-A Chinese-Malay overstating the many advantages of the Islamic faith in Malaysia after proudly telling me all about the economic success of the Chinese in the country despite the Muslim government’s favoring indigenous Malays over ethnic Indians and Chinese. (Government scholarships are awarded pursuant to academic success only if of indigenous-Malay race, economic policies are geared towards putting more corporate wealth in indigenous-Malay hands, and you won’t find any non-indigenous-Malay police officers despite 15-25 percent of the country being made up of ethnic Indians and Chinese.)
Fat, happy and inflatable.
Between morning beach jogs and afternoon snorkeling sessions in Thailand’s gulf I entered Malaysia tan and taught, the June 2011 model darker and sleeker than ever before. Then I walked around Pulua Penang, Malaysia, the oldest of the British Straits settlements--older than Singapore and Hong Kong--and got a whiff of what they refer to as ’hawker food’. A spare tire was quickly added, front and rear bumpers expanded, the trunk extended for additional cargo space. Side airbags, child’s seat, rollover bar and reinforced steel, check, check, check. I went from Ferrari to minivan with a five-star collision rating.
Crispy chicken, roast pork, barbeque beef, it comes from small stalls that line the streets selling little more than their particular specialty. Some of the best food is found in the dingier alleys, feet from dumpsters and snoring drunks. The entrée or, more aptly, the gold bullion you can eat, always sits atop a mountain of rice, which is often saddled by a mound of odd-looking boiled vegetables, which surround a cup of soup. These plates cost 3-4 ringgit or, to spare you a ‘currency exchange’ Google search, about $1 USD.
With shared-bathroom-mattress-thinner-than-three-nickels accommodation to spend $20 dollars a day is to become obese. Somehow I manage to spend close to $30.
The extra expense, it’s all for you, I care about your well-being and know that when grandpa is behind the wheel that Southeast Asian sun glare is bound to catch him by surprise and you’ll thank me in midair for the added inflatable raft lining the undercarriage from axel to axel as you’re launched sea-bound off the Penang Bridge.
To go from six-pac to I-can-no-longer-see-my-testicles-without-the-help-of-a-mirror in seven days is a perfect Buddhist metaphor. Everything depends on everything else. If a Ko Tao, Thailand resort-owner thinks that, in addition to the bungalows, he owns the cove they’re situated next to and curses for ten-minutes in Thai while motioning as if to strike me for what he perceives is trespassing, I can’t help but laugh. In turn making him angrier. Which brings embarrassment because there are young, beautiful women about. Who, ten minutes prior to my being the soundboard for this very un-Thai Thai’s lifetime of frustration, turned my thoughts carnal with their bikini-clad company. There is no identity to identify with, only an amorphous mass that’s thoughts, emotions and physicality are molded by the environment surrounding it. When I’m near inexpensive food that doesn’t just dance with the taste buds, but waltzes to a perfect Dancing With the Stars scorecard, I get fat.
Ahh, the impermanence of it all, the transitory nature of everything gracing the Earth. You want to call that amorphous mass self? Get over yourself.
What nonsense. Which is why I'm now a Muslim.
Crossing international boundaries continues to bewilder. A foot north of a man-made imaginary line lie wats, rice fields, the quest for sanuk (fun) and a tolerance of--even a national reverence for--katooeys (ladyboys). Traveling south of the same boundary that, even when I squint and look at it as if it’s a Magic Eye poster, I can not see and suddenly mosques rule the landscape oozing distinctively odd--even what many Caucasoids consider eerie--intricate chanting. It’s stern, non-rhythmic, and emanates at all hours of the day. It may be near midnight, you’ll be caught off guard, then put on guard, you’ll consider calling in an air strike. That’s how edgy western media has made you.
But seriously, get me the Secretary of Defense stat.
A bit south of that illusive line and the Southeast loses its sex appeal. At the beach women wade in the ocean in full chardor and veil. Even in Penang National Park, a rain forest where one discovers sweat glands on the back of one’s hands and elbows, a heat-box so humid three-feet long monitor lizards need to escape into the sea (I thought they were committing mass suicide by drowning but these beasts have mastered the dog paddle), I pass by women in full Islamic wear. Their husbands leading the way, shirtless and smiling, and who knows, maybe under all that cloth their wives are carrying a similar expression.
After all, if the master is happy so are the servants.
Particularly alarming are the women wearing all black. All one can see are the eyes. They’re dark too.
My new faith is going to take some getting used to.