So… what can I say about Malaysia?
The group, most of us drowsy and deadly before coffee, departed on a bus for Singapore’s closest mainland neighbor a bit after seven on Thursday morning. Having had a crisis the night before in which the dryers at PGP refused to dry my clothes and rain prevented me from hanging said clothes from the window of my room, I’d had little sleep prior to the bus ride and was also bringing on the trip with me a bag of veritable sodden laundry. Not intending to let that get in the way of the group holiday, however, I proceeded to stash my bag near my feet and climbed on the bus to collapse against the window, where I drooled in slumber with almost everyone else for the next couple of hours after passing both the Singapore and Malaysia checkpoints.
We were roused again around lunchtime within the borders of a country new to us by our tour guide, whose name I know I’m going to misspell: but it sounds like Eddy. Our first destination? The Malaysian equivalent to a hawker center! Nervously clutching my wallet, which was filled with Ringgit fresh from the money changer two days prior, I walked up and down the aisles and gazed at the foods steaming back at me from behind plated glass and speared on metal tiers. Shy of the offered chicken burger wrapped in a rather floppy egg, I settled instead for a nice butter bun and a can of Milo. The bread melted in my mouth and the Milo was, as usual, like a gift from God—I felt sated, at least, and bought two more of the buns to take with me on the remainder of the trip to Kuala Lumpur.
I didn’t sleep again before reaching said city. It’s hard to get comfortable on a bus, after all, and since I’d had food I was more interested in examining the countryside than the backs of my eyelids. I watched grove after grove of palm trees flicker past the bus windows, and occasionally got a glimpse of rubber plantations—though I wouldn’t’ve known what I was looking at in concern to the latter if Eddy hadn’t said so.
I wasn’t expecting mountains in Malaysia—and I suppose what I saw weren’t mountains, just really big hills. I was daunted by the sight of giant lumps of earth, however, covered in palm trees and zigzagging, stairway-shaped gutters down which runoff may flow. Accustomed to Singapore’s veritable lack of elevation save from the stacked architecture and the organization of the NUS campus, I pictured Malaysia as a flat country: unlike Singapore, it is not. It heaves and rolls and pulses, a vast expanse of soaring green ridges and palm groves and land, so much land. I thought at first that it was all just going to waste—palm trees are cool, sure, but there is such a thing as overkill. Eddy proceeded to explain that the oil from the seeds is one of Malaysia’s staple crops, and I changed my mind: in Malaysia, necessity wins out over decoration any day.
We knew we were nearing Kuala Lumpur even before Eddy began to give us the stats of the city over the bus intercom. The palm groves thinned, gradually replaced by straggling houses surrounded by chickens and muddy irrigation lakes—and these ramshackle houses graduated into larger homes, flats, and at last the spikes and spires of Malaysia’s capital, a place that gleams with more vigor than a coin fresh from the mint: at a distance. Descending into the city, I looked from the bus windows and found myself startled to see trash on the roadsides and traffic congestion: two things not so common in Singapore, the former for the sake of fines and the latter because it costs a kidney to own a car in the Lion City. We soon arrived at the US Embassy, our first stop, and I somewhat reluctantly surrendered my NUS Student ID to the man at the checkpoint, as well as the keys to my PGP dorm room (because those are oh-so-deadly), before going inside.
I’ll spare you the details of the conference we engaged in—not because it was boring, but because I don’t think I could do it justice. Malaysia-America relations were discussed in detail, and we were allowed to ask our attendant, who was a UNC alumnus by pure coincidence, questions. In the end, we all mostly prodded her for information about her job, and I listened especially hard—visions of working abroad danced in my head, and she made those visions realistic possibilities in that she explained the process of becoming a Foreign Service agent—which she was—to us. Beware, Mom and Dad: if I have my way in things, you just might have a daughter in the Foreign Service one day.
We departed the company of the agent and traveled next to our posh hotel, the Swiss Garden Inn, where we were allowed to collapse for an hour before dinner. …all right, so I did the collapsing; I can’t speak for everyone else. LyTonya nudged me awake and we went back downstairs (we were on the seventh floor!) to join the others, and as a collectively hungry group we journeyed down the streets of Kuala Lumpur to Chinatown.
I’ll be honest in saying that Chinatown in Kuala Lumpur isn’t the tourist trap of Singapore’s similar district, and I’m not sure I liked it very much. After we split off into smaller groups to go shopping and to acquire sustenance, the vendors of the stalls veritably accosted us in the streets, crooning sweet nothings about their merchandise in hopes we would be charmed into a buying mood. The sidewalks were filthy and I began to look where I put my feet, knowing that the puddles I stepped in weren’t always water: eventually, my group found a promising food stall and settled at the tables in front of it, ordering just drinks because we’d been promised a visit to another (cheaper) shopping district later in the evening.
And then, ladies and gents, something happened to me that I will remember for the rest of my life—more than the soaring Petronas Towers and the quaint little streets of Melaka, however much those have a place in my heart as well. As I sipped on my Coke and listened to the crackling hiss of a Chinese pop star emanating from a nearby speaker on its last legs, our table was approached by a beggar. Dressed sparsely, he had a few Ringgit between the fingers of one hand, crushed together between forefinger and thumb—he rolled them a bit and whimpered at us, either pretending to cry or too tired to summon tears. After having no luck with my peers on the opposite side of the table, he came over to me and repeated his former actions. Even though I told him no, I didn’t intend to give him anything, for crying out loud, he was a determined individual—so much that he felt inclined to lean against me while he begged. He whimpered a bit more and lifted his other hand into view, pressing my arm with it: he’d drawn it up into a claw and spraypainted it a lurid purple to make it look diseased, I suppose.
I told him, “No!” again and again, and finally he left me alone, drifting back off and gradually melting into the sea of people. I wasn’t afraid of him in the least, surrounded by my group members and in possession of a bag that could knock out Mike Tyson if I swung it hard enough: what alarmed me to a greater extent was my lack of pity for the man. I felt more enraged that I did sympathetic—what on Earth made him think he could touch me? And why me, not someone else? Did he honestly think I was stupid enough to fall for the ruse of his spraypainted hand? I didn’t think until much later that perhaps he was at the end of his rope or in some sort of desperate situation, jobless and just trying to get enough money to have a bite to eat. I didn’t have the capability. I was too busy being angry at him, this man who picked me to harass out of a crowd of thousands.
Having always considered myself a compassionate individual to some extent, I’m not lying when I say that I worried, for a while, that I was becoming too hardhearted and cold so many miles from home, from the corn and cottonfields of Dunn and the uneven bricks of UNC. I worried over the issue the remainder of the trip—I thought about it for at least 200 of the 272 steps of the Batu Caves the next day (the remaining steps were devoted to wondering why in the heck I was willingly climbing a slippery incline just to see CAVES, come on); on the bus ride to Melaka, I alternated my thoughts between the lyrics of an Anna Nalick song and the unfortunate in Malaysia. I admit to looking for beggars while in the Chinatown of Melaka, a place more like Singapore in that it throbbed with people and merchandise and the scent of dumplings, fresh dumplings, have a few for just two Ringgit—I suppose I wanted to apologize, or to know why beggars were beggars. Mostly, though, I wanted to ask, “Why me? Why? Was it because I was obviously a tourist? Was it because you thought I’d be easier to milk for money? Was it because I looked kind? What was it that made you lean against me?”
I found no beggars in Melaka’s Chinatown, just a pet stall selling scorpions and dwarf rabbits side by side (and you can bet I’d’ve bought a bunny to sneak home if I’d thought I could’ve gotten it through customs). My thoughts on the matter began to fade in favor of letting the rest of my being have a good time with everyone else. To say I didn’t have a good time would be lying. I made memories in Malaysia with my friends, and I tried new food and bought beautiful bracelets at the Festival of St. Pedro in Melaka’s Portuguese district, where I also listened to the proprietor of a restaurant called Papa Joe’s—we ate dinner there—sing La Bamba. I visited Putrajaya, an island home to Putra Mosque and the Prime Minister’s office, and donned a pink robe to be respectful. I also got to see my peers as they fluttered around in similar robes for at least twenty minutes, most of them resembling Jedi gone Barbie. Taking the bad with the good is something I can do, no problem, and those who eat bran-filled Wheaties for breakfast will know what I mean in saying that.
I decided that my heart was still nice and soft and mushy in the long run (it was the rabbits, really, and the girlish croon I made when I saw them that told me so). However, I also came to the conclusion that drawing borders and having limits, even in a foreign environment where being open-minded serves as the ticket to happiness, isn’t always such a bad idea. I’m still me, if averse to being nuzzled by a beggar in Kuala Lumpur’s Chinatown: I’ve still gone to class and tried fishhead curry and brushed my teeth every day, and I’m still alive and well in Southeast Asia. If wanting to keep my money in my wallet and my personal space somewhat intact are the worst injustices I deal out here, I think I’ll have done pretty well in the end in terms of compassion, open-mindedness, and overall, in learning just what it means to be Ash Barnes.