old women cronies. She was a "Goish" person of Portuguese descent, and her old cronies all looked the same in this way--mixed Asian and European ancestry. They would sit around the table and poke each other in the side and cry out "puki shibai" and other foul words. They referred to me as the "thorn among the roses" because not only was I the only man to sit around a table with a bunch of old women, but I was the only young white man to do it.
It was the first time I had witnessed Latah, though I had remembered reading about it in one or two of my anthropology classes, and it seemed almost a cruel kind of joke to play on an unsuspecting victim, who would be almost inevitably embarrassed in the company of others.
During the day I would go with the older sister of the family who was married and had a young girl. We would go and wait to feed the daughter lunch at her school and go down to eat in coffee shops and then pick the daughter up at her school. In the afternoon we would sit and have beer with ice at a coffee shop near the house before she went to her work as a barmaid at a nightclub. I was always amazed at her capacity to put away beer and never noticed its affects on her. Her husband was a locally popular singer who worked in Langkawi at an expensive resort hotel.
I had met an older woman who somehow was related to someone in the family. She was old and half blind from cataracts and lived alone in an old house and had nobody to take care of her. We visited her on several occasions, and at some point I would buy her groceries--some canned goods and canned drink and things like that--because she had complained about not having enough food.
One evening Rosie and I had taken her food like that we had bought in a nearby sundry shop, and we missed the buses getting back because it was pretty late. I didn't know where I was and Rosie led me down the hill to try to catch a bus on the main road. We both felt a little frightened being out like that late at night, and I thought we should go one way down the road and Rosie thought we should go the other way. I tried using a public phone to call a taxi to take us home but none of the phones worked. Finally a bus came along and we got on it. I was a little mad at Rosie and thought she was a little dingy about some things.
It went on like this for a couple of more weeks, and I had been in Penang for almost a month until I decided that I wasn't getting much more accomplished besides spending money and I decided to leave. I was put in touch with a travel agent, a young Chinese woman who was very nice to me and really worked to get me a flight out.
The mother of the house took me down to a special shop to buy gifts for my family. I bought quite a few presents for everyone--teas sets, vases, pots and pans, batik cloth, etc., and spent quite a lot of money on these gifts and then on the air-freight to ship them back home.
I had gotten to know Rosie and liked her quite a lot. I felt sorry for her because I had seen how the family she stayed with could abuse her and how the mother had made her cry in a coffee shop on more than one occasion, and thought to myself how cruel this illiterate woman was. The first time it happened I had stepped out to get something and when I returned to the table I saw Rosie crying and get up and leave the shop. I followed her outside and found her sitting on the curb by the roadside crying her eyes out. The mother and daughter were quiet and dismissed it as if nothing had happened.
Rosie was of a gentle disposition and she was generous and pleasant to be around. I couldn't understand why they all treated her so poorly except that they felt like she was vulnerable without any family and thus somehow dependent upon them, even though she helped to support them with her money.
The morning of my flight we got up before sunrise and drove in the little white car to the airport. I had got a connecting flight from Penang to KL to Tokyo and then on to LA We got into the airport and I carried the vases I had bought as presents in my bags, having given away all my little trinket gifts and gotten rid of my old shoes and made room for all my things in a single bag.
Before I left I went down to Komtar and bought Rosie a little gold pendant with the letter R with roses on it, and an electric table fan so that she wouldn't have to use a hand fan to keep herself cool in the evenings. I surprised her with it and she didn't know what to say.
When I went to get on the plane there were tears in my eyes and tears in Rosie's eyes, and I felt almost as if she should be coming with me, as if there was something unspoken there between us which neither of us were saying. I got onto the plane thinking that I would never come back there, and that I was leaving behind at least one or two true friends in all of Penang.
The return trip was in a sense anti-climactic. Almost like the plane trip out, except everything was in reverse. I remember the plane riding from Penang to KL and seeing the morning twilight landscape below that looked almost surreal, like a lunar landscape or the surface of some unknown planet--and of how in the distance thunderheads could be seen with lightening flashing within them.
I met my Malay taxi-driver friend at the airport. He had since gotten a job within the airport itself and he was wearing a nice blue coat with black pants. He asked me why I hadn't come back and told me that he still had my things with him at his house. I was in a hurry to get on board my plane that was leaving within the hour and he escorted me to the departure gate via a short-cut. I told him as we walked down the long corridors together that I had met and stayed with a Chinese family while in Penang and that I was now returning to the U.S. without a sense of ever returning. I told him to keep the things I had left with him, thinking he might get some use of the shoes, leather bag and folding airport dolly, if not the books and other photocopied materials. He told me that he was expecting me to come back to KL, that he wanted to take me out to the Kampong where his wife's family stayed to meet people there, and that he knew some people in the University he was going to put me in touch with.
We said goodbye to one another and soon I was back on board another airplane bound for Tokyo and then to LA. I never saw my Malay taxi-friend again and don't know what became of him. In Tokyo we got down in the same lounge as before and I went through the same routine with the tooth brushing and the face washing and the toilet paper. It was a long, and forgettable plane flight. One of the same movies that were shown before were being played again, and it was interesting to watch it with the sound this time to see what different impression I would have than the first time without the sound.
Looking back on that first trip now, I often wonder what would have happened if I had done things differently at different times--if I had really not taken that particular taxi to KL that night, or if I had really gotten back on the ferry that morning and returned to KL, or if on returning to KL I had stayed with my Malay friend and followed him into the Kampong like he wanted me to.
Though I did not then realize it at the time in going abroad, I discovered that what I was really seeking was a genuine relationship with someone, some "other" from the third world, one that was not predicated on money or the asymmetries of the first and third world. This was totally congruent with almost all my anthropological training and with my previous fieldwork among Vietnamese refugees, work that left me burned out because of such asymmetries that I felt I could not overcome. I had many barriers and hurdles to pass through to get to that "other's side" where money was no longer the primary or underlying issue.
The road abroad twists and turns in unexpected directions, and there are choices to be made at almost every turn. Why we make some kinds of choices and not others I do not know.
At the time I only realized I was leaving behind in Penang a rose among all the thorns.
Professional Pariah: Ethnography of the Anthropological Self
Hugh M. Lewis
Blanket Copyright, Hugh M. Lewis, © 2005. Use of this text governed by fair use policy--permission to make copies of this text is granted for purposes of research and non-profit instruction only.
Last Updated: 03/17/05