I’m back from a few weeks traveling in Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore (for a friend’s wedding in Bali first, then just for some traveling, since once you’ve gone that far, you’ve got to make the most of it), and my body is in that strange and very rare place where it thinks that being up at 2:30 a.m. is a very good idea indeed. A few random thoughts on my travels before we get back to the business of the blog:
1) The election. Everywhere I went, everyone I met had an opinion on the election. And what I pointed out in a previous post certainly held true—the vast majority (in fact all people whom I met in the three countries I visited, whether they were cab drivers, hotel staff, food vendors, fellow travelers, or random folks on the street) supported Barack Obama. This did not surprise, but it was striking to experience the phenomenon in person and only further reinforced for me the direction our country needs to head.
I found out that Obama had probably officially won the election from a newspaper vendor on the streets of Penang, Malaysia.
It was November 5 at around noon in Malaysia and while I had been able to catch up on a few of the returns on CNN International earlier that morning, at that point I knew things should be wrapping up but had no way of knowing what was going on. I stopped at this news vendor’s stall to check out of a few of that day’s newspapers (his periodical offerings came in Malay, Chinese, Hindi, and English), not because they were going to tell me anything about what was going on, but simply because I was intrigued to see that each one had on the cover a picture of Obama and McCain and news about the fact that Americans would be heading to the polls that day. The news vendor saw me looking and said quite matter of factly, in English, “Obama won.”
“Are you sure?!” I asked.
“I think so,” he said. “I just heard it on the radio.”
This news was officially confirmed about two hours later when I walked into a random convenience store to buy a bottle of water and got to talking with the owner. When he found out I was from the U.S., he asked if I was happy about my new president.
“Do I have a new president for sure?” I asked.
He said, “Yes. It’s Obama.” And he turned up his radio and we listened together to the second half of Obama’s acceptance speech from Grant Park in Chicago.
“Are you happy that Obama won?” I asked him after the speech was over.
“Yes,” he responded. “Now maybe there will be peace and no war.”
A tall order, for sure. We have a new president and that is a huge step in a new and right direction. But now it is up to him and to all of us to be sure we don’t squander the opportunity.
2) Multicultural Malaysia. Much like the United States, Malaysia is made up of people from everywhere, meaning from a great variety of ethnic backgrounds. Malay, Chinese, Thai, Indonesian, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. Malays are “from” everywhere, which was unlike any other Asian country I’ve traveled in before, and it was striking to note how everyone in the country looked and sounded so very different.
I was wandering through a random market in Penang and stopped to talk to a few guys who were busy slaughtering chickens (they incidentally asked me if I’d like to see them perform their handiwork and, before I could even answer, were slitting chickens’ throats for my picture-taking amusement). One of them asked me where I was from, so I asked him where he was from.
“Kedah,” he said, which is the Malaysian state just to the east of Penang island. “But now I live in Penang.”
I nodded like this was no surprise to me and we continued to watch one of the dead chicken writhe and bleed. But I know deep down I had expected him to say that he was an immigrant. These guys looked to me like they might have been from India or Bangladesh, and maybe their ancestors did come from somewhere on the sub-continent. But they were born and raised in Malaysia, like so many other Malays who looked and sounded nothing like them.
It was a good exercise for me as an American to experience another place that is so very multicultural. I’ve found it’s always been easy for me to express shock and disbelief when I meet some one in another country (it happens often in China and Korea) who can’t quite get his or her head around the idea of Americans who aren’t white, especially Asian-Americans. Yes, they look different than me, no, they can’t speak Chinese or Korean, and yes, they’re American. It’s easy for me to be a bit self-righteous on this point.
But when it was flipped on me, when I was forced to reconcile someone’s nationality with “what they look like ethnically,” it wasn’t quite as easy.
3) International travel. It is awesome. We should all do it as much as humanly possible.