Thursday, October 6, 2011

A LETTER TO MALAYSIA FROM GEORGE TOWN

A town named for a British king (George III) in Malaysia
Dearest Malaysia,

I just don't know what to make of you. You wear so many faces -- most of them beautiful, but each one so different from the one worn before it.

I'd call you "karma karma karma karma karma chameleon," but Boy George beat me to that bit. And I don't want to accuse you of having an identity crisis because that would be to suggest that there's something wrong with your randomness. In fact, that slightly hodgepodge quality might be why I love your capital city so much.

I've now spent a total of 12 days and nights in Kuala Lumpur, and I'm still perplexed. Is it "truly Asian," as you are said to be? Or, is it just another booming metropolis that could exist pretty much anywhere? Or, is it a combination of places I've known and loved, from New York City to London to Bangkok?

Bukit Bintang is a Times Square (NYC)-/Picadilly Circus (London)-style traffic jam, complete with jumbo TV screens and too many people. Jalan Alor is a strip of late-night Chinese and Thai eateries. It's Bangkok's Silom Road at 3am, with no shopping and more al fresco seating. Then there's Damansara Heights, just outside the city center, which could pass for somewhere in Beverly Hills. And Jalan Sultan Ismail, with its International Drive-like conglomeration of hotels, restaurants, nightlife and, yes, more traffic. It would be pure Orlando, Florida, if Orlando had a sky train running overhead. Though I kept getting the feeling of being someplace else, it never felt like your crown-jewel city was copying. It was always familiar, yet somehow unique.

Between the mass of skyscrapers, traffic, lights, cameras and action, KL barely gave me a chance to stop and breathe. When I did, I saw people of so many different races, nationalities and creeds (Europeans, Asians, Africans, Muslims and more) and a virtual fashion parade of burquas (in black, in white, and gold-trimmed, some covering everything but the eyes, some worn with jeans, some with tennis shoes). I began to wonder if this was actually the giant melting pot to which the United States has always staked claim. As a black man travelling through Southeast Asia, it's one of the few places where I haven't felt so obvious because of the color of my skin.

The train ride from KL to the Malaysian state of Penang revealed yet another of your sides. Just a few hours outside of bustling KL, I looked outside of the train window at the mountains and rainforest and felt like I was rolling through a postcard.

But what's up with Penang Island? Don't get me wrong. It's beautiful. I could spend all day walking around taking snapshots of the mountains looming in the distance. But when the train terminated at Butterworth (yes, as in Mrs.), and a ferry took me from the mainland to the Penang capital, George Town, where I was staying at Traders Hotel on Magazine Road, I had to ask myself, "Is this truly Asia?"

It was the first solid evidence I've seen of your past as a British territory. When Magazine segued into Macalister, I began to think I'd perhaps made a wrong turn and ended up in Brighton, England. The name of the restaurant where I stopped for lunch, Old Town White Coffee, would be right at home on England's south coast, but in Brighton, I'd probably never be served by a cute waiter from Nepal named Krishna or be approached by a monk asking for a donation in a tin cup.

For all of its Anglo flourishes (which are pretty much in names only), George Town is probably no less or more truly Asian than KL. But it's so different: The absence of sky trains, the more monochromatic populace and the dearth of KFC's (though if one looks hard enough, there's one at the end of Komtar Walk) set it completely apart.

As I wandered through the scenery of skyscrapers and shantytowns, Islamic, European and colonial architecture, mountains and sea -- seven hours and 20 minutes by train, and some 15 minutes more by ferry from KL -- I wondered, am I getting closer to your figurative, if not physical, core? Is this mixture of disparate elements what it means to be "truly Malaysian"?

With those gorgeous mountains as window dressing, it almost doesn't even matter. Confusion never looked so good.

Don't ever change.

Love,

Jeremy
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